Thursday, 28 April 2011

Drum Roll Please....

We have our first egg!

So overcome with love and devotion have I been this last fortnight that I forgot altogether that my lovely girls have a purpose other than my endless amusement!

I wasn’t looking for an egg, I was just doing the usual “have they kicked all the straw out of their nest box” checks and there it was. A small, but beautifully formed freckly little egg. In the nest box, in the bit where they’re supposed to lay them. My girls are just so clever. I don’t know who it was, they both looked very proud when I held it up to them so they both got lots of lovely treats, cuddles and words of encouragement. Alf the dog was completely bemused and skulked off obviously questioning his own productive purpose in the family...

In honour of the fact that they are quite obviously the cleverest chickens in the world, they got a perch upgrade (which they very quickly mastered, of course, they’re so clever) and as many grapes and jersey royals as they could gobble up (which, you won’t be surprised to hear, is a lot!)

Forget the royal wedding, I am dedicating my bank holiday to chicken proofing the garden so my clever girls can get their free range on. With a boiled egg in my tummy the hardwork will be easy- I may not even need to employ the boyf’s manual labour!

Well done Mildred or Maude!

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Book Review #2 Practical Self Sufficiency by Dick and James Strawbridge (or how the Strawbridge crew make self sufficiency porn...)

If Alys Fowler is my go to girl for all things pretty and idyllic (pretty flowers, pretty vegetables,  pretty salads, pretty chickens etc) then Mr and Mr Strawbridge are my no fuss, no nonsense guide to living the dream.
Where The Edible Garden features charming pictures of chickens snaffling up salads, Practical Self Sufficiency offers no nonsense sketches on how to kill a turkey using only a traffic cone and your bare manly hands. Nifty.  

What I really love about this book is that it’s almost an activity book- “things for the Boyf to do on a rainy day”. There’s nothing that excites that boy more than a how-to/ build-your-own diagram. As I fawn over the chickens and devise their training regime, the Boyf fantasises about building solar dryers or chicken arks or thermo sealing the house- this is good, very good. My bestest recently commented that the Boyf only appears in my blog as manual labour- this is mainly down to his love of Practical Self Sufficiency and not that I am a mithery old nag bag who forces him to build things when he would rather be skateboarding (this is only partially true..)
Back to the book... whatever your situation the Strawbridges (often clad in a tight vest and shorts- James that is not Dick) have suggestions to make your life that little bit more self sufficient. Whether you have a smallholding and a burning desire to build a compost loo or an extension out of hay bales or a small urban back yard and fancy building a bee house there is something for everyone.
The best bit of the book as far as I’m concerned is the section on cooking and storing your harvest. Featuring some very practical and useful growing and harvesting charts and diagrams Dick provides recipes for pickling, juicing, drying and storing he even has advice on the shelves you should store your produce on! Wowza- what a man!

Let's make our own clay oven...(might be easier if you took your shirt off there James...)

If, like me, you dream of the self sufficient life style...sitting in your suburban semi wondering if you garden really is too small for a goat or two, perhaps a heard of Aberdeen Angus...then this book is for you. It is essentially self sufficient porn. Watch as we heard our cattle, plough our fields, poop in our composting toilet- look how efficiently our preserved goods are stored. Veggies be mindful as you flick through pictures of James (be-vested) frolicking with chickens- the Strawbridges raise their animals for meat and they ain’t afraid to talk about it!
I'm interested in his hoe-ing technique, obviously...

Verdict: Love this book. Love how practical it is (the clue is in the title eh?) Love the charts and diagrams. A truly inspiring book for anyone interested in living a little bit more green...

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Chicken Enrichment Activities...

As I prepare myself mentally and my garden physically for such a time as the chickens can free range I have begun a regime of chicken enrichment and training. It sounds a bit Rocky…and it is.

Having once again put out twitter pleas and returned to my favourite poultry forums (don’t laugh- it’s not as nerdy as it sounds…ok it is) and decided to sacrifice one of my dad’s wild bird feeders for the sake of the chooks. Following instructions I stuffed the suet holder with lettuce and my girls favourites- jersey royal potatoes and asparagus (they have expensive taste) and strung it up in their eglu run…

Mildred demonstrating her new toy...

It was very successful and they climbed all over each other tot get the best bits. Feeling particularly smug about my little chook toy I also shoved in a branch for them to perch on…they haven’t worked that out yet but I have faith, they really are very bright.

No girls not under it, sit on it!

Also, they’re getting much better at being picked up. They still don’t love it, squawking indignantly for a while at first but they now eat out of my spare (non chicken restraining) hand and they sit down when I go to pick them up which I think is not only a sign of my brilliant training but also the fact that they might be getting ready to lay?

Maud is ready for her close up...

Any tips for letting my chooks free range without legging it into next doors garden?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

It's Polyculture...but not as we know it...

I managed to tear myself away from staring like a loon at Mildred and Maude and go and visit my recently neglected allotment. I haven’t been in three days, this is most unlike me.
It’s so close to being finished it’s almost painful.  After the Boyf found some wood left over from a fencing job he set about knocking me up four new raised beds! He really is very handy... and now I have loads of space for my little seedlings which are creeping up in the greenhouse and will soon be wanting out...
However, something is amiss. We haven’t planted much out yet but my strawberry patch is one area I am particularly proud of. After growing the little babas myself from mummy strawberry at home, they’ve managed to survive all winter on our barren plot. The barren plot which now seems to be not so barren...Potatoes have taken over. They’re popping their heads out all over my strawberry patch! The boyf is more upset that they are ruining the lines of his onions and the edges of his wood chipped paths but the strawberries have really got me!

Do I chop them down and restore order. Or do I embrace my stowaway freebies and make sure I dig them all up them all next time? It seems that even though they left the plot littered with tonnes of concrete my predecessors liked a potato plant or two!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

In which I become a Chicken mama...

 It has been three days. Three long, glorious, sun soaked summer days since my girls arrived. I have emerged from my love haze only out of necessity, the necessity for me to go to the “office job” and move paper. I took a day off to help them settle in but I can see that it’s me who has to settle. I’ve been a wreck. Every snuffle, every squeak and I’m there, laptop to hand googling symptoms and clogging up poultry forums. I’ve been waking up at the crack of dawn, ears alert waiting to see if they’re going to be early risers, noisy morning birds or sleep right through. Do they like broccoli? Bread? Grapes? Why won’t they eat their worming medicine? Do they need grit yet? Are they allergic to hay? But it has been lovely...

Alf with his new girls...

On Saturday my pa and I drove to Southmead Poultry in Leatherhead- with firm assertions that we were “only looking- not buying”. Of course we left an hour later with a green Eglu Go and two beautiful hens, both hybrid ginger girls but one blonde and one a red head,(plus all their accessories, layers pellets, corn snacks, oyster shell, worming liquid, flea powder, dust free hay...these girls are high maintenance!)  
Normally the Eglu would be no problem. The boyf loves a flat pack, he can knock up an ikea shelving unit in under half an hour- forget the instructions. Unfortunately he was at work so the job fell to me and my ma. Sitting on the lawn, hundreds of pieces of green plastic Eglu around us and two clearly bored hens in a cardboard box we feared the worst, the hens would have to live in their box forever, but we persevered and after an hour, two broken nails, a fair amount of swearing and a lot of girl power, we were done.
The mum builds...

We released the hens into their run, much to the delight of Alf the dog. They celebrated by pooping, a lot.  All seemed to have gone to plan, the chickens were happy, the eglu was a trifle, the dog perplexed, I congratulated myself on being a fine poultry keeper.

Alf the dog on patrol....

Feeling confident I left the girls alone to settle in for an hour, on my return I foolishly thought they might like to have a cuddle. I opened the hatch, put my arm in and in slow motion, the blonde escaped. It was my fault, I frightened her with my elbow but she was out. Looking at me. With comedy style I lunged, she leapt and she was out of sight. Under the hedge and into next doors garden. My mother, at 49 years old was over the wall before I could say “fox food” herding blondie back.
Once she was back in the garden my troubles were far from over, as she led me, Benny Hill style round and round the Eglu, the mother shouting over the hedge and the red head sitting in the water bowl watching (clearly laughing at me!). I just couldn’t catch her. Eventually I threw my cardigan over her and with a swift and stealthy movement grabbed her. Cardigan removed she cuddled up to me quite happily murmuring away like butter wouldn’t melt.
Characters now firmly established we could name them. The escape artist, also the noisiest and peckiest of the pair is Mildred and her sidekick- who is a little chubby and much more reserved- is Maude. (Think back to The Worst Witch books and you’ll get it.)
Once order was restored I set out on a vigorous few days a chicken training. Mildred and Maude now know the sound of my voice and more importantly the sound of the treat box and will run to the hatch in the run  to greedily nibble it out of my hand, they’ll even stick their necks out to try and reach the pot! I am hoping this will bode well when they are allowed out (after the boyf has chicken proofed the hedges!) and they will come charging back from whatever bit of the garden they are currently destroying.
In the 3 days I’ve had them, I’ve learnt a lot. Here’s a run down-
·         Chickens poo. A lot. Like tonnes. This is good for my compost but not so good for the lawn.
·         They make funny little noises all the time. Well naughty blonde Mildred does anyway.
·         They’re not scared of the dog. He is obsessed with them. They charge at him periodically.
·         They know when it’s bed time. This made me a very proud chicken mama on their first night....
Please feel free to leave comments admiring the beauty of my new girls...

Maude (the red head) and Mildred (the blonde)

Friday, 15 April 2011

Hunter Gatherer...

I’m anxious for my new arrivals, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, super early in the morning, I’ve been pacing the garden, thinking of names, worrying about how Alf the dog will take to them...oh my little chicken friends....I need to keep my fingers busy, so I’ve been on a foraging mission.
Now, as yet I haven’t managed to master the food foraging, (I fear that my nettle soup will have a lingering after taste of dog wee) but I am very good at foraging for things for the allotment. In my time I’ve produced water butts, compost bins, wooden pallets, storage chests, tyres, an enamel bath tub, and two rather handsome umbrella stands. I’ve become the skip diving progeny of Alys Fowler and Kirsty Allsop, though I don’t always do it in beautiful dresses and a full face of make up! I have to resist the urge on bus days but I make a mental note of goodies on my route and send my man and van round to collect at a later date- I’ve currently got my eye on an old church pew rotting in somebody’s front garden in Surbiton (if this is you let me know and I’ll happily take it off your hands!)

I've been busy adding to my begged, borrowed but never stolen collection this week!

My collection area, stuffed down the back of the garden where no one can spy it! The metal catering jugs are a new addition, I think they'll look lovely filled with summer flowers....

Dug this baby out from a skip, I intend to line it and plant in it, it might not last that long but it will do for some salads!

Look out slugs your days of munching my seedlings are well and truly over! Very impressed with this find, though I can take no credit...The boyf spotted these in a dusty corner of an old shed belonging to one of the elderly ladies he gardens for, she said she'd forgotten all about them and he was welcome to take them lovely.

This may not have been a foraged find but it is a lovely addition to my allotment all the same. A red gooseberry plant as a gift from the boyfs lovely sister. Once he's built be a frame for it we can take it to start it's new life at number 7.

This lot has definately kept me busy and now it's only a day until the hens arrive!

Stay tuned for what will inevitably be a chicken filled, loved up few blog posts to come...

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Reasons to love spring

In case you hadn’t noticed, spring has well and truly sprung. I can tell because even after the hour and a half bus ride back from “office job” the sun is still out and I can get out in the garden and check on my baby veg and the resident wildlife. I can even get to the lottie if I’m lucky!
Last night when I got in from work at around 6.30, the garden looked so beautiful, me and Alf the dog took a little tour...

Dad's carefully designed "wildlife area" including enormous sparrow nesting boxes (unused) little pond (inhabited by four rescued frogs) and "woodland garden bed" (inhabited mainly by pigeons and squirrels!) In the shade in the evening it's really lovely.

...especially this nesting box. I think the bluetits return to it every year because it gets sun all day so it's lovely and warm, even at the end of the day the last rays still reach it...

...can you Geurilla garden in your own garden? I planted this little rhubarb plant between the sheds at the back of the garden. The boys do their bit by pee-ing on it frequently. Apparantly rhubarb loves man pee, I discourage this behaviour, I'm not a fan of rhubarb and pee pie!

My woefully inadequate plastic greenhouse...I need to get this sorted!

Alf the dog likes to garden too....well he likes to dig holes!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Book Review #1 The Edible Garden (or How I Adore Alys Fowler...)

I have recently been given a couple of allotment and vegetable growing books to add to my increasingly huge collection. The first is The River Cottage Handbook Number 4: Veg Patch  by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s head gardener Mark Dianco, bought back by my lovely parents after their long weekend away in Rye. The second was given to me by a work colleague and fellow give-it-a-go-grow-your-own-er, The RHS Allotment Handbook  What with this job thing I have which takes up so much of my precious time, and my current obsession with googling chickens I haven’t even had time to delve into these books so I will reserve my reviews until I have given them a proper going over.
In the mean time I wanted to tell you about some books I own which really started off my obsession with vegetables, growing my own and being a little bit more self sufficient. 
Starting with The Edible Garden by my horticultural icon, Alys Fowler. I fell in love with her, her lovely dog, gorgeous chickens and stunning garden on her BBC series This book has come under a bit of flack in some of the review forums that I’ve seen but I still think it is a lovely book. Alys encourages you to have your garden and eat it, making the most of the space you have to enjoy and to grow vegetables. She advocates a new form of gardening, polyculture, where everything grows together, and if the plants can help each other out- the more the better! It’s the opposite to Mr McGregor’s garden with it’s neat rows of radishes.

 I live at home with my parents (I’m between universities at the moment you see...) so I don’t really have a space of my own. The garden is very much my dad’s territory so my allotment has to double up as a space I can be in to socialise and relax as well as a space I can grow in. I’ve taken a lot from this book about relaxed planting methods, planting flowers and veg together and covering every possible bit of space with things that grow productive as well as beautiful flowering things that make me happy. As such my allotment has, or will have, lots of flowers. I have dedicated swathes of space to flowerbeds that will encourage bees, beasties and bugs into my plot, I’ve even built a woodlouse hotel. The boyf has been raised by an old school veg growing father and likes his lines, he does not enjoy the influence of Alys on our plot. He was allowed one raised bed (considering he built 10 this does seem a little tight I know) on which to grow millions of onions in rows. If it had been up to me there would be no onions. But he has his rows, which I will interplant with carrots when he’s not looking.
 I recently acquired her first book The Thrifty Gardener which seems to contain much of the same. I have taken inspiration from the chapter on growing in containers and have become a magpie for anything that could hold a carrot or a radish, though on Alys’s own advice, no toilets or old boots. I have acquired a couple of old umbrella stands for £2 at a car boot sale and a load of old drawers, which might not last beyond next winter but will hold enough salad leaves for a few sarnies! I compost everything possible, although this is tricky as my allotment is about half an hour to 45 minutes walk away- not as easy as walking to the end of the garden every time I crack an egg. I have made friends with a local cafe owner who endeavours to give me as many of his coffee grounds as he can remember to spare, he even chucks in the odd mouldy avocado. The boyf also contributes tonnes of grass cuttings from his weekly gardening round so I have a compost heap even Alys would be proud of! I like a bit of Thrifty Gardening!

I’m still very new to this and it can be a little bamboozling, crop rotation charts, spacings, rows, but with the principles of The Edible Garden, I feel as though I can relax my planting. I will learn from what doesn’t work and I won’t repeat it next year. If my plot looks pretty now and I can get some veg off it then that’s enough for me.  I’ve taken a keen interest in polyculture and plan to try some of the more bonkers ideas I’ve seen on the internet, including a “salad bed” where every seed from leaves to carrots to radishes is sprinkled onto one bed (strictly no rows) and allowed to grow at its own rate in its own space. No touching. The boyf is not best pleased. I’ve also learnt that organic gardening really isn’t that hard, it’s the only way. Yes the slugs are soul destroying sometimes but once I have my lovely chickens they will make a delicious snack for them and I will feel like I’ve beaten them, even if some survive to munch my cabbages! Carrot fly can destroy my whole crop, but not if I go beyond the row and interplant with onions. Planters don’t have to be terracotta with a hefty garden centre price tag, they can be made with bits of foraged pallets and even carrier bags...
Even if you can’t break away from rows, the book is worth a flick just for the beautiful photography and charming drawings and top tips on edible flowers- who knew!? So much I’ve learnt has come from Alys, I’m now a fully-fledged-organic-gardening-in-a-dress-barefoot-rummaging-in-a-skip Alys Fowler fan.

Verdict: Buy it buy it buy it. If only to read in the sunshine and dream of eating flowery salads and riding a bike with a dog in the basket....

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Things I Gain #3 Chickens

I have made a big decision. It’s the biggest decision I’ve made since I signed the deed to my allotment.  I’m getting hens.
As a veggie I rely on eggs for protein (though I won’t eat the white unless it’s scrambled- eww) and even though I’ve often considered veganism, a dippy egg on a Sunday morning is just too much temptation. Obviously we always buy free range (who doesn’t in this day and age!?) but I have increasing doubts about what this actually means. After a couple of years, when the hens have reached their egg laying peak they end up in the same place as their battery sisters, albeit with a higher price tag. Free range and battery hens often come from the same place before they end up in the farm, a place where they cut their little beaks off and throw their little brothers out in bin bags. I don’t agree with intensive or large scale commercial farming- free range, organic or other. To live green we should take only what we need.  There are millions of disturbing websites out there that give you an idea of animal welfare standard, google “how free range is free range”, but not as you tuck into your fried egg sarnie! I want my dippy egg, but I want to know that the hen who laid it was a genuinely happy hen, I can’t think of anything more sensible than keeping my own.

So decision made. Easy. Or so I thought. There is so much to think about, it’s not a case of walking into a pet shop et voila free range omelette! First there’s housing- how many hens will I have? What will they live in? Wooden or plastic? Ark or coop? Build or Buy? Chippings or grass? To Eglu or not to Eglu? That’s before you even get to the hens! Do you want hybids or pure bred? Ex Batteries? Eggs, chicks or point of lay? Layers, brooders or table birds? Show girls or home girls? Bantams, pekins, sussex, red rangers, sussex reverse, dorkings.....

As with everything in life, I asked my dad. He was initially against the chickens on the basis that they would wreck the garden. A point I’m sure he is right about. But, after four solid days of badgering and chicken related harassment, he relented. He immediately said no to the ex-batts I wanted to get, raising the very good point that the poor loves have already had a stressful life without our crazy labradoodle chasing them aroung. He has also made the decision to go for an eglu. Controversial. They are expensive and plastic, I once saw them described as the ipod of the chicken keeping world. Dad was sold when the catalogue revealed them to fox and mite proof as well as super easy to clean. For the bargainous price of £380, an Omlet man will turn up on your doorstep with the house, the food and two little chickens to start you off. I want to choose my own chickens, I’ve got to get the chemistry right, this presented a problem- what comes first the chicken or the eglu? Panic over, I found a poultry breeder nearby who has chickens and eglus. Things are beginning to fall into place.
 So, this weekend we will bring home our new girls to their new plastic home in the garden and take another step towards being that little bit more green....
Only a few obstacles, what will Alf the dog think? And what will we name them? Front runners at the moment are Barbara and Margo (The Good Life) or Emmeline and Mary (as in Pankhurst and Wollstonecraft). Suggestions on a post card...