Wednesday, 22 November 2017


Dense bed of plantain
After the awful slug devastation which eliminated every seed I sowed (bar three California poppies) I've given up on seeds and am depending on daffodils, two kinds of onions, one bed of shallots and a few remaining ornamental aliums. These reassure me that one day I'll have flowers on the table, pollinators on the allotment and food on my plate.

And now, apart from
1. Popping onion sets back in the ground because they've lifted themselves up on their roots like ballerinas on tip-toe
2. Popping onion sets back in the ground where they've been tugged out by birds
3. Working out what to do with the pile of old doors left roughly in the middle of the plot.
. . . I'm turning my attention to preparing the soil for spring.

How come there's so much plantain? Whole raised beds of it! I'm fond of plantain (the ribwort version) and it looked rather good in flower. For a while I chopped off its leaves and fed them to the worms in my newly purchased compost bin; which worms are fed with bundles of vegetables bought specially in the supermarket, and leaves raked from under public trees in patches of grass between houses, and are kept warm by the clods of earth and grass I'm building up around the bin till I'm sure there's enough compost in there to insulate them from whatever coldness we have ahead. (Hopefully we'll have snow!)

I had anticipated plantain would be difficult to lift but the soil here is so fine, and the earth dries so rapidly, it simply falls away from the long thin tap roots as easily as it does from fine and feathery ones.

It's slow going though. At present it takes about two hours to do a basic fork through of an overgrown bed. After that I go back and back again to rake out the multitude of root fibres which get left behind. There are moments when I think the very earth is nothing but a collection of fine roots. Constantly I'm thankful there is neither nettle nor bindweed.

Earth broken up into grid ready for weeding
How to do it?  At present I'm making it up as I go along. Mostly I take a fork and slide it a few inches under the plants and lever them a bit so the roots are loosened and the bed has been turned into a grid of eight inch squares. Then I go back and turn them leaf-side-up and shake them about a bit on the end of the fork so the earth falls out. If all the earth falls away I toss the plant onto the next bed along. If it doesn't, I make a pile for later. Maybe the piles will dry out and the earth will trickle from even from the most densely packed roots. If it rains, maybe it will be washed down to the bottom of the pile and thus, back onto the bed. We will see. What seems incredibly important at present is not to remove too much soil along with the 'weeds'!

As for worms, each time I come across one I get excited. Being excited to see a worm may seem a little over-the-top but I have it in my head that
presence-of-worms = healthy soil
and I don't come across many.

Immediate dash for camera placed carefully at the end of the bed ready for just such a circumstance.
(Gosh, what a narrow life I lead!)
It was a beautiful worm - about ten inches long - clean and glistening. But by the time I'd got my camera out of its bag it was on its way back into the soil. Right. Grab fork and try gently to lever it out on a prong. Did it want to come? Pull, pull. Gently, gently. No. And by the time I'd got it back onto the surface all its clean-ness was ruined. Instead of smooth and glistening,  it was muddied with earthy blobs. Bother.

Earthworm on surface of soil
But oh! It's much shorter than I thought. Worms do that. They shrink and stretch, shrink and stretch. But wait! Another worm. Not very animated. Not so beautiful. The first worm starts to slither away, elongating slightly. The other worm does nothing. Dilemma. Did I see one worm stretched long? Or two worms joined together. Oh! Um. What is the sex life life of a worm?

I knew nothing.

I'm always wary about putting information into Loose and Leafy. What if someone were to search for something like 'How do worms copulate?' and Google sent them here - and I'd got it wrong? So I'm going to say as little as I can and warn anyone who comes here that I might not be 'getting it right' - for it seems rather remarkable. (There will be links at the bottom for more scientific explanations.)

What seems to happen is that worms nestle their heads together and exchange semen through their necks (they are hermaphrodites). The eggs (three or four of them) form in a sack / cocoon which hardens so the worm is able to wriggle backwards until it until it sort of comes off its head. Then the eggs hatch in the soil. Sometimes the worm eats the sack instead and ventures forth to excrete it in a place where the worm babies will have a good supply of food.

The only thing I'll add to this explanation is that I'm mightily relieved to discover that the coloured bulges around some worms indicate sexual maturity, not, as I'd previously thought, some kind of parasite.

So . . . the worm I first saw (photographed) is quite long but probably not as long as it might have been if it hadn't been neck to neck with its less than lively friend. An interesting point to ponder. If you were having an intimate moment with someone and a whacking great fork came through your ceiling - would you be the one to lithely and blithely slither away or would you be the one to freeze into an awkward and angry sulk?

In which you'll find out why worm-tunnels don't cave in and why my worm started clean even though it was in the earth . .  and how worms walk along . .  and what their brains are made of . . .

Worm Anatomy - on Wormwatch (Canada)
How do Red Wriggler Worms Reproduce? - on WormLady.Com (Washington State)
Earthworm numbers dwindle, threatening soil health. - on Made for Minds (Germany)
Do Earthworms Have a Head? (etc.) - on Welcome Wildlife (Kansas)
Earthworm ID Tools - Earthworm Society of Britain (You can download an Earthworm Recorders Handbook.)
Earthworm Glossary prepared by the University of British Columbia  (It downloads as a PDF)
Citizen Science Worm Project with the Natural History Museum (UK) (How to take part in the project)
Wormwatch (Canada)
You can follow the NHM Earthworm Watch on Twitter

PS . . . an indelicate question which someone may be able to answer. If an earthworm is ready to mate when its lumpy coloured band (clitellum) is orange and this worm's clitellum is red . . . did it 'work'?

Sunday, 19 November 2017


I confess I was tempted to abandon my town-centre tree in favour of another; something closer to home; a tree I would happen to be passing now and then rather than having to make a special point of visiting. It isn't as if it does much. We've had a wonderful and long autumn with lots of colour. But 'my' tree has trudged through the seasons in a tatty, dull-green kind of way. It's currently paying no attention to the prospect of winter in full leaf.

Small new leaf on an urban alder tree in November
But I'm giving myself a last chance to make something of it. Sometimes boring things are the most rewarding because they demand of us so much effort.

First - yes it's an alder.
Here's a leaf - a new one, with an even newer one opening beside it. November 14th!

Alder catkins / fruits

And here's a silhouette showing its catkins / fruit.

Alder leaves with patches eaten away

And here's why it's boring. 

This is a picture of the leaves on 14th November.

Alder leaves with patches eaten away

And this is how they were on 6th August. Not a lot has happened since then! Though given the way the leaves have been grazed by insects perhaps it's a moment to be impressed by its resilience.

Initially I thought I'd photographed the same leaf in both months but no longer think that's so. (Which is a pain.)

Baby's dummy on railings protecting an urban alder

Unless I were to stand by the tree for a week, clipboard in hand and interview passers by, I have no way of knowing how other humans engage with this tree. Someone stuck a dummy on it's protective railing. But that seems very impersonal. It's the railing that's caught attention. Not the tree. Here it is in August.

Baby's dummy and coca-cola bottle on railings protecting an urban alder

And here it is in November. Perhaps even the railings are invisible to most people for the dummy is still there. The only change is that a coke bottle has been added to the scene. (And that scaffolding has been put up around the Victoria Theatre.)

Green Barred Alder aphids on an alder leaf.
Two small leaves towards the foot of the tree were neatly stuck together when I arrived, one flat on top of the other. Carefully I peeled them apart. I'm always wary of doing this; never sure if I should. Whoever's in there I'm intruding on a life; possibly destroying it.

Aphids. I've been searching around and think they are mostly Green Barred Alder Aphids (Pterocallis maculata). Perhaps there are Common Alder Aphids too (Pterocallis alni)? I don't know. What do you reckon? And what about the little yellow dots? Are they eggs? Galls? Anyone?

One boring tree - with a thriving little empire held between two of its tiniest leaves. Perhaps not boring after all. I'll be back next month - whether I can hit the Tree Following deadline or not!

* * *


Aphid Information on the Site Influential Points:

For Pterocallis maculata (Green Barred Alder Aphid) and others see Aphids on Alder (Alnus)

Wednesday, 15 November 2017


Illustration p. 106 of Toletis by Rafa Ruiz
I've been minorly operated on. It wasn't a big deal but I was frightened. I made sure all bills had been paid, that all direct debits were in order, all messages deleted and password-protected accounts closed.

Finally, I took the badger-protection (bits of mesh and old plastic bread baskets) away from the bulbs on the allotment (shallots, two kinds of onions, a variety of daffodils). If I never came back - well, I couldn't leave them in the dark.

I planned posts. This, of course, was daft. If it turns out you're not able to pick up where you left off there will have been no point in having made a list of the things you won't be able to do. But it's what I did. And I wandered around wondering whether to choose a new tree to 'follow', randomly taking pictures of ashes then forgetting which was which. (I've decided to stick with the alder after all and have a pile of photos ready for an update.) I took pictures of the allotment late in the evening when there was hardly any light because that was the only time I had available and photographs of onions and shallots and the earth where daffodil bulbs lie buried are better gloomy than not-at-all. And I prepared a new list of interesting articles to tell you about. And I invited a friend to review a book.

I've never done this before - let anyone except me put anything on my blog. But I've never before read the list of things which can go majorly wrong during a minor operation either. I think the surgeon thought she might be out of a job if everyone were to read leaflets as carefully as I did and to take heed of warnings as seriously as me.

Never mind. Here I am; and with a pile of posts that would have kept Loose and Leafy going in my absence for quite a while . . . or rather would have if I'd set them to publish themselves. (Now, that would have been creepy - Loose and Leafy chugging along, onions reaching into the sun - and me with my lights gone out.)

But the list of posts . . . here's the first - the guest review!

The Book - Toletis by Rafa Ruiz, illustrated by Elena Hormiga, translated by Ben Dawlatly, published by Neem Tree Press, (£15:99) sent me by Cameron Publicity and Marketing Limited and reviewed by Amy Perkis.

I asked my friend Amy to review it because Toletis reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones' books and while she is an enormously popular author I don't specially like fantasy . . . but Amy does . . . So I handed it over to an enthusiast - who says Toletis is nothing like the stories written by Diana Wynne Jones . . . but that is beside the point. The similarity was my theory, even if it turns out to be false.

No more introduction. Here's the guest review of Toletis! (Gosh, this feels odd, handing over to somebody else. Deep breath!)
* * *

Cover of Toletis by Rafa Ruiz
Toletis is recommended ‘for ages Seven to One Hundred and Seven’. For seven year olds to get the most out of it I think it might be better read and discussed with an adult. I’m twenty-two and had fun reading it on my own, so you might too. (Any one hundred and seven year olds – let me know what you think!)
Let’s get this out of the way – do not be discouraged by the fact that Toletis begins with a long description of how the title character got his name. It’s something to do with him being a ‘toll collector’ of interesting objects (I suspect the wordplay may have worked better in the original Spanish), but it doesn’t really matter because your kids will think the book is called Toilets anyway. Once you get past that, Toletis is sweet, moving, and less didactic than it might seem from Chapter One – in which the title character and his friends try to save the disappearing trees of their small town.
Toletis is made up of twelve little adventures, with each chapter (three chapters per season) telling us a different story about little Toletis, his dog Amenophis and two friends: Tutan and Claudia. These adventures range from the small (collecting hazelnuts or cooking Sunday lunch) to the wildly magical. In one of my favourite chapters the children halt the building of a big main road by learning to speak to the local thrushes, who swarm in their thousands to cover the road with soil and seeds. The magical aspects of the book relate to the wonderful powers of nature: the children bring mist down from the hills to rejuvenate the tired town, and use their old clothes to cover the cold plants in winter. It’s very fantastical but real as well - speaking to the power of small plants to break through concrete and persevere even in the most unlikely of settings. Watching the ugly main road being built, Toletis keeps an eye on the small plants growing by its side:
‘…hoping that one day in the future, nature [will] impose its law, rhythm and aesthetic on the hard grey asphalt’
Illustration p. 142 of Toletis by Rafa Ruiz
Toletis, Tutan and Claudia are tiny eco-warriors, fighting back against the disappearance of trees and the building of ugly concrete roads. Their little home town is a battleground between two worlds. The first is that of the mountains and hills where the children roam with characters such as Celemin the shepherd. This is set against the fast-paced world of adults who seem increasingly obsessed with technology. You’ll definitely be cheering for Toletis, Tutan and Claudia in their mission to save the trees and cheer up the town, although the environmental focus can make parts of the book feel a little too didactic. At times Toletis and his friends come across a bit too fairy-tale themselves: perfectly in touch with the seasons and the world of nature. The first chapter especially feels a little twee, especially as the children refer to baby trees as ‘teeny weenies’ (even the narrator thinks this is a bit ‘sentimental’.)
What saves Toletis from becoming a kind of moral tale are the parts of the book which touch (very gently) on the more frightening aspects of childhood: the sense of anxiety as autumn nights get darker and first experiences of snow which leave Toletis worrying that all the colour will be wiped out of the world forever. Toletis’ relationship with his dead grandfather, Ra, and his remembrance of him throughout the book is also handled movingly.
Ultimately Toletis is most successful in portraying the small things that make childhood and the natural world both scary and wonderful. Ruiz’s focus on these small wonders make for some really delightful passages describing food and furniture! This focus on the small is reflected in the philosophy of Toletis himself, who:
'didn’t understand why so many grown-ups had an obsession with seeing further and further and further, and with relating the beauty of a mountain to how far you can see from the top of it. He wasn’t interested in distant landscapes. The interesting ones were close by, but many people didn’t appreciate what’s close to them, feeling a need to gaze into the distant and faraway future all the time.'
Illustration p. 49 of Toletis by Rafa Ruiz
This was one of my favourite passages, and there’s plenty more here to reflect on or chat about with younger readers. Many parts of Toletis will be fun to read aloud with children; the chapter on the Wobbegong Language describes a made-up language inspired by Toletis’ Aunt Josefina. Cue lots of silly words for children to read out – for example:
The biggest, meanest collywobbler poked his blobbytum
But the rabble all kebabbled when the babirusa blubbed!
Also to be savoured are Elena Horminga’s illustrations: colourful, characterful and a little bit abstract, they reminded me a lot of (Finnish fabric designer) Marimekko’s prints. Horminga’s pictures are more humorous than you first expect, and l enjoyed flicking back to my favourite illustrations just as I liked returning to favourite moments in the text. That’s one of the nice things about Toletis: it’s not a page turner, which means you can happily meander through it without any rush, returning to the bits that made you smile.
ONE NIGGLE: This is tacked onto the end because I wasn’t really sure where to fit it into the main body of the review, but it seems worth noting that one reservation with this book (especially if you’re going to be reading it to younger girls) is the way that Toletis’ friend Claudia is presented as a kind of love interest. I’m not anti-romance (!!) but I was a bit sad on the occasions when Claudia is portrayed as an object rather than a co-adventurer. Seen through Toletis’ eyes, Claudia is ‘dazzling’, a ‘perfectionist’ and is constantly characterized by the wonderfulness of her hair! I suppose what I am ‘anti’ is ‘perfect’ or romanticized women in fiction, especially when we don’t get to hear their perspective on things.  
(Even though I’d like my hair to ‘smell of green beans’ like Claudia’s!)

Illustrations on this page are from the book - pps 106, 142, 49
About 'Tree Following'.