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

Vegetable show tomorrow

Well, after a full on grow your own summer, the village show is upon us. It’s tomorrow, folks, and I’ve entered and got my stickers for six categories. My uncles used to show leeks in the North East, but it’s only the second one I’ve entered… and I have to say I’m a tad excited about the whole thing!

I’m going for:

Longest runner bean (in good condition)
I’d earmarked my first born beans for this prestigious award, but although they grew long and straight, the pods have now dried out and the beans inside will be seeds for next year. Not to worry though, I have a couple of fine contenders on the ‘White Lady’ plant which I’ll whip off and measure in the morning.

Four runner beans
We’ve been pretty bean-less at the dinner table of late, as I’ve saved all I can on the plant. I’ll pick them tomorrow, and pick out the four best ones of the same length and look. I may well weigh them all too – you can’t be too cautious about these things. If there was a category for ‘curliest runner bean  or ‘runner bean that’s skinny one end and fat at the other‘, I’d have a few winners for sure.

Four potatoes
Three plants came up in the week, and I sorted them all out into size order. I’ve currently got two sets of four – no harm in having some stunt doubles to hand – under some paper in the shed. I’m aiming to dry out the skins slightly before cleaning them, in the hope that the skins will stick to the spuds and not come off in my hands.

5 a day
An arrangement of five kinds of vegetables you’ve grown. Not really sure about this one to be honest. The plan is to rustle off down the garden first thing, harvest anything that looks half decent, and plonk it in an arrangement arrange it artistically and beautifully.

Cross stitch picture
I’m actually entering this twice with the samplers I did long ago for my two babies. Well, one was actually only finished a couple of years ago (13 years after the grand event) as it sort of got put in a cupboard and forgotten about.

Cross stitch samplers

Cross stitch samplers

So there we are – six entries at 20p each, with a potential of winning £3 forfirst prize, £2 for second and £1 for third. So we could be having a takeaway tomorrow night. Or we could be having non-winning beans on toast.

Wish me luck!

Saving seeds

Part of the pleasure of growing your own has to be the smug feeling when you saunter off down the garden or allotment and busily harvest free produce. But what if you went one step further, and actually produced your own seeds… for FREE?

Saving seeds to plant next year is fairly straightforward, but there are just a couple of things to bear in mind before you start. First off, the type of plant you collect seeds from will determine the end product of what actually grows.

For example, if you collected seeds from a ‘heritage’ variety of plant, the odds are you’ll grow something the same or very close as the original plant. Heritage varieties haven’t been genetically modified or mucked about with in any way, so on the plus side they retain their original features. On the minus they may be less hardy to certain pests and diseases.

If the original plant was an F1 (hybrid) variety, this is a man-made species that’s been created from a number of different varieties to incorporate the best from each. So the plant you grow could be very different to the one you harvested the seed from: it could take on the characteristics of any of the plants in the mix.

Simple seeds to begin with include:

Parsnips and carrots – these will flower the year after they have produced the root and greenery. Just leave one or two in the ground for the next season, and they should throw up a flower spike. Simply leave this alone:  after the flowers fade, bunches of seeds begin to form. Once these have started to turn brown, cut off the flower head and place upside down in a paper bag or envelope. Leave in a cool, dry place and the seeds will all dry out and drop off.

Garlic – when you’ve harvested your garlic bulbs for the year and dried them out, set a couple aside for seed.  In late autumn/early winter, simply divide the bulbs and plant each clove about 6 inches apart and just deep enough so the top is showing.

Beans and peas – leave a couple of pods on the plant. At the end of the growing season these will mature and then begin to dry out. Once dry, remove the beans and peas and dry completely on some kitchen towel. Store in a cool, dry place ready for next year.

Salad crops – lettuce and radish can easily ‘bolt’ during the summer, and throw up a flower spike. Just leave it alone until the seed pods begin to form, cut them off and dry upside down in a paper bag or envelope.

Tomatoes – Remove the fleshy insides of tomatoes and wash the pulp off through a sieve. Dry the seeds on sheets of kitchen paper, and once dry, store as above.

So there you have it – with just a little time and effort, it’s possible to grow next year’s crops… for nothing.

Parsnip flower head

Parsnip flower head

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 15 August 2013.

 

 

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.