Just Another Day in Barbara’s Back Yard

Just Another Day in Barbara’s Back Yard

I was standing at the kitchen sink this morning (as I very often do!) and a sparrowhawk landed on the little table in front of the kitchen window.  Amazing, it was so close.  Usually you struggle to identify birds of prey circling high in the sky above you but this was so easy to identify – it was so close. Even though I stood perfectly still, I must have blinked because he was off in a flash – but the picture in my mind remains.

Daisy laid her very first egg this morning.  Dorking eggs are pale – not brown – and this is probably one of the reasons that Dorkings are now a rare breed.  Although the nutritional content of white and brown eggs is exactly the same – the perception is different – and consequently supermarkets only seem to sell brown eggs now.

Once Dillon learned to crow, he quickly realised he could do other things too – much to Doris’s consternation (she had obviously forgotten about Dillon the First).  The Spice Girls seemed to accept it as par for the course.  I can never quite figure out whether hens like to be jumped on – the ducks however do seem to enjoy it.  When we first had ducks (and geese) I was told we would need a pond if we wanted fertile eggs, so we spent ages digging out a pond deep enough for the geese to swim in.  The ducks and geese did love the pond – but they managed equally well on dry land.

Before I started this blog, I used to let the hens out then rush off to start work.  Now I am writing a blog, I sit and watch them for a while each morning and it’s amazing how much more you notice.  Doris (the oldest hen)) always comes to stand by my feet, waiting for some sunflower seeds.  The Spice Girls are quite adventurous now – and less timid that the other hens.  I use black plastic sheets on the vegetable patch to supress weeds – slimy creatures love to hide under it – so every so often I spread it out for the hens and ducks – the spice Girls are always the first on there picking off slugs and snails.

Doris

Dillon (cockerel) and Desmond (drake) have had a few scraps but they seem to have come to a sort of truce and, provided they keep out of each other’s way, everything’s fine.  I have learned that you do need at least 2 ducks with a drake, especially if you are keeping ducks and hens together – the previous drake insisted on mating with one of the hens and I had to separate them.  (Several reasons I won’t go into here – their anatomy is different and therefore damaging to the hen.)

 

Late November in Barbara’s Back Yard

Late November in Barbara’s Back Yard

This year I made a Samhain Wreath for Hallowe’en – there were so many scarlet berries and amber leaves – and rosy crab apples that I wanted to make something with them

So this is the wreath I made – it’s faded a bit now but it’s almost time to make a new one for Yule – 1st December.

The beech tree has lost all its leaves – it never ceases to amaze me how much the landscape changes with the seasons.

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.

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.

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.

Summer in the poultry patch

I finally let the chicks and ducklings out of their shed to free range today.

Because I have lost so many hens, ducks and rabbits to foxes, polecats and goodness knows what else I have been extremely careful with these new ducklings and chicks.  So they haven’t got 4 acres – they have 10 square yards with a hedge and a duckpond – and a big shed.  So it’s not exactly free range!

The first thing the ducklings did was eat some grass, then they ran round and round quacking excitedly, they are so delighted to be outside.  They haven’t found the pond yet – I moved their water bowl outside and they are dipping chunks of bread in it.

They keep out of the way of Doris (head honcho hen) but seem to get on fine with Grace (grey hen) and the chicks.  They are very inquisitive, poking their beaks into everything, trying different plants – and spitting some of them out!  They  like plantains but not burdock or feverfew.  When they find something distasteful they quickly dunk their beaks in the water bowl.  It’s lovely to see them outside.  They keep together – if one runs after something – the other quickly runs too.

Grace has wandered off for a dust bath under the hedge – she seems very relieved to be out in the fresh air with some grass to eat.

The chicks are exploring, occasionally cheeping to one another when they find something interesting – or get too far apart.  They have most of their feathers but are still fluffy whereas the ducklings have all their feathers.

Doris has followed Grace and gone off for a dust bath and left the little ones in peace.  They are finishing off the bread and scraps.  When Doris comes back to the water bowl for a drink, the babies keep well out of her way.

It’s so lovely to see them all outside.