A love hate relationship

A cushat at work.
A cushat at work.

ANY keen vegetable and fruit gardener will tell you that the relationship with resident birds blows hot and cold throughout the year.

The ripening of summer fruits such as strawberries, raspberries and currants, always casts blackbirds as villains as they attempt to share the harvest. But that is balanced by insectivores such as the tit family combing our plants for aphids and caterpillars to feed their young.

The fact that we all want to offer a supplementary food source at our bird tables in winter points to a general approval of their presence but some still attempt to spoil the party with their antics.

We have become so used to cushats attempting to share the winter greens, even through netting, that rather than get into a stew about it all, have decided to look upon them as resident food tasters performing a worthwhile service that is free of charge. Once they have tested everything then it is obviously safe to eat. This new approach keeps the blood pressure down, negates any flailing of arms and accompanying yells, but above all, allows us to chill a little and enjoy what is left of the crops.

Cushats, for the uninitiated, are woodpigeons, large birds that are always looking for the main chance. Until recent years they have been wary of our presence in the garden, flying off at the slightest hint of a door opening or the car arriving in the drive. But over the past two summers they’ve nested in an old silver birch and accepted our coming and going, even attended the bird bath while we worked nearby. It is totally our fault then that this familiarity has led to them assuming brassica-grazing rights.

Last week, not for the first time, they were found sitting atop the Brussels sprouts, pecking away at the tender centre of each plant. Thankfully the buttons, now in mid-harvest, are protected. Purple sprouting broccoli is just beginning to offer succulent shoots and the ubiquitous winter cabbages are standing by. A patch of spring cabbages completes the quartet which we see as being central to winter greens. Not that we undervalue the leek crop. It will stand up to anything winter may offer by way of foul weather, yet is so tender and tasty when picked for the kitchen.

These winter greens take several months to grow from seed to maturity, long enough to instil a feeling of possession and pride in having brought them on so well. I don’t mind sharing a portion of the crop with our two feathered friends who nest in the garden, that’s part of the Christmas spirit. But when their relatives drop in en masse, well! It is time to turn into the equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s selfish giant.

THE latest seed catalogues are packed full of all the old reliable brassicas yet again, but we always like to add something new to the list just to see whether it stands up to all the claims of pest and disease resistance.

And as a gardening friend discovered some time ago, you really do need to grow something before you can speak with authority about its worthiness.

When the cabbage Kilaxy appeared in a blaze of publicity around a decade ago, one of our garden club members could not wait to place his Sutton’s seed order. It appeared that his vegetable bed had become a victim of the brassica growers’ nightmare – club root disease. Once this pathogen has gained a foothold, it is capable of surviving in the soil, even without the presence of a host crop, for 20 years. No wonder our friend was keen to try the allegedly resistant Kilaxy.

However, his experience was not as expected, every plant of this promising new F1 hybrid developed club root. This does not necessarily mean that it is an ineffective variety, but simply that it did not work to his satisfaction on that soil.

The disease can be prevented by ensuring that the land brassica plants are grown on is always slightly alkaline. It helps to offer a dressing of dolomite lime if, after running a simple soil test, you find that it is acidic.

Other precautions include eradicating any weeds in the crucifer family group; shepherd’s purse and charlock for example. Also monitor the development of cultivated plants; swede, wallflower, candytuft and stock. They are all related and therefore capable of contracting and passing on club root.

The early signs of infection include leaves turning pale or beginning to wilt. But of course that could also be an underground attack by cabbage root fly larvae so confirmation is sought by digging up the plant. Club root is unmistakable because instead of a healthy root system all you find is a swollen, contorted mass.

Returning to the F1 hybrid Kilaxy, it is a round, Dutch white, autumn cabbage, with great density that is ideal for coleslaw. The heads, which can weigh 2 kilos, will stand or store well. It is certainly worth trying on uninfected land. If our vegetable bed suffered from the dreaded disease, I’d try it, but also add a dressing of Root Grow to each planting hole.

This product is based on microscopic organisms that have existed in the soil for eons. It is only in relatively recent times that their modus operandi has been utilised for our benefit. Given suitable environmental circumstances they attach themselves to the existing roots of plants and form a vigorous second system that greatly enhances the ability to absorb water and nutrients.

One of the earlier uses of mycorrhizae was to encourage the replanting of roses on old beds that showed signs of suffering from rose sickness. But as I’ve discovered on Northumbria in Bloom travels, parks departments are using it extensively when planting trees, shrubs, bedding, etc.

Whereas Kilaxy cabbage (40 seeds for £2.99) is still offered by Suttons as a club root resistant variety, Chiltern Seeds’ Veg Book catalogue launched an almost identical cabbage Kilaton last year (20 seeds for £3.65). They claim it has a high level of resistance to clubroot.

If your vegetable bed is infected and you simply love your greens, a combination of variety resistance, root-grow and strict hygiene, might just keep that smile on your face!

It only remains to flag up the question of new-year resolutions. The ever-developing trend towards growing your own vegetables has merely served to spur this keen grower on to greater things. It’s much cheaper to raise them yourself, you know how they’ve been grown, and there are no air miles involved. Can’t wait to get all seed packets to hand and the early sowings under way, but first we must see what is left over from the present year.

The sow-by date on each envelope errs on the low side so if there are any unopened packets the seed should still be viable. There is also an intention to propagate even more plants by vegetative means in the year ahead.

In a nutshell, waste not – want not!