Today’s Treasures – Butterflies, Bees and Blackcurrants
Life can be a challenge sometimes and, although places are opening their doors again, people are still scared to go out – and anyone who had social issues before – has much more to deal with now. But people have found solace in nature – growing vegetables and enjoying walks and found life’s little treasures all around them in flowers and trees and butterflies and bees.
I walk around the field every morning and there is always something new to see. When it’s been wet, toadstools spring up unexpectedly overnight and when it’s sunny butterflies dance along the hedgerows. The buddleia flowers are opening and butterflies of all colours love its purple blooms.
I bought a packet of mixed seeds ‘flowers for butterflies’ and planted them in an old wheelbarrow, they’ve been really pretty – corn cockle, cornflower, field poppy, vipers bugloss, forget-me-not, corn marigold.
I always leave some ragwort at the edge of the field for the Cinnabar Moth and in July I check every day for the appearance of their striking orange and black caterpillars.
The blackcurrants are ripe and the kitchen is fragranced with the rich aroma of blackcurrant jelly and the anticipation of that first delicious mouthful on toast the next morning.
The chicks that hatched in an incubator during lockdown have grown. Dillon III – who was the only one to hatch successfully in the first batch – is the boss and leads them on forays around the garden. They are quite mischievous and keep finding ways to get out – under or over the fence, trying my patience somewhat!
The herb garden is at its best – and the bees love all the blues and purples – sage, hyssop, thyme, rosemary, chives, borage and marjoram.
Life is not about the destination – but the journey – every day is a gift – fill it with moments to treasure.
Published in the August edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
During lockdown – as we couldn’t go anywhere – I thought we might try hatching some eggs in the incubator. They need to be turned three times a day so it’s impossible to manage under normal circumstances. After 3 weeks of patiently turning the eggs (had to set an alarm on my phone!) and topping up the water every day, 3 eggs pipped.
The first chick died in it’s shell, the second chick climbed out all on its own, the third chick (bearing in mind I didn’t help the first one and it died) I helped out, it survived for a while but it’s legs were very weak and eventually it too died. So, we had one ‘Cheepy Chick’ left. In the meantime, a fox took Dillon, my beautiful cockerel – in broad daylight – and a few days later – despite my being vigilant and outside most of the time – he took the 3 brown hens as well.
So, I decided to put the rest of the fertile eggs in the incubator. We eventually had 4/7 chicks hatch. It was quite traumatic waiting for them to pip (on the 23rd day – not the 21st day as anticipated) – and then being patient and letting them climb out of the shell themselves. I made sure the water pot was properly topped up this time so the humidity was better and probably helped with hatching success.
Dane managed to get a video of the first chick hatching – it took ages so he created a condensed version – but I can’t get WordPress to add it to this page yet – so here is an image from the video. The magic of life – how can an egg change into a chick?
In the meantime, back in the hen house, both the ducks went broody and sat on eggs. Duck eggs take 28 days to hatch (much easier to let the ducks keep them warm and turn them every day!). As Mr Fox was still around, I shut the ducks in most of the time, only letting them out when I was around. Jemima eventually hatched 5 tiny ducklings, three of which have survived. I have found ducks and hens are not terribly good mothers and don’t seem to be able to keep their babies together and out of harm’s way but it’s definitely easier than hand rearing so you just have to leave them to it and hope as many as possible survive.
I’ve read somewhere that ducklings are not waterproof when they are tiny so shouldn’t be allowed in water, but our ducklings immediately found the water bowl and were happily splashing about. I always put a stone in the bowl to make it shallower so they can get out.
While I was clearing up the hen house, I heard a frantic quacking and turned around to see all the ducklings in the pond – and of course they were too tiny to get out, so I had to rescue them. I’ve filled the pond right to the top now so they can get out. So much for not being waterproof!
One night last week we forgot to shut the hen house door and Mr. Fox returned and I found the ducklings without a mother the next morning. Happily, the others survived and Jake the Drake is now a very proud father taking parenting duties very seriously – it’s quite touching the way he’s now looking after the ducklings when he wasn’t terribly interested in them before.
When we first found our dream home, the sun was shining on golden chains of laburnum and frothy pink cherry blossom. The wooden farm gate was open and as we walked down the drive wild birds fluttered away – and – I remember quite clearly – a jay flew across into the field – the first jay I had ever seen.
The house was totally empty – not even a light bulb was left – but it still felt warm and welcoming and we fell in love with it. The garden was neglected – no flowers – but the grass had been cut and there were lots of trees. The traditional Rowan tree by the back door to ward off evil – and a beautiful spruce tree – which we later found out is a Brewer’s Spruce.
We moved in on 3rd August, 1992 with two-year old Dane and Kirt on the way (born the following January), one border collie, two cats and 3 ducks – and lots of ideas for homesteading.
One of the first things I did was visit the local library to borrow books on sheep, pigs and donkeys (google wasn’t around then). After talking to local farmers, I soon realised that it is much easier to have someone else’s livestock in your fields – all the pleasure of sheep bleating in the morning without the problems of dipping, shearing and all the form filling – so that’s what we did.
But we bought some hens and geese to keep our ducks company – and later on I started breeding New Zealand White rabbits again.
With 4 acres, the possibilities were endless.
There was a massive shed for the poultry – which they all shared quite happily.
The conservatory on the side of the house was perfect for growing seedlings – I started out with growing flowers – and had soon filled the patio with tubs and hanging baskets – and some vegetables – potatoes and broad beans – and runner beans. Initially I dug a small vegetable patch which has gradually been extended year after year until it’s now big enough to grow everything – courgettes, pumpkins, onions, strawberries, purple sprouting – all sorts of vegetables – and a rhubarb bed.
I also grew my own herbs from seed. I had brought spearmint and applemint with me – cuttings originally from my aunt – whose green fingers I inherited. When Kirt started home-schooling one of the first things we did was to make a proper herb garden – we marked out squares with bricks and gradually filled them – then extended them. The herb garden now contains Rosemary, Bay, Sage, Thyme, Hyssop, Fennel, Lovage, Parsley, Feverfew, Lemon Mint, Oregano, Marjoram, Tarragon – and the latest addition – Angelica – which is a magnificent plant.
I used to dry herbs and hang them up in the conservatory – and freeze some (like mint) in ice cube trays. Now I dry some herbs in the warming oven, chop them in the blender and store in jars – but I also freeze some in small plastic bags which are perfect for soups and mint sauce – and retain the flavour better.
Mint and horseradish have their own separate spaces as they do tend to be rather rampant. And basil and coriander were grown in the conservatory as they like to be a bit warmer – and also the slugs love them! They were later relocated in the polytunnel.
I also found that dried herbs make wonderful firelighters – when cutting them down in the Autumn, tie them into bundles and hang up to dry. They are much better than – and greener – than traditional firelighters – ad because of the oils they contain – they work exceedingly well.
Dad bought us some apple trees and a greengage and we bought some blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and a loganberry. A friend gave us a cutting of a thornless blackberry – and some raspberry plants. Loganberries, blackberries and raspberries all need lots of space – and need cutting back vigorously every year.
Fruits are wonderful for homesteading – when you have made enough jams you can use the rest for making country wines. Home-made jams taste divine. Wines are a bit more hit and miss – but they are always good for cooking – and elderberry wine makes excellent mulled wine mixed with sugar and spices.
When I lived in Birmingham, I used to breed New Zealand White rabbits – and I had brought all the equipment with me – so we found some breeding stock and started again. Baby rabbits are born blind, deaf and without any fur – but, by the time they are 3 weeks old, they are little white furry balls hopping around and they are absolutely gorgeous. Rabbit manure is excellent for the garden so makes a wonderful addition to my natural recycling programme. Rabbits like lots of wild plants like comfrey, clover and wild garlic – as well as dandelion leaves – and carrot leaves are their absolute favourite.
So we don’t have a green bin to put out for the refuse collectors. We have a compost bin, the rabbits eat a lot of the weeds, the hens eat scraps from the kitchen (their favourite is bacon rinds but you are not really supposed to give them meat!), the dog has meat scraps and the cats demolish most of the chicken bones. And the ducks eat the slugs and snails. I have also seen the hens eat mice and frogs on occasions.
When digging over the vegetable garden in winter, pause for thought and watch the hens scratching about for worms – stop for a cup of tea and return to find the robin sitting on the spade handle waiting for titbits.
The trees are amazing, here is the beech tree through the seasons
There’s a beautiful silver birch and a really old willow tree – which the boys loved to climb when they were little.
This is the oak tree in the field – with broom growing beneath it.
Some of the hedges are ancient hedgerows with blackthorn, hawthorn, ash, alder, beech, hazel and oak, interwoven with brambles and honeysuckle.
We kept part of the field as a wildflower meadow with ox-eye daisies, bird’s foot trefoil, knapweed, restharrow, pink campion and lots of different grasses. The butterflies love it and I have spent wonderful sunny summer afternoons counting holly blues, commas and painted ladies – and peacocks, red admirals and small tortoiseshells on the buddleia – and joining in the Big Butterfly Count.
JANUARY is the time when all the garden catalogues arrive and you can spend hours deciding what you would like to plant – the only problem with having enough room to grow everything is restricting yourself to what you can physically manage.
I soon learned what grew well on our sandy soil – and what our family would eat – which were not always the same things! Peas are definitely better from Bird’s Eye. By the time you have grown them from seed, planted them, protected them from pigeons, fed them, picked them and podded them – it’s blindingly obvious that frozen peas are a much more sensible alternative.
The first winter I was absolutely delighted to discover at least 3 different varieties of snowdrops growing in the garden, closely followed by celandines and coltsfoot.
There’s a badger sett in the big field – our neighbour says it’s been there as long as he can remember. Badgers make scuffs in the ground looking for worms and truffles so you can see when they have reappeared from hibernation. There’s also rabbits and moles – so our field is a sort of combination of Wind in the Willows, Watership Down and Duncton Wood. There’s an ancient beech tree – Queen Fagus – and an oak tree – King Quercus – and on our morning walks we often hug a tree – we can only just reach around the beech tree – finger-tips touching!
The variety of birds is simply amazing – the first time the Great-Spotted Woodpecker graced us with his presence I was simply dumbfounded. He is so beautiful – he loves peanuts but also sunflower seeds.
I have also seen a kestrel perched on the fence – and a sparrowhawk on the table outside the kitchen window. Buzzards are often seen being chased by crows – and the finches and tits love the pine trees.
We’ve put bird boxes up and the great tits and blue tits use them – but the blackbirds, robins and wrens prefer to make their own nests in various places in the barn – especially in the holly wreaths that I hang up ready for renewing the following Christmas.
The frogs return to the pond and you can hear them burbling late into the evening, then frogspawn appears and gradually morphs into tadpoles.
Best of all, the birds start singing in the mornings and we open the bedroom window to listen to the liquid notes of the blackbird floating in on the breeze.
The daffodils are out – at one time there must have been a hedge in the big field but all that remains now are three clumps of daffodils.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd – a host of golden daffodils” – which I believe was written about Stourhead – but daffodils always remind me of this poem.
Seed sowing starts in earnest. My Dad bought me a small propagator which is marvellous for starting off difficult things that like the warmth – courgettes, tomatoes and pumpkins – and sweet peas – I used to have real trouble getting sweet peas to germinate until last year I bought some Eckford Sweet peas – an old fashioned variety – which grew really well
Time also to plant early potatoes – and the first rhubarb appears – lovely and sweet and tender at this time of year – perfect for rhubarb crumble.
APRIL – the swallows return, swirling and swooping over the fields.
Oh, to be in England Now that April’s there … While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough In England—now … Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge Leans to the field and scatters on the clover Blossoms and dewdrops—
The apple blossom appears – the crab apple tree first almost luminescent in the twilight of lengthening evenings. The blue tits and great tits are busily feeding chicks, popping in and out of nest boxes.
The yellow flag irises are out in the wild pond
Beltane 1st May – the first day of summer in the ancient Celtic calendar – and the Druid celebration of fertility when the Lady of the Land takes the hand of the Horned God. We celebrate with lots of flowers in the house, music – and lighting candles.
Time to plant runner beans and French beans in pots – ready for planting out once the last frosts have gone. Dig a bean trench and fill it with compost from the compost bin – and put the bean sticks up. Plenty of hazel trees in the field hedgerows to cut bean sticks from.
Clear out pots and hanging baskets ready for geraniums, lobelia, impatiens and petunias – lots of colour for the summer patio.
The elderflowers are in full bloom – ready to make elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne.
The cushions are put out on the chairs around the patio table ready for breakfasts in the early morning sunshine – and summer barbecues. We always celebrate Midsummer Eve – like the Moomin family – it’s a special day – with music and dancing outside under the stars. In the past we had to rig up a speaker with wires connected to a stereo – now we just have a Bluetooth speaker and a mobile phone!
New potatoes, broad beans and strawberries are all ready to pick. There’s nothing like broad beans fresh from the garden – and I love podding them – sitting on the bench in the sunshine. Small sweet broad beans only take 5 minutes to cook. New potatoes, freshly dug, cooked with mint and melting with butter are divine!
JULY Hot summer days, the patio is a riot of colour. The great tits are busy feeding their brood on the bird table. Last year Daisy, our Dorking hen, hatched 4 chicks and Jemima, one of the Indian Runner ducks hatched 4 ducklings. Amazing to watch the chicks crowding around mum, as she pecks corn into tiny pieces for them to eat. When the ducklings are a few days old we give them a bigger bowl of shallow water so they can have their first swim – they get so excited and whiz around the bowl quacking ecstatically.
The raspberries are ripe – and the ducklings love them. Raspberry jam – and jelly – and raspberry wine. Blackcurrants also make delicious jam and wine – and redcurrants for redcurrant jelly to eat with chicken – and turkey at Christmas.
The poppies are out
AUGUST – shooting stars – lying on the trampoline on quilts and blankets looking at the stars – and spotting wishing stars – and planes and satellites – and watching the bats across the darkening sky.
The sunflowers are out
The butterflies are at their best and I can spend ages watching them on the buddleia – and on the ragwort with the bees and the stripy cinnabar moth caterpillars
“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare …”
1st August is Lughnasadh or Lammas and marks the first day of harvest – when corn dollies were made from the first straw and bread from the first wheat.
Time to lift onions and set them out to dry before tying into ropes.
Courgettes tend to be rather prolific at this time of year and I’ve been quite inventive in using them up before they turn into marrows. Curries, soups, salads, all benefit from the addition of grated courgettes. They are of course best fried in a little butter!
The greengages are ripe – I found the best time to pick them is when it’s raining – as there aren’t many wasps about. They are the sweetest plums and best eaten fresh – although they are also good bottled for winter use.
SEPTEMBER – the harvest – I am usually picking runner beans and freezing them – and picking tomatoes – and skinning them, chopping them and freezing them in tubs to use in Bolognese, curries and soups.
Blackberries are ripe for blackberry jam and blackberry wine – along with loganberries and elderberries. One year I made a ‘many berry wine’ from a mixture of fruits left in the freezer – and elderberries.
Rose hips are ripe – they contain lots of vitamin C (twenty times more than oranges) – ideal for keeping winter coughs and colds away. During the war – when there were no oranges – children were given rose hip syrup from the Ministry of Health. Rose hip syrup is quite easy to make – it makes a lovely summer drink with ice cubes – and a warming winter toddy diluted with hot water.
Time to pick apples and store them for winter use – the rabbits love them and so do geese. One of the pleasures of keeping livestock is enjoying watching them eat titbits – during the summer the rabbits have lots of plants from the garden – in winter it’s mainly apples and carrot tops.
Hallowe’en is always special – The Samhain festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter and we have a sort of combined Guy Fawkes and Hallowee’en around the weekend of 31st October – with a bonfire and sparklers – and ‘Jack’o’Lanterns. There’s a lovely story about ‘Stingy Jack’ and how is destined to roam the earth with his Jack’O’Lantern. https://barbararainford.co.uk/halloween-in-barbaras-back-yard/
The last few years we have had an Indian Summer and the days have been really sunny although the nights are drawing in. Runner beans have carried on cropping into November – when the first frosts finally finish them off – and the nasturtiums are ‘gone willy-nilly, umbrella and all’.
For the last few years I have made an autumn wreath with berries and crab apples and hung it on the bird table, the birds don’t seem to be very interested, but it looks very pretty.
Time to clear the garden, remove the rest of the weeds, take down the bean sticks and tidy up the herb garden. Cutting down or pruning the herbs I found a really good use for the cuttings – I dry them on top of one of the wire hen pens and then tie them into bundles, hang them up to dry in the barn, and they make really good firelighters – and much better than those smelly paraffin alternatives!
Time also to pick holly – before the birds pinch all the berries – and store ready to make holly wreaths.
1st December is Yule – make a Yule Log with holly and pine cones and candles for the table – and holly wreaths with moss and holly and ivy, laurel and spruce and hang them on the old front door – and the barn door. I always think about all the other people in times gone by who have hung a holly wreath on the very same doors hundreds of years ago. Although the house has five bedrooms it has been extended at least 3 times and must have been originally a traditional cottage with two rooms downstairs, 2 bedrooms and a thatched roof. The study still has the original oak beams and thick sandstone walls – and a fireplace which must once have been an old range.
There must be lots of secrets that have never been uncovered – there’s a wall safe that’s never been opened; when we extended to connect the studio to the main house, the roof beams were exposed and you could see the remains of the burnt timbers where we assume the thatch caught fire. There are still some old wide floorboards on the landing.
We’ve installed a wood burner and it’s wonderful to curl up in front of a real fire on a Sunday afternoon with a good book – sometimes watching snowflakes swirl outside or with a glass of mulled wine on a winter evening.
December we usually visit Croft Ambrey to see the mistletoe on the hawthorn trees – and bring a small piece home. There’s nowhere to hang it because the ceilings are so low so it hangs over the Yule log on the dresser.
Our Christmas tree always comes from Holly Farm Nursery just up the road – all their trees are grown locally at Fauls Christmas Tree Farm so are very carbon friendly.
Maynards Farm, two doors down, provide local geese, turkeys and hams for Christmas dinner and we save the last of the parsnips, potatoes and carrots to go with them. We have home-made apple sauce and redcurrant jelly. One year I even managed to grow some sprouts and cauliflower that survived the pigeons and slugs – which were delicious!
And so to New Year and the circle of life begins again.
One of the wonderful things about wintry mornings is the increased activity on the bird table. The birds really seem to appreciate my efforts to fill up bird feeders and thaw out the bird bath.
The robin, resplendent in his bright red winter waistcoat sedately pecks at the sunflower seeds. A rival arrives – as often happens on cold frosty mornings – and is crossly chased away.
A blue tit perches on the edge of the birdbath and takes dainty sips of fresh water. Belinda and Bertie raised a family of blue tits this summer – it was fascinating to watch them feeding their tiny babies on the bird table.
The nutchatches – Nigel and Nolly – creep around the tree trunks then take turns taking peanuts from the feeder.
Then the Twits – a flock of long-tailed tits that always arrive in a flurry of chirps and fluttering wings – take over all the bird feeders, scrapping for perching space.
The great tits Colonel Twist (due to his having a wonky tail) and Lady P (Penelope) wait patiently for the Twits to fly off before resuming their feeding.
A blackbird scurries along to the bird seed sprinkled on the ground and busily tucks into a grain feast before the hens arrive and clear up.
Woody the woodpecker loves peanuts and can often be spotted in the garden with his undulating flight and unusual cry – and peck, peck, pecking on the dead pine tree looking for insects.
There’s a selection of finches – goldfinches with their little red and yellow heads and chaffinches, and, when it’s been really cold, we are sometimes honoured with the presence of a bullfinch or the odd visit from a siskin, or brambling.
Unwelcome visitors that thankfully are seen very infrequently are kestrels and sparrowhawks. In the summer the little birds are safe in the leafy green cover of the roses and honeysuckle; in the winter the branches are bare – except for the ivy which offers welcome cover as well as berries to eat.
There’s no knowing what the cat will do next – but I believe he is actually watching the little mouse that lives in the rockery and uses the bottom of the bird stand as a tunnel, popping in and out collecting seeds.
Published in the February edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
There were 7 puppies in the trailer – all clamouring for attention. They were different colours as their mother was a blue merle border collie – both parents were working dogs. I instinctively chose the one that looked most like my old Duke. I picked him up in my arms and was speechless. It had been so long since I had held a dog in my arms, it was a wonderful feeling, a dog of my own again. And this time, he would be living with me all the time. A permanent companion, sharing my life outside – but such a lot to learn first!
I asked what food he had been having – standard dried dog food mixed with milk (dairy farm dogs nearly always get milk with their food). I took a small amount of the dried food home with me. And we also had the paperwork for his microchip. Since April 2016 every puppy has to be microchipped and registered by 8 weeks of age.
I got the towels ready for the journey home – nearly two hours – he slept most of the way – but was sick three times. We finally got home and I found a old collar for him (he wasn’t terribly happy about having it round his neck – but he soon got used to it).
I expected him to wake in the night so I slept on the settee downstairs, surrounded by newspaper. He slept in the old cat basket which was just the right size. Surprisingly, he slept through the night. I took him out for a wee first thing in the morning – then he got back into bed with me.
The next night we made a bed for him on the floor in our bedroom and he slept on that. But subsequent nights he kept waking up – and waking us up – so he now sleeps on our bed – between us – and with his head on the pillow if he can possibly manage it!
I fed him on the dry food mixed with a bit of tinned food but he was sick every time he ate. He usually ate it all again, and second time around it stayed down. I asked advice from our local animal food supplier and Belinda said to feed him dried food soaked in water in small amounts at regular intervals. This generally worked and it was only if he ate something different – or too much at once – that he was sick.
His name was pre-ordained – as he looked like my old Duke – he became Duke II – and learned his name quite quickly, along with sit and stay.
Our garden is fairly secure but, from previous experience, if a border collie wants to get out – he will get through anything – so we had to watch him all the while. He had been brought up with hens in a farmyard so didn’t chase them – but Dillon the cockerel wasn’t terribly happy with this new addition to his domain.
Duke sniffed inquisitively at the rabbits – Lunar, mother rabbit with babies in the hutch – got quite cross at puppy sniffing at her and turned her back on him. Offended, he barked at her – she was not impressed!
Duke was used to hens – ducks were a different matter – and Duke was fascinated with these strange things – he wanted to investigate further – but of course they ran away when he went near. So this is going to take a bit of time. The ducks learned to keep out of his way – but Jasmine duck has just hatched 3 tiny ducklings so we’ve had to provide a secure pen – and Duke will have to have some lessons in looking after the ducks – my old Duke used to round up my ducks at night and put them to bed.
So, to our first walk in the field. The grass is quite high in places and Duke couldn’t see where he was going, so he followed ‘doggedly’ in my footsteps – until we reached the badger set – where the grass is shorter – and he started sniffing around. Then we had a dig in the sand by the rabbit holes – and he got sand all over his nose.
He’s now learned to fetch a ball – he will bring it back if he gets a treat. He still curls up in the cat basket – but he’s really too big for it now and ends up half in and half out of it.
Potty training is not going terribly well – he hasn’t got the hang of going to the toilet on newspaper so we’ve given that up – instead we take him outside every time he wakes up and after he’s eaten – but he still doesn’t seem to know the difference between inside and outside – and if it’s raining he really doesn’t want to go out – for a farm dog he’s certainly over-fond of his home comforts.
He loves serrano ham treats – and melon rind – and he’ll play for ages with a broad ben pod. He’s nearly wrecked the conservatory – I’ve had to move everything off the worksurfaces as he’s managed to climb up – somehow.
He’s had all his injections and we’ve been patiently waiting for the day we could go a proper walk – which was Thursday – but it hasn’t stopped raining since then! Made a mental note to remember the poo bags! Wonder how he’ll get on with other dogs?
March in Barbara’s Back Yard – Spring is Just Around the Corner
Spring is just around the corner – the celandines are sunning their golden faces, Coltsfoot flowers are lifting their heads and opening their petals to the wintry sunshine and the frogs have finally woken up in the pond again.
The broad beans I planted in December have mostly survived but don’t seem to have grown at all – and the ones I planted in pots a few weeks ago are about the same size – I planted them out this week – quite firmly – with news of the impending strong winds.
In between the showers, I have planted the first lot of onion sets but they don’t seem to be growing at all yet – obviously need some warmth before they get started.
This year I bought Eckford sweet pea seeds (which I found in D T Brown’s catalogue) – and I’ve had much better success with growing these than other varieties. In previous years, although I’ve always put them in the propagator, less than half have sprouted. If you pinch out the tips of sweet peas it encourages them to be more bushy.
The Eckford Sweet Pea was first bred in Shropshire – but it is named after the horticulturist, Henry Eckford who was born in 1823 in Edinburgh. In 1870 he was in charge of a garden at Sandywell in Gloucester and his employer encouraged his interest in breeding plants. When they moved to Boreatton in Shropshire, Dr. Sankey encouraged him further and he started the development of the Sweet Pea which had changed little since it was first introduced from Sicily in 1699. In 1888 Henry Eckford moved to Wem and established Eckford’s Nursery which specialised in sweet peas and now sweet pea lovers from all over the country visit Wem in July each year for the Eckford Sweet Pea Festival, organised by the Eckford Sweet Pea Society – and Wem has become the ‘Home of the Sweet Pea’.
And Eckford sweet peas seem to be much easier to germinate than other varieties I have tried.
I’ve also sown some herbs in pots – coriander, basil and parsley – and they have all germinated and I have moved them to the polytunnel as there is more light there than in the conservatory. Tomato seeds are now just sprouting in the propagator.
Daisy has started laying again – as soon as she goes broody – and stays on the nest at night – I will move her to a separate pen – and hopefully we might get some Dorking chicks this year.
I’ve now sold most of the NZWhite x Californian rabbits. There is still one white buck – and an adorable Californian buck who is so soft and so friendly I shall be sad to part with him – he will make a lovely pet. Lunar’s first litter are now 10 weeks old – 3 survived – two does and a buck. She has just mated again. With this litter I will make sure they all just have rabbit pellets – no mix and no apples – and hopefully they will all survive – although I can’t be sure it was different food that caused the upset to their digestive system. Dandelion is doing really well at 4 years old but I might need to think about getting a new buck soon.
So lovely to see all the spring flowers – daffodils and tulips, primroses and grape hyacinths – and to hear the frogs burbling in the pond again.
End of February and the weather is beautiful. Still very cold at night – and the tap by the barn was frozen this morning so had to use the bucket by the house – but the sun is lovely once the mist and frost have cleared. This time last year we had the Beast from the East and we made a snowman, this year we are told it will be the Wet from the West at the end of the week – but we could really do with some rain – the wild pond has only a puddle of water in the middle.
I’ve been looking out for frogs – by the end of February they are usually hopping back to the pond to find a mate – but there’s no sign of them yet – in any of the ponds. It’s quite fascinating watching them – if you sit still, more and more beady eyes pop up out of the water – and I love to hear their burbling – especially late in the evening – it always sounds louder in the dark.
As it’s been quite dry so far this year, I’ve dug the bean trench and put in a mixture of manure from the hen house, rabbit manure – and compost from the compost bin. The rest of the compost has been spread over the potato patch. One February it myvegetable patch had a moat around it – and I couldn’t do anything as the ground was much too wet. This year I’ve already planted some onion sets and the parsnips will go in once my seeds arrive – which should be today.
This year I ordered seeds from www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk – I received a catalogue in the post – and you can still order with a cheque – or by phone – but online is definitely easier – there are more varieties on the website – and you can also find out if items are in stock.
I’ve ordered some potatoes – second earlies – and set them out in trays ready to sprout. The DT Brown instructions are excellent: After unpacking, put potato tubers in a cool, light, well-ventilated and frost-free place, away from direct sunlight.
Potatoes can be divided into five categories, planted from March to July
First earlies – plant mid-late March – ready June to July
Second earlies – plant in late March – ready July to August
Early maincrops – plant in April – ready August
Late maincrop – plant early May – ready September onwards
Second Cropping / Late Cropping – plant from early July – ready September to December
The chitting process allows strong green shoots (chits) to develop on the tuber before planting. Although not essential, it is particularly beneficial for the earlier cropping potatoes because it give the potato a quick start, thus cropping earlier. Set the seed potatoes out, side by side (I use egg trays) blunt end uppermost (this is the end opposite where the stalk was that attached the potato to the parent plant – but you can’t always see this).
Plant tubers 4-6 in deep (10 – 15 cm), earlies 10-12 in apart, in rows 2 ft apart; maincrop 12-14 in apart in rows 30 in apart. Once shoots appear above the surface you need to earth them up (draw up soil over the tubers forming a ridge). This gives the plant a volume of soil in which to grow, stops the tubers turning green, and improves drainage and ventilation.
It also gets rid of weeds. I mulch everything else with grass cuttings – but when I did this with potatoes they all got blight so earthing up regularly works much better.
Potatoes are ready to harvest when the tops reach full size – weather permitting, they will usually attempt to produce flowers – or at least buds – at this time.
When onions arrive put them into a cool, light, well-ventilated and frost fre place, away from direct sunlight.
Plant between February and April, as soon as the soil is sufficiently dry and warm. Onions form a bulb when the temperature and the number of daylight hours hit the right combination for them, which triggers their clock. Until that happens, onions use the daylight to produce a good deal of top growth before they form bulbs (and the more top growth, the bigger the bulb). When the day reaches the right number of hours for that variety of onion, the onion will stop forming top growth, and form a bulb instead. The size of the bulb that eventually forms depends on the size of the ‘stalks’ and the number of them. there will be 1 ring in the onion for every stalk that formed, and the larger the stalk, the larger each ring will be. bulb formation will pause during dry, very hot or very cold weather.
Break off any flower stems which appear. Mulching is useful for cutting down watering and for suppressing weeds. Stop watering once the onions have swollen and pull back the covering earth or mulch to expose the bulb surface to the sun to dry. When the bulb is mature, the foliage turns yellow and topples over. Leave them for 2 weeks and then carefully lift with a folk on a dry day.
Onions which are not for immediate use must be dried. Spread out the bulbs on sacking or in trays; outdoors if the weather is warm and sunny of indoors if the weather is wet. Drying will take 7 to 21 days depending on the size of the bulbs and air temperature. Store unblemished onions in trays, net bags 0r tied into plaits.
I’ve also planted some broad beans in pots – and sown some herb seeds – which are in the propagator.
Daisy has decided to sit on some eggs so I’ve moved her to a pen on her own – it stops the other hens pestering her (because they always want to lay their eggs where she is sitting) and, if the eggs do hatch, they are in a safe place.
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.
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.)
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.
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.