Saturday, 6 August 2016

What a wise mother knows

My mother was a funny old girl, private to the extreme and I never really got to know her very much as a person. We spent great swathes of time together, in her home, in my home, out for lunch, at the gym and we went on holiday together (out of choice!). For her last two years we spent a goodly chunk of the day together every day and yet still, she never offered to share much of herself with me. 

This morning I had a big wave of missing mum, I had made a batch of scones for elevenses and as I sat and ate a couple (or three) of them, I thought about mum.

Mum suffered from depression for many years and most days when we got home from school she was in bed, curtains drawn and not wanting to see anyone. But as we got older and her spirits lifted (the two may have been connected, but I don't think so) we saw more of her. She was an excellent cook and a progressive one too. I remember her introducing us to this fancy new food from Italy called pizza when I was about nine years old. My parents had held a fundraising 'at home' lunch and she made pizza from scratch, most of the people there didn't know what it was. How enlightened and globally aware we were in the early seventies! To this day I haven't met anyone who can make roast potatoes as good as mum's were, nor lemon meringue pie as tangy, rich and sticky, although her experiment with rice pudding topped with jam and meringue was never a favourite of mine.

She had promised to share with me her secret recipe for egg custard, her version of a large creme caramel, but she didn't and so that fabulous recipe has gone with her. But she did share some valuable life lessons with me and here are some of them (please don't take any of these as good advice, they are simply things that my mother used to say often).

'Expect less of other people, then you won't feel disappointed. She also advised me to expect more of other people because folks often rise to the challenge.

Cook with love in your heart, it makes the food taste better.

Always bake small cakes (fairy cakes) when the children aren't home, they can have some when they get back, but in the meantime they don't know that you've eaten a load of them yourself.

Your house doesn't need to be clean to be welcoming, a warm smile that comes from the heart is worth a thousand cans of furniture polish.

Practice making chocolate bon bons or petite fours about a month before Christmas, make at least three batches before the final one. And it's best not to tell anyone that you made the practice ones, just eat them.

If you iron nothing else, iron your pillowcases, it makes the bed look properly made and feels nicer when you get into bed. 

Teach your family that the drawer of your bedside is out of bounds. Then keep your chocolate in it.

If a job's worth doing well, it's probably worth paying someone who knows what they're doing to do it for you.

Small cuts, grazes, bumps and bruises can all be made better by a bit of mother's spit on a tissue applied to the affected area.

Guilt-free food contains no calories.'

(Disclaimer - NB. This is not a list of advice, nor is much of it accurate, it is purely a list of things my mother used to say.)

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Mucho gusto

It's been a very positive couple of days, I've started harvesting more and more vegetables and on Tuesday evening we had a meal made from ingredients entirely from our garden. This included onions, patty pan squash, peas, beans, spinach, chard, herbs and eggs. It felt rather special to have a our first completely home grown meal.

Yesterday morning after I'd let the chickens and ducks out for the day I started to create the next raised bed. I laid cardboard across the pathway, for the base of the bed and the next pathway. I've found that it is easier to put the cardboard down for the pathways as I go rather than to go back and try to tuck it underneath the soggy cardboard at a later date. Or worse still, don't go back and cover the paths with cardboard and then have to deal with long grass and weeds growing all around the beds which, I have discovered, becomes a home for countless slugs and snails which then feast on seedlings and young plants.

 On the cardboard I put some hops and then some composted wood chippings in readiness for the top soil.

Earlier in the week I finished planting up the last raised bed with young leek plants that had been growing in a nursery bed. 

The vegetable garden is looking colourful and productive (which it is) and although we won't have any butternut squash as all the young plants were eaten by slugs, we may have some pumpkins. I am not as keen on pumpkin as butternut squash but it will help to give us additional food in the winter months as they store quite well.

I've also been having a battle with creatures that like to eat the brassicas. They seem to be being devoured from slugs from the surrounding ground and caterpillars from above. Each morning I walk around picking slimy slugs and green caterpillars from the cabbages, kales and purple sprouting brocolli. I hope that it's not too late to plant out more as I don't think there will be much left of the cabbages at the rate that they bugs are getting through them. Many of the cabbages look like lace doilies and the black kale looks like little cream sticks where the green of the leaves has been completely stripped away.

We've put in hoops and covered them with netting to deter the cabbage white butterflies, which made me very happy until I noticed that they can fly through the holes in the netting and lay their eggs on the purple sprouting brocolli before flying off again. Protection fail! So the next batch of brassicas will be covered with fleece to try to keep those pesky butterflies away from them.

While I was starting the raised bed yesterday, the wind started to get a little breezy and by nine o'clock it was blowing quite strongly and the rain started in earnest. So I turned my attention to tasks indoors.

I disinfected the incubator in readiness for the next batch of eggs. Mr J and I are so taken with the two ducklings that we have and have had several requests for ducks and so, in light of this, we've decided to incubate a batch of duck eggs. I've bought two sets of six Aylesbury duck eggs (so I'm not relying on one breeder to have fertile eggs) and we have three from Frederick and Mrs Warne. Our hatch rate for ducks last time wasn't very good, just two from six eggs. I was very disappointed with this as two of the unhatched eggs were moving around from day twenty-five onwards, but the poor little things just weren't strong enough to break through their shells. So working on a similar basis of hatch rate, I hope that we have five or six ducklings hatch from this batch, but we shall see. The eggs are due to hatch at the end of the month.

During a pause in the rain I moved the chicks from their box in the boot room to the nursery pen in the stable. It was still very windy and the rattling and banging of plastic sheeting and other bits and pieces in the stable made them even more wary of their new environment, but after a couple of hours, they had settled in well and were running around and trying to fly with their tiny half-feathered wings lifting them a couple of inches off the floor.

I could spend hours watching these little birds, they have a natural curiosity and are surprisingly quick to learn. It didn't take them very long yesterday to discover that they can't quite all fit into their food dish at the same time.

As the day continued the wind speed increased and the forty mph gusts became more and more frequent, so I decided that I wouldn't be doing much more in the garden for the rest of the day except to gather some vegetables to roast for supper.

The stony poor soil here means that carrots and other root vegetables are unlikely to grow straight and just as expected I lifted several twisted and curly carrots. I like to think of the yellow carrot as doing press ups and the white carrot as being a member of the cast of The River Dance.

The cylindrical beetroots are now about four to five inches long and have a delightful marbling through them. They are very sweet and not too earthy, I boil them for a few minutes and then roast them in the oven with a little sea salt, coarse ground black pepper, garlic and rosemary.

Late yesterday afternoon I noticed that one of the ducklings was behaving oddly and I suspect that all is not well. I have searched for information on the internet and it could be one of two things. Neither are brilliant but one has a better prognosis than the other. The treatment for both is the same and so later today I will ask Mr J to take me to the farming supplies stores to buy some additional vitamins and minerals to supplement the ducklings' feed. It could of course, be neither of the things I suspect but I feel I need to do anything I can to help it. I will update if there are any changes in the duck's progress.

This morning the broody hen has decided that it's chick is now old enough to start exploring outside the confines of the hen house. I walked around the corner of the stable this morning to go to the chicken field, to see whether the girls have laid any eggs, to find the broody hen and the little pale yellow chick pecking away at the grass in the run of the hen house. It feels rather special to see mother and baby in these first exploratory moments.

I am tired today, I've been trying to do as much as I can between rain bursts for the last few days and tackled several tasks indoors but as so often happens, I have over-done it, so this afternoon will include the quick visit to the farming supplies shop and some sleep. Mr J will be home from work shortly so I'm going to put the kettle on and make a cuppa.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Tons of wood chips in the garden

After months of searching I have finally found a tree surgeon who is happy to give us some wood chippings and this week we took delivery of the first trailer load. It was mostly newly chipped wood, so we used it to cover the weed suppressing membrane in the area between the perennial border and the kitchen garden.

Much to my delight Mr J commented that it is like walking through on forest floor and that is exactly what I was aiming for. Over time I will remove the weed suppressing membrane and replace it with cardboard, but for the next year at least the membrane will stay in place.

As Tom the tree surgeon had contacted me to say that some more chippings would be arriving on Saturday, I wanted to clear the first pile before the next load arrived. It is probably the only time that I will race to clear one before next arrives, but when the first load arrived I asked them to dump it on the grass near the driveway and now more was arriving I really wanted it dumped nearer the back of the same grassy area, so I needed to make access for the trailer to put it at the back.

I can't overstate how grateful I am for this gift of wood chippings, there is no way we could afford to go out and buy enough bark or wood chippings to cover the pathways and now they are covered with just the cost of our energy and effort. I know that I've done too much and pushed myself too hard to get the chippings onto the pathways and that in the next couple of days I will need to take some seriously long breaks and rest more than I'd really like to. But it is worth it as they look fabulous.
The second load to arrive was very exciting, it has some more recently chipped wood in places but most of the load is very well composted wood chippings. So now we have a pile of rich black fine crumbly compost to add to the topsoil and to mulch the vegetable beds with. As time goes on and we get more loads of chippings I will create the rest of the raised beds and cover the pathways with the most recently chipped material.

I've already used some shredded leaves and chippings in the latest compost heap to combine with the spent brewery grain, straw and chicken house waste. The relentless compost making continues and sometimes I get bored of thinking about it, but as soon as I start the next heap I get a burst of renewed vigour and interest. It is after all, the stuff that will help to feed us in coming years, so for that alone I know it is worth continuing to create as much as I can.

Over the next few days I will move some of the semi-composted wood chippings to the chickens' field and give each group of chickens several wheelbarrow loads to scratch through and work on. I will put it in the 'circle of love' that is now on each side of the field. Next year, each circle will be fenced off from the chickens and a new circle made for them to turn over. In the fenced off area I will grow crops that the chickens like to eat and it will form a part of their diet in the winter months when the pickings of green matter in the field isn't as rich as it is now.
Today has been a rainy day, but first thing this morning I spent a couple of hours in the garden before breakfast and before the rain started. I transplanted the last of the leeks into the newest raised bed and popped others into spaces in several of the other beds. I lifted a few weeds, the annuals went into the compost bins and the perennials into a garden sack.
Then I picked some runner beans and headed indoors for most of the day. 

Using my trusty 1960s Spong's bean slicer I prepared the beans for the freezer. Whilst we would prefer to eat them fresh rather than frozen, I want to make sure that we have some beans for the dinner table in the autumn and winter months.

Much of each day seems to have been taking up with watching the birds. I lose great chunks of the day just watching them busying themselves. The little chicks are now five, six and seven days old and have started growing wing feathers and a few now have tiny little tail feathers. They are light on their feet although not entirely accurate as yet, there is quite a lot falling over, but they pick themselves up again immediately and try again. 

Neither Mr J nor I had been prepared for how endearing ducklings are. They have had their first dabble (and dibble) in water. We set a paint roller tray in their pen and part filled it with water and it didn't take very long for them to find their way into it. As they dibble in the water with their tiny bills, they make bubbles and then chase the bubbles. It's delightful to watch them playing for a few minutes at a time before we take the water out again. We didn't spend too much time with them for the first few days so that they didn't imprint on us as that can cause problems later on. It's been hard not to spend hours watching them, but we have stayed away so hopefully they don't think of us as parents and have identified with each other as fellow beings.

Mr J now has a part time job, so for a part of each week it will just be me working on our smallholding, but he will also have plenty of time for being at home, pottering outside with me on a variety of projects and creating his radio shows (you can find out more about these on his blog page here).

I am sure that over the next few days I will get back into the rhythm of blog writing on a more regular basis again. The arrival of the baby birds spread out over four days consumed my attention last week, but I am now getting into a steady routine with cleaning their living space, topping up their food and water. I think that for this year we have (probably) hatched our last batch of chicks, but we are going to incubate one more batch of duck eggs in the hope that we have a few more ducks. Several people have asked whether we have ducks available and it seems to make sense to have some to offer.

As I type, Mr J is closing the hen houses making the birds secure for the night and encouraging the ducks to go to bed. It is time to put my feet up, watch a bit of telly and, as always, have a cuppa!

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