Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Let's talk about the girls

It's been just over a week since the hens arrived, and in some ways the changes have been subtle, but very definite.

I think because we've done so much reading and preparation, we knew the commitment
in terms of time, of setting a routine and so forth. The hen house & run is secure and sturdy, but the garden fence and gate have been strengthened. We both get out of bed before 6.30am to clean and fill feeders and drinkers, put them in the run and let the birds out.

Saturday morning clean bedding day is no longer just about throwing the sheets in the washing machine - it also means fresh bedding for the birds, scrubbing their sleeping quarters and another bagload of composting material.

We need to do a little more organising indoors, but for the meantime, a bag of hen grit makes a very good doorstop.

By the second night, they had all learnt to put themselves to bed at dusk, but for the near future it means no nights on the town and certainly no weekends away. So no Hereford Food Festival this year, but we've got plenty we can do nearer to home. I suspect that come the time of the Welsh Smallholders Show next May, we'll have plenty of volunteers to look after them (they'll be laying by then, so will pay their way).

Anyway, last Sunday, we drove down to Perfect Poultry in Surrey (just of Junction 3 of the M3, to be precise) to collect the birds I'd reserved. In spite of all the places I'd visited, all the research I'd done, I had never handled a hen. But when I was handed the first of them - the Barnevelder, it was even more special. All the pets I had as a child had been presents, and the many cats that have shared my space over the years have all invited themselves in. This was the first ever animal that I had bought for myself, that I had total responsibility for.

The hen was placed in a box for transit, and was joined by a Light Sussex. A White Leghorn and a Lavender Araucana were placed in a second box and we loaded the van, placing the boxes so that there was least chance of them moving.

As it was a hot afternoon, we set off straight home, taking the motorway route. Once we arrived home, I filled a drinker so they had fresh water, and put a generous handful of mealworms & corn on an untreated sleeper offcut (hereafter known as the Treats Table). We took them out of the boxes one by one, and placed them in the house. After a short while, we opened to pophole into the run, and one by one they negotiated the ramp and headed towards the corn. We watched them for a while, then left them to get used to their new surroundings.

Come sunset, only the Barnevelder had worked out that she had to go back up the ramp to bed. The other three huddled together in the far corner of the run, and Howard had to get on his hands and knees to fish them out for me to place them inside on the perch. We worried that this would be a routine we would need to follow for a while, but by the next evening, all four made their way in by the proper route. Within a couple of days they were going to bed regardless of whether or not they'd had an evening treat. Corn is their favourite treat, but as it's basically hen sweets, I restrict it to a small handfull every few days. The other treat they love is far more healthy - broccoli. Hens need greenery, and brassicas are a good source of calcium, as vital for hens as for us.

Even in the week they've been here, they have matured. Gigliola, the Leghorn, is now always first up and about in the morning. Her comb has grown and is changing from pale pink to red. Whether we'll get any eggs from her before Spring I'm not sure, but she's strutting about the run in a very confident manner. Dusty, the Light Sussex, is as solid and uncomplicated as would be expected of her breed. But she's always the first to any food. Jerney, the Barnevelder, is the most quiet & placid of the quartet. She lost some tail feathers before she came to us, but that aside, she's a fine looking, very strong and solid bird. (For that reason, a nightmare to catch - those claws do damage!).

I must admit that Rita, the Araucana, is my favourite, just. She doesn't have the standard red comb - instead she has a crest - a small bouffant of grey feathers. She cranes her neck to look at the outside world, and sometimes turns her head. owl like, 180 degrees. If you open the door to do some daytime maintainance (such as when the water drinker tray has had a load of wood shavings kicked into it), she's the first to the gap. She's always second to food, but being smaller and more agile, often takes it from under Dusty's beak. She is also usually the last in at night, and the last to settle.

This Sunday we had a slight scare. Smudger, the local semi feral tom cat (his human owner's children are totally feral, so you can't blame him), paid a visit. He was prowling round the run, clearing undressing the hens and wrapping them in foil with his eyes. (This is the same cat that snuck into the kitchen a couple of Christmases ago and we caught straddling the oven ready duck!). We saw him off, with the help of a full watering can, and sealed up his entry/escape route. On checking the hens, we noticed that three had bloodied beaks. It appears that in trying to see him off, they'd tried to stick their heads through the wire and scraped the skin at the top of the beak/base of the comb. We couldn't get hold of Jerney to treat her, but the scratch is healing nicely. Gigliola was easy to handle, and we dabbed some purple Gentian Violet antiseptic spray on the scratch. We caught & treated Rita as well, and with the splash of purple on her crest, she has a temporary blue rinse - very fetching!

Monday, 21 September 2009

All things being equal.....

Waylaid by an 18 hour bug, so stuck at home today (the work colleague I phoned in sick to was ill with the same thing most of yesterday, so at least I know it's a bug and I don't need to decant the fridge).

Not being able to stray too far from the house allowed me some quiet time alone, to sort through papers and fill a bag for recycling. I don't care if it's slower and less efficient, a hand cranked paper shredder is more satisfying.

Our blessed council (or rather the ego otherwise known as Councillor Terry Neville) have decided to once again revise our refuse collection routine. Most houses will be given a wheelie bin, but as we don't have sufficient "frontage", we will be allocated two sacks each for refuse and recycling. Many households are up in arms, complaining that two bags for rubbish are nowhere near enough, whereas we're wondering the same about recycling bags. We struggle to fill one rubbish bag a week, so there may well be a black market earning opportunity here. With the hens due to arrive next week, a great deal of our paper and card recycling will be put to use as a base for their bedding, and as the worms in the wormery are still alive, despite recent neglect (due to things being put in the way for the duration of the raised bed construction), they'll be getting more of the very little food waste we have each week. Be interesting to see how many spare bags we have come year end.

Yes - the chickens are ordered and we'll be collecting them by this time next week. I'm going for reliable but hardy traditional breeds, each laying eggs with a different coloured shell, and will be naming them after singers from their country of origin - the Sussex will be named Dusty, the Barnevelder will be Jerney, the Leghorn Gigliola (suspect that will be shortened in time) and the exotic South American Araucana will be named Rita. On the day we collect, if there's a Wyandotte or Rhode Island Red hen ready to go, I may well be tempted. But this raises a major dilemma - do I name it in honour of Doris Troy , Minnie Ripperton or Evie Sands?

With today being the Autumnal Equinox, from here on in for the next six months, the nights will be longer than the days. This will give the hens chance to settle in and strengthen up before they start laying regularly in the Spring.

My unintentional absence from work has allowed me to take in the last day of Summer - to quietly observe and contemplate. Autumn has come early this year, with many trees already turning in colour. The view from the desk at home, once past the rooftops of the next street, is still mainly a patchwork of green, but golds and bronzes have been added to the pallet over the past three weeks or so. Many of the shrubs I pass by are loaded with berries, including the blackthorn on the approach to the bus stop - must get some sloe picking done, the budget gin awaits!

This turn in the year for me marks the start of the new gardening year. The first 2010 seed catalogue arrived on Saturday (Tamar Organics beating Thompson & Morgan for once). As the hours of daylight decrease in comparison to darkness, the physicality of garden work increases. We've still got digging and clearing to do at the allotment. We were under no illusion that we could tame the wilderness in one year, but even so, the robustness of Couch Grass and Bramble roots is frustrating. We need to rework the Forest Garden bed. Much as I like blackberries, I don't take kindly to them smothering all my other fruit!

Over the past few weeks, we've also been refurbishing the allotment shed, boarding the inside to keep the draughts out, and painting the boarding light blue to reflect more light. Next project is to fix the windows before the worst of the Winter winds. Over the Summer, I bought a 25 litre plastic jerry can. So we now have an albeit limited water supply on tap. Saves dragging a five litre refill over every week - we can now wait until we hire a van and fill the bottle at home.

I've already started off the first garlic for next year, planting 20 cloves of Early Purple garlic in modules at home, ready to plant out once the last of the potatoes are lifted at the allotment. Though it's been a slightly disappointing harvest overall, we'll still have enough potatoes to see us through the next few months. Going to try a different variety of yellow onion next year. I'm not sure why, but this year's crop have been exceedingly strong. Not only do you have to have all doors and windows open when preparing them, even two extractor fans on full blast can't stop your eyes from streaming!

Not harvest exactly, but recent building work opposite our house has proved fruitful.
We now have three clean, intact builders' bags (cubic metre sized) rescued from the skip, ready to be filled with Autumn leaves, council compost and wood chippings at the allotment, and will be useful while we move and rebuild the compost bins. I'm hoping they'll let me have first refusal on the decking offcuts piling up as I write. I have visions of assorted planters and mini raised beds dotted around the back garden, with happy hens scratching and pecking the ground between.

The increased hours of darkness allow me an excuse to overindulge my reading habit. I've got plenty of books I want to study in full, or reacquaint myself with in preparation for the next growing season. Aside of Forest Garden / Permaculture titles, some 1940's Dig For Victory books have been republished recently. More often than not, it's original books from that era that I refer to first, and whilst the originals may be too delicate or precious to carry with me while commuting, a modern facsimile would be perfect distraction for an hour or so twice a day. Much easier to carry than the Earth Care Manual or Complete Book of Self Sufficiency too. Couldn't manage to carry those AND a notebook!

Next year will be a better year - we'll work to make it that way.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Decision has been made…..

We’re getting some hens.

This has been a long time coming, and a step I didn’t originally expect to be able to take until we moved out of London, but we have the right amount of space and a secure enough back garden to make the next key step in taking responsibility for the food we eat.

It’s been talked about ever since we moved here, and we have the OK from the landlord, the council and our neighbours both sides. Now we are both working again, we can afford to buy all the things needed for the set-up – decent housing, feeders, drinkers, treatments, grits and so forth.

Once all the kit is in place, we can get the birds. I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and will be getting pure breed birds as opposed to the modern commercial hybrids, which are so often recommended. Part of my decision can be explained by the words that precede hybrid – modern, as in little or no history to them, and commercial, as in produced on a large scale by one company, with volume as opposed to quality as the target.

I’d much rather have birds with years of careful breeding behind them, that lay reasonably well over a few years, rather than pay for a copyrighted cross that lays high volumes for a year or so then keels over and needs replacing.

I’d like to get breeds that each lay a different coloured egg, so I can tell whose laying and how often, and if needs be, which hens appear to have problems. They won’t start laying eggs immediately, as I’ll be buying “Point of Lay” – hens that are just reaching maturity and ready to start laying, plus they will need to be settled in their new surroundings first of all.

Yes, there’s plenty to learn, but I know I can get support if needed and hopefully will be able to pass on the knowledge I gain.

And make exceedingly good cakes.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

A Few Days In May - Part One - The Journey West

Better fill you in on what we've been up to over the past few months: -

One of the highlights of our year is a trip the Smallholders and Garden Show at the Royal Welsh Showground near Builth Wells. Due to tight finances, we had to give the show a miss in 2008, so this year we were determined to make the most of it. We had even booked our accommodation in January when rooms were at cheap rates.

Rather than a mad dash down the M4 there and back, we like to take our time and use a more scenic, less traumatic route. As we were setting of on the Friday morning, the first part of the journey was on motorways – the M25 and the M40. Outside of the rush hour, the M40 is quite a pleasant drive. From Beaconsfield onwards, Red Kites can be seen soaring and swooping, and as you leave the last remnants of High Wycombe behind you, the road goes through a deep cutting made in the chalk hills of the Chilterns. Suddenly, before your eyes is a view of the Thames plain towards Newbury and Oxford, and in the distance lie the hills of the Cotswolds. You are through the Gateway to the West and there’s no turning back!

These days, rather than get held up in the Oxford Ring Road, we take the motorway to a junction further and drop down to the A40 on the western edge of the city. A few more miles and we’re in the Cotswolds and really feel like we’re on holiday.

We always make a point of breaking our journey in Burford. It was voted the 6th best place to live in the world by some high end business magazine survey, and it’s easy to see why. Beautiful buildings and surroundings, yet everyday life is still catered for on the High Street – among the antiques, artworks and restaurants, there’s a grocers, chemist and newsagent, plus a well-stocked cook shop, which is more than can be said for the likes of Southgate near us.

Just before we reach the outskirts of the town, there is the garden centre – one of the best anywhere. There is a huge range of plants, always in the best of health, a great selection of seeds, bulbs and all the bits and bobs needed to grow them. Being in a posh area, the other stuff sold in the garden centre is a far cry from the usual tat. The food area is stocked with good local produce, including beer & cheese. The cookshop is great, full of useful and great looking gear. The most downmarket brand in the china department is Emma Bridgewater, and they’ve even added a mid-century modern stand in the antiques department. And very nice, clean, warm and well-appointed loos - an essential on any epic journey.

A very nice place, and yes, you wouldn’t mind living there.

After a wholesome lunch in the restaurant, a sneaky look round the toyshop, and a quick look round the refurbished Shepherd’s Hut, we set off on the rest of the journey, taking in Stow on the Wold, the delightfully named Upper Swell, Tewkesbury and Ledbury before reaching Hereford where we would be staying.

Shortly after leaving Tewkesbury, our route passes by my second favourite building – a derelict barn. Made of bricks, laid out in intricate patterns, which had obviously been the vernacular style as there are similar barns in use nearby, I wish I could find out what it looked like when it was intact and in use. Above all, I’d like to think I wasn’t the only person who wanted to make sure the building could be saved.

Our journey then took us over the lower reaches of the Malverns and finally into Herefordshire. We made a detour just after skirting Ledbury to visit Poultry Park, chicken breeders just outside Newent. I wanted to see a few of the breeds kept there – especially Cream Legbars, famous for their blue eggs, while I was making the decision as to which breeds to keep at home.

The place was well laid out, with each poultry house given over to one breed. Outside the house, there were two large grassy runs, one in use and the other recovering. The birds looked healthy and clearly happy with the space they had.

The breed runs were situated round the outside of the field, and the inner had a seating area, plus gardens laid out to show how hens could be kept in a small area – one had the hens roaming over a lawn, one with them in a moveable ark placed on vegetable beds and the third in a fixed enclosure at the back of a more formal garden. An interesting place to visit, even if we didn’t come away with any birds.

We left Poultry Park at closing time, and, as luck would have it, just as the rain started. So we headed towards Hereford and our hotel, and after a very good meal in the pub next door, we settled down for an early night ahead of an early start.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

If you build it, they will come………..Eventually

I've been a little despondent over my attempts to encourage wildlife into our garden, and the incident with the deep frozen frogs made me wonder about keeping the pond near the back door.

Well, on Sunday morning, whilst giving the area a tidy up, I removed some blanket weed, and discovered a newt!

Seems to be a female Smooth Newt, and it's still in there, plus a small frog which flits in and out.

Considering the pond is little bigger than a washing up bowl, in a suburban back garden, I'm pretty pleased.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Year Turns Another Corner

Last time I posted, we were stuck at home because the roads were too icy to travel. At the time it felt like the cold weather was here to stay, and I feared another year of being held back by the weather. The snowdrops in the garden were a good month late in flowering, and the pond froze so deep that come the thaw we had to dispose of two hibernating frogs that had unwittingly been cryogenically preserved at the bottom.

A few weeks down the line, and the Spring Equinox is upon us. The Canada Geese at the lake have started flying round in honking squadrons at dawn and dusk, the woodpackers have been drumming and the Magpies have been adding another precarious layer to last year's nest. After the cold weather delaying even the snowdrops, it seems that in the past fortnight Spring has not so much sprung as pounced. The main road through the estate has come alive with a primary colour mix of Mimosa blossom, Ceanothus buds and Photinia leaves. Last Sunday was so warm I spotted the first butterflies of the year, a Brimstone, Red Admiral and a Tortoiseshell.

Because I don't have a proper greenhouse, I held off seed sowing until last weekend, but now this have got underway with a vengance. After regular Saturday errands, I plan to spend the afternoon in the potting shed, starting off as many of the hardier crops and flowers.

We had a little shock at the allotment, though we weren't around to see the actual event. As the snow and ice melted, the run off from the woods and the golf course next to the allotment poured into the brook which provides a boundary to the site. The amount of melt water was enough to cause the brook to break its bank for the first time in several years, and part of the allotment site was flooded, including a corner of our plot. By the time we visited, the waters had receded, and we though that vandalism was the cause of the collapse of our woodpile. Although a little alarming, we were relieved to hear the real reason for the disruption. I'm planting more Willow cuttings at the bottom corner of the plot, which bore the brunt of the flooding.

We've spend the past couple of weekends digging and moving the heeled in fruit trees and bushes. The bottom edge is now edged with Gooseberries, punctuated with Apple and Pear trees. This has left me with more space elsewhere to plant fruit, and thus an excuse to get more - including Cider Apple trees. Expensive in the short term, but in the long run they'll pay for themselves and hopefully prove to be our legacy to future growers.

We'll be concentrating in preparing the potato patch this weekend, and hopefully we'll have the first and second earlies in by Easter, with the Maincrops in come May Day. On a more self-indulgent note, we put a small counter top in the shed last week, below the window, which will serve as a cooking, eating, writing and lookout spot.

This weekend, my errand running on Saturday will include a visit to the fancy interior design shop on Winchmore Hill Green to buy paint to do the inside of the shed. Indulgent maybe, but have spent an hour sitting watching a sleet downpour with a ready supply of tea & biccies, it has once again been proven that a comfy shed is not just an optional extra!

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Communal Ice-Breaking

Tired & achey, but at least I'm warm.

Stuck at home for the past two days because of the "extreme snow event" in London. Because the estate where we live has narrow roads and is at the top of a hill, the gritters didn't make it in here so the buses didn't run. All well and good yesterday when everyone was stuck at home, but today it was a tad irritating.

Yesterday several families were out in the street once it was obvious no-one was going anywhere. Children were enjoying making snow figures (not just snowmen - though what inspired someone to fashion a toilet with the lid up out of snow is best left unasked), and throwing snowballs. Fathers took the opportunity to show their children how to have a proper snowball fight. Later in the day, the steep slope of the street and the green that leads to the main loop road were used for sled runs. Some had proper sleds, others used tea trays or plastic chopping boards. One very enterprising person found an abandoned "pavement closed" sign left over from last week and bent it to shape.

We decided to take advantage of the unexpected spare time and go for a walk round the lake. This time last year we were spotting snapdrops and early bud burst. No chance od that yesterday - the snow was at least 4 inches deep everywhere. The snow that was falling on the lake was turning into a slushy carpet over the surface, sliced through by the birds as they swam past. We walked round the lake and into the wood, watching the snow continue to fall through gaps in the trees. We took advantage of the natural arbours made by tightly twined ivy for shelter before reluctanly returning home to warm through and dry out.

This morning, the hours of fun had yesterday had taken their toll on the street. The hundreds of sled runs down the hill had compacted the snow into thick ice, and it was impossible to drive out onto the main roads. In fact, a couple of cars from further up the street ended up sliding down to the end whilst trying to leave. The wheelspins as they attempted to escape made the ice even harder to break.

Eventually we decided something had to be done, and along with a neighbour and one of the trapped drivers, we started trying to break the ice. It turned out the best tool for this was a garden hoe, which sliced through the ice as effectively as through soil. It was hard work, painful on the back and shoulders, but after an hour or so we had driven a decent sized clear passage for cars on the road, and a similar gap on the pavement.

When we visited the local garden centres on Saturday to get our seed
potatoes, I noticed bags of rock salt on sale. I wondered about
getting some, but I do think that the joint effort made this lunchtime
was more positive that throwing down a chemical that could have run
down to the brook.

As we finished our task, we could hear the sound a spades scraping away ice from all directions. I don't know if we inspired them, or even guilt tripped them, or if they had planned to get out and clear the ice anyway, but it just proves that there's no point in waiting for someone (especially the council) to take the initiative. If something needs doing, whether it just benefits you or a whole group of people, just get on and make a start!