Saturday, 7 May 2016

Beauty hidden in plain sight

One of the joys (or pains) of moving to a new house is that over the first year we get to discover what has previously been planted. For us, this has been a joyful experience as the garden starts to reveal its hitherto hidden floral gems.

This beautiful magnolia was just a bunch of twigs when we moved here in early winter and I moved it from where it was near the stables into the corner of the duck enclosure, to be a part of the hedge that we will plant along the fence. I didn't know what it was, but I knew I didn't want any larger plants near the stables as I plan to put up a fence and hedge in that area. A couple of days ago I looked out of the kitchen window and saw something pink or red by the stock fence so went to investigate and there it was, flowering happily, seemingly unaware that it has been moved.
Also in the duck enclosure is an old elderberry tree, which had at some point grown inside one of the commercial greenhouses that used to be on the land. It had grown sideways, lying down in the confines of the covering but had obviously thrived. It is now starting to promise a mass of elderflowers as each branch is covered in developing flowering buds.
Just inside the front gate is a small raised bed made from sleepers which is stuffed full of some lovely fragrant leaved plants like Lavender and Nepeta (catnip) and next to that is a half barrel, which whilst I had acknowledged that it was there I hadn't really taken any notice of. I did see some small narcissi flower in it last month, but otherwise I had no idea what the twiggy little plant in it was. Well now I do and I am delighted. The vibrant coloured Azalea has certainly added a touch of pizazz to an otherwise dull little corner.
At the front of the house there is a small pergola near the front door (which we don't use) which is covered with a young Wisteria. As I was looking at the front of the house to see where the housemartins and swifts have decided to nest, I noticed that the Wisteria is now in flower.
I am looking forward to see what else comes into flower over the next few months. I have also been adding some of my favourite annuals to the mix and these Spencer variety sweetpeas should look lovely and smell heavenly as we walk through the gate into the kitchen garden.

The weather forecast is good for the rest of the weekend, so Mr J and I plan to spend at least part of it continuing to work in the kitchen garden. We will however, make sure that we take a little time to appreciate how lucky we are and how lovely the garden is.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Normality resumes, almost!

After the excitement of the last couple of days I was looking forward to a gentle, calm day today. And the day started well. While I made a cuppa, I checked on the chicks in their box in the kitchen, they had safely made it through their first night under the brooder and seemed to have grown overnight!  I pottered in the garden shortly after the sun came up, I really like to be in the garden as the dew starts to lift from the grass and there aren't many sounds around me except for the birds singing and sheep bleating. I sat for a few moments and watched a beetle busying around the soil, the silky blackness of its body standing out against the brown earth.

I planted some lettuces that had been grown on in the greenhouse and a couple of rows of curly kale plants. I don't worry too much about planting in very straight rows because once the plant grows a little I can't see the spacing and anyway, it all tastes the same whether straight rows or not.

Mr J joined me in the garden with a cup of tea and to talk about what we had planned for the day. We decided to start planting more (and more) of the vegetable plants that have been hardened off and are filling the greenhouse each night before being taken back outside in the morning. It's become a bit of chore to move so many trays of plants each morning and night. As soon as we had agreed an action plan for the day the chickens came racing out of the stable and into their area of the paddock. Diesel had something in her beak and horrified, I realised that it was part of an eggshell.

Mr J and I leapt into action, Mr J went to try and find the piece of shell that she had now dropped to find out what it was fromand I ran into the stable to try to find where she had got the shell from. In her hen house, I found a few specks of golden yolk. Something had broken an egg. We don't know whether it was Diesel or one of the other birds or whether one of the Cream Legbars had laid its first egg and the shell was soft and had broken as it was laid. But whatever had happened we knew that we may need to think about separating the culprit in the very near future, if we can work out which is the offending hen.

All thoughts of gardening swiftly went out of the window when Jack went into the henhouse and started to make the most peculiar noises. I lifted the lid carefully to see if she was okay and she puffed herself up and made more funny little sounds. She looked as though she was becoming broody. This would be perfect, I would love to be able to pop some eggs beneath her for her to hatch. But if she is going broody, we would need a quiet place for her to live for the next few weeks.

Back outside, I glanced over to the vegetable garden to see the ducks merrily dibbling about in it because, in my rush to find out what was going on with the chickens, I had left the gate to the vegetable area open. Not ones to turn down an opportunity to dibble, they had made themselves at home in the area from which they have been banished.

The ducks were easily walked back to their area of the paddock and we turned our attention again to thinking about the chicken issues. After tossing around several variations of 'what if', we decided to relocate the henhouse that currently houses the Cream Legbars to outside near the compost heap. This means that they will be used to going to bed from the field rather than the stable for when we get the new shed erected that they will all eventually sleep in. This has freed up some space in the stable for us to have two or three small houses with runs in it. Then if Jack and Diesel become broody, we can provide quiet, dark, undisturbed spaces for them and in a month's time, the chicks that are in the kitchen will also have their own little house and run there.

In the stable, Jack was still displaying broody behaviour and Diesel was getting nasty with the young Cream Legbars. I really couldn't fathom what on earth was going on, she is at the top of the pecking order, but I hadn't seen her so snappy with the younger ones before. Jack came back out of the henhouse, shook her feathers and ran off outside as though she hadn't just spent the last forty-five minutes skulking in the henhouse. No sooner had she left than Diesel raced in and without much ado, laid an egg. So that solved the mystery of why she was misbehaving, she was obviously holding in an egg (and that must hurt!). It still didn't answer what was going on with the yolk in the henhouse, but we'll look at what's going on there tomorrow. We decided to create several nesting box places for the chickens too, as the younger ones are just starting to lay and seem to favour the older girls' house as a nesting space, which will only cause problems if they all want to lay at a similar time. So we made the spare nesting box that we have more inviting by covering half of the front, thus offering a darker quieter box that might persuade them to use it.

We talked about what we might need to be able to put up the second hand shed that we bought about 3 weeks ago. Whilst we want to reuse, recycle and repurpose as much as we can, sometimes, we have accepted, we just need to buy new. So off we went to the local builder's merchant to order some plywood and roofing felt for the shed. We made a quick visit to the local polling station to vote and then spent a good ten minutes trying to work out where the entrance to the builder's merchant is. To be honest, by this point in the day I had had enough. I was hot, tired and feeling rather frazzled and thankfully the member of staff was helpful and efficient and the parts will be delivered to us on Monday.

When we got home we had a much needed cuppa and cleaned out the chicks' box. Little white has grown a huge amount in the last twenty-four hours (actually they both have). We are very taken with these little bundles of fluff, they peep and cheep at us from under the brooder and come out the see us whenever we wander nearby and talk to them.
We then went back out to the chicken area of the paddock and laid out some paving slabs to mark out where they will be as the base for the second hand shed that will become the chicken house. These will be laid onto sand to ensure that they are flat but for now it gives us a clear idea of where the shed will go.

It seems that the day had been hi-jacked, but it had also turned out to be highly productive and we were ready for supper.

Yesterday we took delivery of some free sample pies kindly sent to us from Pieminister, from their new gluten free range ( Now, I'm not usually a big fan of pies as I don't really like pastry much, but I'm now wondering if my ambivalence towards pie was due to feeling unwell after eating wheat based pastry. Anyway, I was keen to try the beef pies that we'd been sent.
These were pretty large pies and I think that we could have easily shared one between us with some vegetables to accompany it, but being the greedy folks that we are, we had one each. Their advertising leaflet said to look into their pies, so I did. It was deep-filled with what looked like good quality beef and the gravy smelled rich and it tasted as good as it smelled. The pastry was light and crisp and didn't leave me bloated and in pain (so that's a real bonus for me). For a quick and easy meal, I think it would be worth us keeping a couple in the freezer.
They also advertise that they have a vegetarian pie option, which I'd like to try. Because I am now cooking the majority of our meals from scratch using organic ingredients, I think having a 'stand-by pie' would be useful for the occasions that either I don't have time because we've been out or when I don't feel well enough to cook.

After supper we spent another couple of hours in the garden, I'm never quite sure where the time goes when we're outside. We spent a while sitting on the deck at the side of the house and enjoyed the warmth of the early evening. Our neighbours' cat came for a chat and a fuss. This young ginger Tom cat has adopted us as his friends and is more than happy to sit on our laps and be stroked. We are very fond of his rat catching abilities and is cheerful demeanour.
 By the time we had encouraged the Cream Legbars to go to bed in their house in the garden and discouraged Jack and Diesel from doing so, and to go to bed in their house that is still in the stable, there was only about half an hour before the light would start to fade and it would be time to put the ducks to bed. So we made a cuppa, refreshed the buckets of water that are dotted around the garden for the birds, used the waste water from the buckets to water the plants that were newly planted and I used collected rainwater to water the plants in the greenhouse.

With the ducks safely locked into their house for the night, we headed indoors to put our feet up and watch a recorded episode of Masterchef while I started to write this blog.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Two little bundles of fluff

Little White
It has now become clear that we won't be having any more eggs hatching, which is a bit sad as there were three more that had started to hatch, but they didn't make it. Still, on the bright side, we have two perfect and gorgeous little chicks from our first attempt at raising chicks in an incubator.

Of course we won't be naming them, but they are being referred to as Big Red and Little White. Mr J and I are losing great chunks of the day as we sit and watch these funny little birds stumble around and find their feet.

After lunch, it had been well over 24 hours since they hatched and we realised that nothing else would be happening with the remaining eggs, so we lifted the incubator cover and I collected the chicks to put them under the brooder which will be their home for the next three or four weeks.

They have a bowl of chick crumb, which Big Red has already discovered and a water dispenser that is shallow and protected so that they can't fall into it and drown. The kitchen is filled with little cheeping sounds.

By holding my phone at ground level, I've been able to capture a few moments of life under the brooder.

If you can't see the video above, you can see it on youtube here.

Big Red
It's a gorgeous day outside and so I'm going to make the most of it and plant out some of the seedlings that have been potted on and hardened off. Mr J has just finished recording his radio shows for the week ahead and has already headed outside to get on with some jobs. I think it's time to make a cuppa and go and join him.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The chicks are hatching! UPDATED

The excitement and anxiety levels are high today. The first two of the chicks chipped tiny holes in their eggs last night and I woke at quarter past four this morning hoping to find a couple of chicks in the incubator. Sadly I had no such luck. But just before 9am, the miracle that is nature showed us just how clever it can be, as the first egg started to hatch fully.

This is the only egg that we have left that had been fertilised by the Cream Legbar cockerel (that has since died) and was laid by Jack, so we have an emotional investment in this one. We shouldn't I know, but we've grown hopeful that the cockerel's genes will live on in this little egg.

I watched as the little chick fought its way out of the shell and filmed some of the process. If you can't see the video below you can find it on youtube here.

Number One chick comes into the world

As I write it is now eight hours later and we are still waiting for the chicks in the other eggs to hatch. I have spent the greater portion of the day sitting by the incubator hoping to witness the hatching of the rest of the chicks, but there are other tasks that need to be attended to, so I will make a start on those and pop back into the kitchen on a regular basis to see if the other eggs have opened.

I will add to and update this blog as more of the chicks hatch.

It's now twelve hours since the first chick hatched and since then, in the middle of the afternoon, a second chick hatched. This is the first of the white Jersey Giant birds. It has hatched as a bedraggled, straggly grey and cream chick and already it's fluff has dried into a very pale grey and white chick. As it matures it should become pure white.

This second chick is about two-thirds of the size of Number One, but then, so was it's egg. Ironically, these little birds will eventually grow into huge chickens almost the size of a turkey. They were developed in USA in the 19th century to be large meat birds, originally there was only a black variety, but the white bird (which is about a pound lighter than the black ones) came soon afterwards.

Two more chicks have broken their shells but are taking a long old time to break out. I have sat next to the incubator as much as I can as I'd like to see another one come out of it's shell, but the inside of the incubator is steamed up and I can see very little now.

They are surprisingly noisy for such little beings!

Further updates later.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Sunday interrupted

Yesterday felt disjointed. Most days I move from one task to another, always prepared to accept that I've done enough if I get overtired and yet usually managing to do far more each day than I'd imagined I would be able to.

Yesterday we had a power cut, it didn't last too long in the end, but there was that odd feeling of not knowing how long we'd have to be low tech. Actually, what it did for us was to highlight just how dependant on electricity we really are. Everything here runs on mains electricity. We could do with finding a solar charged battery to run some basic equipment for those moments when there is no mains electricity. When the power first went off, we checked that it wasn't just a trip switch blowing and then I wandered next door to check that they had no power too. Not that I wanted them to be without power, but if their power was off too, then it wasn't a problem with our house.

In the back of my mind, no, in the front of my mind was the incubator that has been carefully brooding our first batch of chicken eggs for the last 19 days. Without power it had become quiet and would be losing heat fairly soon. I wrapped a towel around it to try to keep some heat inside it. I was upset that having got to day 19 out of 21, there was a risk that we would lose our new chicks before they had hatched.

Mr J checked online (via his phone) to discover that it was indeed a power cut that was effecting 88 homes locally and that the electricity was expected to be back on within the hour. Maybe the chicks would be okay for that long, we shall see.

We settled down in the kitchen to play a game of Scrabble. We used to play Scrabble every day, but since being here, we have chosen to be busy with other things, so it was rather nice just to take forty-five minutes break of quiet concentration. Before the end of the game, the food shopping that I had ordered online was delivered and we paused our game to put it away and thank the delivery driver. Shortly after the food was delivered the power came back on, the towel came off the incubator, we finished our game and the Sunday tasks resumed.

Mr J and I checked the nesting boxes of the chickens more times than usual yesterday, both of us hoping that we'd have another little blue egg (or even two or more), and that Jack would lay another egg after her break from laying. Sadly neither happened, but we continued to check the boxes as though our sheer desire for eggs was going to make one miraculously appear.

I continued to fill one of the raised beds with a cardboard layer, compost from our first bin that was bagged and sitting by the bed waiting to go into it and a little peat-free compost. Today I can add soil from a mound in the garden and mix it all together to make a growing medium for some of the plants in the greenhouse waiting to go into the ground once the risk of frost is past. Checking on the 'last frost in your area' guides online, the last frost should have been a couple of weeks ago, but it seems somebody forgot to tell Mother Nature this as we have been having frosts each morning this week.

We ate a late lunch. I had ordered an organic chicken from the supermarket (costing over £13!) to see if we could detect a marked difference in flavour and whilst it was very nice, we both felt that our own birds would probably be much nicer. After all, our girls (and boys) have the freedom to range over a third of an acre, to scratch about in a variety of soil, grass, plants, compost and fallen trees. They can wander inside if they want to, but seem to spend a large amount of the day outside doing what chickens do. We know that the pelleted food they have eaten is organic, that they've enjoyed a vast amount of worms, bugs and plants.

With this in mind, we started to plan how soon we should set the next batch of eggs in the incubator. It's been quite a big step to make the decision to move from keeping chickens for a few eggs and keeping them for meat. It has required me to not to think of them as pets that need the best care we can offer them, but to think of them as birds that need the utmost care because we are going to put the resulting meat into our bodies. The level of care that we give the birds will not change, but I know that I can't get emotionally attached to them or it will make dispatch day impossibly difficult.

Mr J and I talked about how we felt (physically) since we had changed our diet to cleaner, organic, more vegetable laden meals. I now eat gluten free and Mr J still enjoys wheat and barley based foods, but our diet is increasingly gluten free so that I'm not preparing two separate meals. We both agreed that we feel healthier, less stodgy and better for the change in not only our diet, but in our lifestyle.

We had a gentle afternoon pottering at tasks and after supper, settled on the sofa to watch some television. We needed to pause our viewing to put the ducks to bed. As we were settling the ducks into their house at dusk, I noticed a lamb in the field by our kitchen garden that was stuck on its back. I don't know anything about sheep care, but I do know that I sheep needs to be turned onto it's side if it rolls onto its back as they can't get back up on their own. So we raced out of the gate at the end of the kitchen garden into the field to help the stranded lamb. As we got closer we realised that it wasn't on its back but that it looked like it was fitting. When it stopped flailing around, Mr J tried to help it on to its front, bit just rolled onto the other side, head pulled up against its back and legs waving uncontrollably again. We went back to the house to phone the farmer to let him know that a lamb was in trouble. For some unknown reason, my phone has decided to revert to an earlier version of itself and had deleted some of the most recent numbers that I'd entered into it. So Mr J did some clever researching and found his home number. I spoke to the farmer who came out immediately. Sadly, the lamb had died by the time he arrived. He reassured us that there was nothing that we could have done to help the lamb and that it must have had defective a kidney.

So we returned home to try to regain our relaxed evening. I felt quite unsettled and before long headed to bed. It had been a day of interruptions to our gentle rhythm and having first thought we might lose our chicks, the day ended with a lamb dying. I'm hoping that the next few days bring better news for our local animal population.