Saturday, 30 April 2016

Garden, chickens and reasons to celebrate

After our usual chores around the yard this morning, Mr J and I had a cuppa and worked out the best way to put up the flexible chicken fencing that we've borrowed. That way we can separate the kitchen garden from the duck area as the ducks were beginning to get just a little bit too interested in our young plants.
Yesterday we collected two large rolls of fencing from Helen which we estimated would be more than adequate to go around the outside of the kitchen garden.
We started by going along the edge of one of the raised beds, which means for now I won't be able to easily access this side of the bed except by putting my hand through the fencing, but that shouldn't be a problem as it's already planted with red onion sets.

We decided to leave an opening so that we can easily get in and out of the kitchen garden and create a simple barrier gate (with a loop of string across the top of the uprights to keep the tension on the netting which I'll slip off when using the gateway). So we started at one side of the raised beds and erected the fence to the approximate size that the kitchen garden will be. Tasks like this require a healthy sense of humour (on Mr J's behalf at least), particularly when your partner changes her mind (often) but doesn't have the strength to actually do the job herself!

We also have an overlap of the two rolls of fencing which has allowed us to create a second opening, by moving the fence where it overlaps when I need to,  I can easily access the area where I keep the compost bins.

The kitchen garden is centred but on one side of the paddock. The other side of the paddock is the area given over to the chickens. Now that the kitchen garden is marked out, the ducks can still walk all the way around the outside of it to get to their favourite areas of the paddock but they can't get to the young vegetable plants.

There's a long narrow strip (about eight feet wide) along one of the long sides of the kitchen garden, which now looks like a duck super-highway.

Feeling rather pleased with the successful fencing task, we grabbed a quick lunch and then headed off to my sister's home to give her the birthday card and gifts that we bought yesterday. It isn't her birthday until the end of the week, but she is at Badminton Horse Trials for most of the week and I wanted her to have the sweets we'd selected so that she could take them with her. She is competing in the horse trials in the earlier part of the week, this is the first time that she has qualified for Badminton, so not only am I very proud of her, but very excited for her too.

On returning from my sister's home, I checked on the birds (as I always do when we go out anywhere) and I was surprised by what I found. At last, the crested Cream Legbars (CLB) are maturing and one had laid a small but perfectly formed egg.
These little birds have been free-loading for the last 3 months and that little blue egg made every moment worth it. Now call me sentimental, but it was quite possibly the sweetest little egg I've ever seen. There must be something in the air today because Jack, who has been on a break from egg laying for the last two weeks, produced an egg today. Jack's eggs are usually what the shops would label as large or extra large and usually weigh 67 - 80g. The little blue egg weighs just 36g.
So today we have had a good range of eggs from the girls. The duck is still laying most days, she has consistently laid each day since we got her with just an odd day here or there when she hasn't laid. We don't mind the occasional missed day from her because the eggs that she is producing are so rich. Jack lays the large paler brown egg, Diesel the deep brown egg and now we have the blue egg to add to the egg rack.
As I finish writing today's blog, Mr J is locking up the hen houses to keep the girls safe for the night and shortly we will round up the ducks and try to persuade them to go to bed without their usual flap and fuss. I'm now really looking forward to tomorrow to see whether we get another blue egg or perhaps two.

Friday, 29 April 2016

A trip out to get penned in

Since moving here and joining the social media community of smallholders, we have 'met' lots of people who are working to achieve the same as we hope for - to live a better quality life, working with the world around us and provide us with some food and an income. We've also been lucky enough to actually meet up with a couple of people and today we took a trip out to see Helen who visited us earlier in the year.

Helen had kindly offered to lend us some flexible chicken fencing, the type that can be electrified to protect chickens from predators (ground creatures at least, flying predators not so much). We want to enclose the kitchen garden while the young plants are in it, so that the ducks can't gorge themselves on our precious plants leaving us without food at the end of the growing season. We don't need to electrify the fence as the ducks seem to respect the fencing and although he sometimes pushes his head through the gaps to see if he can get through, he soon gives up and goes back to dibbling in the ground. His interest in the chickens never seems to wane, but luckily he can no longer get into their area of the paddock.

Over time I will create a wooden fence around the raised beds to enclose the kitchen garden, but we need to keep the ducks out now, so this morning we drove to Helen's smallholding about an hour away to collect the loan fencing. Her home is in a stunning location with amazing views, if a little windy as she lives even closer to the coast than we do!

Almost a week ago, her sow gave birth to a litter of piglets in the wood on her smallholding. Helen offered for us to walk up to the wood to see the little ones, but aware that I am not feeling 100% at the moment, we said that we'd go back when it wasn't so cold or liable to throw hailstones at us. You can read about life on Helen's smallholding at Valerie Chicken.

With a van full of flexible chicken fencing, we headed home via our local town to pick up a few bits and pieces. It's my sister's birthday next week and I'd like to take her birthday card and gift to her over the weekend as she is away for most of next week. So we went to the post office, which is located within a shop that has a really good selection of cards and chose her a suitable card. We popped into Waitrose to buy her a bottle of wine and something sweet. I was disappointed to find that Waitrose didn't have any Revels (my sister's favourite chocolate), but it did have some Clarnico mint creams, which will be enjoyed just as much.

Back at home, we are catching up on chores and will tackle putting up the fencing tomorrow.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Recycling tractor tyres

We recycle as much as we can and reuse or repurpose household and garden objects whenever it is practical to do so. Over the last five months we have walked around the smallholding several times looking at everything that is lying around to decide how we can reuse it. Behind the piggeries (where there is a mess of 'that could be useful one day' things) we found two old tractor front tyres. We instantly knew how these could be used in the kitchen garden.

Late this afternoon, Mr J rolled the big, old tractor tyres into the paddock and placed them in the kitchen garden. I lined the base area with thick cardboard to kill off the grass beneath their middles and packed out the hollow of the tyres with hay. It was old hay that had been left at the back of the stables by the previous owners, so to protect myself from the risk of breathing in unpleasant dust and dangerous spores (after all I really don't want to risk aspergillosis issues) I made sure that my nose and mouth were well covered while I did this and I wore an old top and gloves that will be thoroughly washed before I wear them again.
Meanwhile Mr J emptied the contents of the green compost cone into a wheel barrow. He put a full barrow of composted grass clippings, animal bedding and manure into the centre of each tyre. We are both really pleased with how well this compost has rotted down in the four or five weeks since I first made the compost heap. It should complete the rotting down process while it's in these tyres.

Tomorrow we will part-fill the centre of the tyre with soil mixed with bought-in peat free compost. These big old tyres will make ideal planters for some potatoes to grow in. As the plants grow we can top up soil level in each tyre to earth up the potato plants. The hay around the soil and the compost below the soil should help keep it warm and encourage strong growth.

Later in the year when it's time to harvest the tubers we should be able to lift the tyre up, leaving a pile of soil filled with potatoes. Then we can move the tyres to another spot in the garden ready for another crop next year.

I've also spotted a couple of very old car tyres behind the piggeries so tomorrow we plan to move those to the same area, perhaps between the two tractor tyres. If we stack the car tyres one on top of the other, they should come to a similar height. We can line them with old paper (as we've now used all the hay) and cover the base in compost topped with the soil mix. then we'll have a third potato growing container.

The grassy area around the tyres will be covered with thick cardboard, then a soil-and-compost mix and I'll plant it up with young plants (if I can find someone with strawberry runners that they'd like to donate or swap for other plants, that would be perfect) and then I will mulch it with straw to keep in the moisture. I hope to find some bricks or wood to edge this small area to keep the soil separate from whatever we decide to put on the pathways to cover the weed suppressing membrane. And that will be another area sorted out for this year!

This evening, as we put the ducks to bed and locked in the chickens for the night, Mr J took this rather lovely photo of the sun low in the sky behind our smallholding. It's an angle of the garden that I don't often look at and I like way our neighbour's trees (in the distance on the left) echo our own fruit trees.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Thwarting The Vandals

I like our ducks, I really do, I like watching them go about their business, listening to their funny noises and I find a sense of peace with them waddling around the garden and even more so when they settle down for a sleep in the sunshine.

But there has been something amiss in the garden, actually it's more like there is something missing. Several things really. The ducks have discovered a taste for broad bean plants. Until now they have dibbled around the plants, finding the slugs, grubs and other tasty morsels that live in the soil in and around the raised beds. Unfortunately they have stepped up a gear in their grubbing around activities and have eaten 5 of the broad bean plants.

So it was time to create some sort of barrier around the bed. Eventually I would like to put a fence around the whole of the kitchen garden to enclose it and provide more shelter from the wind, but in the meantime we need to protect our food.

This morning we had arranged to collect some paving slabs that I found (super-cheap) on eBay, so off we went in our new van (new to us that is) to pick them up. Not knowing how many we'd be able to get in the van before the suspension started complaining, we probably didn't collect enough on our first trip, but we'll know for next time.

The paving slabs will go under the shed that we found on Gumtree a couple of weeks ago to become the new chicken shed. I'm starting to get excited about this all coming together. It won't be long before we can start to erect the shed.

Before we went I checked on the electric rat trap that we switched on yesterday. It's been of absolutely no interest to the rats until yesterday. We moved the chickens' feeding station out into the paddock a few days ago and it seems that the rats are getting hungry as they have started to eat the layers pellets that we are using as bait.

This little blue box is my new favourite piece of kit. Yesterday it zapped two young rats (and our neighbour's cat caught another two) and today it has dispatched two more. One before we went to get the paving slabs and the other while we were out. I know that there are a couple more young rats and either one or two adults that had set up residence under our wood store area. I noticed earlier in the week that they had nibbled a hole in the bag of the wood shavings bale. I do wish that they didn't do damage.

After we got back from collecting the paving slabs we had a light lunch (yummy duck eggs on toast) and then headed out to the kitchen garden area to see how best to put up some sort of barrier between the ducks and our broad bean plants.

We toyed with putting up a long fence down the length of the paddock to section off the area that we have designated for the ducks. But we opted for the quick fix of putting up some wind-reducing fabric around the bed itself so that the ducks can't get at the broad beans. Or at least I hope that they can't.

It is a temporary measure but should give the young plants enough time to grow to into healthy strong ones. You can see the loops of piping that we had already put up in the raised bed to support some sort of netting, but we ended up using canes and cable ties to hold the green netting in place. The hoops will be transferred to another raised bed to support butterfly and insect netting.

It's been a busy day.
Before we went to collect the paving slabs and then after putting up the barrier around the raised bed I have been potting on seedlings and young plants. First thing this morning, I spent a quiet couple of hours or so in the kitchen using the dining table as a makeshift potting bench and pricked out several pots of seedlings. I realised that I now have so many young plants waiting for the weather to improve before they won't fit onto the staging that I have in the greenhouse, so I moved a fold-up table into the greenhouse to accommodate lots more young plants. The bonus of using this table is that it is plastic so can easily be wiped down after I've finished using it in the greenhouse.
On the wooden staging is the January King cabbage that I pricked out this morning and trays of seeds that were sown first thing today which include mangetout (Sugar Pea Oregon), Patty Pan and a white fluted edge round courgette, rainbow Swiss chard and Red Alert tomatoes.
The back of the greenhouse is still waiting for the glass to be put in it, which I will do before autumn but for now the plastic sheeting seems to be doing the job. The shelves house herbs and the bench has more tomatoes and flowers for companion planting.

The plastic folding table is now home to herbs like lovage and more of today's pricked out seedlings including butternut squash, purple sprouting broccoli, spinach and red orach together with some trays of plants like borlotti beans.
During a quick trip to our local garden centre to buy fleece, more plant tray inserts and pricking out pots I found a small tray of globe artichoke seedlings. I had wanted to grow some cardoon, mainly for it's architectural interest, but globe artichokes would be just as good and I prefer the taste of artichoke hearts to cardoon stems. So I've potted those into modules too, to grow on for a while until the risk of frost is past.

I'm delighted with how the greenhouse now looks and I'm looking forward being able to get the young plants into the garden. I feel like I've achieved quite a bit today, so I think this evening will involve some good food, a strong cuppa and a long, hot soaky bath.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

A Grand Visit and Special Memories

The next generation came to visit today and I've had great fun. They arrived late morning and almost before Grandson number 1 got out of the car, we had things for him to do. He swapped his shoes for the welly boots that he keeps here and put on his special anorak that I bought for him to wear when he's at 'Grandma's Farm' and off we went out into the paddock to see the ducks and chickens.

He also admired the lambs that are gambolling around the fields that surround our little smallholding. They've just got to that delightful age where they run up and down the fields as though they are racing in the 'lambolympics'. And, right on cue, Paul the Sheep (the farmer who works the fields around us) came out on his tractor to start scarifying one of the fields on his big green tractor. You couldn't have written a more rural scene if you'd tried!

All this impressed my four (and three quarters!) year old grandson suitably and I left him in the garden with Mr J while I went inside to greet my daughter, her partner and Grandson number 2, who I haven't seen for a month. He seems to have grown a huge amount in that time. Now five months old, he is a robust, smiley boy who grinned at me from across the kitchen while I finished preparing lunch.

I glanced out of the window to see what they were up to and smiled. There were squeals of delight coming from the garden as Mr J pushed Grandson 1 on his toy tractor up and down the length of the paddock. So as the lambs raced in one direction behind the fence, my men, the young and the young at heart, were racing in another direction on our side of the fence. At least one of them is going to sleep well tonight!
There are moments in our childhoods that we remember forever and I'm hoping that some of those memories for my daughter and my grandsons will be of them being here, enjoying the simplicity of fresh air and open spaces and doing 'stuff'.

I remember very clearly as a four or five year old spending time with my father in the garden. The secret we shared as he taught me how to squeeze a snapdragon flower to see the inside of it and the joy of discovering that you could pop a fuchsia flower bud so that it revealed it's inner petals and beauty. Of course, as I grew older I realised that our secret about those special flowers was known by so many people, but for years I thought that it was something that only my father and I knew. 

I also remember my brother or sister discovering a bird's nest that had either fallen out of one of the old apple trees in the garden or that a bird had made on the floor at the base of the tree. I remember my sister being upset because dad was mowing the lawn and she was worried that he would mow over the nest.

There were walks along the lanes near our house where my parents would lift us up to see inside a bird's nest, where we found empty egg shells on the ground and learnt about different coloured eggs being laid by different types of birds and afternoons with jam jars with string handles to scoop water from the local stream or pond to find tadpoles and, if we were really lucky minnows or sticklebacks.

We can't give my grandsons those particular experiences and memories because times are different, those ancient hedgerows have disappeared, the streams are gone or are full of decaying litter and there are too many cars whizzing along the lanes for it to be safe to allow small children to explore the hedgerows for themselves.

But with his parents, we help them discover the wonders of nature and when they are here they can explore freely within the safety of our garden. They can watch the new hedge that we've planted grow and in a few years time, it should be home to some birds. I have given each of the boys a tree in the hedge that they can track the progress of with each visit they make. We plan to create a small wildlife pond that we will cover with a sturdy metal grid mesh large enough to allow frogs access but small enough to prevent the children from falling into it. In a couple of weeks time, when our incubating eggs have hatched, they can come and see the small chicks and then watch how they grow into young hens.

It is this type of memory that I'd like to give my grandchildren; special moments shared with us enjoying the world around us. I don't want to be the grandparent that showered them with gifts of technology, sweets or trips to the cinema (although those are fun too), but I would like them to have memories of discovery and adventures.