Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rooting success, actually

Not so long ago, I declared that my attempt at propagation had ended in failure. Not so fast! Although the leaves fell off everything and the twigs looked thoroughly dead, there was in fact life on the inside. (Well, in some of the twigs anyway.)

Four out of six of the wolfberries rooted, and one out of three blackberries survived. The boxwood and peach cuttings all died. Now I'm going to have to think carefully where to plant these little babies. Things are getting a bit crowded around here.

Flowers and fruits in season

The almond that was seen flowering robustly in March has now produced a little crop of fruit, at least a couple of which look promisingly large, even allowing for a certain amount of skin on the outside. This is a self-fertile variety, and it gets good sun for most of the day. Since the missus has developed a penchant for baking with almond powder recently, I can't help thinking that we're pretty much all set.

The big one

The 'Handkerchief Tree' has not been idle either. I was worried for the whole winter that it might be dead, in spite of my careful attention every night of the summer with the watering can. But after putting forth leaves, it promptly flowered, with the exactly four of the rather ridiculous-looking blossoms from which it takes its name.

I put the heads of last year's poppies in the compost which I then spread here and there in the garden and veg plot. Obviously my compost didn't get hot enough to kill seeds, because here are the poppies again this year, everywhere that I put down compost -- including in close embrace with one of the citrus trees which is also flowering.

These are a variety known as 'peony poppies', for a rather obvious reason. The whole business of flowering appears to happen in time lapse with these plants. Magnificent, they are. I'm tempted to use some of the seeds to make these tasty-looking Central European pastries, although the quantities of the seeds available may not be quite be sufficient.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Neem oil

Neem seedlings appeared in garden shops a few years back, advertised as having remarkable insect repellent properties when mashed up and used as a spray. I can't remember the details of the process, but I had my doubts that I'd ever be bothered to try it. However, I bought a couple of seedlings out of curiosity, and both died with the autumn cold.

Recently however, I read that neem oil 'may be' effective in treating powdery mildew on wolfberry plants. My wolfberries put out some very pretty green leaves this spring, many of which were promptly affected by this dusty mildew which makes the leaves shrivel and fall off. I also noticed legions of sex-crazed leaf-beetles copulating all over the shrubs, which means their horrible turd-coated offspring will soon be eating what leaves the mildew spares. I wondered if neem spray would solve both problems.

Powdery mildew on wolfberry leaves

So I found a place that sells sprays, Ide Shokai, and bought three bottles of spray. They recommend spraying every 3-4 days. I tried spraying the tops of the broad beans that were invisible for green fly, and the spray made them drop off with almost comical alacrity. Then I sprayed four wolfberry bushes, focusing especially on the mildewed parts.

Greenfly on broad beans

But I realized that already, one of the three bottles was half empty. At a rate of every 3-4 days, this method is not going to be economically (or environmentally) sustainable, however well it may work. As a slight application of scepticism, I tried spraying greenfly with plain water, and lo! they dropped off with exactly the same alacrity. It remains to be seen if the neem will actually suppress the mildew. I have tried milk and water spray in a 3-7 mix which is supposed to work, but my testing wasn't rigorous enough to tell. I could try some slightly scientific tests to see what actually works. The milk option would surely be cheaper if it actually has any effect.

Another very tempting option is just to do nothing and see if everything is still tolerably productive...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More car talk

Today we went looking for cars again, and this time we test-drove a Subaru Impreza, a Toyota Prius, and the Honda Fit again. It looks like we're going to have a Fit (ha ha).

The Subaru Impreza is quite nice to drive, but we weren't very imprezzed by its declared fuel economy, nor by its price (about 1.9 mil. yen). The new tax breaks for 'eco cars' apply to the Impreza, but they don't result in spectacular savings. The Impreza shown in this rather pointless snap also had the new car smell at a level that most normal people would find alarming, and which caused the young master to hold his breath (and mysteriously expostulate on the chemical stink at the same time).

The Toyota Prius we drove was the highest grade of the current version, and it's a very nice car in many ways. The quote for the soon-to-be announced EX version was 2 mil. yen as near as dammit, although sundry desirable maintenance offerings would push up the price a bit more. Also the missus wants to dazzle other drivers with diffusion headlights, and the pleasant but slightly robotic Toyota salesman didn't recommend installing a non-Toyota brand kit.

But we're not big drivers, and since the Fit is significantly cheaper, we figured we'd need to drive the Prius for ten years before it paid off the difference in price from savings in petrol. The 'Highway' version of the Fit is on offer for 1.5 mil. yen, and it comes with diffusion bling lights, a built-in ETC highway card system, and rain dissipating windows and mirrors. Also, it has the jolly, dodgem-car like handling typical of a kei-car which I really like. The new tax regime favours it almost as generously as a hybrid, making it something of a no-brainer. (Once one has become acquainted with the very unexceptional Fit body, one can't help noticing that there are an awful lot of other people with no brain too. They're all over the roads and supermarket carparks.)

It feels disappointing to be buying yet another petrol vehicle, particularly at this juncture when EVs are finally supposed to making a reappearance after an interval of about a century. But they're going to cost 4 mil. yen, and be largely unavailable anyway. While hybrids are attractive in many ways, they seem like technical overkill for limited driving. However, we take some solace from the fact that the new wheels should get about twice the mileage of the current set.

We also test drove a pair of Harleys* with extra small fuel tanks and little pig figurines on the disk brakes, but they had nowhere to put shopping and rice husks.

* This is not actually true.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Goya sun curtain

In the summer, my north-facing office window gets blasted by the westering sun from 4 o'clock until sunset. And pretty though it may be, it makes the room very hot. Having whittered on at length about the merits of passive solar architecture, when it came time to build our house we couldn't resist putting most of our windows on the north where the spectacular views are, so now we get the full effects of north winds in winter, and afternoon sun in summer.

This year however, I plan to take shelter behind a curtain of green leaves and weird knobbly gourds. Goya, or bitter gourd, grows prodigiously and climbs up anything. The gourds themselves are very good to eat too, principally with tofu. The plant itself does give off a rather pungent smell when agitated, so it will be interesting to see if the breeze wafts the funky scent of jungle weed into my room.

A couple of hooks in the deck and some more on the roof gable with some string between should provide an adequate support for the goya vine. If all goes well, the missus won't have to ask, "Do we have any goya?" She can see the lovely grotesque gourds a-dangling there when she goes out to hang out the washing.

When I was planning the growth pattern of my goya, I couldn't help humming the melody to Making Plans for Nigel. "Nigel's whole future is as good as sealed... di-doo-doo-doo"

I did think about growing another mokkobara (Rosa banksiae) in this spot as a permanent measure to protect from the sun and wind, but they like full sun in summer and winter. This place only gets full light from around now when the sun is high enough in the sky to reach over the house. If you know of a good plant (vine or evergreen tree) that would thrive in this situation, do let me know. Bamboo of some sort?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

New green

Now this season is more like it! The garish cherry blossoms have all blown away, and the brilliant new green leaves are bursting out. And it's consistently warm. This morning as I was making the coffee, I glanced out of the window and did a sudden double-take when some bright-green thing in the middle distance caught my eye. It was the new leaves on one of my fig trees, with the early morning sun providing vivid backlighting.

When I go out to get the newspaper on days like this, the song Morning Has Broken always comes to mind, not that we have blackbirds here. We were forced to sing it at primary school and it annoyed me because it was just another part of our wishy-washy Church of England indoctrination ... until I realized that it's a damn good song about the real joys of mornings.

The bay tree in the outsize terracotta pot is also sprouting new leaves. One day soon it might outgrow the clover that quickly invaded.

Bling! Today's new poppy. These are springing up all over the place, and they look a bit goofy with the two halves of their green pods stuck to their petals -- like a bloke whose shirt tail hangs down behind his business jacket.

The pomegranate is bucking the trend by leafing out in red. The cabbagy-looking 'North Korean poppies' beneath it should be flowering soon. In the background, the blueberries are putting out very pale green leaves and purple flowers.

Gosh, the pond looks very murky all of a sudden. What to do with this nasty-looking water? But there are some green shoots appearing in the middle, and there are still fish, frogs, and insect larvae in there. Should I refresh the water maybe, or just leave it?

Praise for the singing, praise for the morning, praise for the breakfast, tra-la-la!

Cherry blossoms

There's nothing particularly 'eco-home' about these pics, but they may be diverting nonetheless. I'm not that crazy about the cherry blossom thing because it's usually too cold to sit around enjoying them, there are lots of people making whoopee and the smell of burnt meat, and the pressure of the expectation of enjoying cherry blossoms often leads to disappointment. However, we managed to have a passably pleasant cherry blossom experience this year.

Getting a bit more secular here, with some 'guts pot food' in a park with thousands of other common folk.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Abject rooting failure

My attempt to grow saplings from cuttings has ended in abject failure. I watered them with solicitous care, and tried to keep them from being blown all over the place by the spring wind, but they all just went brown and curled up.

Next time I'll try putting them in pots of water to see if they do any better. One lot will have some rooting powder dissolved in it, and another lot will be just with water. Hopefully this will prevent the instant withering that occurred with the first try.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Honda Insight vs. Toyota Prius

Our gas-guzzling Subaru Impreza is coming up for its shaken again this year, and the replacements get more expensive each time, so we're looking to get a new car. So last weekend we went to test drive the new Honda Insight hybrid.

A few years ago I test drove the Toyota Prius and was very impressed. Apart from the poor visibility out the back window, it felt like driving a normal car. Indeed, the quiet inside made it feel like a luxury car. The integration of the engine and motor is seamless, and if you don't look at the display which indicates which is in use, it's impossible to tell.

The body of the Honda Insight looks a lot like the Prius (which actually copied an earlier version of the Insight). Inside, it has a very 1970s space-age 'driving interface'. However, when I lowered the steering wheel to a relaxed position just above my knees, I couldn't see the speedometer at all. The engine and motor are not perfectly integrated. Indeed, there's a distinct jolt when the car switches between the two. This even happens when you have your foot on the brake waiting to turn -- the car just jolts on the spot of its own accord. This is disconcerting, and not what you want a car to do.

I took the car up a steep hill and it totally lacked poke. I wasn't able to put my foot right down to see if more power could be got from it because there was a kei-truck in front of me, but the Insight didn't feel as though it had power to spare.

When we got home, we calculated the likely economic benefit of buying an Insight, and unless the cost of petrol more than doubles, we'd be better off buying a cheaper car. Since we don't drive far or often, a normal car seems like a good choice. No electric vehicles appear ready for the market yet. The Insight has sufficiently obvious deficiencies in driving characteristics that buyers must convince themselves that they're doing some good in the world by driving it. I don't think the same thing applies to the Prius which offers grounds for smugness all round, albeit at a commensurate price.

On a side note, the difference between the Honda salesman and the Toyota salesman corresponds to the difference between the cars themselves. The Honda salesman was chatty and keen to sell. After a short while in our company, he felt sufficiently familiar to talk about his two-year old daughter. Somehow I don't think the sales gentleman from Toyota would have unwound himself so far.