Common Hill Nature Reserve

Common Hill Nature Reserve is a collection of small fields/meadows containing old orchard trees located near Fownhope, Herefordshire and managed by the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust (HWT). The Voluntary Warden is a friend of ours and we help out on an ad hoc basis. My job is to spot things and ask 'What is that?' so Mary can then identify and record them.

There are four parts to the nature reserve: North Meadow, Monument Hill, Old Cider House and, the recently purchased, Round's Meadow. For reasons unknown to me, we rarely visit Old Cider House - maybe it is the less interesting part of the reserve.

Today (27/1/22) was a warm sunny January day; around 13 oC at the time of our visit (2 pm). Because the reserve is on a north-facing slope, much of it was in shadow by this time of the day and the cool breeze made it feel colder.

 As a project for 2022, we thought we could keep a photographic record of the seasons on the reserve as well as a list of flora and fauna spotted there. This would need repeated visits throughout the year; no hardship during the Spring, Summer and Autumn but Winter????

Let's start with January (27/1/22). This view is from the corner of North Meadow looking east. Doesn't look much at the moment but it will fill up later with orchids and other grassland flowers attracting the butterflies and bees. In the distance, behind Mary, is one of the old orchards...

...from where this next photo is taken looking back to where the first photo was taken. In the far far distance (and out of sight) are the Black Mountains and Wales...

...walking past the orchard to the far end of North Meadow, there is a bench from which this next photo was taken. On the other side of the valley is Haugh Woods...

...crossing the lane/footpath (Wye Valley Way) you enter Monument Hill, a good place to see Wood White butterflies in summer...

...from the HWT sign looking up the Hill at the old anthills...

...and then down the Hill (looking towards the Monument Hill sign) from the top entrance to Round's Meadow...

...finally, we enter Round's Meadow with a view down the slope (Haugh Woods in the distance)...

...and then up the slope from the metal gate on the lower lane...

At this time of year, there is not much flora to see. This tortula (?) moss caught our attention...

 ...with plenty of fruiting bodies on display looking like a miniature forest...

The only other action on the reserve were three buzzards, several wood pigeons, a song thrush, a robin, three crows, about 15 rooks and a blue tit (heard but not seen).

Hopefully, more to see in February.

The Weir Garden, Herefordshire

 A riverside garden bordered by the River Wye and with spectacular displays of spring bulbs.

The Weir Garden (National Trust) is only a short drive away and we are regular visitors. Today (January 29) was the first open day of 2022 and just in time to see the first flush of snowdrops.

Several species of snowdrop can be found around the Garden such as the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)...

Elwes's snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii)...

Giant snowdrop (Galanthus woronowii) - you have to look carefully for this one and ignore the spelling mistake! It is found in Turkey and the Caucasus; not quite sure where that place on the label is!

Double snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis 'flore pleno')...

Crimean snowdrop (Galanthus plicatus)...

There may have been some we missed!

It is a bit early for the daffodils. There were plenty of leaves and some tight buds but also one or two open flowers...

... and a nice display of Algerian irises (Iris unguicularis); spot the two spelling mistakes?

The following plants were in flower, either in small groups or as individuals: aconite, celandine, primrose, violet, mahonia, crocus, heather, winter heliotrope, large daisy, dandelion, stinking hellebore and one, very lonely, wild strawberry!

And finally, after many failed attempts, Mary managed to get this photo of snowdrops - I think she was quite pleased with it...

2021 Potato Harvest

It is 26 January 2022: a dry sunny day with just a little bit of winter warmth (9 oC at midday). Time to dig up the final row of potatoes from the Spring 2021 planting. These are Sarpo Blue Danube, an early maincrop variety. 

Sarpo Blue Danube Potatoes

In 2020, I planted two varieties of potato: Sarpo Una (second early) and Sarpo Axona (late maincrop). This took up too much space in my kitchen garden so, in 2021, I decided to go with just the one variety, Sarpo Blue Danube. Over the years, I have tried many types and varieties of seed potatoes but these Sarpo varieties are superior, in my opinion, because they have excellent resistance to blight and disease and the tubers store really well whether left in the ground or stored in the cellar in hessian bags.

My Blue Danube seed potatoes (1.5 kg) arrived from D.T. Brown in mid-January 2021. These were placed on a tray lined with newspaper and left under a table in a light coolish room to chit. Planted out on 1st April after the first application of Nematodes (slug control); 3 x 2.4 metre rows with 7 to 8 seed potatoes per row. Planting the potatoes consisted of digging a trench about 15 cm deep, placing the potato in the trench, covering with sieved garden compost, and then with garden soil to form a ridge about 10 cm high. When the potato shoots appear, cover with more sieved compost to protect from late frosts, enrich soil and increase the soil volume for the potato tubers to develop. May, June & July 2021 had reasonably rainfall so there was no need to water the potato crop. There was some foliage dieback in one or two plants but this did not affect the tubers.

The first potatoes were harvested on 2 September 2021 and the last potatoes harvested on 26 January 2022. Total yield was approximately 35 kg (77 lbs). The seed potatoes cost £5.95 and the value of the crop, based on equivalent organic potatoes from Sainsbury's on 26/1/22, was £31.50. [Note: 35 kg of non-organic potatoes from Sainsburys would cost £12.60].

Finally, a word about the potatoes! Some potatoes exhibited a little bit of scab but this was largely cosmetic and was removed during peeling. Flavour was excellent. These potatoes are best suited for mash, roast and chips/wedges. They show excellent dormancy (i.e. very reluctant sprouters) and can be stored above or below ground. 

Corn Starch Peanuts and Compostable Bags

In the past, polystyrene packing peanuts were popular as padding material for protecting delicate paraphernalia transported via parcel post. While cheap, convenient, and cost-effective for commercial companies, they were considered an anachronistic annoyance to anyone else.

Sustainable packing, in the form of cornstarch peanuts (other starch sources are available), started to appear about 25 years ago but even these are now losing ground to the ubiquitous paper/cardboard padding/packaging of Amazon fame.

Last week, I received a consignment of organic bread flour which did contain starch peanuts (see photo) though perhaps they would be better described as starch quavers after the well-known cheesy snack.

I also use compostable bags in my kitchen caddy where I collect food scraps before transferring them to the hot-composting bins. Typically, one compostable bag will be re-used 10-20 times (1-2 months) so I don't use that many. Cornstarch peanuts, when available, are added to the caddy in small amounts.

The simplest way to see if you have the cornstarch or polystyrene (PS) peanuts is to pour boiling water over them (see video). Cornstarch will dissolve whereas PS will just float.

So, how compostable are cornstarch peanuts and compostable bags?

The first thing to note is the difference between biodegradable and compostable bioplastic.

Biodegradable - simply means the material can be broken down by micro-organisms There is no time limit and the breakdown products may, or may not, contain toxic chemicals.

Compostable - specifically can be broken down by micro-organisms into water, carbon dioxide and biomass with NO toxic residue. The rate of decomposition has to be the same or faster than cellulose and the end product shall be indistinguishable from naturally-composted biomass.

Cornstarch Peanuts

Made from 100% cornstarch, these do disappear in the composting process either by biodegradation and/or dissolution. Being cellulose-based, they will take a while to break down; about 6 months in a  'cold' compost heap (25 - 40 oC) or 6 weeks in a 'hot' composter (50 - 60 oC). I did a quick literature search on Google Scholar to see whether the peanuts could be pretreated (e.g. acid hydrolysis) to speed up the composting process but it seems the natural enzymes in the compost heap do the job quicker and at lower temperatures. I am currently looking into the best way to add 'peanuts' to the composting process. Intuitively, if the compost heap is on the wet side (e.g. lots of lawn cuttings, kitchen scraps) then it may be best to add as whole peanuts as this will assist natural aeration of the heap. On the other hand, dissolving the peanuts in a minimum of hot water and mixing into the heap would maximise the cellulosic surface area and increase the composting rate.

Compostable Bags

These are definitely trickier and more difficult to compost.  Even after hot composting at 40 - 60 oC for 30 days and then further ambient composting for 6 months, there will usually still be remnants of the bags in the compost. I could pick out the bits and return them to the hot composter bin for another cycle but it is probably not worth it. Leaving the remnants exposed to sunshine and air on the soil will complete the biodegradation process.

The problem with compostable bags is that they are only 85-90% starch. Other stuff (co-polymers, plasticizers, etc) is added to give the bioplastic film the necessary physical and mechanical properties (e.g. water-solubility, tensile strength, permeability, etc.). So the added extras and the manufacturing process make biodegradation more difficult, especially in 'cold' composters. The video shows the effect of boiling water on a compostable BioBag...

...which illustrates the problem!

Nowadays, magazines are often delivered in compostable wrappers. When I next get one delivered, I will subject it to the hot water test. In the meantime, I shall continue to cut them up, add to the kitchen caddy and hope they eventually decompose.

Hotbin and Robin

The weather has been dry & cold for a few days now which has meant brief and sporadic visits to the kitchen garden doing only the essentials: tending the hot composting bin, digging up parsnips & beetroot, and picking chard, spinach & kale.

An additional task at this time of year is surface-spreading well-aged garden compost around the kitchen garden. This is a good time of the year to do this as it allows the worms plenty of time to work the compost into the soil while helping to suppress weeds.

I operate a two-tier compost system starting with hot bins (above) to accelerate the composting process and kill off weeds/disease before finishing off with a maturation period of 6 months or more in standard bins (below).

My 'Maturation Bins' (MatBins for short) are full after a season of compost-making so they need to be emptied before the new season of vegetative growth starts and intensive composting resumes. For about a week now, I have been emptying one of the MatBins and spreading the unsieved compost on the raspberry bed. First of all, I rake back the bark mulch on the raspberry beds before spreading the compost to a depth of about 2.5 cm (1 inch) and then replacing the bark mulch.

Another party has been showing interest in my toils and visits every workday. You may just be able to spot him/her in the photo above. Here is a close-up taken on my phone...

Of course, the robin is not here to admire my work but quite fancies its chances of finding worms in my freshly-deposited compost. As luck would have it, my compost is full of squirming brandlings (tiger worms) so there is one happy robin!

Robins are extremely territorial with other robins but more than happy to live alongside humans. They seem to like gardeners and the feeling is mutual. The gardener provides freshly-dug soil bringing worms and invertebrates to the surface and the robin repays this with its delightful bird song and friendly demeanor. You can find a few more facts about robins here.

Frosty Nights

 January 2022 started with three warm days and nights where even the night minimum temperatures were ≥ 8oC, well above the average day/night temperature (4.3 oC) for Hereford in the month of January.

As I write this post (18/1/22), we have had a week of subzero night temperatures and average day/night temperatures of about 1 oC.

The garden plants have survived remarkably well. Following a -4 oC overnight temperature, the daffodils looked a little sad...

...but soon recovered in the afternoon sun.

I was a little more concerned about the snowdrops, in spite of their hardy nature, as the first flower of 2022 lay prone across a nearby stone...

Recovery took a little longer in the shady wood-in-the-garden but, by mid-afternoon, it was standing proud once again...

How do plants survive subzero temperatures? It may be a combination of factors but is mainly down to the presence of sugars and proteins in the plant sap which depresses the freezing point of water; in effect, they possess their own form of anti-freeze. 

The First Snowdrop of 2022

This is our wood-in-the-garden. Small in size (less than 3 square metres) but containing two Oaks, two Hazels, two Hollies, and one each of Birch and Rowan. Not sure what constitutes a wood but the generally accepted definition of an orchard is 5 trees. There are other trees dotted about the garden: Elder, Photinia, Ornamental Crab Apple, Strawberry Tree, another Birch, Winter-flowering Cherry, another Rowan, Acer, and two Pine Trees. And we also have an orchard: eight Apple, two Pear, three Plum, a Crab Apple and a Medlar.

Now, where was I? Oh, yes! Our first, fully-formed, snowdrop of 2022 appeared in the garden on or around January 9th according to Mary. I took an out-of-focus photo on January 13th but here is a better photo of the same snowdrop in our wood-in-the-garden on 16th January.

Galanthus, or snowdrop, translates from Ancient Greek as milk flower which is certainly descriptive and appropriate. On the other hand, the snowdrop is often referred to as a harbinger of spring which seems somewhat inappropriate since its first appearance occurs, in this part of the world, in or around the middle of winter when Spring seems a long way off. Nevertheless, it is always a pleasure to see.

Anecdotally, this year's first appearance of a snowdrop flower seems early. December 2021 was warm which may explain why. Looking back a year, this photo of snowdrops in the snow was taken on the 24th January 2021 inferring we are, climatically, a couple of weeks early in 2022 in the phenological cycle of the snowdrop. Of course, it could just mean that 2021 was unusually cold at the start of the year and that is what held back the 2021 growing season. It will be interesting to see whether this year's growing season starts a bit earlier.

Pears Pared to the Final Pair


Pears (noun)a yellowish- or brownish-green edible fruit that is typically narrow at the stalk and wider towards the base, with sweet, slightly gritty flesh

Pare (verb) reduce (something) in size, extent, or quantity in a number of small successive stages

Pair (noun) put together or join to form a pair

January 10th 2022 and the last two fruits from the 2021 harvest were consumed today for breakfast. Most of the pears were eaten fresh, a few were given away and some were enjoyed cooked in red wine. How to pick and store pears is described here. My prediction the pears would last into 2022 was just about met; the consumption rate was just over 1 pear/day.

Conference pears cost about 40p in the supermarkets so the 2021 harvest was worth about £50-£60. And Concorde is a better-tasting pear than Conference! Apart from the initial purchase, there are no significant season-to-season costs. Maintenance time (winter pruning and autumn fruit-picking), is minimal, especially if you choose a trained form like espalier.


PV Generation - 16 Years and Still Going

A photo from the newly installed CCTV camera showing part of the roof-mounted solar PV array.

Time for an update on the performance of my PV panels. A nominal 4.92 kW of panels installed as two separate arrays and 'activated' on 9th December 2005 has been in operation for more than 16 years. The original cost was £25,000 although there was a grant of 50% at the time. I also receive just over 14p/kWh from EON for all the electricity I produce.

The last report was rather brief and I had intended to expand upon it with some explanatory data. See here, here and here for related links.

The PV solar panels are maintenance-free although two components have failed since installation. One of the two inverters failed in August 2015 after 9½ years in service; it took 6 months to replace for a number of reasons including the original installer going out of business. Cost £1087.37 including fitting and testing. In August 2020, after nearly 15 years in use, the generation meter started to fail (intermittent readings) and then completely failed (no readings) in December 2020. A replacement meter was fitted on 17th February 2021 (delay due to COVID). Cost £72 including installation and testing. Caplor Energy were supplier and fitter for both items.

The table below summarises the total annual electricity generation readings from both solar PV arrays, along with the annual sunshine hours recorded at the Ross-on-Wye weather station.


No of operating years

PV generated (kWh)

Sunshine hours (R-on-W)

































































[Note 1: Annual readings on the 8th December were taken until December 2012; thereafter, monthly readings on the 8th of the month. Note 2: The data for each calendar year covers the period from December to December; e.g. 2010 reports the elelectricity generated and sunshine hours measured from December 9th 2009 to December 8th 2010. This is to match up with the number of operational years. Note 3: Sunshine hours are taken from the Met Office's Ross-on-Wye weather station. Note 4: Sunshine hours at Ross-on-Wye changed from Campbell-Stokes recorder to Kipp & Zonen sensor at the end of 2018. I have used a correction factor of 1.2 to convert KZ values to CS values. Note 5: PV generation data between August 2015 and December 2015 underestimated due to failing/failed inverter; no correction has been made to the generation measurements for 2015. Note 6: No generation data are available for December 2020 and January 2021 due to meter failure; value for February 2021 will be under-reported. Estimates for generation data for these 3 months, using data from the previous 4 years, have been used to fill in the gaps.]

Annual PV generation data are summarised in the histogram below.

As noted previously, the efficiency of the PV panels is expected to decrease with age but this has been offset by a small but noticeable rise in annual sunshine hours.

Since 2012, I have been collecting monthly generation data and this allows me to dig a little deeper to see when the extra sunshine hours occur. Approximately 90% of the electricity generated is during Spring (MAM), Summer (JJA) and Autumn (SON) so this is the obvious place to look for changes in sunshine hours using electricity generation as a proxy for sunshine hours.

Over the 2012-2021 period, PV generation increased during Spring (March, April, May: MAM), slight decrease/no change in Summer (June, July, August: JJA) and a small increase in Autumn (September, October, November: SON). In total, based on linear regression best fit, there was an increase in PV generation of approximately 40 kWh/year over this period - or about 1% per annum - due to increased solar radiation. The linear relationship between sunshine hours and PV generation is illustrated below. 

By implication, the efficiency of the solar panels is also decreasing by about 1% per annum which is roughly in line with expectations.

Here's hoping for sunny weather in 2022...

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