Callum Calls; Lunch with a View; Scarlet Caterpillar Club; Compost, Worm Cities and Dragon’s Breath.

It finally happened. We’ve been hit by the severe rainfall event which we’ve expected for many years, and the prospect of which had driven all our work creating rain management channels on our access track. However before this, preluded by the most glorious sunny warm Wednesday, we’d headed out for another walk round Dinas Island, just beyond Newport on the Pembrokeshire coastline, in autumnal sunshine and hazy light.

Fabulous autumnal flowers in places, clothing the hillside in gold and purple…We weren’t alone – a few fellow walkers this time, again seizing the moment, and half a dozen late swallows buzzed us, whilst an inquisitive fox crossed our path near “The Needle”, before diving into a well worn path beneath the bracken near the cliff’s edge.

And what a place to sit and meditate, looking out across Cardigan Bay towards Ireland and the Atlantic…(More later).

Without the weather forecasts we’d have had no inkling that the third named storm of the year was barrelling towards us. Thursday kept us inside with rain all day (37 mm). Friday had me emptying the rain gauge 4 times and registering a 24 hour total of 100 mm. Saturday was the coup de grace as far as river levels were concerned with a further 43.5 mm. So a 3 day total of 170.5 mm. Bearing in mind that the previous 3 Octobers have registered monthly totals of 129, 71.8 and 115 mm, puts this rainfall into some sort of exceptional context. Apparently Carmarthenshire indeed fared worse than the rest of the UK, with Callum causing the most severe flooding for over 30 years.

Our track survived almost unscathed, though our stream burst its banks – we’ve only witnessed this once before in the very wet December of 2015 – and once levels had subsided we could inspect the damage… It was remarkable how much bank had been removed, seawards, and rubble stone shifted. The benign scene where I’d photographed the mating Demoiselles in July this year was completely rearranged. The huge triangular bank of stone should at least help to shift the course of the stream back towards the original direction it flowed in when we first acquired Gelli – to the right, above.

However downstream in the major Teifi and Twyi river valleys, folk fared less well. Click here for a You Tube of the scene at Llandysul. For sometime on Saturday most of the bridges over the Teifi were completely impassable from Lampeter down to Llechryd, with damage to many properties significant. That this event came in the year of a record dry and hot summer, and after an extremely cold extended late winter seems to illustrate how much more volatile our climate swings here are becoming.

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Book ending our walk around Dinas Island, we stopped for both a kick start coffee, and a restorative lunch, at the perfectly located Old Sailors Inn, adjacent to a car park. Click here for some fabulous drone footage of the location, on their website. What a view for lunch, being able to sit outside in mid October, just yards from the beach and cliffs of this spectacular bit of coast.

Difficult to beat, but I’ll now slip in some images from a trip we made in early September to Sussex when we called in at a number of very special gardens. Of these two stood out…

Firstly Gravetye Manor, the home of William Robinson in the early 1900’s. After a lean time as an upmarket hotel, the lease ownership changed a few years back and gradually the gardens have been restored, and indeed the fortunes of the hotel. By booking in for (a pretty expensive) lunch, we had a chance to walk around the gardens which surround the manor which in turn sits at the centre of a 1000 acre estate. So there is complete tranquility of setting, in spite of proximity to London.

The meal was delightful, the gardens stunning on a gloriously warm sunny day, but even better, we hadn’t realised that the restaurant had very recently been relocated in a spanking new contemporary space, which filled the area between two wings of the old stone manor. Being one of the first to be seated for lunch, resulted in a table right at the front of this floor to ceiling plate glass walled room and it was as though we were actually sitting amongst the garden plantings. The perennial borders on this side of house were quite outstanding for this time of the year, and I may even try to replicate the mix of Dahlia, Helenium and Salvia which produced this stunning mix of vibrant colours, having asked one of the many gardeners for the names of each ( Magenta Star, Sahin’s early, and “Amistad”, for those interested). Probably the best kitchen garden we’ve ever seen too, which supplies the restaurant with most of the fruit and vegetables needed…

A couple of days earlier on a not so special, but still dry day, we’d been equally wowed by the garden at Great Dixter. Exceptional intermingling planting in many of the different garden areas which wrap around the mediaeval manor. Although the tea room was a vastly simpler affair than Gravetye, with basic tables and benches open to the air, it nevertheless provided an adequate lunch just at the perimeter of the garden areas, and right next to the impressive and reasonably priced plant nursery which stocks many of the plants featured in the garden. And great to find such narrow paths through the exuberant planting…

So at last we got to visit these iconic British gardens, which are also included In Clare Takacs “Dreamscapes” book, which we were so thrilled to find our garden slotted in between. What a stimulus for us to raise our game here, particularly in late summer, when our garden often looks a bit tired.

Finally I must make a brief reference to our wonderful B&B hosts at The Beeches, just outside Lewes. Click here. A delightful, comfortable base to explore the area with charming hosts and a wonderful garden which not only opens for the NGS, but has also recently featured in the Daily Telegraph. Even more specially it’s had a unique film created, centred around a year in Sandy’s glorious restored walled garden (above). Titled “Flicker and Pulse”, we bought a copy of the film which has been shown on UK TV, and found it a riveting watch, with much imaginative use of long term time lapse photography and specially composed  music which paint a picture of this very English garden as a microcosm of the rhythms of seasonal changes, and how the gardeners interact with these. Do watch it if you ever get a chance. Click below for a brief trailer…

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I wrote last time about an inspirational talk on grassland fungi, and how it has opened my eyes to the critical role of fungi in natural ecosystems. A few days ago we had a second slant on fungi from a talk by Bruce Langridge of the National Botanic Garden of Wales, who’s been instrumental in raising awareness of fungi at the NBGW over many years now.

Featuring a range of different fungi fruiting bodies covering a gamut of sizes and forms, Bruce made the comment that when he took on his role of Head of Engagement at the NBGW he knew nothing about fungi, having had a botanical background. However the fact that the NBGW has nationally significant Waxcap mushroom permanent pastures, meant that he became increasingly fascinated by the mushrooms he began to find there, and having got his eye in, he now keeps finding new examples whenever he’s out and about.

I’d picked a selection of the most recent fungi from our own meadows, above, to take in for people to look at during this meeting at Cothigardeners, and it was a special delight that Fiona had found, for the first time a small cluster of yellow spindles, just the day before.

With renewed enthusiasm after the talk, and in the peak season for grassland fungi, I clearly had my eyes tuned in as I walked up our path through the upper hay meadow the following day, where something small and orange caught my attention.

I’d never seen this type of fungal fruiting body before, and thinking it might have been a form of Earthtongue fungus emailed some photos to Pat O’Reilly who lives nearby and has written extensively on fungi, to see what he suggested as an ID. Click here for more on Pat’s knowledge of fungi. Shortly afterwards I also put the photos and description onto iSpot.

Within 24 hours 2 possible ID’s were suggested, one a rare form of Microglossom Earth tongue fungus, the other the wonderfully named Scarlet Caterpillar Club fungus – Cordyceps militaris. So called because this is a fungus which specifically attacks the underground larvae or pupae of grassland moths, a so called entomopathogen. Once a fungal spore has germinated on the moth larval body, it has the ability to pierce the defensive chitinous external layer, invade the circulatory fluid system and then begin to grow a mycelium structure throughout all of the caterpillar’s body tissues. So it devours the caterpillar’s body, kills it and eventually, if environmental conditions are appropriate, will produce a fruiting body similar to the one shown here.

Armed with this name, and life cycle, I carefully dug round the fruiting body, and teased away the soil for confirmation – the photos below show the dark caterpillar sprouting the fruiting bodies, with what look like 2 or 3 more fruiting bodies at an early stage of development.

These fungi are not found very often – in part no doubt because they are quite tricky to spot, but also because they could easily and quickly be destroyed through slug damage. Most of our grassland mushrooms seem magnets for any slugs still left in the meadows, and hence don’t normally survive intact for many days. The fact that the fruiting bodies were just in the shorter grass of the mown path, and also that slug numbers have collapsed so dramatically this year in our meadows, probably explains why I did manage to find it.

Globally there are currently over 400 species of Cordyceps, and this particular one, and a Chinese cousin C. sinensis, have been recognised for some time as containing chemicals, particularly cordycepin, with a huge range of potential medicinal uses from cancer suppression through immunostimulation and even as a pre Viagra treatment for erectile dysfuntion.  Click here and here. So much so that for a number of years it has been commercially grown on artificial media to enable harvesting of exactly the tiny fruiting bodies shown above. It’s fascinating that with so much Asian awareness of its therapeutic potential value, I’d never even heard of it before, let alone come across it.

Some intriguing thoughts occurred to me as I researched this. Firstly whether there are any such fungi which attack slugs in the same way? I couldn’t find any records at all however, and given this lack of slug predation, might slug slime have some protective anti-fungal properties? Click here for an insight into current research on this, and how slug slime’s antimicrobial properties might even be a valuable counter to human problems with MRSA in the future.

Secondly, given the apparently high heavy Nitrogen isotope content of Waxcap mushrooms which I mentioned in my previous post, as discovered by Gareth Griffith’s research, might these fungi be secret slug killers, or consumers? Might the reduction in slug numbers I’ve described in part be because of the increasing numbers of Waxcaps which we now find in our meadows??? Pure speculation…

Who knows…

Fortunately the fungi survived trampling by our ram lambs which have been in this meadow for the last 2 weeks, and I’m assuming that perhaps neither the colour, form or smell of these tiny structures has figured on their radar, unlike other objects encountered as they inquisitively explore their current pasture …

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 An out of the blue phone call this week found me chatting at some length to a research assistant from the Science Gallery London, click here, who are apparently thinking of designing a temporary water heater based on the degradation of wood chip, as a feature for their gallery for 3 months from next February. Judit wanted to pick my brains on how I’d set up and run our own compost “reactor”. It’s been a while since I wrote about this, so given that this year many of the leaves are falling early, and littering the ground, being collected and chopped with our Li-ion lawnmower and added to the “reactor”, I thought I’d write a quick update.

Although there is certainly significant heat generated from the decomposition process of just leaves, with the addition of some saved pee to add a readily available nitrogen source and moisture, I now consider the real point with all the effort collecting leaves up from the paths, lawns and yard, is not only does it keep these areas tidy and safe, but also the end result of the decomposition process is fabulous organic material for garden use, which is largely weed free.

For the last year, I’ve also varied the approach slightly in that I now run a couple of “Worm Cities”. We always had good populations of compost brandling worms in the reactor once sections of it had passed through the very hot stages. So I used to add in all our green waste to the “reactor” which got rotted down along with the leaf mould. A big problem however was that it’s impossible to keep rats from entering the structure, attracted by this waste. So after our big rat problem last autumn, we became much more careful about our waste – metal bins for rubbish, and a trial of a worm city. Click here for more.

The first one arrived midwinter, and whilst it worked well, seemed inadequate to cope with the amount of green waste our 2 person household created. So a second was added. Now run in tandem the system works really well. The five plastic boxes of each “city” are filled with a mix of our saved green waste and partly degraded leaf mould from the “reactor”.

When the 5 layers are filled, the lowest one, which by then has been completely processed by the worms, is tipped out into the oldest section of leaf mould in the “reactor”, and contributes to the available weed free compost in due course. The 2 worm cities have been kept inside a simple open roofed space, with a couple of upturned Big Bags which helps insulate them from the worst of the heat, and cold. In addition to the compost one has to periodically drain off liquid from the tap at the base of the units. Although vile smelling, this can be used as a fluid feed around the garden.

After about 9 months of running both, there is now a vibrant and stable worm population in both units, which tend to gradually work their way up, through each layer, though I usually pick out a few worms to add into refilled level of the city, just to kick start the process.

The end result is probably similar to that in the past, but so far we have had no rat issues, and since all the green waste is worm processed and not rodent consumed, I’m guessing that more of the material actually ends up as garden useful.

After all my enthusiasm for the role of fungi in processing autumnal plant debris, I should not forget the vital part that worms play too. Since most of our meadows have quite tall hedgerows, which are never flailed, and with occasional mature peripheral trees, the leaf litter that blows into the fields is far greater than in a more intensively managed landscape.

It seems that earthworms’ digestive systems produce special chemicals, recently described and named “drilodefensins”, which protect the enzymes in the worm’s gut from the inhibitory effects of polyphenols. These polyphenols are a different class of compounds found in most plant leaf tissue, often at high levels, which have been shown to have an inhibitory effect on above ground herbivore activity as well as impacting on plant material degredation by microbes in the soil. Click here for more, where the scale of annual plant polyphenols entering the soil is estimated – perhaps an enormous 200 KG/hectare annually.

So yet another example of how complex a web of biochemistry and activity exists beneath our feet maintaining the apparent status quo we all observe as we move through the seasons.

Almost as amazing were the Dragon’s breath pinnacles of fog which appeared last week, beyond the village… Atmospheric mountains of mist forming and flattening, then arising again. In minutes, before the battle between sun, clouds and fog was lost. Scenery blurred into dreams, and the flock scattered beneath the descending vapours …And the latticed pie crust clouds. Why did they form, then blur like this?Sunrises and sets are safer territory…
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With the first ground frost forecast for this weekend, I’ve struggled to maintain enthusiasm over the last 2 months with almost daily bulb planting to complete the task this year. At last the end is in sight, and a friend recently commented that the trouble with bulb planting is that apart from being tedious, there is no immediate visual impact for all one’s effort, and expense. Just filled holes in the ground and a bit of trampled debris. However with the first, ever reliable, though not prolific, Galanthus reginae-olgae snowdrop above ground this week, we can now look forward to winter and spring with renewed expectation…

11 thoughts on “Callum Calls; Lunch with a View; Scarlet Caterpillar Club; Compost, Worm Cities and Dragon’s Breath.

  1. That weather is compelling. It feels like autumn, but it has not rained since last winter. This is normal for us, but I do tend to get tired of waiting if I read about weather elsewhere.

      • It always does. This is how our climate works, and why it annoys me when so many people who move here complain about drought annually. Some of our most majestic oaks that live for centuries are often killed when people build homes around them, and then landscape the area. The supplemental irrigation that landscapes need rots the roots of the oaks that expect moisture only for a short time in winter. The oldest trees succumb to rot the fastest.

  2. Well Julian another fantastic post with so many interesting facts and wonderful photos. We haven’t done the walk in Pembrokeshire yet but it’s on our list and now I’ve got to add Gravetye Manor and Great Dixter! If you are interested in getting some Amistad roots they are on sale in Aberglasney now for £1…really strong roots too! Glad you survived the storm- it was dreadful to see how many homes were flooded nearby. All the best to you both.

    • Thanks Marianne,
      We beat you to it… we went to ABG last week and noticed the Amistad roots, so picked up half a dozen to keep going over the winter to try next year! And caught the amazing David Cowdray exhibition.
      If you ever get to Sussex, Gravetye and G. Dixter were both amazing as was Sheffield Park and Nyemans which we also visited,
      best wishes
      Julian

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