Saturday, 9 April 2016

RIP the laddie

What a rotten end to an otherwise nice week! We came home from shopping yesterday afternoon to find the cockerel standing in the corner of the chicken condo, tail down, wings down, head down. He was obviously unwell and feeling pretty rough. I picked him up and wrapped him in a towel and took him inside. I tried to keep him warm but deep down I knew that it was just a matter of time. We offered water in a child's syringe, but he had no interest . I put him in the dog crate we had bought for isolating birds and said I'd give him a couple of hours to see if he perked up but after that I would dispatch him. My friend Lucie phoned so I kept an eye on the bird while I chatted to her, but within 15 minutes he had died.

I had wondered if he was feeling a bit under the weather yesterday morning as he wasn't his usual bright and cheerful self, but he was interacting, eating and drinking so I thought that it was a temporary thing. It seems that I was wrong. I am just so glad that he didn't die in the chicken condo or paddock with all the girls watching.

I know that there is always a risk when you move a bird from one home to another that they might not make it, but it's always a bit sad when it happens and even though he'd only been here for a fortnight, I had grown quite fond of his presence. We haven't named our birds except for Jack and Diesel who came to us with names, so the cockerel was just referred to as 'the laddie'. He was a beautiful bird.
I'm particularly sad that the young Cream Legbar (CLB) hens were not quite mature enough for his attentions, so there will be no CLB chicks for the meantime until we find another CLB cockerel. But there are fertile eggs from Jack and Diesel, so we have decided to hatch some of Jack's eggs which should give us an attractive bird that lays olive or pale greeny-blue eggs. The laddie's genes, we hope, will survive in the next generation.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The thinking hour

Most days I wake up around 5am, sometimes it's earlier, rarely later and because it still isn't light or warm enough to head outside to the garden, I use these quiet hours of the morning for learning, thinking and planning. It's an ideal time to make a cuppa and sit quietly reading or watching how-to videos. This morning, as it's rather chilly in the house, I've lit the wood burner and have the recording of yesterday's Beechwood Garden rumbling away gently on the television. I can hear the start of the early commuter traffic in the distance. I imagine that those folks are travelling some distance to work, Bristol and beyond or that they are heading to the train station to catch a train to Reading, London, Cardiff or Swansea. It makes me very grateful that I only need to open the back door to get to work.

This is also the time of day that I am invincible, capable of doing almost anything I want to tackle on the smallholding. A time when my imagination runs free, when visualising a hedge or fence here or a group of mature trees there works best. The reality sets in when I get outside and don't have the strength to lift a spade full of soil, but right now, sitting in the warm and cosy lounge, anything is possible. And this is a good thing, because from those grand ideas come the beginnings of my plans. Once the big idea is there, I can adapt it to fit what we can achieve between us right now and as our confidence grows, what we can achieve also grows. We are learning ways to adapt to the skills and strengths that we do have (because I've discovered that digging whilst propping myself on a walking stick is impractical) and it's proved to be a good thing that we haven't rushed into putting any grand schemes into place. As we get to know the plot more, the ideas have changed to take into account the weather conditions, the prevailing wind and the quality of the soil.

Most mornings my imagination creates ways to reduce the impact of the wind that comes up from the estuary on two sides of the garden and across from the Breacon Beacons on another side. It is indeed a very windy site. The plot is large and flat which means that a simple hedge around the boundaries isn't going to be enough to provide shelter in the fruit and vegetable garden, so I have been thinking about ways to create additional wind barriers within the smallholding and in particular around the outside of the kitchen garden area. Not only do we need a wind barrier around the kitchen garden but I also need to make it chicken proof so that they don't scratch up all the vegetables as they grow or peck the fruit from the raspberry canes or strawberries from their plants. The ducks, for the moment at least, seems to be pretty good at leaving the plants alone, but they are experts at finding and eating slugs and snails.

So I'd like to find a fence of some sort that will help reduce the wind but not cast too much shadow over the crops we are trying to grow. If it was also rabbit proof that would be an advantage. I'd also like to be able to grow a hedge next to the fence, which could give me added growing area for more fruit or nut bushes.

On the other side of the smallholding, behind the piggeries, is an area that is fairly overgrown with stinging nettles and brambles and during my thinking hour in the early mornings, this is transformed into a large pond with a duck house at the side, surrounded by the hornbeam, hawthorn and willow trees that grow there now. In reality, this project is fairly low down the list of projects to tackle. We need to feed ourselves before we think about creating ponds, but that's the beauty of my morning imaginings, they don't need to be logical or totally practical.

Yesterday we went to collect the small incubator for chicken and duck eggs, I was torn between raising some chickens, which takes three weeks in the incubator and we are familiar with their handling or some ducks which take a week longer and we are unfamiliar with how to care for them as tiny ducklings. So sense prevailed and we will start with some of the chicken eggs. Jack and Diesel will provide us with some eggs for hatching and we have also bought half a dozen hatching eggs (eggs for hatching, not eating eggs from the supermarket which wouldn't be fertile). It will be interesting to see what colour chicks come from a cross between our older girls and the Cream Legbar rooster. The hatching eggs that we have ordered are of a white chicken, which by autumn should give us white coloured eggs and next year, we can look at crossing the white birds with the Cream Legbars to create other interesting colours.

We also collected a compost bin yesterday. I spotted (on Gumtree) that someone locally was kindly offering it free to the collector, so I contacted them and said that we'd love it. For the sake of a very short car journey, we now have large green plastic compost bin which I can put near the vegetable garden to pop greenery into. This is also close to the duck house, so the wood shavings, straw and duck manure can also very easily be put into this compost bin. It may seem that I am very focussed on compost bins, but I need to be. The soil here is very poor for growing crops and although I can buy in top soil when I have raised the funds for it, in the meantime I need to try to improve the sandy, stony soil that is here. The very best way to do this is with compost, so the more compost we have, the more soil that we can improve.

I've now spent so long thinking, watching how-to videos and writing that the sun is up and I need to go and let the birds out for the day.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Chicken Family Planning Part 2

The rooster has settled in well and is much loved by both the older girls. The young Cream Legbar (CLB) girls have suddenly started to mature at a more rapid pace, it may just be the time that they would do this anyway, but I also think that their hormones may have kicked in with the presence of the CLB rooster. They follow him around at a safe distance making funny little noises, so I don't imagine that it will be too long before they are mature enough to enjoy his attention too.

Mr J and I have been talking about how our smallholding might provide us with more eggs and meat. As we now have the rooster and a pair of ducks, we should be able to have chicks and ducklings. Everything we do here seems to be a new learning experience, I read constantly, watch videos, soak up information and put into practice the ideas that I'm learning about. And the point of all of this is to help feed us, reduce our outgoings and earn a little bit of money to pay the bills that we have to pay. So yesterday, I started to think carefully about how the chickens might help in this grand plan. Obviously we are already enjoying both chicken and duck eggs, but to have meat we will need to have other chickens and ducks. There is no point in eating the birds that we already have as we would just have to go out and buy some more to meet our egg requirements. And so, to that end, today we are buying a second-hand incubator in which to hatch out some next generation birds.

As time goes on, we should be able to raise CLB chicks as the rooster is of a different bloodline to the young girls and we will be able to enjoy tasty blue-shelled eggs. I will also approach our local farm shop to stock some of our blue eggs, sell some as farm gate sales and can offer hatching eggs for sale too.

By raising hybrid chicks from the rooster and our older girls, we will have some birds for meat and some layers that are likely to lay olive green eggs. I also think that before too long I might buy a few hatching eggs of other heavy breeds to grow for meat.  I have been saving duck eggs for the last few days and now have five ready to go into the incubator to start the next generation of Aylesbury ducks.

I certainly never imagined that I would consider raising birds for meat. It's one thing to say 'oh and we can have chickens for eggs and meat' and another to feel ready to dispatch something that you've cared for. But that's it, that's the reason that I feel I can dispatch a bird to put on our table, because we will have raised the birds and cared for them and know that they have had a good life free ranging in the paddock, eating organic food and things that they've scratched up amongst the grass.

I've become very conscious that when I buy a chicken at the supermarket that it's likely to have been raised in cramped conditions without having had fresh air in it's lungs, grass under it's feet and blue sky above it's head. Last week in a supermarket, I spotted whole chickens  for roasting on sale for £3.30 and it got me thinking about how on earth that is possible. I understand the economics of scale, that mass production can bring down the unit cost, but really, £3.30? Those birds will have been mass produced, are likely to have been pumped full of substances that I don't think I want to eat and lived not so much a life, but an existence (and probably not much of one at that!). I am not going to get on a high-horse and try to tell people what they should or shouldn't eat; we all make decisions for ourselves and I respect that others will welcome a cheap, reliable source of chicken meat for their families,. Indeed I have always been the first in the queue for cheaper food for my family, but my health has forced me to examine everything that I eat, including what is in or on the food that I'm eating. This is why we are now growing as much of our own food as possible and where we have to buy food, I usually look for organic, unprocessed produce. It is also the reason that I am growing our fruit and vegetables and planning to raise our own chicken and duck meat.

So, today we head off to collect that small incubator and after yet more reading and learning, I will put the first few eggs into it to try to raise the first of the next generation.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Recycling, is it just a load of rubbish?

A general change in attitude to recycling has been significant over the last thirty years or so, I know that I have become much more conscious of how I dispose of rubbish, packaging and unwanted items. On a day to day basis, habits of recycling in our home have become routine. Some of this is imposed upon us by the local councils household rubbish disposal policies and much more of it has changed as I have become more aware of the impact of my immediate and wider environment.

Here in Monmouthshire, the council allow us to put out two black rubbish bags per fortnight. These are for non-recyclable items like the thin plastic wrappers that are put on food stuffs, actually that's almost the only thing that goes into the black rubbish bag in our house as we have developed careful recycling and reusing practices. We are also allowed to put as many recycling bags as we like. Sorting our recycling into paper and cardboard or plastic, metal and glass or food recycling. Mr J has told me how pleased he is that we manage to send so little to be recycled and to landfill as it means that we are reusing it here at home, we often send only one (not completely filled) black bag per fortnight.

Here is how we reuse some of our household waste.
  • Large cardboard boxes are flattened and used in the garden. At the moment, we are using them to line the base of raised beds to kill off the grass before we fill the beds with topsoil and compost.
  • Small cardboard boxes like food packaging either go into the recycling bag or are torn up and added to the compost heap or used as fire lighters for the wood-burning stove.
  • Cardboard inner tube from loo rolls are either stuffed with shredded paper to make firelighters or filled with compost to sow seeds in.
  • Confidential paperwork is shredded, used in loo roll middles as firelighters or added to the compost heap, later in the year I will use some in bean trenches.
  • Ash from the wood burners goes into the compost heap.
  • Polystyrene type packaging that comes in large household items' packaging is kept and will be used to line the lower half of the green house in the winter which should help to insulate it.
  • Old feather pillows and cushions are opened up and the feathers are used in the compost heap.
  • Clothes that are reusable go to a charity shop. Worn out cotton, linen, wool or silk clothes are cut up into very small pieces and added to the compost heap.
  • Glass jar and bottles are kept for homemade jams, chutneys, pickles, sauces, cordials and wine.
  • Plastic milk containers and large plastic bottles are filled with water and used in the garden to weigh down weed suppressing membrane and cardboard. When they are no longer needed they will be emptied, crushed and recycled into the council recycling bags.
  • Pots with lids that contained dairy products like yoghurt or cream are kept for portion sized containers to use in the freezer.
  • Egg shells are washed, heated in the microwave for two minutes or baked in the oven (when it's on for something else) to kill off bacteria, crushed and added to the compost bin for very slow release of calcium or put in a jar with vinegar to convert the calcium to a useable form for plants and diluted well before adding to the compost heap. I know that they can be given to the chickens in their grit bowl to add calcium to their diet, I haven't done this as yet, but will if their egg shells start becoming thin.
  • Kitchen waste; vegetable peelings (except for potatoes and citric fruits) go into the compost heap. Cooked foods unless very full of onions or citric or very salty, go to the chickens. We often have little or no food waste to go out to the food recycling bin.
  • Herbs bought at the supermarket, I always by them in pots, they cost the same as cut herbs but I use what I need and then plant the plant into the garden. I wash and reuse the pot to grow something else.
  • Water, we collect rainwater to use in the garden and are looking at ways to recycle our grey water.
  • Wood off-cuts (from putting up shelves and battens for curtains) become kindling or garden markers.
  • String and baling twine are saved and used for a hundred and one purposes in the garden.
  • An old wooden wardrobe which had seen better days and was not good enough to offer to a recycling project has been broken down into panels which we've used to make the front of a compost bin, a shelter for the chickens, the side panel of a reclaimed chicken house. The drawers are being used to separate items waiting to be recycled to the local tip (like broken panes of glass, nails and screws etc.).
  • Tights that have laddered will be used to store cabbages and onions and can easily be hung up in the barn where it's cool, airy and dark.
  • Candles which have burnt down to a small stub are saved as used as firelighters. 
  • Leather belts which are beyond going to the charity shop are saved to use in the garden as tree ties.
  • Fluff from the tumble dryer goes into the compost bin and water from its condensing unit is used to water the garden and flower pots.
  • The contents of the vacuum cleaner bag and sweepings from the hard floors and hair from our hairbrushes go into the compost heap.
Before I throw anything in the bin, I pause for a moment and just think about whether there's another use for it before it goes into the black bin bag. Recycling plastics, glass and metal tins has become habitual and whilst I used to think it was a nuisance to spend time separating everything out, we have now devised an easy system in the kitchen so it takes no time at all.

We are lucky to have a recess next to the chimney breast that is just the right size for a small dresser with three kitchen bins lined up next to it. The non-recyclable rubbish bin (black bin bags) has a swing top lid on it to prevent flies from getting into it, but the two recycling bins are open topped so I can easily drop paper and card into one and plastic, glass and metal into the other. One side of the kitchen sink I have a medium size container that I line with a paper bag for peelings and food waste that will go to the compost bin. Next to it is a small container for food scraps for the chickens and on the other side of the sink is a small lidded container for food waste that can't go into the compost or to the chickens. There is a small plastic tub by the sink for washed egg shells as I sterilise these in batches.

It takes us no longer to put items into one bin or another, the only thing that takes more effort is to think about how we can reuse something and to wash plastic containers out before they go into the recycling bags (this prevents flies being attracted to it). Looking back at my wastefulness in the past, I feel a bit ashamed about just how much I sent to landfill, but that was also partly the way of the world - instant, fast and disposable. I was less informed, less aware and less in touch with my immediate and wider environment. 

I don't know if the little bit that we do to reduce our own impact on the environment will help reduce pollution levels, save energy and other resources, but I am sure that by all of us doing our little bit there will be a reduction in the negative impact we are having on our world. I also know that we are spending less on buying bits and pieces for our home as we save and reuse things, and we both enjoy seeing less going out of our bank accounts each month.

Another day I will look at how we recycle and reuse items from the yard and garden. If you have any other ideas for household items that can be reused or recycled in our homes, please leave a comment and let me know.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Early April Garden Photo Tour

We've been so busy outside that we haven't done much in the house for the last month, so here's a photographic update of how we are getting on in the garden.
As always happens in the first year of living in a new home, we are discovering the hidden plants that were put in by the previous owners. They had planted lots of cheerful spring flowering bulbs and there are pots of pretty tulips and swathes of daffodils all around the back garden.
In the greenhouse, seeds sown over the last couple of months are germinating well and producing little leaves that promise good things to come. The cut and come again salad leaves are now about 3 inches high and while I will pick some, I also think that I will transplant a few into the garden to allow them to grow on into large plants giving us an early lettuce crop.
In the area of the paddock that will be the herb and cut flower garden I currently just have grass, but before too long I can start planting out some of these seedlings to give the herb beds structure and height. This Bronze Fennel will add colour and frothiness of texture as well as useful seeds for the wild birds that visit the garden later in the year.
Lovage is one of those herbs that I think people either love or hate. I dislike the smell of it on my hands intensely, but do like the taste when added to stews as I think it adds a depth to the sauce in beef dishes. I also like the height and structure that lovage offers to the herb bed.
The young Lupin Russell Mixed plants have now grown their first true leaves and I've potted up some of them and left others (as an insurance policy) in the seed tray. These will help to fill the herbaceous border with colour this year and, I hope, help to improve the soil's nitrogen content.
For my birthday in January, I was given a Boysenberry rooted cutting by my daughter's in-laws and I'm delighted to see that it has started to throw up new shoots. It will be planted out in the soft fruit garden before too long. All I have to do is create the soft fruit garden area first!
Another delightful find that was left by the previous owner is this Acer Palmatum Dissectum . There is no label with it, so I don't know what variety it is, but I'm really enjoying watching the leaves open to reveal the fresh green against the red edges of the leaves.
I had thought that this beauty was a ground elder when I found it in December as a bare stemmed plant but sensibly potted it up to wait and see what happened, just in case it was something nice. And here it is, I am still not entirely sure what it is but think it is either a variegated Sambuscus or more likely that it's a Weigela. Either way it will now be planted in the shrubbery and will be a nice surprise when it eventually flowers.
There are quite a few Camillias in the garden, they aren't a plant that I would chose to buy, but I'm certainly not going to get rid of the ones that are here. The pale pink flowered one in the courtyard at the back of the boot room has been flowering since New Year's Day and is only now starting to look rather sad for itself. This rather brighter pink flowered plant is one of several that I found in the back garden. The leaves are showing signs of stress or nutritional problems, so today I will do a bit of research to see how I can help them recover from whatever ails them.
This is a utility corner of the garden, that isn't visible most of the time. Tucked away around the back of the stables, the corner of the reed bed system can be seen on the left of the photo and the compost bin corner towards the centre. The chickens have been having a field day with the large pile of hay, woodshavings and manure that I have mucked out of the stables. Once we find a few more pallets, we plan to create another large compost bin to store it in for a couple of years while it rots down.
In the reed bed system the settling pool has a huge iris around the edge, I have lifted a few rhizomes to transplant into the herbaceous border, I don't know if it will be happy without its roots in water and I have no idea what colour or eventual height it will be, but it's certainly worth a try.
On the other side of the settling pool is a Marsh Marigold, I really like the richness of the yellow flowers against the slightly glossy leaves. It is currently just waiting to burst into flower.
We also have several patches of stinging nettles, actually calling them patches is an understatement. Beneath the hedgerow and stock fencing that surrounds the smallholding is a metre wide strip of stinging nettles and there are several large areas that are covered in stingers. Mr J and I want to leave some and let them grow to provide habitat for butterflies and other wildlife, but we need to think about just how large an area we want to leave to grow wild. Behind the piggeries is an area that's approximately 75 feet by 50 feet and currently it's filled with brambles, stinging nettles and other pernicious weeds. I don't think I have the energy to tackle it this year, so for now that will remain as a wildlife haven as it is and at some point in the future, we may create a large pond there.

The poultry continue to run riot, yesterday the chickens decided that the bark covering on the shrubbery was the best thing since sliced bread to play in and scattered it all over the driveway, so for the next few days they will be confined to the paddock area and not allowed to free range over the whole smallholding. The ducks walk back and forth inside their enclosure almost crying to be let out into the vegetable garden to snuffle around under the weed suppressing membrane that makes up our pathways.

Taking over someone else's garden is an exciting process but at times it's also a bit daunting, There is so much to be done, so much that we want to do and whilst we have plenty of time, we only have so much energy. The lesson that I have learnt since we moved here is that I am even more impatient than I had realised!

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Our first crop is planted

What a great day! The sun shone for hours, the breeze was kind and not too breezy, and Mr J and I had a day in the garden. After a bubble and squeak style breakfast we pottered for a little while before heading out to do something really rather significant.

Mr J shovelled three barrow loads of compost from our first compost heap to add to the first raised bed and I mixed it into the very poor soil that has gone into it. Each bed is four feet wide and fourteen feet long. I'm hoping that this will put enough body and moisture holding content into the sandy, stony soil to make the plants happy for this year at least. Next year, we will add a second layer of wood around the raised bed making it 8 inches deep and then add some bought in topsoil, but for now, we have to work with what we have.
Around Christmas time, I started off some garlic in modules and then potted them on a few weeks later. I've been hardening them off for the last three weeks and yesterday I spent a delightful couple of hours planting the garlic into our raised bed. After putting in the first four or five I paused and looked down the length of the garden which will eventually be our kitchen garden and smiled. We have started! The first crop was going into the ground. Our plans were just beginning to take shape.
One row at a time the first raised bed was becoming an area that is going to be productive and look nice at the same time. The ducks kept a close watch on my activity. I was a bit worried that they would immediately jump into the bed and start pulling out the plants but they showed no interest in the bed at all, only in snuffling around the pathways and seeing what they could find hiding below the weed suppressing membrane.

I found a few leather jackets amongst the compost as I mixed it into the soil, so I set them aside in my trug and between planting the rows of garlic, I offered them to the ducks. Apparently leather jackets are an acceptable treat, the drake positively smacked his lips at them.
I've spaced the garlic at six inches between plants and six inches between rows. This is probably a little wider spacing than recommended but we have the room to be generous with spacing and more importantly, I want to be able to put an onion hoe between the plants and rows to minimise the amount of bending and hand weeding that I'll need to do later on.
I've selected organic Printanor and Germidour varieties, both soft neck, which I am hoping will store well. We eat garlic very regularly, not only in food but as a roasted vegetable, when it becomes a sweet, caramelised hit of flavour on the dinner plate. I plan to store some by hanging it in the barn and also to freeze some to use in dishes. I may try storing some in oil, so that the garlic is kept fresh and as a bonus, the oil becomes infused with a lovely garlic taste.
I've planted two rows of garlic on each side of the bed with a clear central section which will have carrots sown in it in a couple of weeks time, I've chosen an organic rainbow colour variety of carrot seeds and I'm hoping that by companion planting with the garlic, carrot root fly will be confused by the garlic smell and leave my carrots alone. There are just over 100 garlic plants in this bed, which should provide us, my sister's family and my daughter's family with enough garlic for the year. On the outer edges of the garlic I will put some annual flowers to encourage pollinators and support the local bee population. Our next door neighbour has a hive and the new bees are due to arrive in the next few weeks, so hopefully some of my flowers will help them throughout the summer and autumn.