Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The White Duck Lives!

After carefully locking away my ducks and chickens last night, having apparently lost my white duck, you can imagine my surprise when I came out into the garden this morning and found - you guessed it - my White Duck disporting herself joyously on the pond!

I decided I had better keep an eye on her to find out where the nest was that she had obviously been secretly sitting on for the past few days. After a hearty breakfast and an extensive toilette, (her not me) I followed her round the garden at a discreet distance wearing a brown overcoat and spying through a newspaper with a hole in it, and in the best detective tradition she gave me the slip when I nipped into the kitchen to get a quick coffee.

Here she is taking a short cut through the sweet corn...
..and slipping unobtrusively through the swiss chard..

However, I knew the general direction she was headed and was able to head her off at the pass and discover her and her ten (yes ten!) eggs in the michaelmas daisies in the vegetable garden. So I had probably been walking past her nest for the last week and not seen her. I always seem to have a patch of michaelmas daisies in a corner, well they just get away when I'm to busy really, and they are in any case a good late nectar source for the bees.

I left her there for the rest of the day and after dark moved her into a spare small duck house and she seems to be happy sitting on the eggs. Of course, I have no drake so her eggs won't hatch, and I'm considering getting some fertile eggs for her to sit on. Ducks don't usually make very good mothers so I was surprised that she's sitting so well. Although I remove chickens who try to sit in the nest boxes, I hadn't the heart to take the duck away from her nest since she's gone to such a lot of trouble, it seemed a bit mean, but do I really want any more ducklings, do I have the room that's the question?

Sunday, 28 June 2009

As I was saying, lock the poultry up safely.....

As I said in my last post it's the job of the chicken or duck keeper has to ensure to always lock away the stock safely at night. So make sure you do as I say, not as I do, as unfortunately, I somehow managed to leave the white duck shown in the picture on the right of the page, exiting the veg garden, out overnight and she was no doubt taken by a fox. She had developed a tendency to hide in the shrubbery over the last few days instead of going into the duck house like her two sensible duck sisters. I wondered if she had started to go broody, and was hiding a clutch of eggs somewhere,but I went out late to shut the duck house door without checking that they were all inside. Well at least the loss was only the one, and I have the four young ones coming along, but I still hate to lose birds to the fox, always makes me feel like I failed to do the job properly.
Of course, I was extra careful tonight to ensure they were all safely locked away, especially the 14 table chicks withe the broody, but that's just Stable Door Syndrome kicking in...

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Fight the Good Fight

The veg garden in June.
My friend Alison down the lane, has had to call in the Lovely James the Tree to cut down a dead horse chestnut in her garden. So she now has a nice load of logs for the winter, and I have a ton of chippings,which she kindly donated to me and which I have used to renew the paths on the veg garden, smartening up its appearance no end. Note the cherry tree at rear illustrating theTesco Carrier Bag and Old CDs Bird Scaring System. see below for further details.
But beneath the apparent calm and order of the early summer allotment, lurks the incipient threat of-

cue scary music - THE WILDLIFE.
I'm very fond of a raspberry, or two, and indeed a strawberry, as I've mentioned before, and peas jump straight from the pod into my mouth.... In fact it's fair to say that a substantial amount of our crop doesn't even make it to the kitchen at all. But it's not just me -I'm not the only culprit who's eating the crop in the garden, in fact there's an veritable army out there, just lying in wait to steal the hard earned crop from my very plate, or hand. I'm talking about the birds of course, and the slugs, snails, caterpillars, mice, squirrels and all manner of Gods Good Creatures that are hoping to share in our bounty. I'm fortunate in that I have relatively few problems with slugs and snails, mostly because I turn the hens and ducks into the veg garden in the winter when there's more space, and less crop and they seem to keep it relatively clear. The trick is to keep them out when you don't want them in there - they don't always go along with this arrangement, so you have to watch it. I realise this isn't a realistic proposition for everyone, but if you can do it, it really does make a difference. They eat your slugs, clear lots of the weeds, and fertilize the ground as they go along. Turning slugs and weeds into delicious eggs is, let's face it, nothing short of alchemy. And it saves you on pelleted food too. Certainly seems like a deal to me.

I'm not a greedy person..

However, there is still the problem of wild birds. I'm not a greedy person, well I am a greedy person actually, but anyway the point is I don't mind sharing a reasonable amount of crop with the wildlife, but they just don't know when to stop. Birds don't just have a cherry or two, they strip the tree, slugs don't just nibble a strawberry , they ruin the whole crop, and don't even get me started on foxes. If a fox took the occasional chicken I could live with it, but I've had fox attacks in the past and they just kill every bird the run, whuch of course is in their nature and can't be helped,but it's nevertheless a terrible thing when it happens. You just have to accept that it's the foxes job to eat the chickens and it's the gardener's job to stop him. So just make sure you do your job as well as you can.

Apart from chicken keeping, there are the other traditional anti-pest devices such as my scarecrow pictured here. This is a somewhat basic design, but quite effective, featuring once again, the good old Tesco Carrier bag this time stuffed with straw as a head with an old woolly hat from goodness knows where and sporting a natty if rather holey red fleece jacket. Now I haven't got round to putting a photo of myself on this blog profile yet, but when I do I'm sure you will agree that I bear very little resemblance to this fellow, even from a distance. But you would be amazed at the number of people who see the top of Mr Scarecrow's head behind the fence, think it's me, and then after giving a cheery wave, stomp off down the lane muttering about miserable old bats who never speak... I can only say I have never worn a blue woolly hat and my face is not remotely like a Tesco carrier bag, except on a really bad day. However I am seriously thinking about a bit of a makeover in the Gardening Apparel Department.

Pretty well all creatures hate plastic bags, except humans. Clearly animals realised the danger from the start, - my dog refuses to walk with someone carrying a plastic carrier bag unless they have it on the other side to her, and I once rode a horse that could spot a discarded carrier bag in the ditch at 500 yards and would judder to an immovable halt in the middle of the lane until someone removed it. No amount of prodding, kicking or urging on would entice her to pass near to the Scary White Flappy Thing in the ditch. And so drawing on this experience ~I have designed my Patent Tesco Plastic Carrier Bag Bird Scarer, illustrated here. I admit, it doesn't add anything to the ornamental appearance of the garden, but it does work. I intend to have at least some cherries this year!! ~Old CDs are also liberally dangled around the tree and work by reflecting sunlight at odd angles which also scares birds effectively.

I will make brief mention of my efforts with firearms, well an air gun actually, which became necessary when the whole of last years crop of hazelnuts was lost to grey squirrels, not to mention the bird feeders and strawberries. My husband is very fond of hazelnuts.

I have so far bagged two squirrels and three wood pigeons from my hide by the bathroom window, which affords me a reasonable view of the bird table where said grey squirrels are most often to be found, (out of hazelmut season of course) We ate the pigeons and they were delicious, I did think of trying the squirrel, a la Whittingstall, but decided against it - the resemblance to large rats with tails makes it just a forage too far for now- maybe another time.

I am of course extremely careful to ensure that I am aiming downwards and that nothing is in the possible line of fire

And if all else fails an impenetrable barrier of chicken wire or plastic mesh or both will keep most attackers at bay, even if it means you can't pick a strawberry every time you walk past, because it's trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Seeing the wood for the trees

I'm lucky enough to have quite a large garden here in Wiltshire. We've been here ten years, so it should by rights be looking how we want it to look by now. But gardeners never get to be satisfied with their garden - for a start it's always growing. And there's only one thing worse than things growing, it's things not growing, and naturally the ones that grow are always the ones you want to slow down a bit, or indeed stop altogether, and the ones that don't grow are the ones you really really want to get on with the job. Why is that? I expect it's Nature, or Karma or something, but anyway, it's really annoying. Especially when it comes to trees. Of which we have far too many, far too big. Some kind of control is going to have to be exerted, or we will have to start leaving trails of breadcrumbs to find our way from the back door to the gate.

Now don't get me wrong, I like a tree as much as the next woman, in fact I am a Tree Warden appointed by the Tree Council, no less, and I have a badge to prove it (I don't really) but whereas you can keep a rose bush or a shrub in tip top condition by judicious wielding of the secateurs and hedge cutters, and you can weed and thin and fertilize your herbaceous border, when it comes to a tree that's too big and casts shade over half the garden, it has to be dealt with by a professional, ie you have to "get a man in". Enter said man, the lovely James the Tree Man, who has just been round the garden with us and is going to spend a couple of days next month thinning out our forest of overcrowded trees, removing dead trees, and generally sorting out the problem for us. I doubt whether we will use all the logs in our log burner should the climate turn Sub Arctic and we live as long as Henry Allingham!

Anyway, even after the Lovely James and his merry men have done their professional best, we will still have a large number of large trees, casting a large amount of shade. So things have to be planted that will thrive in such conditions. If you don't plant things that will thrive, they will plant themselves, according to what Nature prefers to grow in your particular neck of the woods. In ours, it's mostly cow parsley. Cow parsley is lovely in the hedgerows, a delight in late Spring with its froth of creamy white flowers along the roadsides, but it's not what you want in your garden, so I have tried to replace most of it with slightly more suitable subjects. Top of our list is Pulmonaria, or lungwort which seems to do really well in dry shady conditions, and as an additional benefit is an excellent bee plant. Its pinky lilac flowers come early in the season, and when it's finished you can just get your husband to run the hedge trimmer across the foliage, which gets rid of the fading often mildewy leaves and it goes on to renew itself for later in the season. I must admit to getting a bit bored with having it all over the place and have recently tried a few different cultivars in particular "Blue Ensign" which has much brighter blue flowers, so I will see whether they do as well as our common type. I also have a large patch of Epimedium, which is on my to-do list to spread around under the trees as it does quite well there.Again the delicate yellow flowers come quite early on, but the leathery leaves remain and will see you weed-free through the rest of the year. I get my plants from all over the place, but I do recommend Peter at Just Perennial Plants on Ebay as a very good and knowledgeable supplier of well grown plants at reasonable prices.
The other usual culprits are variegated ivy, and the little periwinkle, Vinca minor. These two together make a thick carpet under the dense cover of the Cotoneaster tree and its neighbour a huge Euclyptus Gunii. A brief word of warning on this latter which grows quite close to the house, and was, I suspect, originally planted as a shrub, as the juvenile foliage is different from the mature leaves, and is much loved by flower arrangers. But be warned, if you fail to prune, and leave it for a year or two it will head for the sky, and you'll end up having to phone the Lovely James to come and rescue you from the 60 foot monster.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

True Blues

When my mother describes someone as "a bit above themself"she means someone is pretending to be something that they're not. Similarly while the blue rose, the blue tulip, and the blue daffodil have something of the Hyacinth Bouquet about them, the blue poppy is an entirely different kettle of fish. The blue is the colour of a clear blue sky, not unlike the Heavenly Blue of the Morning Glory vine, of which I have a few coming along in the greenhouse for later in the summer. Its true blue colour is probably related to the fact that it's not actually a poppy at all, and so is not a red flower trying on an unsuitable blue frock, ie it's not a member of the Papaver family, but is a Meconopsis.

The picture is of one of my Blue Poppies, which are quite
special to us, as our business is called Blue Poppy Art, (although if we'd known how pernickety they are to grow we might have chosen something easier, Dandelion Art though, doesn't have quite the same ring... )
Anyway, there are two well known members of the meconopsis family , our own Blue Poppy -Meconopsis Betonicifolia,and the little yellow welsh poppy Meconopsis Cambrica, which turns up in the oddest of places, seeding itself about, much like a proper poppy in fact. The Blue Poppy although lovely in flower, like many poppies it grows on a less than lovely plant, - mine look like rather hairy grey-green stalks with a series of flower buds at the top which open in succession. They have a deserved reputation for being short lived, even though they are perennial, and the trick I think, is to ensure that you don't let the plant set seed. If it does, it seems to think its allotted time is up and promptly turns up its toes. So just enjoy the flowers and nip them off as they fade. And since I saw plants for sale at Dobbies the other day for £10 each it certainly seems worth trying to extend their earthly spell for as long as possible.

Raising Chickens for the Table

Note this truly middle class hen serves up her chick crumbs in a Le Creuset dish!

I wanted to try a few table birds last year, but didn't get round to it, so this year I've been busy researching the best breed to try for this new venture. There appears to be some disagreement, not to say ferocious argument, between afficionados of Sasso, and Hubbard, which are both modern hybrids developed for slow maturing and increased flavour. And then there are the traditional and rare breeds such as the Ixworth that others swear by. Anyway I decided to go for the Hubbard hybrid and picked up a dozen day old chicks (actually 14 because I got two free!) from a specialist organic breeder FAI Farms near Oxford.

Raising chickens for the table isn't something to be taken on lightly, for the fairly obvious reason that you will have to deal with, or make arrangements for, slaughter and preparation of the birds for consumption. I have killed the occasional surplus cockerel in the past and although I found it challenging at first, I did find the satisfaction of producing my own roast chicken very rewarding. And tasty. However, I now have a secret weapon in the form of my good friend Sid, a retired and skilled butcher and sometime smallholder has kindly offered to deal with my birds for me. He still does quite a bit himself by way of supplying game from the local hunt, and has a plucking machine, so I'm hoping that will make everything easier,come D-Day (Dispatch Day).

I brought the chicks home in an insulated picnic box and slipped them surreptitiously under the broody hen, or at least as surreptitious as you can be with a hen who is doing her best impersonation of Sid Vicious and giving a good peck at anything that has the audacity to come within beak distance! I was a bit worried that she wouldn't accept them or that there would be too many for her, but as you can see from the picture she's taken them all under her wing. They are accomodated in an ark, and she brought them out after a day or so, and all is going well so far. It's so much easier raising young birds with a broody than doing it with a heat lamp and so on, the broody does the whole job for you, and I think the chicks are better for it too. My four little Indian Runner Ducks are doing fine on their own, I've put them outside now with a small lamp in their ark for warmth if they need it, but they have taken me much more time and effort than if they'd had their own mum.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

garlic scapes

I've been growing garlic for a few years now, and I find if you plant it early enough it's pretty easy to get a good crop. Last year I grew the variety "Music" and it kept me in garlic for most of the year, with loads to give away as well. It's what's known as a hardneck variety or sometimes called porcelain garlic; it's said to be the best flavour, but not the best keeper.
I harvested it in August I think, last year and it lasted well into the new year, but then it gets that little green shoot in the middle that you have to poke out with your knife because it tastes a bit bitter. I find most garlic from the shops goes like that though, so it's not so much of a hardship to do, especially when it means your garlic supply is free. And this year it's doubly free because I kept about a dozen or so heads for replanting this year. I put them in last Autumn, in late September and they are looking good so far.
One interesting thing about hardneck garlic is that it produces what are known as "scapes" - a peculiar looking curly shoot which is really the flowering shoot and must be removed to allow the plant to concentrate it's energies into the bulb and not into flowering. If you grow onions, you might be forgiven for thinking that your garlic had "bolted" but this is the normal growth habit for this plant and the scapes can be used for a number of gourmet treats. They can be steamed and served with melted butter like asparagus, but the best way to enjoy their fresh flavour is to make them into a pesto. Just chop the scapes into pieces and throw into the food processor with some olive oil, parmesan cheese and pine nuts. You can adjust quantiities to your taste. The pesto keeps in a jar in the fridge for ages and is delicious with pasta as well as spread on bruschetta with a glass of wine before dinner and also perks up plain grilled chicken or chops.
Oh and they're also good added to a stiry fry. If you want to try garlic scapes you'll probably have to grow your own as I've never seen them in the shops, or maybe find a garlic growing friend - I always have more than I can use.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Bees Bees Everywhere

My one remaining bee colony gave up the ghost earlier this year, and so I decided to invest in a nucleus of Carnolian bees from the lovely Mike at EasyBee in Gloucester. Carnolian bees are supposed to be gentle and non aggressive, so I was very happy to pick up the new bees this morning, and was looking forward to transferring them to the new hive later in the day. "Feed 'em and keep 'em warm" was Mike's advice as I drove off with the box of buzzing bees in the boot of the car.
Imagine my surprise when I went to get a couple of bits from the "bee area" of the hen run, to find the old beehive fully occupied!! A swarm must have come in during the last day or so. and taken up residence in the old hive. I had a quick look at them, and couldn't find the queen, but then I never can, there were no eggs or larvae, but then there wouldn't be if they had just arrived. So I quickly closed up the hive and left them to it, hoping for the best. I've put my new Carnolian bees down at the other end of the vegetable garden, just to avoid any antagonism between the two new sets of bees. So I've gone from no bees to loads of bees in the space of just a few days. I'll have to see how the two hives compare.

The four baby ducklings that hatched out in the incubator a week or so ago are doing well, and eating for England. Their home has moved from the side of the Aga, where it was really in the way, to the other side of the kitchen and then today out into the hall by the front door. I'm hoping they will grow a few feathers soon and can go outside in the run and eventually join the three other adults. If one at least of them turns out to be a drake we might be able to breed from them next year. My two adult black ducks are real stunners and I'm hoping for a good black drake to go with them.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Strawberries,Clotted Cream and more

Strawberries! I have made strenuous efforts with the strawberry patch this year, after last year's disaster, when I planted out the plants, they duly flowered but we got no strawbs, not a one! I put it down to a plague of rodents, though it may have been birds as well, so this year I have made an impenetrable (I hope) cage of chicken wire and netting, and treated the plants with my favourite nitrogenous fertilizer earlier in the season (diluted urine shock horror - don't tell the neighbours) and regular sprayings of seaweed solution. It's looking good so far with lots of flowers and fruit set.
However, as they are still green and it will be a week or two before we can enjoy them and I happened upon a huge display of half price strawberries in Tesco's yesterday, I decided to buy 8 pounds for only £8 (bargain or what), together with a big bag of sugar, and this morning have made a batch of jam. We had some of the strawbs after dinner last night, and although they were nice enough, I just don't think you can buy strawberries like you can grow. I think they have varieties that are chosen for their long shelf life, and transportability and so on, and not the best tasting ones that you can choose at home. Most of my plants are Cambridge Favourite, and they do taste wonderful (when I get any of course). But I have a mixture of plants from friends and various sources, and they're all lovely when you pick them at the peak of their flavour and ripeness, still warm from the sun, yum.

Here's my jam recipe - I use Certo for strawberry jam, it allows a fast set and so keeps the delicate flavour. I don't use pectin for any other preserves, but I do find it best with strawberries. It's the standard pectin recipe, taken from the Certo website.

Strawberry Jam
2 ¼ lb. Strawberries
3 tbsp Lemon Juice
3 lb. Sugar
½ bottle Certo

1. Prepare the fruit and crush thoroughly. Add the lemon juice and the
2. Heat slowly until dissolved, stirring occasionally.
3. Add a small knob of butter or margarine to reduce foaming.
4. Bring quickly to a full rolling boil and boil rapidly for 2 minutes,
stirring occasionally.
5. Remove from the heat and stir in the Certo - skim if necessary.
6. Allow to cool slightly to prevent the fruit from floating. Pot and cover in
the usual way.

And while you're making strawberry jam, you may start to think about eating it, and what better way of eating it than a lovely Devon Cream Tea. I live in Wiltshire now, but I lived in Devon for many years, and when my children were small we used to make family trips to places for Cream Teas and give them marks out of 10. In fact we became quite exacting about it and in the end we had different categories for the scones, jam, cream, tea, service, and even toilet facilities, always an important consideration with small children, (and older ladies, come to think of it....)
Anyway, my daughter has just emailed me for a "proper" scone recipe, so here is my definitive one. I always use Cream of Tartar for scones as I think it gives a better result.

The Ultimate Scone!

one pound self raising flour (about 450gr in euros)
good pinch of salt
*1 heaped teasp bicarbonate of soda
*2 heaped teasps cream of tartar
3 oz caster sugar (about 2 good tablespoons)
3-4 oz butter (about a third of a packet)
about half pint of milk (I think that's about 250ml in modern)
*or you can use about 3 heaped teasps of baking powder instead of these two ingredients

Mix first five ingredients together. Quickly rub in the butter. Stir in the milk to make soft consistency. Press down gently and cut rounds. Bake in very hot oven about 10 mins.

The main thing is to handle the flour as little as possible, so you get as little gluten forming as poss(as opposed to breadmaking where you want as much as poss gluten causes the chewiness in bread).

Don't bother using chilled butter as you might in pastry, it rubs in quicker if it's soft so you handle it less. Or whizz it briefly in the food processor

The amount of milk will vary with the absorbency of the flour - you want it very soft, softer than pastry, but firm enough to hold together and not turn into anything like a cake mixture.

Don't bother rolling it out, just pat it with your hand on a generously floured surface, you want it very thick, almost as deep as your scone cutters. I like a floury top so I don't eggwash. You can if you like. Once the liquid is in, the raising agent starts to work, so you need to get them in the oven as quick as you can. If you haven't got some proper cutters, use a sharp knife and cut them into squares. Just as nice, and you don't have no leftover bits to re-cut. Don't use a cup or a glass, sharp cutters really help the rise.

I have a feeling that cream of tartar goes "off" well not really off, but less effective, after a while say a few months so is best used fairly fresh, a good excuse for baking loads of scones!

Storage Because the raising agent only starts to work when it's wet, you can make a bag of the mix and store it in the fridge (or freezer) until you need it. So in true Domestic Goddess fashion you can have a plate of home made scones on the table in 15 mins start to finish. Label the bag (as if you wouldn't) to avoid UFO syndrome (Unidentified Frozen Object). Far quicker than going out to buy some and about a tenth of the price. I've done this and people are amazed!! They don't keep very well, best in a plastic bag for a day or so, but they do freeze very well and refresh in a warm oven in 10 mins or so.

So all you need now is a big (and I mean big) pot of Devon Clotted Cream. There's little in life so dispiriting as a small pot of clotted cream. A Devonian would say you could get away with Cornish cream if it's all you can find, but it's not the same...

Friday, 5 June 2009

It's all got to go somewhere...

Every year I promise myself that I will have all the planting out done by the end of May, and yet here I am 5th June and still loads of plants waiting to go in, roots bursting out of pots, things like courgettes being shoved in inappropriate corners, no doubt I'll forget about them and find myself ambushed by a giant marrow in a hidden corner in a couple of months time...I don't think that as a gardener you ever really catch up with all the things you think you need to do. If I do start to feel up to date, I just start sitting about in the sun, having a nice cup of tea, smelling the roses and generally enjoying myself, and of course, that's not the idea at all is it......


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