Ant takes up aphid herding inside a Bramley apple flower

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Ants and aphids have a good deal, otherwise known as a symbiotic relationship. Ants protect the aphids in return for giving them a squeeze, or at least stroking them with their antennae, in this way encouraging the voracious plant-consuming pests to excrete their honeydew waste. And ants can’t get enough of it. So they herd and manage and protect their aphid herds, moving them from harm’s way, seeing off predators, in  particular ladybirds, whose eggs they will destroy.

In the next photos you can see the aphids have been ‘parked’ while the ant goes off to forage in the blossom and then patrol the ‘perimeter’.

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Fascinating what one finds on the way home from the allotment. The photos were taken one evening last week so not the best light conditions.

Lens-Artists: Focusing on the details  Patti asks us to look at the finer points.

I wasn’t whingeing…It really was the coldest April in 99 years

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No alliums out in our part of Shropshire yet, though there are frosted leaf tips and a few tightly closed buds just showing. Still, when they do come, they really can’t be beaten for early season purple, and purple is this month’s Life in Colour choice at Jude’s Travel Words blog (link below).

Jude and I have also been muttering about the weather in April. At one point we both wondered whether it was growing older than made us think it was colder. But no! Now we have the evidence. The UK Met Office report:

April 2021 had the lowest average minimum temperatures for April in the UK since 1922, as air frost and clear conditions combined for a frost-laden, chilly month, despite long hours of sunshine.

Early provisional figures from the Met Office’s National Climate Information Centre indicate that April had the third lowest average UK minimum temperature for the month since records began in 1884, while Wales, Scotland and England all reported their figures in their top five lowest ever recorded. Average daily maximum temperatures were also below normal, but not by as much as the minimum temperatures.

It had already been reported that April had seen its highest level of air frost in 60 years, with an average of 13 days of air frost topping the previous record figure of 11 days in 1970 (records for air frost go back to 1960). This number of air frosts is more typical for December, January or February, whereas the average number of air frosts in April is five days. For gardeners and growers there were also a record high number of ground frosts with 22 days this month compared to an average of 12 days.

And so while we’re waiting for warmer days and nights and for the alliums to happen, here are some archive allium shots to be going on with:

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Life in Colour: Purple

The Changing Seasons: April In Wenlock

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Spring comes slowly to the Linden Walk. The epicormic stems at the base of the lime trees may have had their buds unfurling, but the canopy is only now showing a hint-haze of green. All in all, it has been a very strange month. My favourite on-line gardener, Charles Dowding, who gardens commercially down in Devon, says April has been colder than March, and the nights colder than January. I can believe it. Even on bright sunshine days the air has teeth, as if blowing off Arctic glaciers.

Surprisingly, the icy blasts do not seem to have deterred the fruit trees: cherry, damson, greengage have all been flowering magnificently, and now the apple trees are bursting with blossom. In the woods the primroses, celandines and violets have been flowering since February and now the bluebells are joining them. The wild garlic, too, is running amok in the shady parts of the Linden Field. Meanwhile out on the farms, the fields are already brassy gold with oil seed rape flowers, and the wheat behind the house is growing tall and lush, which is also surprising given many weeks without a drop of rain.

All the seasonal confusion is causing this gardener to dither more than usual: shall I shan’t I sow, pot on, harden off, plant out? One can only adopt the trial and error position and be ready with the horticultural fleece to protect the vulnerable. I have at least managed to get the potatoes and onion sets in the ground and planted out, with protection, some climbing pea seedlings and broad beans. And I have also ventured to plant out some tomato plants and one aubergine inside my polytunnel where the most successful production otherwise is a bed of overwintered coriander which has recently made its own small forest. (Never managed that before).

Of course when I go gardening, I’m still wrapped up in my winter gear – sweaters, scarf, hat, padded parka. The allotment is on an exposed slope above the town, and when the sun goes in, it’s been pretty bleak up there. But then all that clobber gets in the way of many spring season tasks. So please, please, May, could you just turn down the icicle winds. And perhaps bring us a bit of warmth. Oh yes and some gentle rain at regular intervals.

On and around the Linden Walk:

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Over the garden fence:

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Potatoes planted at the allotment; overwintered field beans behind:

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Come evening, still need to spark up the log burner:

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The Changing Seasons: April 2021

Alien Life Forms At The Allotment?

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Well this does look pretty weird, doesn’t it. On the other hand it’s the only evidence of major growth  on my allotment plots just now. And the only photo-worthy sign that I’ve actually been toiling away up there.

Naturally, seasoned gardeners will immediately recognise what’s going on here, though my method was a bit unorthodox. Forced rhubarb. Back in the winter when the shoots were first sprouting, this despite many rounds of frost, I had the notion of putting a spare compost bin over the clump. It has worked very well, producing very long pink juicy stems that cook in an eye’s blink. Delicious simmered in fresh-squeezed orange juice, sweetened with runny honey and some star anise. Then served with Greek yogurt. Just the thing for a bright breakfast start to the day.

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Wild Arum Days

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Here is another woodland find from Monday’s wood chip scrounging mission in the Linden Field. Freshly opened too among the Dog’s Mercury, this arum lily looks like a dryad’s lantern.

The flower’s mysterious (not to say phallic) looks have earned it a host of country names over the centuries, many obviously, but not so obviously, of the lewd variety. For instance the seemingly innocuous Lords and Ladies would have had particular connotations in its day. The same with Cows and Bulls. And the more modern Willy Lily is downright rude. I’ve always known it as Cuckoo Pint, the pint pronounced as in pint of beer. But back in the day it would, most likely, have been pronounced to rhyme with mint. In the sixteenth century, pint was an abbreviated version of pintle, slang for penis.

Other names are Red-hot-poker, Devils and Angels, Adam and Eve, Friar’s Cowl, and Wake Robin. There are many more. And it’s making me think of that classic anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ contention in his book The Savage Mind, that human beings have ever used their observations of the natural world to think by. Food for thought in every sense – a trigger for metaphor and story-telling makings, the narrative impulse that defines human nature.

So I’m treasuring the bawdy names, even if I’ve often missed their meaning. Irreverent they may be, but then irreverence may be the only antidote we have to what Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, called “the colonisation of the mind.”

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Bright Glade

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Yesterday morning I set off across the Linden Field on one of my periodic scavenging missions. I’d found the stash back in the winter when it was frozen into a craggy hummock: too hard to prise open the constituent parts. We’re talking about wood chips here. Last year one of the oaks at the top of the field where it meets the foot of Windmill Hill had shed a large branch. The brash was duly shredded and left in a heap by the boundary fence. And what a sight to gladden this gardener’s heart, though I had to wait for it to dry out, first after the thaw, and then after weeks of rain.

It is amazingly useful stuff. Firstly it’s good to add to the garden and kitchen waste that goes into our hot compost bin. Secondly it makes an excellent mulch for the home flower borders. Thirdly, and mostly, I use it at the allotment where I pile it on layers of cardboard set between the raised beds; this in a bid to maintain weed-free paths. When, after a year or two, when the cardboard has melted and the chippings begun to break down, the whole lot can be added to the allotment compost bins, and the cardboard laying and scavenging begins again.

And so that was my mission – out in the brilliant sunshine and still frosty, frosty air to collect fresh path makings. Of course I always take the camera too, which meant that when I reached the heap, I was at once distracted by bluebells. There they shimmered on the flanks of Windmill Hill, proper native bluebells:

through the light/they came in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue…

Gerard Manley Hopkins Journal May 1871

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A Brightness Of Wild Garlic

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Today, up on the Linden Field, I found the wild garlic is all set to flower. I’d rather forgotten about  harvesting the leaves. Now there is a lush Ramsons verge the entire length of the lime tree avenue. And there are carpets of them too along the old railway embankment and in the woods below Windmill Hill. It’s not too late to gather the leaves either, though best to be picky and opt for the newest growth. The flowers can be used too, cooked in soups or raw in salads and pesto sauce. Both leaves and flowers are fairly mild in flavour and consumption provides the added benefit of pepping up the constitution since they are rich in vitamins K and C. The only drawback for many is the smell. It can be especially pungent on warm afternoons and earned it names such as Stinking Nanny and Stink Bomb. But garlicky odours aside, the freshly opening flowers do a fine job, creating their own terrestrial starscapes, lighting up the woods and shady peripheries.

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