Thursday, 14 July 2016

Working on nature's time scale

Mr J and I spend a lot of time planning. We talk through what might happen and how we can deal with the inevitable and hopefully are ready to cope with most eventualities.

We have been talking about dividing up the flock of chickens once it has increased in size so that we have two, three and then four areas for the different breeds. The first small flock will be the Cream Legbars as we have six healthy happy girls and a young cockerel and also two very young boys.

We knew that in the next few weeks we would need to separate the Cream Legbars from Jack, Diesel, Big Red and Little White so that the cockerels didn't fight and hurt each other and also so that there was no chance of Big Red doing his thing with the Cream Legbar girls.

So we had planned that when the time came we would divide the chicken field into two and put a new house into the half that doesn't have the chicken shed in it. The new henhouse would be for the Cream Legbars because although they are the first flock we have, they are likely to be the smallest of the flocks.

Yesterday started well, I'd had a refreshing night of sleep and headed to the garden to plant some more leeks into spaces between other vegetables and to plant some oca and dwarf kale in the bed where I have lifted some garlic creating space for young plants to go in. I broke down some more cardboard boxes, removing all the sticky tape (as I don't want to put plastic into the garden) and laid the boxes on to the grass where the next raised bed is going. My intention for the day was to complete this new raised bed but nature had other ideas!

While I was looking to see if the compost area in the chicken field was ready to use yet, I saw the Legbar boy and Big Red starting to get nasty with each other. I am really surprised that Big Red is mature enough at nine weeks old to want to square up to the older boy and in hindsight I suspect that he wishes he hadn't. It wasn't the manliest squeal of pain that I've ever heard as the Legbar boy taught Big Red who was in charge.

I wasn't going to leave them in the field together as I don't want either of them to get hurt, so the dividing the flocks was just going to have to happen sooner rather than later as we had planned. The planning conversation had gone something like 'All we need to do is to add three more pallets to the fence over there, which will free up the chicken fencing (as then the ducks still won't be able to get into the kitchen garden) and we can use the chicken fencing to divide the field. Then we can put the other chicken house in their and pop the Legbars into that side of the field.' It never ceases to amaze me how long an 'all we need to do is' can actually take!
So we moved three pallets from the front of compost bins and lashed them on to the end of the existing fence with baling twine. The pallet fence will eventually go all around the kitchen garden, but we can only do so much at a time as we find the pallets. This allowed us to use a 50 metre length of flexible chicken netting in the chicken field together with a short length that we had lying around to divide the field into two areas.
It's at moments like this that I wish I was younger, fitter and healthier. Every task takes much longer than it used to when I had reserves of energy to draw on. Nowadays my energy levels go from two-thirds full to empty in minutes, so unless I pace myself carefully I find I have to stop completely. Sometimes it can take a day or even up to three days to recover from getting worn out, so it's really important to be careful about how I do these physical tasks.
Before we put the flexible chicken netting in place, we moved a couple of bales of straw and some large logs so that there would be some in each section of the field. The girls have become used to scratching around in and being fed in the 'circle of love' that we previously made for them and we want to recreate it in the other part of the field.

For the chickens this is just the area where they scratch, for me it's a source of compost. I dump the sawdust and manure from their chicken house there, together with any plant material from the garden that they might like. They scratch through it, mixing it and breaking it down, giving me a quick and easy source of compost for the raised beds. Later in the month I will move the bales around and net off the current circle of love. Then I can plant young plants in this well fertilised ground and grow some kale, cabbage and other winter hardy plants that I will use to supplement their food in the winter months. It seems ideal to use the chickens natural behaviour to create a good growing conditions for plants that will then become their food. It will reduce our feeding costs and give them additional leafy green food at a time when these are in short supply in the rest of the field.
This is the first 'circle of love' that I have now sectioned off with chicken wire and bamboo canes. Into the fertile soil I have planted seed potatoes, which are growing well. When they have been lifted the chickens will have access to this area again. I may also put a few kale plants in here so that when they are allowed back into this area, they have an extra treat.

Anyway, Mr J then inserted the poles of the flexible netting into the ground. The field is too dry and hard for me to be able to push the poles into it, but between us, we got the netting into place and I created a gate arrangement so that we can get in and out of the new section easily.

We then carried the new (new to us) chicken house to the field and put it together. Luckily we have learnt how to put these houses together quickly, so it only took a few minutes to fix the nesting box in place and the roofing panels on. Feed and water containers were put into the new area and as luck would have it, the chickens, who are naturally inquisitive (nosey) followed us into the new section of the field.

Both sets of chickens were pretty put out (except for Diesel who didn't appear to give two hoots) that they had been separated, but I know that in the long term the young cockerels really won't want to be in the same area.

Bed time became the fiasco that we had imagined it would. The Legbars were desperate to go to the shed to sleep and as they were starting to get stressed by being excluded from it, I let them through into the side with the shed and to go the roost there. Once they had settled down, Mr J and I carried them one by one and put them in the new henhouse so that they could start the new day there and should be happy to go to bed in the henhouse at the end of the day.

In amongst all of this happening, one of the Legbar chickens was being broody. Mr J and I agonised over what the best thing to do for her was. I would prefer to allow her to be broody and give her a quiet space of her own to let her sit on some eggs. She is miserable at the moment and it seems that it would be kindest to let her do what comes naturally to her, but we just don't have the capacity at the moment to have another small house taken up for four to six weeks with another broody bird. So we have tried to 'break' the broodiness but as I write, we haven't been very successful.

It's now Thursday morning and the Legbars went to bed in their new house last night with a minimum of fuss. They seem to be settling into their half of the field well, but the broody chicken is still broody, so I am going to ask Mr J to create a safe place for her to sit on some eggs (which are unlikely to be fertile) for a couple of weeks and then, when the eggs in the incubator have hatched, we can give her some chicks to raise as though they were hatched from the eggs that she's been sitting on.

Last night we candled the eggs in the incubator. There were seven fertile duck eggs that we checked last week before adding the hens eggs and to our delight there are ten fertile Australorp eggs, one Cream Legbar crossed with Rhode Island Red bantam (RIRb) and four that are Jack and Diesel crossed with RIRb. So I am keeping my fingers crossed that we have a good hatch rate this time from the twenty-two fertile eggs in the incubator. And there are five or six eggs under the broody hen whose chicks are due to hatch around the same time as those in the incubator.

This morning the plumber is coming to install a different sink in the bathroom, so I will be doing all things domestic while Mr J heads out to buy some materials to make a small house for the broody hen and another house which we'll use for the ducklings when they hatch. As the plumber is due in twenty minutes, I had better go and put the kettle on.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The case of The Mysterious Cabbage

Over the last couple of days I've started to notice a faint aroma in the house. As it's been warm and windy, I put it down to the neighbours' bins being kept not too far from their back door (which is also quite near our bathroom window as the bathrooms are on the ground floor).

As it was so windy last night, I closed the bathroom window vent, which I usually leave open to allow a minimal airflow around the house and when I came downstairs this morning the smell was hideous. Hmm, this meant that the smell, which was getting stronger by the hour, was coming from inside the house. We have the plumber coming on Thursday to fit a sink unit that I bought years ago into the bathroom and I really didn't want him to walk into a stinky house. Actually, I don't want to be in a stinky house, so it was urgent that I found the problem and got it sorted.

The incubator is on a table in the snug, which is really just an inner hall in the centre of the house, so if one of the eggs had gone bad the smell, which was starting to make my eyes water, would travel around the ground floor. I braced myself for the horror of discovering a burst egg in the incubator and lifted the lid and found, actually what I really found was one tiny piece of the ground floor that didn't smell of rotting cabbage and gone off eggs! So, not a bad egg in the incubator then.

Like a cartoon rabbit with nose a-twitching I sniffed my way around the ground floor. Shower room smelt fine, no stinky smell in there. Kitchen didn't smell of anything other than the basil plant on the island unit and the scented geranium on the windowsill. Lounge was a bit smelly but the bathroom smelled worst and I just couldn't locate the exact spot it was coming from. My big worry now was that some water had got under the flooring and was trapped there, going stagnant and slimy, out of sight but very much not out of nasal passages.

There was only one thing for it, to clean the bathroom from top to bottom and see if I could locate exactly the source of the smell. It was becoming torturous, I desperately wanted to rid the house of the smell (and whatever was causing it), but was starting to gag at the strength of the smell. Giving up on finding the exact problem until after I had cleaned it thoroughly, I opened the window as wide as I could and surprise, surprise the eye-watering and gagging sensation subsided. Now why I didn't open the window earlier is beyond me, I think I was just so focused on finding what the problem was that all sense and reason had gone out of the window, unlike the smell!

With some fresh air diluting the aroma it was easy to swish the cobweb removing tickling stick thingy around the ceiling and walls (which I did a few days ago and was therefore pretty much a waste of time), I wiped down all the skirting boards, also done last week, but there was a bit of fluff and dust, so worth doing again. I put more white vinegar into the toilet cistern and sink hole and then I while I was on my hands and knees wiping over the floor I realised that the smell was coming from under the bath. Phewee!

This is where things got really inelegant. I am really very overweight as a result of my thyroid dysfunction, not just a little overweight, but around four stones or more overweight. Carrying around the extra bulkiness makes my knees hurt and ankles swell and my movements are rather awkward when trying to get up and down at floor level. So, I slid in a rather comical way onto my tummy and now like a beached porpoise was trying to reach right under the bath to wipe the floor with a damp cloth and check whether the smell was indeed under the floor covering.

Annoyingly but thankfully, the smell wasn't coming from under the floor covering. I was relieved that we weren't going to have to lift the flooring or worry that the under-floor heating system had been compromised, but at the same time annoyed that I still hadn't found the source of the problem. So I then had to scramble backwards to get out from under the bath before I could pull myself up to be on my hands and knees and then work my way to an upright position. You know those moments when you are really pleased that there isn't a CCTV camera filming you? This was one of those times.

So, the smell wasn't coming from outside or the loo or sink or floor, that only left... yup I'd found it, the smell was, to my utter disgust, coming from the bath plug hole! Seriously, who had stuffed a rotting cabbage down the plug hole? It was rancid!  So, armed with a gallon container of white vinegar I set to sorting out the problem. A couple of small glugs of vinegar down the drain and the removal of some of my hair from the drain insert seems to have sorted out the immediate pong.

An hour later I am still left wondering what on earth caused the issue in the first place and right now I am really missing extra strength bleach (which we don't use because of the negative impact it has on the micro-organisms in the septic tank and reed bed filtration system). But I am pleased to report that the bathroom smells delightful once again and now, without a doubt, it's time for a cuppa!

Sunday, 10 July 2016

As one door closes

No sooner did I raise the question of whether the straw I'm using in the garden is an issue than an answer to my mulch problem appeared.

Yesterday a local tree surgeon came to give us a quote to remove some leggy but ridiculously tall sycamore trees at the back of the piggeries. There are several huge, sturdy and rather lovely sycamore trees in the area next to the piggeries (which we will keep), but there is also a row of 5 of them about 6 feet away from the back of the piggeries that are simply in the wrong place if we are going to use the piggeries for anything in the future. There is also one that is growing so close to the piggery wall that it is squashing the guttering that is supposed to catch rainwater from the roof.

The piggeries comprise three distinct areas. The front piggery (seen on the right of this photo that I took back in April before the leaves had come out on the trees) had already been renovated when we bought the smallholding, the roof had been raised and the floor had been repaired with a fresh layer of concrete. It is a really useful partially enclosed area that we use to store recycled wood before we remove the nails and screws from it, the chicken feed and items that are waiting to go to the local recycling centre, because it can't be locked (as it doesn't have doors) we don't store any tools in there for the obvious security reasons.

To the side of it is a second piggery that has seen better days. The roofing panels (which are corrugated metal sheets) seem intact, but the wooden uprights and roof supports are rotten, riddled with woodworm and look decidedly dodgy. This is likely to be the last piggery that we sort out as it is the smallest of the areas and the one that needs the most structural work.

The third piggery is at the back of the other two. It has a metal frame that seems sturdy and complete, unlike it's roof which was also made of corrugated metal panels, but they have rusted and rotted away leaving a lace-like structure that lets in all the rain. One of the reasons that the roof has deteriorated so badly on the back piggery is that the roof is constantly covered in leaves that have fallen from the trees and receives little sunlight to help dry the leaves or the roof.

This third piggery would make a fantastic bird shed, I can imagine building a chicken coop in it and the hens would have plenty of space to dust bathe and rest under cover when they aren't free ranging in the large garden area to the rear and side of it. These plans are for the future, but they can't be started until the sycamore trees that are growing in front of the opening are removed.

Now because I want to be sure that I plant more trees than I remove, I have already potted up some sycamore seedlings ready to plant in a more appropriate place behind the piggeries and I also have a horse chestnut tree to plant at the very rear of the back garden. The tree surgeon told us that it is supposed to be unlucky to remove holly trees, but sadly there is one growing in the very front corner of the back piggery and it really ought to go. I think that it was probably planted as a shrub many years ago, which would have looked lovely before it grew into a twenty foot high straggly tree that is being choked by ivy. In the spirit of planting more than we remove, I have already planted four holly trees in the hedgerow around the chicken field and have another holly tree to plant in the garden area at the back of the piggeries. I thought that I would offer the task of planting of this last holly tree to the tree surgeon, so that he doesn't feel like he may have the bad luck if he cuts down the old holly tree.
Anyway, back to the mulch. I showed the tree surgeon around the smallholding explaining to him what we are aiming to achieve and that as first-time small scale farmers, we are learning on the job as fast as we can. I told him that we are working organically and have a very tight budget and gingerly I asked him if he ever had any wood chippings that weren't needed by his clients that he might be able to spare.

You could have knocked me down with a feather when he said that not only could we have wood chippings from future jobs if his clients didn't want them, but also he has huge piles of wood chippings at his yard that he will load onto his flat-bed van and deliver to us. Added to this, he has loads of composted wood chippings that he will deliver to us free of charge!

Good grief, how fabulous to find compost and mulch from one source and given so freely, we are looking forward to taking our first delivery next week. The freshest wood chippings can either go onto the pathways in the garden or be stacked to rot down a bit. The fully composted wood chippings can help to build the soil in the kitchen garden, fruit and herb beds and in the herbaceous border. The tree surgeon said that he'd be delighted to bring the chipped wood to us as it would be good for him to clear his work yard and I am delighted to find a source of mulching material that is unlikely to have sprayed or treated with chemicals that might have an impact on our organic approach.

There has been so much happening on the smallholding this week that we haven't had very much time to do planned jobs as we've been responding to situations as they arrive. Neither of us are very keen to work in a purely responsive way, but sometimes nature has a way of making its presence felt and at those times, we have accepted, we just need to go with the flow.
The chicks have been moved from the box in the boot room to the nursery pen in the chicken condo (the old stable). They seem to have settled into their new space very quickly and are enjoying short flights, lots of running up and down the length of the pen and practising their scratching skills.

The Legbar cockerel seems to be settling in now. We moved him and the two younger cockerels into a house and pen in the chicken field four days ago and after twenty-four hours we took him out of the house and run (leaving the little chaps safely in their own space) and placed him into the chicken shed after the girls had gone to sleep.

The next day he spent most of the day hanging around very close to the younger boys and that evening I had to catch him and put him to bed in the shed with the girls. Each day he has become a bit braver and for the last two nights has made his own way to the shed at bed time. Last night he chose to sleep on the top perch (which I'm taking as a good sign), although this meant that Little White was unceremoniously kicked off the perch to make room for him. This chap is 13 or 14 weeks old and we were advised that he would probably become 'active' in about two or three weeks, however this morning he decided to do the thing that cockerels do best and has introduced his own particular brand of cockereliness to the older girls. I haven't heard him crowing as yet, but expect that will come in time.

While I was pottering in the kitchen garden yesterday I kept hearing the most peculiar noise, it was a sort of strangled, grating sound. When I had a look around to see where it was coming from I realised that the noise was being made by Big Red. Oh bless him, he is trying to crow and it sounds awful! But this means that it is nearly time to separate the two adolescent cockerels so that they don't end up competing, fighting and damaging each other.

Mr J and I have decided to start dividing up the flock by having one area for the Cream Legbars so that we know their eggs will be fertilised by the Cream Legbar cockerel and not Big Red. This is where a totally separate area would be very useful (like at the back of the piggeries), so we will start by dividing the chicken field into two and providing a house large enough for 6 Legbar girls and their beau. Once we have checked their eggs for fertility, we can then start to sell their eggs for hatching.

At the same time as the Legbar cockerel was finding his feet amongst the flock, one of the Legbar girls was experiencing something very different. She had become broody, and not just a bit broody, but full blown nothing-is-going-to-stop-me broody, so I cleaned out the small house that the Legbar cockerels had just moved out of and at dusk we moved her from the nesting box she was settled in to the small henhouse where she will be undisturbed by the coming and goings of noisy hens and people and secure from preditors. She now has six eggs beneath her (three that she was sitting on when we moved her and three that I have tucked under her), she may well have laid another egg or two while she's been in the small house, but we are not disturbing her to find out. The eggs beneath her should be fertile as the bantam cockerel that left us only went one week ago (to live on Helen's farm) and fertility should remain in our girls' eggs for around fourteen days. So we may have some chicks hatched by a Legbar at the same time as our next batch of eggs are hatching in the incubator.

I have been scouring the local advert pages for yet another henhouse, but it needs to be large enough to accommodate 6 full grown girls and the Legbar chap with space to spare should we raise any more Legbars in the future. We are going to look at one later this afternoon that is being sold very locally. I had hoped to have one that a friend has for sale as it has wheels allowing for easy movement around the smallholding, but we can't get it here as it's too big to fit into our van and the wheels on it are not road wheels. Update - we have bought the house that we went to see locally and I imagine that the Legbars will be very happy in their new house when we divide the field and move them to their new home.

Big Red and Little White have grown into lovely birds, they are very friendly and are still enjoying our company. I suspect that will change when hormones kick in and Big Red becomes an active chap, but perhaps Little White will continue to come to sit on my lap for a cuddle and to pick at some kale occasionally. As you can see Little White is far from little, at 9 weeks old she is a bit larger than Big Red and it will only be a few weeks before she is bigger than the other girls in the flock. Because Jersey Giants mature more slowly than other breeds we still don't know for sure that she is a girl, but until she gives us any indication otherwise, we will continue to call her a girl. I have always imagined that as I got older I would end up as a mad cat lady, I had never considered that I might end up as a mad chicken lady!

On Thursday night I candled the duck eggs in the incubator and found that we have seven fertile eggs. These are from our ducks and so, not only will it be our first attempt to hatch ducks but they will be the first ducklings we have had on the smallholding. Frederick and Mrs Warne (who of course haven't really been named) came to us as mature birds, she was already laying and they were very much bonded as a couple.

Into the incubator I have also put some more Australorp eggs that I've bought from a different breeder to the last batch, a couple of eggs from Jack and a couple of blue eggs laid by the Cream Legbars. Jack's eggs and the Legbar's eggs were (I hope) fertilised by the cockerel who has gone to live with Helen. If they hatch, the chickens will join the mixed flock as meat birds. All the eggs in the incubator should hatch around 29th July.

From the kitchen garden we have enjoyed our first home-grown rainbow carrots and tomatoes to add to the mange tout, broad beans, lettuce and strawberries that we have been picking for the last couple of weeks.

I have been busy continuing to plant out the young leek plants into the raised beds. Some are in a bed of their own, others are tucked in between other plants and yet others have gone into the salad bed where their are gaps following the harvesting of lettuce and baby carrots. I love the taste of leeks and probably can't grow enough of them. I'm happy to use them as an alternative in any recipe that needs onions, I like them with a cheese sauce or in a soup, filled with mince or a cheese mix. They are a versatile vegetable that I think is often underrated. Anyway, the only bed I haven't added them to is the garlic bed. It looks like there is rust on our garlic plants so it seems unwise to plant another in the allium family in that bed this year. Spaces in the garlic bed will be filled with hardy cabbages, kale and more purple sprouting broccoli.

I've planted some fruit bushes that have been sitting in pots outside the greenhouse patiently waiting to be put into the ground and I've also planted a few more herbs into the four rectangular beds between the herbaceous border and the kitchen garden. Having the herbs as close as possible to the house seems a good idea, when it's lashing down with rain in the winter I won't want to spend too much time dashing outside to pick some fresh herbs for the cooking.

In the greenhouse I have continued to sow seeds for successional harvests of mange tout, peas, lettuce, radish, spring onions, outdoor cucumbers, red cabbage and yet more kale. Neither of us like kale, but the chickens do and in the cold of later autumn and winter, they  will be very pleased to have some fresh greens.

My blogging has been sporadic this week (hence this being such a long blog post) mainly because I haven't felt 100% for much of the week and I have now found out why. Early this week (or possibly last weekend) we had a couple of quite hot days which were also quite windy. I pottered around in the garden in summer trousers and a strappy t-shirt and without realising it, I got burned by the sun, actually I had sunstroke. I felt sick, kept falling asleep and felt definitely under par. This lasted for about three or four days and I still keep having spells of feeling like I'm burning, so having learnt my lesson the hard way, I will be more careful outside for the remainder of the year.

As I wouldn't wish anyone else to feel this rotten after enjoying the fresh air on a sunny day, I'd just like to remind you to be careful, to keep covered up, to keep hydrated and to be aware that the breeze can disguise just how strong the sun is. And now of course, it's time for a cuppa!