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!

 

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…

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.

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

Carrots for Christmas

A couple of weeks ago I was having a good old chat with a fellow gardener, when he leaned across conspiratively, and asked:

“Have you planted your Christmas carrots yet?”

Slightly bemused but keen to know more, my interest was well and truly piqued… surely it was way too late to be putting carrots in: mine have all just been whipped OUT of the garden!  He went on to explain that carrot seeds sown in a deep pot in the greenhouse now,  had a good chance of being ready in time for the Christmas table.

Carrot seedlings

Carrot seedlings

I’ll have a go at most things garden related, so off I went down to the greenhouse, filled my deepest pot with compost, and duly sowed a thin layer of seeds on the top. And do you know what? They’ve only gone and germinated. They’re still very tiny, but plenty have popped up already. When they’re a wee bit bigger, I’ll thin them out to give them a bit more room to grow. As our greenhouse isn’t heated, it’ll certainly be interesting to see when they are ready to eat.

Elsewhere in the greenhouse, the caterpillar damage seems to be coming to a halt, and I’m now harvesting masses of red chillies. We can’t possibly eat the amount we have, so I’m drying some out. After threading some chillies onto a length of cotton, I’ve hung them up to dry in the utility room. In about three weeks or so they should be completely dried out, at which point I’ll whiz them up in the mini chopper. This will give us a good supply of chilli flakes to use throughout the year.

Tomatoes ripening

Tomatoes ripening

The tomatoes are also coming in thick and fast. To help them ripen, we’ve snipped off a lot of the lower leaves so the light and air can get around the fruits. My lot aren’t actually all that keen on tomatoes, so I’ve had to be a touch creative with using them up. Lots have gone into soups, and at the weekend I even made my own pizza base topping: I added peeled, chopped tomatoes to a pan with a squeeze each of tomato puree and garlic puree, brought it all to the boil and simmered the mixture to reduce it down. Delicious.

In other news, we have exciting developments from Cluckingham Palace.
After a good six months of Maud not laying anything, she now appears to be having a mid-life crisis. She thinks she is ‘hip with the young chicks’ and is laying like a trooper. Which makes for a lot of eggs: and a lot of cakes and quiches.

We can’t complain though – after all the sweat and toil we’ve put into the plot, it’s great to have so much produce to show for it.

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 19 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 19 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 19 September 2013

August garden

Some pictures of this month in the garden…

Runner beans on the arches

Runner beans on the arches

Nancy the chicken having a free range around the garde

Nancy the chicken having a free range around the garden

Fusto Fior tomatoes

Fusto Fior tomatoes

Squash plants

Squash plants

I’m not sure how big these need to be – or will get – before we pick them. They don’t look ‘done’ yet though.

Soon to be marrow brandy

Soon to be marrow brandy

I’m growing this as big as I can, and will be making it into marrow brandy.

Runner beans on the arches

Runner beans on the arches

Insects on goldenrod

Insects on goldenrod

Montbretia

Montbretia

Cosmos flower

Cosmos flower

Lazy dog

Lazy dog

Cabbage White

Looking out of the window last week, I’d be forgiven for thinking that – despite the lovely weather – it appeared to be snowing out there. And only over one patch of the veg plot. A closer look made my heart sink. It appeared our old friend, the Cabbage White butterfly was back with a vengeance, and had invited all her friends and relatives along to the party too.

Everywhere I looked, these harmless looking creatures flittered and fluttered in and out of the brassica bed, laying their eggs willy nilly all over my crops. Peering at the patch, it soon became obvious that I was a tad too late in spotting them, and they’d been busy indeed. Peering at the leaves, a good few now had clusters of tiny yellow eggs on – others were a stage further, with little holes nibbled out of them by miniscule caterpillars. Now, I could go through the plants with a fine tooth comb, and squish any I came across, but to be honest, it would be a mammoth task – and I know full well they’ll be back again tomorrow. I could also cover the plants with netting … but do you know what? I really haven’t got the time or inclination.

Cabbage White eggs on the brassicas

Cabbage White eggs

The brassica beds have gone bonkers this year, producing masses of dark leaves, but they’re not looking their best. The purple sprouting broccoli has bolted to seedand I think I may have planted the cabbages a tad too close – they’re struggling to heart up, and are more along the lines of leafy trees now. The chickens love them: the family hate them, and frankly I’m growing tired of thinking up new ways of disguising them into tasty dishes.

Add that to the fact that we now have an abundance of lovely colourful summer vegetables to pick from. Don’t you think that courgettes, aubergines, beans, peas, tomatoes and cucumbers are SO much more appealing at this time of year?

So, I’ve taken the executive decision to bid the brassicas goodbye, and to let them go. So there! Cabbage Whites – come on in, the door’s open. You’re welcome to my cabbage patch. Lay your eggs to your hearts’ content. The leaves are still eventually destined for the chickens, but very soon they will be complete with fat, juicy caterpillars. The girls are going to be in chicken heaven.

Caterpillars on the vegetable plot

Cabbage White Caterpillars

When the bed is empty and clear, it will give me the perfect spot to plant onion sets and garlic, come the autumn.

But we won’t be entirely brassica free. I’ve always associated cabbages with hearty winter- warming, gravy-soaking dishes. I’ve got some tiny Savoy and Tenderheart plants that I started off in a seed tray a while back. As the peas and beans get whipped out of their spot, I’ll replace them with these new plants. With any luck some will mature through winter.

For the time being though, we’ll be feasting on our summer crops and salads.

Greenfly and blackfly

Meandering around the garden at the weekend I was delighted to notice clusters of buds appearing all over the rose bushes. A closer look revealed however, that they were in need of a little bit of TLC. Some forming flowers were full of greenfly.

In the shed is some bug spray that I try only to use when all else fails. Simple reason: I think it may kill the ‘good’ bugs along with the ‘bad’, and generally mess up the eco system in the garden. With the onset of greenfly, the ladybirds should be inviting all their friends and family along to rose bush picnics. But I haven’t actually noticed any around this year… are they late, or is there a shortage?

The greenfly population hadn’t actually taken up full occupancy, so I simply squashed the few there were with my fingers. I’ll make regular checks in case any come back.

Whilst on the subject of garden bugs, I’ve also noticed black ants running up and down the runner beans. Apparently the ants take up residence just before any blackfly appear. The ants will ‘farm’ the blackfly and feed on the sugary stuff they secrete. So if I can get rid of the ants, I should in theory, lessen the risk of attack from the Black Army.

Looking on the internet, it seems that I can make my own non-pesticide spray, either from soapy water or by adding garlic, crushed cloves or rhubarb leaves to water. In a bid to deter the bugs and ants before the plants are inundated with them, I’m trying out the crushed cloves method. I simply whizzed a good handful of cloves in the food blender to chop them up a bit, and added them to a spray container with water in it. This I left for a good couple of days to stew, strained to get the bits out, and gave both the roses and broad beans a generous squirt at the weekend.  I’ll keep you informed.

Turning to the chickens, the recent onslaught of heavy showers has taken its toll on their run. Part of the coop is covered, but the rain has got in through the open bits, resulting in squelchy areas of mud – and wet feet do not make for happy chooks. As I surveyed the damage, the girls greeted me forlornly at the wire, wearing scornful expressions that could have said,

“Oi! Sort it. We’re not ducks, you know!”

When we get a free weekend, it’s now on the list to re-roof the entire run, but for now the first priority was to dry out the floor. In went a generous covering of wood shavings which seems to have done the trick, as the girls are now happily scratching around in their new, dry ground cover. Happy clucking sounds have now replaced the strangled “Bwaaark” noises of earlier.

This one appeared in The Hinckley Times on 27 June 2013

Hinckley Times article about greenfly, blackfly, chickens and black ants

The Hinckley Times 27 June 2013

News from Cluckingham Palace

With Her Majesty the Queen dashing around celebrating 60 years on the throne, I bring mixed news from my very own Cluckingham Palace. The good news is that the new hens are all laying; we’re regularly getting four eggs a day, and these are steadily increasing in size. On the down side, the older girls seem to have taken this as a sign to start early retirement, so egg production from Maud and Winnie has ceased. They’re now spending their twilight years lounging around letting the young ‘uns do all the work.

Making the most of the glorious weather last weekend, I was on a mission to have a good old sort out in the greenhouse, and get the remaining tender plants outside: surely there cannot be a frost this late in the year. So, out came the sunshine – along with my shorts, British blue legs and knobbly knees – and I set to work.

The last of the runner beans and all the borlotti beans were planted out, together with the rest of the squash and courgette plants. I also had trays of Antirrhinum (Snapdragons), Cosmos and Sunflowers and am hoping for a swathe of colour in the flower borders this year.

Whilst planting, I noticed that a couple of gaps have suddenly appeared, and it looked like my old friend, the slug was back on the scene. Taking no chances, I’m attacking from all angles, as quite frankly, I’m tired of my hard work being eaten away. At the base of all the new plants went a sprinkling of eggshells and a light scattering of slug pellets for good measure.

I also decided to try something else. I’d heard through one of my gardening contacts that if you put a plank of wood in the garden, slightly raised by stones, the slugs will all be hiding under there come the morning. For the next couple of days I shot outside to inspect my haul, and eagerly turned over the plank. Underneath was a disappointing tale: nothing – nada – zilch – not even a baby one. Although elsewhere in the garden we do have a rather large area of decking – which for all I know is festooned with slugs, but I’m not about to start dismantling it to check.

Deciding to put a few more beer traps in strategic spots, I trotted off back up towards the house. Peering into the fridge, I actually found myself wondering if the slugs would prefer ‘The best beer in the world’ or the one that ‘refreshed the parts other beers couldn’t reach’. Plumping for the latter, I collected together some old jars and set about burying them neck deep near my new patches of plants. Into each went an inch or so of beer, and before long the job was done.

After an entire morning of working in the garden, there was an added benefit. There were a couple of swigs leftover for me to enjoy, whilst planning my next tasks.

This one appeared in The Hinckley Times on 13 June 2013

The Hinckley Times 13 June 2013

The Hinckley Times 13 June 2013