All change at Chook Towers

With the winter behind us, and spring most definitely on its way, it seems a veeeery long time since I’ve been a Bloggy Blogster. The fingers are a bit rusty, the thoughts a bit fuddled… but bear with me… I’ll get the hang of it all again, you’ll see.

We’ve had a few major changes here at Chook Towers. For one, our oldest hen Maud croaked it a couple of months back. One day she was Queen of the Coop, strutting around with the best of them: the next she’d slipped away in the night. Every cloud has a silver lining though – she hadn’t laid for AGES, and since her demise, we’ve found out who the ‘Phantom Shitter in the Nest Box’ was. Our eggs are beautifully clean now!

The other big change is about to take place in… oooh… just over a week. I’m moving to a new house, with a new garden. So no more raised beds, greenhouse, and no more tales from Cluckingham Palace. The new garden comes complete with a lawn, a path, a shed… and, well, that’s about it really. Some would be daunted by the prospect, but I’m looking at it as an entire blank canvas that I can dig up and plant to my heart’s content. There. Another silver lining comes my way :)

All’s not gloomy though – I already have an Eglu (that’s a rather posh hen house to you), and a greenhouse earmarked to dismantle in a week or two.The Eglu travelled 140 miles in the back of my Mini (I kid you not), and the greenhouse actually belonged to one of the houses I looked at in my new house search.

The rest of the garden will take shape around them… pics to follow in later posts.

So off to pastures new – wish me luck!

 

Trevor Tree

We’ve always had an artificial Christmas tree. Every year we haul it down from the loft, wrestle it out of its box and bedeck the living daylights out of it.

Christmas tree

Christmas tree

Some years it’s a bit on the wonk, but overall it’s done us proud.

A couple of weeks ago, looking at our tree, I murmered aloud, “Do you know what? I quite fancy having a real one next year”.

To this, the youngest almost spat out his tea in disgust. Eyes narrowing, he turned to me and growled, “A REAL TREE? Are you mad?”

“Not at all – I think it would look lovely…”

“Think about it, Mum”, he continued. “You’d really cut down a tree that’s been happily growing, just to stick it in our house for a couple of weeks?”

Aside from the fact that the youngest has turned into a bit of an environmental menace lately, I actually couldn’t argue with that point. As a gardener, I KNOW how long stuff takes to grow. Would I go out and chop stuff in its prime down? I don’t think so…

So onto Plan B. Our local supermarket is selling teeny tiny Christmas trees in pots. We’re off to get one of those bad boys later, and will name it Trevor the Tree. Trevor will live out on the patio, and each year – hopefully a tad taller than the last – we’ll bring him in from the cold and pimp him up with baubles.

I’m pretty sure he’ll become part of the family in no time at all :)

I’m a celebrity – get me out of here!

Today I discovered something rather unsettling about myself. Always being the one called upon to retrieve massive spiders from the school showers (and to my shame sometimes waving them in the faces of the arachnophobes in the class complete with a ‘woooo‘ noise); and having the ability to fell a slug with one swift jab of a trowel, I thought I was rather fearless. But now I know for certain that I’d be rubbish on ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here‘. I’d be fine with the insects and crawly things – no problem at all – but rodents might prove a tad more challenging.

Feeding time for the chickens turned into rather an adventure today. On opening the lid of the food container, I was surprised startled bloody terrified to discover a mouse running amok in there, having a right old party for one. To my utter shame, I screeched like a complete girl and made an extremely sharp exit out of the shed.

But the food pot was empty, and the girls were prancing around in the run making noises that translated to, “Oi, Mush! We’re staaaaarving!”, so there was no option: I was just going to have to man up about the whole thing.

Pulling the container complete with mouse out into the open, I tipped it on its side and rattled it around a bit. Nothing came out: Mr Mouse was obviously more than comfortable in there. With my heart in my throat, and my legs all a-quiver, I peered inside to find I’d actually managed to trap him underneath the pellet scoop. Marvellous!

Using the longest stick I could find, and standing the furthest possible distance away, I poked the scoop over, and out scampered the mouse, happily making his dash for freedom, while I pranced around making sure he didn’t dash up my trouser leg.

Feeding time over, I made a mental note that if Ant and Dec ever called me up for a trip to the jungle, I’d have to politely decline…

Blackberry vodka – the update

You may remember, way back in September

(oooh… almost sounds like the beginning of a cheesy Christmas song!)

No… I didn’t give you my heart or anything sloppy like that… I steeped blackberries in sugar and vodka – which, incidentally was A LOT more exciting!

Well, this week was the time to finish off the vodka and sample my concoction. The timing wasn’t specific – the whole thing’s taken around three months from start to finish.

What to do…

  1. Screw tops off bottles
  2. Sniff contents and have cheeky swig
  3. Empty bottles completely of blackberry and vodka
  4. Sample a blackberry
  5. Bample a couple more sackbarries
  6. Aim funnel onto cop of clean tottle
  7. Vest todka again
  8. Parefully core bodka into vottle
  9. Eat bum more slackberries
  10. Vaste todka again
  11. Squint to focus, crew sap on blottle
  12. One bore mackleberry for luck
  13. Have a lie down

What could be easier? I will definitely be using the original quantities again, because let me tell you – it’s blooming delumptious!

I’ve also kept the blackberries, as they are so infused with vodka-ey goodness,  it would be criminal to dump them. I may well transform them into a boozy jelly or upside-down cake.

As for the blackberry vodka? I’m just hoping it lasts until Christmas!

(hic!)

One glass

Putting the beds to bed

With the nights drawing in, the weather getting chillier, and the simple fact that I’m a bit of a fair-weather gardener, I’ve started to wind down the garden for winter.

The onion sets have already thrown up some green shoots, and I’ll plant garlic next month – so these should be well established by spring.

All that’s left growing in the beds now are leeks and celery, which I’ll harvest for as long as I can. I’ve tidied up the other areas, and I’ll cover any bare patches of soil up until spring. Last year I planted green manure to grow through the cold months. This should have protected the soil, stopped all the nutrients being washed away, and provided me with some lovely nitrogen-rich plants to dig in once spring arrived. Slight problem with that idea: the manure germinated and grew, I let the chickens out, and they promptly scoffed the lot. So this year I’m covering the bare soil up.

Chicken having a scratch in the vegetable patch

Chicken having a scratch in the vegetable patch

Onto each bed has gone a good layer of comfrey, a generous helping of hen house scrapings and the contents of the compost bins.  I’ve then put strips of old carpet on the very top. I’m hoping that the organic stuff will rot down and nourish the soil ready for next year’s crops. Not only that, but the carpet should help warm the soil up earlier, giving me a head start. Well… that’s the plan…

The last of the chillies and tomatoes have been ripening in the greenhouse, and the benches are looking decidedly bare now. I’ve used the space to sow some trays of broad beans and early peas in there, and will plant them out as soon as winter is over. You can sow the seeds straight into the garden to grow through winter, but last year most of mine got whipped out and eaten by mice: hopefully being under cover will offer a bit more protection.

Earthed up leeks

Earthed up leeks

Having said that, the broad beans I cut down earlier in the year have actually sprouted again, and the jury is out regarding their fate. Some gardeners have informed me that these plants are never likely to be top croppers. Others say they will be better as they will be more established. I’ve decided to leave them alone and see what happens: if all fails I have my reserves growing in the greenhouse.

The last job of the year will be to dig up, trim the foliage, and store the runner bean plants in a cool dark place – apparently they should regrow next year.

So with the garden tidied and some of next year’s crops taken care of, there’s nothing left to do but hang up my trusty trowel and retreat to the warmth of the house.

From there, I can keep a gentle eye on the garden, with a glass of something yummy, whilst flicking through the seed catalogue for next year’s goodies.

My perfect idea of winter gardening…

This one appeared in The Hinckley Times on 31 October 2013

Farwell Winnie

Chickens free ranging

Winnie – the black chicken on the right

This week I bring sad news from Cluckingham Palace. Winnie, our oldest chicken is no more…

We re-homed Winnie a good few years ago and as such can only guess at her real age. We do know for sure that she was a bit hit and miss with the old egg laying, and  popped out her last one over a year ago. But she was lively and healthy enough, and enjoyed pottering and pecking around the garden with the younger girls.

A couple of days ago I noticed she was looking a tad peaky. Normally she’d be clucking around with the rest of the flock, but she was off her legs and keeping her distance from them. Checking on her the next day, I was dismayed to see that she’d clambered out of the hen house and appeared to have spent the night laying in the damp dirt of the coop floor.

Crawling in on my hands and knees, I gently scooped her bedraggled form off the ground, and took her up to the house to dry out. Into a box went some straw, and on top of that lay our sick chicken. Looking decidedly sorry for herself, every now and then she’d stretch her neck and appeared to be gasping for air. A root round on the t’interweb suggested that she probably had something called gapeworms. Gapeworms can be picked up in larvae found in earthworms, snails and slugs, andresult in red worms that live in the throat of the chicken, making it difficult for her to eat or breathe.

In an effort to make sure she had enough fluids, the youngest appointed himself Chief Chicken Nurse, and administered water from a teaspoon at regular intervals. I’m sure there’s the argument, “leave nature to do its stuff: she’s OLDand she doesn’t lay eggs!”, but we decided to do all we could. You wouldn’t turn your back on your ageing auntie because she couldn’t whip up a Victoria Sponge any more…

Swiftly gearing into action, I shot up to our local farm store in the hunt for some worm treatment, which incidentally could have funded a couple more chickens. This was duly diluted and fed to Winnieand we could do no more than hope for the best.

Sadly, our best efforts weren’t enough to save her… the next morning I peeped in on her to find that she’d carked it during the night. Wrapping her final resting box in black bags, I gave her a dignified send off in the black bin.  A garden burial wasn’t an option: we have a terrier who’d be digging her back up in no time at alland I didn’t fancy a tearful reunion next summer.

So we say a final ‘goodbye’ to Winnie: our oldest girl with the sporadic egg production. Gone but not forgotten, to the great chicken coop in the sky.

Appeared in The Hinckley Times on 24 October 2013.

Marrow brandy

Well, it would seem that after the awesome growing season we’ve just had, autumn is well and truly underway. Unable to get out into the garden due to the frankly miserable weather at the weekend, I turned my hand instead to making marrow brandy.

Now, I’ve been fishing around on the interweb for a while for a bullet proof recipe and different folk seem to make it in different ways. The main process is the same: chop the top off a marrow, scoop out the seeds, pack with sugar and fasten the top on again. This is where it gets a tad complicated. Some add brandy to the sugar, some add yeastand some add nothing at all. Figuring I wasn’t likely to get a potent brew with no brewing process, I decided to add yeast to mine.

Fetching my non-prize winning marrow from the depths of the pantry, I first cut off the top about 3 inches down. Scooping out the seeds proved trickier than I first thought due to the length of the marrow and the size of the opening. Undeterred, I removed all that I physically could, then made the cavity as big as possible by poking the remaining seeds down with a rolling pin. Genius!

I then set about packing the hole with brown sugar. After it was half full I added the juice of an orange and a sachet of wine yeast, then up to the top with more brown sugar. As this thing is hopefully going to ferment its head off I made a small hole through the lid of the marrow and inserted a wine-making airlock. With any luck this will let any yeasty gasses out and avert any unfortunate exploding marrow incidents. It should also keep the whole thing a bit more sealed and sterile and stop any bacteria getting in and sending the insides mouldy. That fitted, the top went back on the marrowand I fastened it with gaffer tape.

I then put the whole thing into an old pair of tights, hung it from the window latch and suspended it over a sweet jar. Apparently when the magic starts to happen, the marrow can get really mushy and hard to handle, so the tights will help support the weight.

Marrow brandy

Marrow brandy

According to form I now leave it alone for about three weeks, and then pierce a hole in the bottom to let the liquid drip out. At that point I should then pack the marrow with even more sugar and seal again for maximum juice extraction.

If all goes to plan I’ll be rewarded with a syrupy liquid that will be the start of my brandy. The liquid then goes into a demijohn with more yeast and water, to be fermented into a heady brew. From all accounts the end result can knock your socks off, so should be enjoyed in moderation.

I wonder if I should include a health warning on the bottles…

Appeared in The Hinckley Times on 17 October 2013

The mystery squash

Sweet dumpling squash

Sweet dumpling squash

Way back at the start of the year, I sowed what I thought were butternut squash seeds. The plants grew healthy and strong, and I had way too many for my garden so happily dished out the excess plants for my friends to grow. As the season went on, the plants snaked  across the veggie plot, and everyone commented on how well their plants were doing.  However, there appeared to be just one teeny problem. As the flowers subsided and the fruits developed, they looked to be anything BUT butternut squashes.

Instead of being smooth, pear-shaped and pale orange, these were like knobbly little pumpkins. What on earth were these mystery vegetables? And how big should they be before you pick them? Were they actually pumpkins? So many unanswered questions…

One thing was certain: I’ve never seen them in any of our local supermarkets.

After an extensive rustle around on the t’interweb, I discovered that what we’d all grown were, in fact something called sweet dumpling squash. Now, I’ve never even heard of these, let alone know what to do with them, but a further dig about revealed that they can be used in exactly the same way as butternut squash. They’re just slightly sweeter and a different shape. Phew!

That cleared up I set about transforming them into a hearty soup.

This one appeared in The Hinckley Times on 3 October 2013

The Hinckley Times 3 October 2013

The Hinckley Times 3 October 2013

Harvesting the spuds

Wandering around the garden at the weekend, I decided to give the leek bed a bit of well-deserved TLC. I’m delighted to report that the leeks are looking pretty amazing at the moment. The plants are looking lush and strong, and it’s almost hard to imagine the scrawny seedlings they were at the beginning of the season.

Every last onion is now out of that bed, which has left a nice supply of soil to earth up the leeks with.  Pulling earth up around the plants stops the light from getting in, resulting in longer, whiter stems so I set to work covering as much of the patch as I could with soil: oh yes, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll here, I can tell you…

Earthed up leeks

Earthed up leeks

Leeks are really hardy, so they should now sit there quite happily until we are ready to dig them up.

Turning my attention then to the potato beds, I noticed that the foliage on the last two rows was dying back. Apparently that means they’re done, so I decided to whip them out well before any chance of frost and store them for the colder months.

Rummaging around in the soil, it soon became apparent that we were in for a mighty crop. Not wanting to damage any with my fork, I donned my gloves and furiously furtled around in the soil by hand. The more I rummaged, the more spuds I found, and we soon had a more than impressive haul: some were absolute whoppers!

Harvesting the spuds - with a bit of help from the chickens

Harvesting the spuds – with a bit of help from the chickens

When I’d harvested all I could see, I had a good dig over the bed to turn up any lurking deeper in the soil, and promptly discovered a load more. It’s worth the extra effort to get all the potatoes out of the ground, so they don’t sprout and grow rogue plants next year.

The other half had bought me a hessian sack earlier in the week (who said romance is dead?) to store the spuds in, and all I can say is that I’m so glad he’d ordered the largest size. As I was merrily pulling them out left, right and centre, he was on quality control duties. Any perfect ones went in the sack; any with slight blemishes or damage went up to the house to use first; and any really tiny ones that weren’t worth getting the peeler out went in the bin.

Sorting the spuds

Sorting the spuds

It’s important to sort them, as any damaged ones in storage may start to rot, and the rot can easily spread to the other potatoes. Our sack of spuds is now in the shed, where it’s cool and dry. When the long winter nights draw in, I’m predicting an endless supply of leek and potato soup.

With the beds becoming emptier by the week, it’s also now safe to let the chickens out during the day, and they’re having a fine old time scratching around for worms and grubs – I’m hoping they may sniff out the last of our slugs too.

Chickens free ranging

Chickens free ranging

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 26 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 26 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 26 September 2013

Brandy mashed squash

Sweet dumpling squash and cumin on roasting tray

Sweet dumpling squash and cumin on roasting tray

Just a quickie (oooerr Missus!) this morning.

Since I made soup with my sweet dumpling squash, I’ve been looking around for other ways of transforming them into culinary delights. Woman cannot live on soup alone…

Yesterday, I hit upon a beauty – easy and delicious, and it may even make its way onto the Christmas menu. Mashed squash.

  1. Halve the squash, remove the seeds and cut into eighths
  2. Roast at 180 degrees with a sprinkling of cumin seeds for about half an hour
  3. Remove from the oven, allow to cool down slightly and remove the skins
  4. Add a knob of butter and a dash of milk and mash together

And this bit is where the magic happens…

Add a splash of brandy mix well, reheat and serve.

Went down a treat!

This would work well with sweet dumpling or butternut squash.