November in Barbara’s Back Yard

November in Barbara’s Back Yard

 

We have a sort of combination of Samhain, Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes with a bonfire and Jack’O’Lanterns – pumpkin soup, hot dogs and flapjacks.

Timothy the Scarecrow, who has now completed his task keeping the pigeons away from the peas, becomes Guy Fawkes and we make a mask for his face.  Logan was particularly creative (and scary!) this year with his handprint skull.

Just have two pumpkins left to carve for our bonfire night – the rest have been made into pumplin soup or given away to good causes.  The biggest pumpkin this year went to a children’s nursery – wish I had a video of the excitement in the children’s faces when they saw how big it was!  One year there was a really massive pumpkin and it went to a local garden nursery to promote their pumpkin picking patch – they did a ‘guess the weight of the pumpkin’ competition.

When all the fun of Hallowe’en is over, it’s time to put grease bands on the fruit trees – especially the greengage – if you don’t then the plums all get grubs in them, they rot on the branches and the wasps love them which makes picking them quite precarious!

It’s also a good idea to pick holly whilst there are still lots of berries – before the birds pinch them all.  I was horrified one year to go out to collect holly to make wreaths to find that the beautifully adorned holly trees were practically bare of berries.  Need to store them where the birds can’t get to them as well – as last year I put them in the open barn – only to find that many of the berries had disappeared!

Autumn in Barbara’s Back Yard

Autumn  – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – perfectly described by John Keats

So much brighter – and warmer – today – tidied up the hen house – and found where the Spice Girls are laying their eggs.  They have settled in much faster than the last lot and have calmed down – they don’t skitter away from me in panic any more.  Still have difficulty getting them in at night – it’s almost like they are saying to me:  “Just one more bit of grass first…”  I tell them that they really will be let out again in the morning and there will be plenty more grass to eat!

Dillon crowed for the first time this week – I felt a thrill of excitement when I heard him – its ages since we had an adult cockerel.  He has quite a deep crow (the bantam cockerel we had made a really shrill noise – much to the annoyance of the boys who were sleeping in the room nearest him!)  Clearing up the garden it was so lovely to hear him crowing.  Happy hens lay happy eggs!

Lit the fire the last few nights – my new herby firelighters work really well – just need to show husband how to use them instead of those smelly petrol ones – you just put them on top of screwed up newspaper and you need some really dry kindling or a dry log on top.  Works like a dream!

My two new ‘NZW’ does must have some Californian blood in them.  Half Keri’s babies now have black noses and tails – and ear tips!  They will probably be much hardier – and make better rabbits to breed for meat – but they are definitely not pure bred NZWhites!  Wonder how Lily’s babies will turn out!  They will all make lovely house rabbits – they are really friendly and the Californians with their black noses and tails are really cute.  They are ready for new homes now – £15 each – if you are looking for a pet that doesn’t need a walk every day.

Jack Frost is back!

Jack Frost is Back!

Frosty this morning – so cold in comparison to last week – but there’s always a bright side – the birds are back on the bird table in all their winter colours – the robin showing off his new waistcoat, the great spotted woodpecker in all his glory – and all the tits – the stunning black and yellow of the great tits and the tiny blue tits and coal tits, nibbling seeds when they can get a beak in.  Blackbirds are fighting over territory in the apple tree and nuthatches are busy gobbling up sunflower seeds – and peanuts – they don’t eat them on the bird table, they fly off with them – to eat in secret – or to store?  I would love to know where they go with them.

The frost has finished off the runner beans – and the nasturtiums:  “They’ve gone willy-nilly, umbrellas and all.”  Along with the Nasturtium Fairy.

Today’s Treasures Grindley Brook Staircase Locks

Grindley Brook Staircase Locks

It’s the Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union Canal that drops down the staircase locks at Grindley Brook, then under the A41 and through three other locks on its way east to Nantwich.

Originally built by the Ellesmere Canal Company, this fabulous stretch of the Shropshire Union Canal was designed by Thomas Telford and completed in 1805.  It linked the ironworks and collieries of Wrexham to Chester via the Chester Canal, and extended west into the Montgomery Canal – which closed in 1936 and fell into disrepair but is now gradually being restored.

The canal carried lead and stone from Wrexham, bricks from Ruabon – and – by 1808 when the Whitchurch arm was opened – cheese from Whitchurch market to Ellesmere Port on the Fly Boat – a horse drawn canal boat – a journey of some 65 miles that took 24 hours, non-stop – except for changing horses along the way.

It was much later that it became the Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union Canal and now is mainly important for holidaymakers.  Between March and November up to 60 boats a day negotiate the locks keeping the lock-keeper busy supervising – 3 boats up, then 3 boats down – he’s there between 8.30 am and 6.00 pm every day.  Visitors from all over the world come to enjoy the tranquillity of Britain’s canals, the beautiful rural scenery, the industrial architecture – and of course the trip across Thomas Telford’s famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen.

The staircase locks at Grindley Brook are unique because they have no side ponds – the water comes from the River Dee near Llangollen via the feeder canal at the Horseshoe Falls at Llantysilio.

The Lockside Café is always busy with walkers along the Shropshire Way and the Sandstone Trail as well as boaters – it’s a fascinating place to sit and enjoy a cup of tea – watching the boats go up and down the locks – and the lock-keeper making sure that everyone takes turns and the lock gates and paddles are opened and shut in the correct order.

Published in the October edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Hallowe’en in Barbara’s Back Yard

Hallowe’en in Barbara’s Back Yard

Hallowe’en – the night when the divide between the worlds of the living and the dead is especially thin – my Grandmother used to have a teapot stand that said:  “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and things that go bump in the night, may the good Lord deliver us.”  I’ve no idea why it was on a teapot stand but I always think of it at Hallowe’en.  (Looking it up I find out that it’s a Scottish prayer.)

Time to pick pumpkins and carve Jack O’lanterns (tip – use an ice cream scoop to scrape out the seeds).  Reserve the flesh for pumpkin soup.

The idea of a hollowed-out vegetable with a candle in the middle originated with the Celts – but they didn’t have pumpkins (they came later – from America).  They used beets, and turnips, and carved grotesque faces on them – and put them outside their doors to ward off evil spirits.

According to Irish folklore, Jack O’lantern comes from the story of Stingy Jack who tried to outsmart the Devil: Jack invites the Devil for a drink and convinces him to transform into a coin to pay with – as soon as the coin appeared, Jack changed his mind and kept the coin in his pocket with a silver cross – so preventing it turning back into the Devil.  Eventually Jack freed the devil, on condition that he would leave Jack alone for a year – and – that he wouldn’t claim Jack’s soul when he died.  At the end of the year Jack tricked the devil again by persuading him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit.  Whilst the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the tree trunk so the Devil couldn’t get down.  The Devil had to swear that he would leave Jack alone for another ten years before he was allowed to come down.

Then Jack died – but he had led such a sinful life that God wouldn’t let him into Heaven and, because of his bargain with the Devil, he couldn’t get into hell either, so Jack was sent instead into the eternal night. Jack complained about how dark it was, wandering around earth with no place to go, so someone tossed him a hot coal, which he placed in a hollowed-out turnip – and he has been roaming the earth ever since – with his turnip-lantern to guide him.

The Irish began to refer to this spooky figure as “Jack of the Lantern”, which has since become Jack O’Lantern – and some folks say that Jack comes out on Hallowe’en night looking for someone to take his place… so watch out, if you see him wandering your way!

The Samhain festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the “darker half” of the year.  Time to pick and store the apples for winter puddings – and to add to soups (Squash Apple and Sage Soup) – and to feed to the rabbits and hens when winter sets in.  Time to make Wittenham Cider with the windfalls.  The recipe says to leave it for a week after its bottled – but it’s usually quite fizzy – and very drinkable – the day after it’s bottled!

At Christmas, we always have a real Christmas tree – and we save it to help get the bonfire going at Samhain.   I’m not too keen on fireworks – but we do love sparklers – and no-one is ever too old to draw sparkling shapes in the air on Bonfire night.

We have spicy pumpkin soup, hot dogs – and Wittenham Cider (which is much better before it becomes alcoholic as its much sweeter).  And we combine Guy Fawkes with All Hallows Eve and have our own Samhain on the nearest weekend – I always light candles on 31st October – and tealights in our Jack O’Lanterns to keep away Stingy Jack!

Happy, smiley, pumpkin Jack’o’Lantern

October in Barbara’s Back Yard

The New Spice Girls

The new ex-bats are bigger than the last ones and less timid.  They are settling in much quicker and seem less vulnerable, but they are not very adventurous yet – just eating their layers mash – and I think it will be a while before they have grown enough feathers back in order to perch.

The first night I put them all in the little pen (as instructed) but the next morning one of them had got out so I opened up the pen but put a board across the door to discourage them from venturing outside until they had got their bearings.

The next day, Ginger (obviously the ringleader) had circumvented my barricade and was exploring outside, she got quite stroppy when I tried to usher her back in.

Like before, my other hens are ignoring the newcomers – they don’t seem to recognise them as the same species.

I made firelighters – I pruned and cut down the herbs in the herb garden.  Sage, thyme, bay, rosemary and lavender contain oils and burn well so I tie them in bundles with other herbs – tarragon, marjoram, lemon mint and hyssop to make firelighters.  I hang them up in the barn to dry.  They are much more environmentally friendly – and cheaper – than chemical firelighters – and work just as well.   It was a beautiful day, the sun was really warm and it was lovely outside – except I kept being plagued with ladybirds landing on me – and occasionally biting too.

I picked the first pumpkins and made spicy pumpkin soup – with chilli powder, allspice, cayenne, – and fresh thyme.

Homegrown carrots, parsnips and potatoes generally suffer from some pests – like wireworm and carrot fly – so when preparing them, I don’t put the scrap bits on the compost heap – I put them in a bucket and give them to the hens to scratch through and devour all the bugs.  Same with cabbages – I give the outer leaves – complete with slugs and caterpillars to the ducks and hens to pick  through. The ducks love slugs and snails.  Every other day I check the polytunnel for snails – collecting them in a bucket and then I tip them into the ducks’ water bowl.

Weeding is much more fun when you can feed the chickweed to the hens and the shepherd’s purse and dandelions to the rabbits.  Much more satisfying.

September in Barbara’s Back Yard

September in Barbara’s Back Yard

Lily Rabbit has had her babies.  Don’t know how many yet as I don’t like to disturb her.  Relieved that she is fertile – as last time she was mated no babies appeared.

Collected some pondweed and duck weed out of the ornamental pond and gave it to the ducks.  The ducks love rooting through it – and they greedily gobble up all the duck weed off the top of the water (hence its name I guess!).

I’ve decided to call the third duck Jasmine – I often change names as their personalities develop.  So I have Desmond, Olivia (Oli) and Jasmine ducks, Dillon and Daisy the Dorkings, Doris Brown and Grace Grey.  They are fascinating to watch.  The ducks prefer the water bowl to the pond.  In the morning they come rushing out – looking to see if there’s any snails in the water bowl.

Picked all the ripe tomatoes out of the polytunnel, and most of the basil and Thai basil.  I will make tomato and basil soup for today, skin and chop the rest of the tomatoes and freeze them in tubs – some of them with chopped basil – for later use in curries and pasta dishes. The rest of the chopped basil I freeze in plastic bags, or ice cube trays (with a few drops of water) for adding to meals in the winter.  The Thai basil I am drying – laying it on a baking tray in a very cool oven until it is dry, then picking off the leaves and chopping them in the chopper attachment of my mixer.  The basil can then be stored in an airtight jar.

Today’s Treasures – Lake Bala – a Moment of Tranquility

Today’s Treasures – Lake Bala – a Moment of Tranquility

A visit to Lake Bala is always an uplifting experience.  Its tranquil waters have a calming effect.  On this late August morning it was amazing, the lake was drenched in clouds but as we watched, the floating mist drifted across the surface of the lake, dissipating in the sunshine.

A faint hint of the chill of autumn touches the morning air, the sun gathering warmth as it climbs in the sky.  Boats perch on the water, still as statues.  A slight breeze touches a flag and its reflection ripples the glass mirror surface.  The silence of the water is surreal.

Dewdrops glisten on blades of grass, twinkling tantalisingly in the sunlight.  As the clouds unfold, hilltops peep out like prehistoric creatures, fields and trees appear as if a magic paintbrush is wiping the mist away.

Sitting watching the last of the mist disappear, I let my mind drift in amongst the boats, floating along the ripples on the lake, free of life’s complexities, like a bird, devoid of human preoccupation.  A moment of tranquility.

Apart from being a beautiful place to sit and dream, Lake Bala (Llyn Tegid) is the largest natural lake in Wales and an internationally important Ramsar wetlands site.  It is the home of the Gwyniad (a type of whitefish), and glutinous snails – both species unique to the area.  In the River Tryweryn, one of the rivers that feed the lake, live freshwater pearl mussels and The Lamprey, a rare eel-like fish.

Pblished in the September edition of The Whitchurch Gossip magazine.

Today’s Treasures – The Big Butterfly Count

This year I took part in the Big Butterfly Count

www.bigbutterflycount.org

As soon as the buddleia comes out I always take some time to watch the myriad different butterflies who just love the purple spikes.  There’s often a dozen peacock butterflies sunning themselves on the flowers, sipping nectar, fluttering their wings and showing off their spectacular colours.

Counting butterflies on a beautiful sunny afternoon is a tranquil, calming experience, watching them flutter from flower to flower, sometimes dancing together against the blue sky and skating clouds, seeing how many different butterflies join the feast; large and small whites love the flowers and there’s usually one or two red admirals and commas as well.  This year there were also two painted lady butterflies – but no small tortoiseshells – evidently they have been attacked by a parasitic fly – one of the reasons why David Attenborough’s butterfly count is so important – we can see the effects of these invasive insects.

Butterflies love buddleia because it produces lots of nectar, its deep flowers are accessible only to insects with long tongues and its flowers are clustered together so a butterfly can collect lots of nectar from one place.  Verbena and cosmos also attract butterflies – and food plants for their caterpillars include nettles and thistles.  Also ragwort which is a fascinating plant to watch – dozens of different insects love the flowers and the black and yellow caterpillars of the beautiful red cinnabar moth love the leaves.

I also discovered that we have two different blue butterflies – the common blue – which likes bird’s foot trefoil – and the holly blue which (as the name suggests) feeds on holly (and ivy).

Meadow browns (left) and ringlets (right) love the marjoram in my herb garden.

Published in the August edition of the Whitchurch Gossip

Courgettes – recipe ideas to make the best use of courgettes

COURGETTES

Every year I end up with too many courgettes and don’t know what to do with them – so this year I have tried out a few innovative recipes:

Nearly marrow sized courgettes can be cut into one inch thick slices and baked in a little oil for around half an hour at 180°, turning occasionally, until soft. (I use a mixture of sunflower, olive, groundnut and sesame oils but any mixture is good.)  Liquidise and use in curries instead of tinned tomatoes.  You might need to add a little more spice than usual to give more flavour – but my family never noticed the difference.

Grate courgettes and add to salads (don’t overdo it else they do get noticed!)

I have also added grated courgettes to spaghetti Bolognese, stir fries and pasta dishes.

Brush whole baby courgettes with oil and barbecue alongside sausages.