A Grower’s Diary; orchard thieves & hungry ladybirds

A Grower’s Diary; orchard thieves & hungry ladybirds

Dive into the adventures & musings of Future Grower, Jeremy on the OGI Intenship at Moyleabbey Farm

Tuesday September 18th

Ladybirds clamber everywhere: apples, scallion stalks, the overgrown grass. Today they turn up in the washroom, clinging to freshly-harvested vegetables, busy in pursuit of their next meal.

LadybirdsSome years ago, I spent a J1 summer on Long Island, slumming it in the kitchen of a seaside restaurant called the Surfside Inn. On July 4th, while I was busy cleaning the grimy underside of a fridge, the rest of the staff tuned in to watch Joey Chestnut chow down 66 hotdogs and buns in 12 minutes. It was a new world record. He was subsequently crowned a Major League Eating champion.

The common ladybird is a voracious eater too. On average, a ladybird will eat its way through 50 aphids or more in a day. Almost twice its own bodyweight. Joey Chestnut has nothing on these spotted juggernauts.

 

Tuesday October 2nd

The air is crisp, the sky is lead. Everywhere, leaves peel to drift down in confetti shades of gold and red. I clamber up a ladder and pluck sunburst globules of fruit in my hand, until the carry-bag on my neck weighs like a millstone. I descend, topple my stash into a waiting crate, and reascend the leafy heights.

We are busy apple-picking, slowly emptying the orchard of its Autumn treasure-store. Pirioette, Rubinette, Idared, Elstar: these varieties are lemon-yellow suns reddened by lipstick strokes. Browned in places by scab, pocked with the odd worm hole. Bramleys are explosions of grass and wine, melon-sized and bloated with sweetness.

I reach for a husky green Egremont Russet. Fooled by its drab toad-skin coat, I half-expect to bite into something bitter as dead wood. Instead, my mouth fills with sugared almonds and champagne.

Orchard Thief Wednesday October 4th

Earwigs, with their oversized rear-end pincers and flat, glistening bodies, are universally resented for their ability to break and enter, squeezing through the most unlikely of crevasses to appear on a wall or bedroom floor. They hide everywhere. Plug sockets, loose wallpaper, a picture frame, furniture fittings: any dark or hidden nook is a potential shelter.

Gardeners the world over resent them for their aggressive nocturnal raids. Set out under the stars, torch in hand, and chances are your beam will light up their armoured, oily bodies, busy at work, crunching holes in the leaves of your runner bean plants (or anything green and growing, for that matter.

It may come as a surprise to learn that these infamous insects make excellent mothers. An earwig mother will search out a secluded spot in which to lay 12 to 15 smooth, white eggs. She curls her body around them, much like a hen broods over her own eggs, carefully cleaning them to protect them from fungal or bacterial infections. When the eggs hatch, she remains with her young, feeding them with her own regurgitated food. If danger threatens, she gathers them around her and elevates her pincers to fend off would-be attackers.

Perhaps it is because my wife is at home, heavily pregnant with our second child, but I cannot help noticing earwigs on every second apple I pick.

Thursday October 4th

Caterpillar Last morning’s pick in the orchard. Inventory of sightings:

One full-grown frog sluppering and leaping in the wet grass.

One caterpillar sporting red rockabilly quiff, neon green pelt, stripes of leather-black. Glam rocker suited for the stage.

Three gangly toadstools, bald crowns capped by sprigs of greasy hair.

One chrysalis. Horned leather-membrane, gold-studded flesh. Like something right out of Middle Earth. What creature slumbers under the wrap of brown, leafy tissue? Butterfly, moth or dragon? I may never know.

Friday October 5th

Aided by vigilant watering and the blaze of hot summer sun, Liam’s sweetcorn has been a runaway success. But now we’ve come to the end of the line. The remaining few resemble the mouths of half-toothless geriatrics: a bitty spread of yellow nuggets in a grey gum of cob, and that’s about it.

Today, I have the task of breaking the news gently to the customers in the shop, and every time I do, the response is one of genuine lament. Nobody wants the sweetcorn season to end, but end it must.

The only consolation was last Friday’s free offerings. The remaining vestiges of the crop filled a crate beside the cash register, available free-of-charge.

At one point on that afternoon, a new face appeared at the till; a local musician touching sixty-five, wearing a beanie hat and a pair of rimless glasses. He brandished a just-purchased bag of salad leaves and shot a quip about the listeria scare raging across the major supermarket chains. I countered with the offer of a free corn in the cob. He was chary at first, but then accepted.

Now he’s back. ‘You know that corn on the cob you gave me last week, the free one?,’ he says, eyes narrowing slightly, as if in anger.

I’m immediately worried. Possibilities jump through my mind: maybe the thing was too far gone and crippled him with stomach aches, or maybe stale corn got stuck in his teeth, or maybe he was assaulted by a six-legged cob resident…

‘Eh, yes. Yes, I do,’ I venture, hoping his complaint will be swift and to the point.

‘Well,’ he lights up, ‘it was the best bloody thing I’ve ever tasted! Shame there was so little corn on it. I just wish you had more of the stuff.’

I sigh with relief. ‘Me too. We’ll just have to wait till next August, or thereabouts.’

‘I suppose so,’ he agrees sadly, and resolves to buy up a stockpile of next year’s harvest, much like every other pining customer.

PumpkinsTuesday October 9th

On first appearances, pumpkins are all toughness, with their hard-as-nails exterior. Turns out, they are a soft-touch. A light bang on their round flank and, in mere days, the muscular skin degrades into a soft, pulpy bruise.

When readying pumpkins for transport, farmers the world over are careful to lower them into crates with tender-loving care. A single bruised pumpkin will spoil in transit, spreading gangerous rot through the whole crate until every pumpkin arrives at its destination a spongy mess.

And so I spend the afternoon molly-coddling these boulder-like fruits, lifting them up off the damp earth like patients, easing them on to their pallet beds, where they will convalesce until ready for sale.

Wednesday October 9th

I pull the steel door of the old lorry container and walk into a fog of cider. The cool interior pings with sweet fizz. Apples piled in crates, gassing the dark.

Friday October 11th

It is dusk. The sky, pink and silver-streaked, is rapidly dimming into blackness. The light in the shop fades and I switch on the overhead strip lights. It is the final hour of my Friday shift, when customers are few and far between, and I turn my attention to sowing seeds.

The Winter Purslane seeds that pool in my palm are minute. They are so small, it is difficult to see just how many peel off my fingers as I try to sow five at a time into each square module of the seedling tray.

What’s in a seed? Small as they are, each one contains a genetic memory that spans millennia of evolutionary ancestry. Plants flourished on the face of earth for 300 million years before the first human beings began to master stone tools and the primitive art of fire-making.

SunflowersMuch like an atomic atom that splits, simultaneously releasing a force strong enough to ignite a world, every seed is a compression of unfathomable energy. From an acorn no larger than a thumb-nail springs the towering oak; similarly, the giant sequoia spings from a feather-light seed the size of an oat-flake.

As for the Winter Purslane seeds in my hand, exposure to necessary conditions – in this case a cloak of dampened compost – triggers a chain reaction that, in time, will transfigure each seed into into an entirely new life-form. Within a span of days, these seeds, tinier than the oval of a needle-eye, will become living plants, complete with growing root system and a fan of green leaves. The sapling will outgrow the tray and within a span of weeks, will be transplanted to the roomier bed of the open soil. Ultimately, it will become the food that nourishes our animal bodies.

Winter Purslane is not what I would call a show-stopping botanical specimen. These seeds will end their span of life as a nutritious decoration in a bag of salad, and that is all. But if we pan out and consider the countless acres of cereal, fruit and vegetable crops we depend on for survival, not to mention the vital carbon-processing and canopy shade provided by the trees around us, our absolute dependence on seed viability and germination becomes immediately obvious.

If we go further, and consider our need for biodegradables that can replace the synthetic plastics plugging up our precious oceans, the environmental attrition caused by deforestation, as well as the escalating crisis of global warming and its link to our insatiable meat-habit, it becomes clear that plant-based solutions must play a vital role in our future. Humble as the little Winter Purslane seed may be, in its kind lies the embryonic hope of planetary survival.

NAutumn ight has crept in. The moon is up. I gratefully roll the last seed from my fingers, tidy away the trays and set off for home.

Tuesday October 15th

Flares of yellow-orange-crimson, tinge of gas-flame blue, purple burn, fringes of crisped, woody brown. Everywhere leaves peel from charcoal limbs. They drift and fall in their technicolour dream of season’s turning.

 

 

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