Saturday, 16 April 2016

Carpentry and fruity dreams

With the enthusiasm of a spring chicken I bounced out of bed at dawn, ready to enjoy whatever the day had to offer. At an appropriate time (not too early so I didn't upset the neighbours) I headed outside to start putting together the next couple of raised beds that we had prepared. There was snow on the ground in many areas of UK this morning, including a little further north in Monmouthshire, so I left fortunate that apart from a chilly breeze, it was another beautiful spring day.
I set up a make-shift workshop in the stable area. I attached two pieces of wood together using short off-cuts of wood, to make up the fourteen feet length needed and then Mr J came outside to fix the sides to the ends to create the frame for the next raised bed. With a lot of laughter, we walked, no, it was more like we waddled, across the yard carrying it into the paddock that is slowly becoming our kitchen garden.

With four of the beds in place, I can now really start to see how good the new garden area is going to be. The beds aren't exactly the same size and the sides are a bit wiggly where the wood is warped or at the joins in length. I did think that this would irritate me, but I've realised that it really doesn't bother me, I probably won't notice the sides once the plants are in and I am looking at crops rather than the contrast of the wood against the ground.

The next task for the newest beds is to line the base of them with thick cardboard and fill them. But that will have to wait for another day as my back is starting to complain and it makes more sense to pause now and let it recover than to push it until it 'pings' and I have to spend days and days doing no lifting.

Once all of the planned raised beds are in place, I'll be able to see how much space there is at the far end of the paddock to make a soft fruit garden. Although now I can see the vegetable bed area taking shape, I'm thinking it may look nice with soft fruit growing down the length of the garden on the outside of the beds. It's one of those things that I need to make a decision about before too long as I have a huge number of raspberry plants waiting to go into the ground. I lifted these autumn fruiting raspberries from Mr J's mother's garden last year and they've overwintered in pots by the barn. They are now growing well so I want to get them in the ground before much longer, that way I won't be disturbing their roots too much.  My next door neighbours have kindly offered me some yellow raspberry canes to add some change to the fruit jams and jellies that I plan to make in the late summer and early autumn.

We have several blackcurrant, redcurrant and white currant bushes, a cranberry, boysenberry and gooseberry bush to add to the soft fruit garden. In late autumn I will take hardwood cuttings of these to increase the stock in the garden. We will also create a strawberry bed, but have yet to buy the plants or to raise them from seed as I am hoping that some friends will have runners that we can have to start off the strawberry bed.

A part of our choosing to live on a smallholding was that we could have more control over the food we eat by producing much of it ourselves. So we plan not only to grow as much of our own fruit and vegetables as we can, but I hope to fill the larder with homemade jams, pickles, chutneys and sauces together with cordials and wine. I'm going to be busy from mid-summer onwards preserving our crops in every way that I can.

To ensure that we have enough containers for the produce we expect to have, we've been collecting jars, bottles and plastic containers with lids for well over a year and, before too long we will buy a chest freezer so that we have a supply of vegetables throughout the winter. We will also store vegetables that will not rot easily (like onions, pumpkins and squashes) in the barn. It will be interesting to see if can grow and save enough to see us right through the year.

It's day four of incubating the eggs that we bought (and a couple of Jack's eggs too) and Mr J and I are excited to learn whether any of them will produce chicks. The eggs were bought to start to provide us with meat once the chicks are old enough. The grand plan is to raise some birds for their meat and keep some for egg production, I will write updates of how we get on with this as time goes on.

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Friday, 15 April 2016

Structure in the garden

Spurred on by the improving weather, we've been busy in the garden. Actually, not so much in the garden as just 'outside'. Mr J has spent many hours over the last month removing nails and screws from the reclaimed wood that we bought at the start of the year and we are now ready to start building raised beds in earnest.

We don't own all the latest gadgets and tools that would make construction easy, so we have to make do with those that we have. Some are inherited from our parents and some we have bought, but we seem to have the basics that are needed to get by.

Armed with a circular saw, Mr J has been cutting the pieces of 2 x 4 into the correct lengths for us to build some more of the much needed raised beds for the vegetable garden. Having built two we were able to decide the exact length and width that we wanted them to be and now we have a template, we're able to create kits to put together quite quickly. Speed of course is a relative term; what I find quick, others may find painfully slow.

The beds are four feet wide and fourteen feet long and as we don't have pieces that are long enough, we are joining shorter lengths to make up the full fourteen feet. It felt incredibly satisfying to have the kits lined up ready for us to put together. It took about half an hour or so to put together one of the kits and install it in the vegetable garden, which means that over the next couple of weeks we should be able to get most of the raised beds in place.

After that it's just a matter of filling them up and planting them. I wish it was as fast as it sounds! Loading up each bed involves shifting about a ton of soil and compost which means that I can do about half a bed per day with a day off in between to recover. The obvious answer would be for Mr J to fill the beds, but I want to know that I have put in my share of the work in creating our smallholding.

While I was in the paddock that will be the vegetable garden yesterday morning, I checked on the bird box that is fixed to the dead fruit tree in garden. I have noticed a bird collecting hay, straw and feathers and flying up into the tree so I'm assuming that they have set up residence in the bird box. This poor old tree has had either squirrels or mice nesting in hollows in the gnarly old trunk and branches have just dropped off it where they are so rotten. Then I looked up and almost fell over!

The top of the tree is covered in snowy white blossom. It's not dead at all, somehow this old, old tree has survived another winter and it looks like it will bear fruit again this year. I'm still not sure what type of tree it is. I think it's a pear tree, but will have to wait for later in the year to be sure.

Yesterday afternoon Clare came to help us move a second-hand shed that I had spotted for sale locally. Clare has a large van, energy, enthusiasm and the knowledge of how to take a shed apart without breaking it (I have some very talented friends), so early afternoon we took the short drive to the property where the shed was and dismantled it. It took two trips to bring the shed home, but it's now sitting in the piggery waiting for us to put it back together.

The shed needs a few repairs, there's a little rot at the base of the side panels and the roof panels have seen better days. Interestingly the roof structure looks dry and sound, so we will just need to replace the roof panels and re-felt it to make the shed dry.

This six feet by eight feet shed will become a large chicken house to go in the paddock and should comfortably house whole of the flock we plan to have. The smaller chicken houses that we have now will become an isolation unit and a nursery space for young chickens before they are big enough to join the flock.

And in eighteen days time, we should have our first chicks. The eggs arrived on Tuesday and after leaving them to rest overnight, I marked them with Xs and Os ready to go into the incubator. We need to manually turn the eggs every few hours to mimic what a mother hen would do in her nest. This stops the developing chick from sticking to the inside of the egg shell which could cause deformities or cause premature death inside the egg shell. By marking an X and O on opposite sides of the egg we can be sure of how far we have turned the egg each time we turn them.

We'd had the incubator on for a few days prior to putting the fertile eggs into it, this allowed us to test that it held it's temperature and because we used a test egg, we got into the habit of turning the egg before the first batch went in.

It is now day three of the eggs incubating and by our calculations they should start to hatch on 4th May. We have already made a few jokes about naming them after Star Wars characters, but in keeping with our aim not to name animals that are being reared for consumption, we will only name birds that are being kept for the long term. Somewhere in the back of my mind I think it might be rather fun to have a rooster called Yoda.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

50 Things that please the senses

Sometimes I feel it's good to remind myself of the simple things in life that bring me so much pleasure. And, walking around the paddock with the chickens this morning I thought today would be a good day to share some of them.

Mr J's sleepy smile in the morning
The colours of the sky goes as the sun is coming up or going down
Meteor showers
Frost on a spider's cobweb
A first leaf peeking through the soil as a seed germinates
Dew drops on leaves
A smile from a stranger
The grandchildren engrossed in a task

My children's laughter
The mew of new-born kittens
Wooden knitting needles clicking together
The dawn chorus
Music that moves me
The crackle of a fire in the wood burner
Running water in a stream
The funny noise the ducks make when I feed them peas
The quiet of the end of the day

Tomatoes picked straight from the plant
Salt on my lips after a walk on the beach
Raspberries warmed by the sun
A cup of tea after working outside for a while or at the end of a long journey
Crispy bacon
Freshly baked bread
Roast vegetables
Freshly squeezed orange juice

The softness of babies' ever-so-slightly downy skin
The grain of the wood on my kitchen chopping block
A foot rub or back rub when I'm achy
The warmth of a hot water bottle on a cold winter's night
Clean and ironed bed linen
Fresh air on my face after being inside the house for hours
Warming sun on my skin that makes the muscles relax

The earth after it has rained on a warm summer's evening
Toasted bread just as it pops out of the toaster
New leather shoes
Sweet peas
Freshly grated lemon zest
Sun-warmed sand on a beach
Newly mown grass
Marzipan (even though I can no longer eat it!)
Fresh herbs

The love I feel for my family
The joy of my rugby team winning (I don't own a team, it's the one that I support)
Laughing so much that I cry
A shared happy secret with someone I care about
The relief on finding something that I thought was lost
The pleasure of giving a gift
The pleasure of unexpected compliment
The security of the feeling of belonging
The satisfaction of completing a task.

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Wednesday, 13 April 2016

101 Hatching plans for new chickens

Yesterday we took delivery of six hatching eggs. These aren't eggs that are about to hatch chicks, they are eggs for us to incubate so that chicks will hatch in three weeks time. Last week we collected a second-hand Brinsea Eco incubator, which for us as beginners will be fine. It will give us the chance to learn how to raise chicks from eggs without being overwhelmed with too many chicks all at once.

So we have four eggs that should be fertile from Jack and the lovely Cream Legbar rooster that was with us for too short a time (you can read about him here) and six that we bought from a helpful seller from Llandrindod Wells in Mid Wales. 
The hatching eggs were purchased here.
We have decided to raise some white chickens that are large birds when they are fully grown but we don't plan to keep many to mature as we will have them as meat birds that are dispatched after just a few months.

I've come to realise over the last few months that I rather like white birds. I'm not sure why, perhaps because it makes them easy to see in the garden or perhaps I think of doves of peace when I see them, but whatever the reason, white birds are definitely my favourites at the moment. I have no doubt however, (because I can be a fickle old girl) that I will prefer a different colour bird before too long.

Mr J said yesterday that he'd be happy if our flock was anything up to 25 strong, because now we are more familiar with the routine and the whys and wherefores, we know that we can look after this many birds and still offer them the kind of free-ranging (& slightly pampered) life we would choose for our food to have.

I have got into the rhythm of mucking out of their houses daily with a deep clean once a week and now I've learnt not to try to do it the second we let them out in the morning, so that the houses have a chance to air a little before I get too close to them, it's a simple and easy task.

We currently have 8 chickens, so we can start to think about what we'd like to add to the flock. Certainly some white birds, like the ones we hope to hatch in three weeks time, but perhaps also a selection of hybrid birds that are bred as good layers would boost our egg count. The Cream Legbars (CLB) are lovely and we look forward to having their blue eggs (it shouldn't be too long before they start to lay), but a couple of Bluebelle or Wyandotte crossbreeds may also be nice. It would also be useful to have a couple of hens from a breed that goes broody easily, so that they could hatch some eggs for us.

Call me romantic (or foolish), but I think there is something rather nice about having a mother hen raise a clutch of chicks and to be able to observe what happens naturally rather than raise chicks in a box or crate with a brooder providing warmth.

We secured a second hand shed a couple of days ago and now just need to work out how on earth we will get it back to the smallholding. It's too large to go into our vehicle, so it's time to start asking family, friends and neighbours if we could use a van, horsebox or pickup truck. This will be converted into a chicken shed, with perches and nesting boxes and will house the whole flock once they are integrated.

It's taken quite a long time for the young CLB to become part of Jack and Diesel's gang. Those two older birds have been together for a couple of years or more and are best buddies, but I've noticed recently that they spend increasing amounts of time with the CLB. Diesel remains leader of the group, but it will be interesting to watch for changes as and when new members of the flock are introduced.

What are your favourite breeds? Can you recommend any breeds to avoid because of bad temper or excessive flightiness? Or breeds that go broody quite readily?

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

A giant step forward

For my 100th blog post, I thought I would have another look at how the garden is coming along.

The garden suddenly seems to be developing in leaps and bounds. The perennials that Jane and I planted during her last visit have settled in well and are starting to put on plenty of new growth and all the trees are either in bud or flowering. The grass is growing at an alarming rate and everything around us feel like spring has arrived.

 Between the showers (and torrential downpours) yesterday, I took a walk around the garden to check the fences and see how the plants were coming along. I cut back the purple willow to encourage new growth from the base, rather than becoming straggly. So I cut the stems into approximately 30cms lengths and pushed them into the ground along the fence line that borders the large field. This is the only boundary that doesn't yet have a hedge planted next to it. So I am hoping that these little willow cuttings will grow roots and sprout shoots and become the start of a new hedge. At the moment, they just look like little sticks poking out of the ground, but I am sure it won't be too long before they grow.
The second of our raised beds is now completed and filled with the very poor soil from a mound in the paddock and rotted poultry bedding. This photo shows how much space there is in the kitchen garden that hasn't had raised beds built yet. I am sure it will look and be highly productive and attractive once the other beds are completed and planted. Right now, it still looks a bit daunting. In my mind's eye I can see it finished,  but I do wish that my mind's eye could make and fill those beds as easily as it can imagine them!
I've started to plant up the second bed with red onion sets. I put in two rows, one on each side of the bed with space in the centre for spinach and salads which will go in over the next couple of weeks as I harden off the small plants that are in the greenhouse.
After all the rain, the soil and compost in the raised bed looks rich and rather attractive, but I know that it's going to take a few years of TLC to make it a really good medium for growing in.
In the perennial bed I have constructed wigwam to which I will fix some pea netting for the sweet peas to scramble up once they are hardened off. They are currently about 6 inches high and I've pinched out the growing tips so that they bush out. Hopefully they will give us a lovely display and some cut flowers for the house.
 The day lily plants that I lifted from Mr J's mother's garden last year seem to be flourishing in their new home. You can see how stony the soil is in this bed. I haven't bothered to go through and lift out the pebbles and stones in this area yet, I may do one day, but I feel my energy is better used in removing stones from the soil in the raised beds where we are growing food. Stones in decorative areas will have to wait.
I had a quick look in the green cone compost bin that I filled to the brim only a few days ago and was surprised at how much it had settled already. The contents are slightly warm to the touch on the top, so I imagine that it has some good heat in the centre of it.

This lovely old elderberry tree sits within the duck's area and lies along the ground with branches growing upwards to the sky before branching off to the sides. It was growing in an old commercial size greenhouse that was on the plot when the previous owners bought the house. I love the way the lichen covers so much of it's gnarly old wood and the way that contrasts with the fresh young growth.
The tiny flower buds of the elderberry are starting to form. They are tight little pale greeny-cream heads of flowers which I'm really looking forward to opening. Some of them will be used to make our first batch of homemade wine and cordial (for those of us who don't drink alcohol except on very rare occasions).
Today I have a friend who lives in the Cotswolds coming to visit for lunch and a catch up, so I am pleased that this morning's fog has lifted and that she will be able to see the beautiful countryside that we now live in. Perhaps I should tackle the washing up before she gets here...

Monday, 11 April 2016

Narration rant

Image credit
I need to get something off my chest, to have a moan and question the necessity of it. I certainly don't wish to offend anybody, I am not having a moan about any one person in particular, so please read my short rant with that in mind. 

I don't know who made the decision over the last few years because it seems to have sneaked up on us and now it has taken over.

I'm struggling with the narration styles now offered to us on documentaries and all sorts of other television programmes. This morning I thought I'd catch up with a wildlife programme I missed at the weekend but I almost can't watch it. The photography, filming and computer generated images are superb and the content is really interesting, but the style of the commentary is awful! Please remember that I am not having a pop at individual presenters or commentators, but the fashion to present information in a particular way. 

Why has it become necessary to speak in over-dramatic, over-emphasised, slow speech. Do the makers of the programmes think that we cannot listen to a voiceover and watch the images at the same time? Do    we    need    information    spaced    out    to      be    able    to    take     in    the     information?

It's almost as though they are frightened of a silence, a pause in the commentary might lead us to turn over the channel and see what adverts are on another channel.

I understand that clarity in pronunciation helps us to hear all that is being said, but there are many programme presenters that emphasise words mid-sentence when they really don't need to be, or more to the point, shouldn't be because it changes the meaning of the sentence by emphasising the wrong words. Even some news presenters have started doing this, please don't, it's unnecessary and unhelpful.

And then there's that awful habit of down-inflection, where each and every sentence is ended by the tone of the voice going downwards. It sounds like the presenters are really cheesed off - at everything! This isn't how we speak, is it? (Now re-read that last sentence with a down-inflection rather than the usual up-inflection of a question and you'll see what I mean).

At the opposite end of the scale is the other presenting style I dislike. I've got to the point where there are a lot of programmes that I can't watch because either there's so much shouting in the presenting style, so much hyperbole in the script or so much urgency in the tone of speaking. There seems to be a trend for extreme everything.

We get bombarded with the shouty-style commentary voice, the 'oh I'm so jolly and so smart I could squeak' style. Programmes that are supposed to be fun or light-hearted often seem to have this style now, I might watch them if I didn't feel exhausted by the constant shouting.

Too many of our television programmes now seem to be presented like 'It's a Knock-Out' or like they are sports events where the commentators favourite team is winning. We can be entertained with a normal speaking voice giving us additional information about what we are viewing.

I feel we have a duty to the next generation to teach them how to speak properly, surely they don't need to grow up listening to people talking very slowly to them or shouting at them or making everything seem like a game. How will they know that fun things are fun if we make everything, even the most mundane things, seem like they are fun? How will they be able to decide what is important if everything is presented as the most important thing in the world? Where is the normal, usual or everyday in today's television programmes?

It's bad enough that programmes now tell you what they are going to show you, show you the information and then recap on what they've shown you, without poor presentation style too. Honestly, most of us can remember what we watched less than half an hour ago! So many programmes nowadays take several minutes before they actually start. I refuse to watch many of the one hour long programmes as they are broadcast. We record it or switch it on about ten minutes after it's started, so that we can skip the introductory section that is effectively just a spoiler and takes away the pleasure of letting a programme unfold in front of us. This 'introduce, present, confirm' strategy may be perfect for primary school children to whom you are trying to teach something however, to me it is nothing but irritating.

Feeling calmer after my short rant, I am off to make a cuppa!

If you have noticed these changes or have spotted others that annoy you, please leave a comment and share or vent your irritation.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

More compost and plans

No matter what goes on in our lives, the seasons move on regardless and the tasks that need doing in the garden become increasingly pressing if I am not to have an acre of wild garden.

Here's a rough guide to the layout of the plot. It will be interesting to compare this 2014 image from Google earth with the next photo that they take as it will show the progress we've made. I'm not sure how often the overhead images are released, but I'm hoping that the next one will show the kitchen garden once it is fully laid out.

Our house is at the centre top of the plot, the piggeries are hidden among the huge sycamore trees and to the far right is the area I describe as 'behind the piggeries', it's the chicken's favourite place to scratch about when we let them out of their assigned area. At the furthest point to the right is the wasteland area in which eventually I'd like to create a large pond. On the left hand side is what I call the front garden, which is laid to lawn with four small fruit trees that were planted by the previous owners, then there's an area that we've sectioned off for the ducks. They are kept in here overnight in their house, in the early morning and early evening they can waddle about in their sectioned off area, but during the bulk of the day, they also roam around the perennial border, herbs and annuals area and kitchen garden and mature fruit tree areas.

To give a sense of scale, the kitchen garden measures around 35 feet wide and 75 feet long. Many days I feel a bit overwhelmed by the size of the task ahead of us, but then I talk to Mr J about it and we agree to just keep plugging away, a little bit at a time and watch how the changes are taking shape.

As I am creating a kitchen garden in what was formerly a paddock and the soil is not as good a quality as would be ideal, I need to add a lot of compost to the soil to improve its structure. This means making as much compost as I can as quickly as I can. Of course, I don't have last year's garden waste to use, as we weren't here, but I do have lots of wood shavings and hay that I mucked out of the stables. This will take a while to rot down, I created a large pile of it as I mucked out the stable which the chickens have been scratching through and kicking all over the place. It looks a mess, but some parts of the pile are looking partly rotted already.
On the other side of the garden, nearer to the kitchen garden, I have put the compost bin that we were kindly given by someone via Gumtree. On Friday morning, I moved the compost pile that we started about a month ago into the compost bin.

This compost heap is made from grass cuttings mixed with the wood shavings, straw and poultry manure from the hens and ducks houses, finely chopped kitchen waste (tea bags get split open as the paper takes an age to break down), a little shredded paper, a few spades full of garden soil, some wood ash from the wood burner and all the other household recycling that can go into the compost heap. I started making it in a hoop of pig netting wire and have already turned it four or five times to add air into the heap and added water as we've emptied the ducks' water buckets into it.
I took the opportunity to mix and turn the heap one more time as I put it into the green compost cone, which I placed with the opening hatch facing the kitchen garden.
 I was surprised that the small heap in the hoop filled the green compost cone to the top, but it should now reach a good temperature in a short time and finish rotting the heap in a few weeks. It will then go on to the kitchen garden beds to improve the soil structure or if the beds are already filled with plants, I will use it as a top dressing.

We can now start to fill the wire netting hoop (seen in the background) once again. I've been setting aside kitchen waste and the wood shavings, straw and poultry manure in bags so that they are ready to mix into the next pile of grass cuttings when Mr J mows the lawn in the front garden. And, now that the sun is up and trying to warm the strong breeze blowing across the garden, it's probably time to put on the welly boots once again and head outside.