Orpington blues

May 23rd, 2017 by Jackie

It’s rare that we start a post with a heavy heart but here goes… I have been wanting to get some different breeds of hens for some time now. The standard brown ones are fine but they don’t lay for very long and they’re… well, standard brown. When we bought the chicken plucker a few weeks back the guy there told us of someone who breeds Orpingtons; one look at some photos and I was hooked. And not only do they look nice but they are also dual-purpose birds so suitable for eating too ie the male chicks aren’t going to be killed straight away as they don’t lay eggs.

Anyway, arriving at the place the first thing we realised was this was a private home not a commercial business. There wasn’t a chicken to be seen. The guy soon turned up in a large truck, he’s actually a builder by trade. He took us through and round the back and it’s clear he has a large, well-organised operation going on. There are various pens of breeding trios and seeing the birds for the first time we understood what they mean by ‘heavy-breeders’ – they are enormous. We were shown inside a room where the chicks are.  They are under a heat lamp. “You have a heat lamp?” Er no… He can’t tell which are males or females so that’s a no go. Another pen has older chicks, still under a heat lamp and still un-sexed. Thinking it was a wasted journey he took us round the back, past some very inquisitive goats, to some paddocks with small white marquees in. On opening one of the doors an assortment of hens flew out which he said were about 2 and a half to 3 months or so. I had really wanted the golden lace winged ones (as pictured above) but he only had one. So in the end we took that, a brown ‘chocolate’ one, a black one and a striking black lace winged one.

Just as we were leaving, hens all boxed up, he said that in fact these hens were all under a lamp too, there was a table in the middle and the lamp hung from under it. We were astonished, we have never used a lamp. And later we thought it was odd that he hadn’t let them out until we were there, it was well gone 3 and a hot day…

We took them home, popped them in their new coop and stood back. First days and first impressions were not so favourable. They seemed very dull and lacked interest in anything. Ah well, they looked nice. It soon became apparent that they were listless rather than docile. They ignored any of the ‘grown-up’ food preferring a mash of baby food and water. Despite the warm weather we worried they had not acclimatised to their new habitat but research confirmed that chickens do not need any type of heat lamp after 3 – 6 weeks, depending on the breed. Basically, once they have feathers they’re fine. These hens were all at least 10 weeks old!

One by one the hens were obviously not well and taken into a special box in the barn, a borrowed heat lamp installed. Only the black one, with her huge beady eyes, seemed fine. She took to perching immediately and was always the first one out in the morning, the others stayed sulking inside. The three died. We have gone through various emotions, animal welfare is very important to us, the very reason we want to have and look after our own is so they can have the best lives possible. We don’t know what happened really but we think that the change of environment was too much for them and they hadn’t built up any defences. They weighed nothing.

The remaining hen doesn’t want to be called Billy-no-mates so tomorrow we are going to buy her three friends. I hope they all get on. Orpingtons are known to be gentle and can be picked on by other hens, fingers and feathers crossed for her.

Not to end the post feeling down-hearted I must say that the garden is looking lovely in the May sunshine, it is alive with flowers and birds. The white lillies, already in the garden when we bought it, are just splendid next to the red bottle brush:

The rose, clematis and blue nigellas also look nice:

Along with the nightingales, robins, blackbirds, black caps and great tits the frogs add their voice, we must have at least 50 in the big pond right now:

And we have finally finished – hurrah! the painting of the blue around the courtyard:

So we are appreciative that we can eat all our meals outside in such nice surroundings, we are now looking forward to enjoying our own eggs once again.

 

Busy bees

April 30th, 2017 by Jackie

It’s been one of our busiest months, not just in the garden or veg patch but around the house too.  I’m sure we thought that, once we had been in the house for seven years, we wouldn’t have much to do. But with the new wall this has meant painting, re-organising the rooms, moving stuff from one place to another (my old office is now Richard’s ‘man cave’), putting up shelves, painting, putting up new lighting, buying a new sofa and, yes, painting. I still need a desk of some sort for the main computer. I’m perched on a stool under the stairs at the mo.

The courtyard too has had a face lift. We had painted the lower part of the walls a solid blue which faded, so we did it again and that faded. Last year we went to a paint shop and asked for advice: this meant us buying special fixative first which is applied to a cleaned wall. And then expensive exterior paint, two coats. So yet more cleaning and painting. Urrgh. I have to say I don’t want to see another paint brush again for a long time. Alas all the walls, I am reluctant to say, need their second coat and I have lost enthusiasm. Anyway, it all looks a lot nicer and pics are to follow.

Meanwhile April has not been behaving itself. The nightingales are here, the colourful orchids and wild flowers are appearing but the showers, or any real rain, have yet to come. It’s been very dry. Dry and hot. The lack of rain has meant watering the garden and veg patch (we haven’t had the wood burning stove on all month). Despite the drought we are drowning in peas and broad beans and have just had the last of the asparagus and beetroot. The veg patch has seen far too many bugs already, especially aphids. There are ladybirds (didn’t see a single one last year) but these are too few and too late. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slugs and snails have kept away; they love the wet weather (and our many frogs have very beady eyes). Strong winds and ants have meant most of the broccoli and cauliflower have failed. On a more positive note three different kinds of runner beans are running up their poles, gherkins and cucumbers are showing signs of flowers, and there are courgettes in too. The sweetcorn are doing well. All the other seedlings have now been potted on and these will all be planted over the next few weeks of May; the game of putting all the plants away at night into the polytunnel and then back out again in the morning has begun.

We have a new set of ‘roasties’, this time 3 ducks, 5 white chickens and 2 brown ones. Which reminds me: the highlight of Richard’s month has been the purchase of a chicken plucker. Expensive? Yes. Worth the money? You bet. Half an hour of plucking has been reduced to a cool 10 seconds. One happy Richard.

Cooling off time for the dogs, two happy hounds:

Four seasons in one month

March 31st, 2017 by Jackie

Spring is here, hurrah! I decided to sow most of the seeds for the veg patch at the start of the month and this year, instead of putting them in either the potting shed or polytunnel, chose to keep them on the window sill. The temperatures, especially in the polytunnel, can fluctuate widely and I thought I would try, as many books suggest, a sunny south facing spot inside. Well, it worked a treat with everything coming through very quickly, and a load of old seeds I almost threw away too. I think the sun and the even temperature really did the trick.

So with spring in the air and in my step I planted a whole load of sprouts, cauliflowers and broccoli. And some beans. Beans which, for the last two years, have always been killed off by the frost as I have been too eager to plant them out. Then it got hotter and hotter, summer barbecue weather arrived, and everything needed to be watered. Then autumn mists greeted us in the mornings. Then it got colder and colder, winter glove wearing weather arrived, and yep, the beans all got killed off by the frost. Ah well, I did have some spares and they are now thriving that the spring has sprung back.

Despite the set back all is well in the veg patch really. Remember this?

Well, both the broad beans and peas survived the freezing temperatures and are well on their way:

We are eating the asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli:

And the onions are monsters (Betty guards the seedlings):

I should add that the seedlings, those that haven’t yet been planted out, are brought in every night and we share the kitchen table with them when we eat. There are 6 different kinds of tomatoes, gherkins, 2 kinds of cucumbers, aubergines, peppers of various types and all sorts of squash. Oh, and some sweetcorn. So looking forward to some April showers, sunny spells and proper spring weather all month.

 

Bloomin’ spring

March 21st, 2017 by richard

Just three weeks ago Jackie mentioned that the almond was the first tree to blossom, followed by the blackthorn and peach. Well since then the cherry, plums, apricots and now the pears have joined the party. And in fact the almond and the apricot have already set fruit. Last year we had 2 almonds and we are yet to get any apricots, so lets hope this year is a bumper crop!

apricot

almond

Last year we really hacked back a number of greengages and more grew up from water shoots in the hen run. These have borne flowers for the first time this year, so it’s looking good so far. In addition, the grape vines have sprung into life and also the kiwis which were newly planted in the autumn. We won’t have fruit this year but we are hoping for a good show.

grape vine

The other trees are not holding back either. The plane trees in the courtyard and the garden are showing signs of life. The courtyard plane has been great. It lets all the sun shine through in the winter and then provides plenty of dappled shade in the summer. Just what we wanted.

plane tree

Also in the courtyard, we haven’t mentioned the orange trees for a while. These guys fruit in the winter of course and have provided plenty of oranges. Only a few days ago, I picked bucket loads of them and got 8 litres of juice but there are still dozens left on the trees!

oranges

Still in the courtyard, the quince is in full flower. That never disappoints with plenty of quince jam and quince crumbles to come.

quince

Last year we had daffodils in December, or should I say, December 2015. This year they have been late but are now putting on a show for us, as is our Forsythia which is in full bloom.

forsythia

Last but not least, even the figs have burst into life – last year was a bumper crop. More of the same again please!

fig

The wall (no, not that one)

February 28th, 2017 by Jackie

We say in our introduction that Casa Azul is now restored. Well, although the major restoration was done some time ago now, there are still things here and there being fiddled with. After a freezing January we were reminded yet again that the living room could be cozier. It’s definitely a summer house, lovely and cool during those blistering temperatures. We’re fairly hardy, have to be I suppose with the dogs trooping in and out leaving all the doors open, (and we firmly believe in putting on an extra jumper if it’s chilly) but there is often a draught when the fire’s blazing caused by the spiral staircase and its hole in the ceiling. So we have at last done something about that and now we have a new wall which divides half of the living room, effectively separating Richard’s study area and the sofa bit. It looks a bit dark now but once plastered and painted will be warm and snug. Someone hasn’t even noticed the workmen plodding in and out:

Meanwhile, it’s been a mild February. Plenty of weeding has been done in the veg patch and lots of little flowers have germinated, been transplanted and are now ready for the garden. Most of the beds are ready for busiest time of the year although I must get out and do some more mulching…

The almond tree won this year’s Who’s going to Blossom First award. There are now flowers too on the ornamental cherry, blackthorn, peach and the rosemary is alive with appreciative bees. Fingers crossed we don’t have any downpours like last year that knocked all the flowers off. The first of the orchids have also been spotted in the village.

Finally, we are more of a little farm again with the arrival of 3 ducks and 5 roasties. I was a bit anxious about the cold nights and the possibility of avian flu heading this way but both seem to be less of a concern now. I have peeked at them at night and they are all huddled together in their cardboard box.

So March is marching towards us; seeds have been bought, tools are ready and beds are waiting. Bring on the spring!

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The big freeze

January 23rd, 2017 by Jackie

It has been cold. Finger-numbing, shoulder-hunching, teeth-chatteringly cold. Freezing cold. We have woken up (it seems like for weeks) to heavy frosts and winter wonderlands. One night we recorded a minimum of -6.3C, now that is cold!  Many of the garden plants are now wrapped in plastic bags, fleece or bubble wrap. There will be some trepidation when they are unwrapped to see how they have survived.

The first victims have been the prickly pears. Every morning they have drooped lower and lower, and their recovery less noticeable. Alas, some have now snapped although this just means replanting the fallen leaves, and we’ll have a lot more come the summer.

The pond has regularly turned to ice and its plants blackened. We did remember to make sure that it was full before the big freeze came, somehow the leaves of the lilies and water hyacinths suffer more by being exposed to the frost rather than being frozen in the water.

This little, actually rather large, salamander was caught with its mate during a clear up. I do hope they, and the resident frogs, will be okay come the spring.

We have also been making sure there is plenty of extra seed for the garden birds, the usual suspects come and work their way through vast quantities every day.

One bitterly cold morning a little robin was completely still in the courtyard, almost like it had been frozen to the ground. I was able to gently pick it up and place it in a nest we’d kept. The next time I looked it had flown away.

Along with a certain beauty the cold has, there is also the reward of clear blue skies and sunny days. When the wind drops it’s still warm enough to eat outside for lunch, and has meant there is no excuse for not tackling the winter jobs. Pruning continues with the plane tree having its annual pollarding, the vines all being cut back and the willow too being pruned.

Like the summer afternoons, when the temperatures go well over 40, the veg patch has been a sorry sight these winter mornings. At first the broad beans would have collapsed and then bravely ‘pulled themselves together’ come mid-day but now most of them lay on the ground in a sorry state. The smaller ones planted later seem okay but we’ll be lucky to have another bumper crop.

Having said that we, amazingly, have had loads of broccoli and tonight we’re having the first of the cauliflowers. Somehow the leaves have provided enough protection, full marks to them.

We’ve also just had the last of the Jerusalem artichokes, the ones the voles kindly left for us, and there are still some leeks to be had. We’ve just had the first of our beetroots too, so really we can’t complain!

And with a roaring fire every evening the dogs aren’t complaining either. There is also some welcome rain on the horizon too; it seems incredible that we have actually watered some of the plants and smaller shrubs, in January! Let’s see if I can finish knitting that jumper for Richard before it’s no longer needed…

 

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Plant of the year award 2016

December 29th, 2016 by Jackie

We have had the pleasant December we were hoping for: little rain, a few cold nights yes but mostly glorious sunny days.  It’s been the kind of December that reminds us why we moved here. Richard (whose middle name is now ‘master chef’) cooked one of our ducks for Christmas which we had with many of our homegrown veg plus, for a starter, his famous chicken liver pâté and some of our sloe gin.

This was followed by traditional pud but the stanley plums we bottled in the summer are just lovely now:

Now, as the days start to get longer again, it’s time to check over the seed packets, plan the veg patch and prepare the beds for the year ahead. But before that it’s (drum roll, please) time to announce the plant of the year award. Hurrah! What a hot summer it was, many of the stalwart plants were disappointing, reluctant to flower in temperatures well over 40 many days. The broad beans were great at the start of the season, and the broccoli and leeks are feeding us now but the plants which not only survived the heat but actually kept on going until October were… the cucumbers!

Yep, they were just fab this year. Prolific, tasty (never bitter) and a welcome addition to all our lunchtime meals, they never let us down. We have grown them every year, including some round yellow ‘lemon’ ones, and overall they do well but this year was special.

The award should be shared in fact with their cucurbit cousins, the gherkins. These were a first for us this year and, perhaps not surprisingly, they also did well. Both can be pickled successfully, the cucumbers are sliced thinly to make a kind of relish whereas the gherkins were either pickled whole or in chunks, some with a few of our chillies thrown in too. Either way they are just perfect with cheese.

Will just leave you with a pic of the garlic. I mentioned in the last post how I’d just covered their bed (previously mulched) with paper and cut grass and hoped for the best. Well, you can see for yourselves:

Wishing all our readers a great festive season and a wonderful time in the veg patch for 2017!

November, nice

November 30th, 2016 by Jackie

It’s been a lovely November really. We’ve had some rain, some frost and some wind. But mostly we’ve had sunny days and quite mild nights. The wood burning stove went on for the first night on the 5th, appropriately, and always heralds the start of the chilly season and cozy evenings. But we’ve still been having lunch outside and the garden still feels a welcome place to spend some time.

autumn3

Both in the countryside and the garden the autumnal colours are on full display, this robin (we have loads here) was checking up on me one afternoon:

autumn2

Pomegranate and vines ablaze:

autumn

We’ve both been busy chopping, pruning, bonfire making, last of the jam-making, and planting. Another lot of daffodils and irises went in recently although previously planted bulbs are already peeking through. We just have three kiwis waiting to go in. It’s been great weather for pottering about in wellies. On one lovely countryside walk we managed to get the last of the medronhos (left), strawberry fruit, for some jam. I think these on the right are wild pistachios:

wild-fruit

But frosts we have had. The veg patch had a silver sheen on it one morning:

frost

I’m amazed how things survive. The broad beans had become frozen favas and only the smallest of the pea sprouts had been protected overnight, but neither have been affected by the frost.

peas-beans-frost

Meanwhile the old broccoli from the spring planting, from which I’d only cut off the main heads, are giving us a second crop (left), slightly smaller but just as good. And the September plants have the first of their heads appearing:

broccoli

So we’re eating these as well as leeks, jersualem artichokes (what the voles haven’t had), peppers (yes!), and different kinds of squash. I’m hoping the sprouts will be big enough for our Christmas dinner. The purple sprouting broccoli meanwhile is the best yet (ready in the spring) and the oranges are almost ready:

psb-oranges

The main task for me this month has been dealing with the asparagus. Why oh why don’t the books tell you it will grow into a huge hedge where no light can penetrate. I really would have put them in a different place.  First task then was to cut the plants down and clear the bed of weeds:

asparagus1

I started to remove the soil around the plants carefully, using just a small and large fork but it soon became evident that the ‘simple’ task of edging them out, despite the recent rain, would be no such thing. I scraped and levered and tugged and coaxed the plants out. Nothing. I spent another thirty minutes doing the same thing. Nada. Eventually, I got one plant out; it had taken almost an hour. This was not going to work. In the end I got the spade and hacked at the plants and their enormous, tough, penetrating roots. I broke my favourite spade 🙁

Anyway, I got three out and placed them in their new bed. If they don’t work never mind as I still have another healthy, productive bed. But what a bother.

asparagus2

The garlic is in. In the last post I talked about mulching the beds. I just couldn’t face any weeding at all, there wasn’t a great deal as the bed for the garlic had already been mulched over the year (I decided to let that bed be fallow) but there were certainly some grasses and bindweed (my nemesis) that should’ve been pulled out. But no, I simply covered it with chicken feed paper sacks, made some holes and plonked the garlic in and then covered it with the grass Richard had strimmed and fallen leaves.  I have no idea if this will be all right, time will tell but a task that normally took a few hours was less than one. Green fingers crossed.

garlic

The main task for Richard this month (apart from the strimming) has been reducing the number of our roasties and ducks. All the ducks are now dead and there remain four, increasingly nervous, roasties.

ducks-roastie

A new thing for us, inspired by our road trip to France in May, was to make confit de canard. It was surprisingly easy to make and we’re looking forward to having that with some home grown veg.

While we’re on the fowl front the hens have been slow at laying. The one which moulted over the summer is looking fine and dandy, but the other two now seemed to have mistimed their feather dropping and are looking rather sorry for themselves and one has lost its tail.  They bullied the third one horribly so it serves them right. But none of them are producing eggs so it looks like we’ll have to get replacements in the spring… are you listening chooks?

hens

So as we hunker down in front of the fire, chestnuts roasting, we hope that December will be as pleasant – well for us, less so for the roasties 🙂

Where there’s muck…

October 31st, 2016 by Jackie

autumn

We have a saying in the UK: where there’s muck, there’s brass. This basically means you can make a lot of money from work that most people don’t want to do because they think it’s dirty or unpleasant. Well, the muck from our compost heap doesn’t make us a lot of money but certainly helps with producing the veg. This whole year I have been mulching the beds with compost, paper, straw, cut grass, leaves, and chicken bedding… you name it, it has been put on the beds. The idea is to keep the weeds down, keep the soil moist and, as it’s organic, slowly turn the soil into a great substance for growing things. And as it’s not dug in, just laid on top, the worms do the work for you. Well, that’s the idea! It’s not really hard work, although quite tiring, but so much better than weeding (and for my back).

Here’s some examples:

mulch2First up is a combination of freshly cut grass and straw on the beds which produced the peppers and cucumbers. This was laid on top of magazines and newspapers. I tried to do it each time after some rain so that the moisture in the beds was kept in.

We had the best cucumbers ever, from June to October, but although the peppers did well they put their brakes on over the scorching summer so the flowers and subsequent fruit were too late really.

vegWe’ve had the same problem with the tomatoes and aubergines: a smaller, later crop than usual as they too hated the heat.

Next up are the sprouts, planted early July (seeds sown in May) in a lovely bed of straw. Each plant also had a protective tube of card around it. The irregular size of growth is in proportion to the amount of sunlight they get. Behind them is one of the asparagus beds, they grow thick and hedge-like every summer creating a dark shadow. This year it’s going to be dug up and moved elsewhere, I’m hoping to do that in time for the smaller sprouts to still catch up and give us a winter crop.

sprouts

And here the leeks, also put in early July, with a combination of paper and straw and loo rolls:

leeks

We’ve had the first of those already. What was very obvious with the leek bed is that those that were planted where the broad beans had been were much bigger. They all get the same amount of sunshine so for me it’s proof of the benefit of crop rotation and also of leaving the beans to die in the beds rather than pulling them up for the compost heap. They really did leave lots of nitrogen in the soil.

leeks2

Meanwhile there is still the joy of seeing things grow, the mild autumn has been great for the beets…

beets

Less said about the artichokes the better. We’ve had some but it seems the voles have taken a fancy to them too and munched through most of the crop!

And the mulching still continues of course. The squash and courgettes (the latter just pathetic this year) have all been pulled up and lots of muck put on where the brassicas will go next year.

mulch

The onions (both red and white) are in, so are the broad beans and peas (both sprouting already). The August planting of cauliflower and calabrese has been a success with large plants already. Just the garlic is left for this year’s planting. And we’re still enjoying some late fruit too: strawberries, figs (both kinds), and melon.

fruit

Now we’re just waiting for the rain. It’s been an amazingly warm month with temperatures of 30 a couple of days. The forecast rain never seems to appear, and I’ve actually been watering the veg patch – in October! It feels more like late summer than autumn, perhaps we’ll get some more peppers and aubergines after all.

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Good news and bad news

October 13th, 2016 by richard

Last month I noted that the hens were feeling the heat and one had molted quite significantly and was being picked on by the others. Well, it grew back its feathers and is now back to normal. It has also cooled down a bit now, it is October after all! and we have bought some frangos or roasties as we like to call them (chickens that we grow to eat). All was well for a few days then one became ill and died and then another two became ill. We thought they had coccidiosis which is a very nasty disease and highly contagious, so we quickly separated the two ill ones and later had to put them out of their misery. Thankfully since then a week or more has passed and the rest of the bunch seem happy. We also have four ducks and they all seem to get along well together. It is interesting that when we bought them, the ducks were much smaller than the chickens but they just grow so much quicker and are already bigger.

ducks2-1

It’s also been good and bad news with the fruit. We have had very few apples this year – so no cider :-(. And the grape harvest has been a poor one, so I’m not making any wine. We are however, drinking the stuff I made last year and although it’s not as full bodied as it could be, it’s very light, fruity and very palatable.

The really hot summer has meant that we have got loads of prickly pears. You have to be very careful picking them, but once skinned they are delicious. And the fig harvest has been fantastic. I’m amazed at how many varieties there are growing wild around here. We have green ones and purple ones and some with honey coloured insides and some bright red. Anyway, I’ve been busy making fig jam, fig crumble and fig rolls (Thanks for the recipe Pam).

pps

figs-1

We love having guests over the summer and this year has been a very busy one. We’ve had 8 sets in all and as well as enjoying plenty of meals at Casa Azul, we’ve also enjoyed eating out, as the photos below show – especially seafood!

Jackie, Robert and Caldeira

Jackie, Robert and Caldeira

Jim and crab

Jim and crab

Richard and squid

Richard and squid

We’ve also had one uninvited but very welcome guest. Ron Weasley. I hope he feasted on all the voles and mice in the garden so they don’t eat the veggies!

ron

ron1