Seeding the lawn

When I moved from Chook Towers to Chook Cottage, the garden was nothing but a scrap of lawn with an old path down the middle. The first job was to dig up a bit, get some veggies in, and install a seating area at the bottom.

Standing back, I was pleased to see it was coming along like I’d planned it (I hadn’t much) – but the path was bugging me. It was old, it was tatty, and it chopped the garden up into two distinct halves. So I stuck it on a Facebook free site and some kind people nipped round, dug it up and took it away with them.

Then came the next challenge. One side of the lawn is pretty much there – quite level, and grassy. The other side – where the chickens live – is uneven and weedy. Not sure quite how I’d marry the two up, I’ve decided to dig over the weedy bit, level it all up to the grassy bit, and sow seed. I should then end up with a nice lawn which I can then chop about into a country cottage type shape, and whack some plants in.

So, wellies on, I set to work. The chooks were moved up the garden a bit to give a bit of space, and in no time at all I had a weed/grass free patch, which I raked, trod over, raked again and sprinkled grass seed on the top. A gentle rake over to incorporate the seed into the soil, and hopefully my new bit of lawn will start sprouting any time soon.

The biggest challenge will be to keep the new puppy off it – she LOVES to dig :)

Gardening over, I glanced at my watch and discovered I’d actually been on the job for a while, and I’d only just left myself enough time for a quick shower and spruce up before I was getting picked up. Yes. Picked up. By a man. With a pulse, and a cheeky smile to boot.

It seems I must have managed the transformation from grubby oik to glamour puss quite well. When I opened the door to him, I definitely got a low whistle and a “Wow!”.

#StillGotIt

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Goodbye greenhouse

This week I’ve made a groundbreaking discovery. I don’t actually need a greenhouse. Yes – true… after a couple of years of pottering around and potting up in my old one, my new house doesn’t actually need one at all!

When I first moved to the new pad, a greenhouse was definitely on the must-have list, so I bought a second hand one which my brother in law very kindly helped me to dismantle and bring home. This has sat in bits in the garden since, although I did spend a frustrating and head-scratching afternoon assembling all the side panels.

Then a visit with my friend to some open gardens last weekend changed all of that. The gardens were part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) where villagers open up their pride and joys, all in the name of charity. Off we trotted to the Cotswolds, hoping to be inspired and delighted. And inspired I most definitely was. Within these gardens were riots of colour, sweeping lawns, grand water features, rambling climbers… and hardly any of them contained a greenhouse.

So I decided that that’s the way my garden would go. Old, rambly, cottagey… you get the picture. The main priority is to fill the garden with lots and lots of flowers, and the vegetables can be put in alongside them. I think it will look marvellous.

The greenhouse is now sold on to its lucky new owner, and I’m itching to dig up some big borders. I have to say at this point that when I mentioned the demise of the greenhouse to said brother in law, he fixed me with a steely gaze that could have actually burned the retinas off my eyeballs. He clearly remembered with fondness the long sweaty afternoon getting the thing down. I did a bit of emergency grovelling, and I think he’s over it now…

Meanwhile on the plot, the two surviving runner beans (out of 12) are SPRINTING up the canes, and I’ve already spotted the first red flowers beginning to form. I may plant some bean seeds at the bases of the empty canes to try their luck for a late harvest. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

However, I’m delighted to say that the French beans all appear to have avoided any slug damage, and they are looking thick, healthy and lush. An added bonus, as I’ve never had any luck with Frenchies in the past. The rows of broccoli are also doing well, as are the leeks.

French beans

French beans

On the down side, the cabbages, cauliflowers and turnips are looking decidedly sorry for themselves. Although I’ve managed to cut down the slug population a little, the ones I have left are definitely sneaking out for a midnight snack still. There lies my slight dilemma. Do I cut my losses and have all the ropey-looking stuff out, or do I leave them in to act as sacrificial veggies?

Because if the slugs are eating them, they’re staying away from my good stuff for now.

Tom Tatos

Not having a greenhouse at present, I’m growing my tomatoes in a sunny spot, in growbags outside. There are three varieties – Tigerella which should be stripy (clue’s in the name), cherry tomatoes for salads, and the one I’m most interested to see the results of – sons of Beefy. Well, OK, that’s not the Latin name, but these plants were grown from the seeds I saved from my biggest, beefiest beef tomato last year. I’m hoping for some whoppers!

So far, so good. They are all appear healthy and strong and I’ve already spotted my first tomato hanging provocatively from one of the branches. I’ve been diligently nipping out the bits that grow in the ‘V’  between the stem and the leaves, so the plants funnel all their energy into producing fruits and the air circulates more freely around them. It’ll soon be time to begin their feeding regime too. Exciting stuff.

Recently having a drink with a friend, the conversation inevitably turned to gardening, and he asked me, “What do you reckon to those Tom Tato thingies?”

If you haven’t come across these yet, they’re a relatively new type of plant where you get potatoes from the soil and tomatoes from the foiliage – all from the SAME plant. Although I haven’t tried them for myself, it’s my opinion that you can muck about with stuff a little too much in the name of scientific research. The involuntary frown and curl of my lip must have given my thoughts away.

“I don’t get them”, I replied. “Yes, I understand that potatoes and tomatoes come from the same family of plants, but it just seems a bit wrong to mix them up together. Isn’t it a bit like marrying your cousin?”

I then continued with, “Plants that grow up produce things that you chop off and eat – ie beans, brassicas and salad. Plants that grow down produce things that you dig up and eat – ie carrots, spuds and parsnips. Not many vegetables can multitask well with the up AND down approach. Except maybe beetroot – you can add their leaves to a bowl of salad.”

“Think about it. You’re merrily watering your Tom Tato plant. What’s to stop all the spuds greedily sucking out all the goodness in the soil and leaving none left to travel up to the tomatoey bit? You could end up with mahoosive potatoes and spindly little tomatoes. How does it get the balance right?” I concluded with, “To get any sort of decent harvest from both ends, I’d imagine you’d have to feed the neck out of the damn things”.

Now readers may well have had sterling results with their Tom Tatoes – and I really do hope that you have, but like I said earlier, I haven’t tried growing one. And I don’t actually think I ever will. Call me old fashioned, but I just can’t fully trust the idea

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

Sweet dumpling squash and courgette soup

Now I’ve found out that my mystery squash was a sweet dumpling, I thought I’d transform it into a lovely autumn soup.

Sweet dumpling squash

Sweet dumpling squash

Serves 4

You will need:
1 sweet dumpling squash (butternut would work just fine though)
1 medium onion
400g courgette or marrow
1 vegetable stock cube
1/2 litre of water
A spoonful of creme fraiche (or cream)

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

First of all I cut my squash in half and took out all the seeds. I then chopped it up roughly, drizzled with oil and sprinkled some cumin seeds on the top. Into the oven it went on 180 degrees for about 20 minutes.

Sweet dumpling squash and cumin on roasting tray

Sweet dumpling squash and cumin on roasting tray

To be honest, the marrow was an afterthought as I had some lurking around in the fridge that needed to be used up. I chopped it up (about 400g) and added this to the roasting tray. The whole lot went back in the oven for a further 15 minutes.

Sweet dumpling squash and courgette

Sweet dumpling squash and courgette

I use a soup maker, but a large pan with do just fine. Chop up the onion and add it to the pan, and saute gently until translucent. Separate the squash from the skins, and add the squash flesh and marrow to the pan.

Chuck in a crumbled stock cube and half a litre of water, bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

Blitz until smooth, and stir in a generous dollop of creme fraiche or cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.

And the verdict? Absolutely delicious! Roasting the vegetables with cumin really brought out the flavours and the result was a lovely, warming soup. Next time I might even whack half a chilli in there. I think it can take it…

Four portions of sweet dumpling and courgette soup

Four portions of sweet dumpling and courgette soup

Losing the plot over caterpillars

A couple of weeks back I decided – as they seemed determined to scoff it anyway – to let the Cabbage Whites have free range of the brassica bed. The grand idea was to feed the leaves to the chickens, complete with all the fat caterpillars, ridding the garden of the plants and the insects in one fell swoop.

However, this cunning plan has slightly backfired. Firstly, the girls have now decided they’ve had too much of a good thing, are tired of caterpillars, and point blank refuse to eat them. And secondly, this solution would have been a winner if the caterpillars had actually stayed on the brassicas. But they didn’t. I turned my back for just a second, and the little blighters are now EVERYWHERE! They’re rampaging all over the rhubarb, celery and  beans, and some have even snuck into the greenhouse and are having a go at the tomatoes and peppers in there. They’ve even chomped the baby cabbage plants I had grown ready to plant up into the beds.

Deciding enough was enough, I pulled out every last remaining brassica plant, and dumped them unceremoniously in the brown bin. Enlisting the help of the youngest, we then set to work rounding up any caterpillars that were left behind. This was no mean feat, as they were out in their droves. The more we peered, the more we found and we’d soon amassed a huge collection.  As the chickens aren’t keen, these went into the pond as tasty treats for the fish.

The caterpillar collection

The caterpillar collection

Next year I think I’ll give brassicas a miss. I just don’t think they are for us anymore. Mrs Cabbage White can go and lay her eggs in someone else’s patch, thank you very much, and I’ll be growing more stuff that we actually like to eat.

That done, the garden still needed a bit of a tidy up. The strawberries have well and truly finished, so that bed got a good haircut to allow the plants to rest. I’ve been planting up some the runners in pots, and these have rooted, so I’ll have a good stock of healthy plants for next year.

The peas have also stopped producing and the broad beans are now past their best. There were a couple of random pods left, but nothing to write home about inside – which is hardly surprising as they have all been cropping since early spring. Out came the finished pea and bean plants and into the empty space went a row of Swiss Chard (a brilliant alternative to spinach) and a row of lettuce. With any luck these just might just produce a harvest for later this year.

I then dismantled the cane and string wigwams and frames that had been supporting the plants. As I carefully wound up the string and put it safely in the shed to reuse another day, I seriously wondered if I was actually turning into my Grandad…

This appeared in The Hinckley Times on 29 August

The Hinckley Times - August 29 2013

The Hinckley Times – August 29 2013

Sweet dumpling squash

I thought it was a butternut squash I was growing, but the fruit was nothing like anything I’ve bought in the shops. After a trawl around Google, I discovered it was a sweet dumpling squash, and it should taste very similar to butternut.

Now I’ve found out what my mystery squash is, I suppose I’d better find out what on earth I do with it…

Sweet dumpling squash

Sweet dumpling squash

Fruits & Veggies More Matters : Top 10 Ways to Enjoy Sweet Dumpling Squash : Health Benefits of Fruits & Vegetables.

Tomato and basil soup

My tomatoes are now ripening up well, but due to the wily caterpillars – they’re in the greenhouse, but I’ll be damned if I can find them – nibbling holes in some of them, they’re not quite fit for a salad.

In an effort not to waste them though, I put them to good use in a soup.

Serves 4

You will need:
About 700g assorted tomatoes
1 medium onion
Half a red chilli pepper
1 vegetable stock cube
1 litre of water
A handful of basil
A glug of cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Method
Roughly chop the onion and add to a large pan. Cut the tomatoes in half and add those too. I left the skins on as the soup will be blended anyway.
Add the water, basil, chilli and stock cube, bring to the boil, and simmer for 15 minutes.
Blend until smooth, add the cream and serve.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

The finished product is packed with tomatoey goodness, and really tasty too.

Tomato and basil soup

Tomato and basil soup