Welcoming Bertha to the hen house

We had a death a month or two again – Houdini the chicken looked a little peaky in the afternoon, but she’d looked peaky before and rallied so we left her to it and went out to see Jason Donovan in Priscilla The Musical On Tour. By the time we came home, Houdini was dead, and in full rigor, under the feed bowls.

Going from two chickens to one answered a few questions in a slightly surprising way. We had assumed it had been Persephone laying the shell-less eggs, and that it had been Houdini who like to shout from the rooftops at 5am dawn. It had been the other way around.

We have postponed finding another celly for Persephone for the months since just because when you read about how hard it can be to introduce new birds to a flock, it seems awfully offputting. We had half-baked plans in our head of fencing off half the run, buying additional food bowls, keeping two chickens apart, maybe even using the cat transporting box as a temporary roost… but talking it through with our chicken supplier out by IKEA this afternoon made it all seem a little simpler. “Just chuck her in and see how she gets on,” was the advice. “There will be ten minutes of squawking and feathers and then it will be fine.”

The chicken lady was concerned our existing bird would try and injure our new one, but our concern, on seeing the birds for sale, was that they were enormous and it would be Persephone who would suffer.

It’s her size that gave Bertha her name: as the chicken lady hoiked her out of the pen and trimmed her wing, she said, “Come here, Big Bertha!” And that’s the name we’re going with.

Bertha arrives

We drove her home, chucked her in the pen, watched for half an hour and there wasn’t too much aggro. Persephone ducked and froze for a while and allowed herself to be pecked before flying up to a perch and sitting out of the way and bokking.

Bertha arrives

Then she jumped down and gave chase for a few minutes before it was Bertha’s time for the solitude of the perch. It’s quite hard to take pictures of a white chicken against the dark of the bark, she just ends up overexposed and ghostly. Chickens generally don’t stay still long enough for good photos anyway.

Bertha arrives

After a few minutes a sort of peace descended, broken by Bertha’s reaction to the cats in the garden. Persephone is used to them by now, but Bertha got into a complete flap and the cat ran past the hen house as fast as it could. (Not our cat – a neighbour’s cat comes up through a gap in the fence and spends most of its afternoons sunbathing in a corner.)

We heard chicken calls for a while after we got back into the house but now it’s after dark. Have the hens managed to roost together without another battle? Better go and check.

The chickens have names!

For a long old while the chickens were called quite simply black chicken and brown chicken.

This has been disturbing a surprising number of our friends and colleagues who think that the chickens should have names. Some friends suggested Coffee and Marmalade, which I thought were great names, but didn’t really stick.

Now Black Chicken has definitely become named Houdini, because she keeps escaping and we don’t know how. (This is a bit of a problem, because once she breaches the fence she can’t get back in again. Which means she doesn’t always have access to water and sometimes if we are late to shut them up for the night, she tries to roost outside the hen house, a very bad idea in our fox-strewn neighbourhood.)

Which left Brown Chicken. A coffee break discussion at school led to her being called Persephone, a name which works for convenience, but I doubt has ever been uttered in her earshot.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the chickens have different names at P’s workplace to at mine.

Looking after them is easy most of the time. Mucking out is a 5-10 minute job twice a week; a more comprehensive clean of the house is needed every month or so, and even that is at most a half hour job.

On a daily basis we top up the feed and water and feed them treats: leafy greens, weeds, corn or bird seed. We let them out into a fenced run if we are around in daylight, which is most days.

P started off hardline: we are only getting chickens if you do all the work. Now, since he is most often home in the daylight, thanks to a crazy early start at work, it is him who does most of the feeding and watering and handling, leaving me the mucking out.

It will get trickier as the weather gets colder. I am a little anxious about what to do when the water starts freezing, especially when I am often out of the house the 12 hours of daylight, putting in regular 10 hour days at school and still not getting enough done.

If it gets properly cold they will have to be shut into the hen house at night and let out in the morning, adding another few minutes to the morning routine when time is always tight. And of course, on the days when time is tight anyway because the car needs defrosting.

We do have more eggs than we can cope with but so far not more eggs than we can easily give away when things get out of hand. We are somehow managing to think both “there are more eggs than we can eat” and “it would be nice to have more chickens.”

Failing to grow my own food

This will be another year in which I’ve failed to grow my own food.

Like many previous years, I’ve not really gotten around to sowing seeds in February and March when I should have done – indeed, I was down for raising seedlings for the Lib Dem stall at the Green Fest this year, and ended up providing something with a much shorter lead-in time.

Anyway, at the Green Fest, I snapped up the stall’s leftover sunflower seedlings, nurtured them in the conservatory for a wee while, then planted them to the huge flowerbed P dug last year that hopefully soon we will be transforming into a cottage country garden border (ps, any tips?).

They got eaten by slugs within days. Completely destroyed. Every vestige of leaf munched by gastropods.

When I went to the garden centre to buy canes for the sunflowers, I also picked up some healthy looking tomato plants, and I put them in the earth in front of the sunflowers.

They looked more promising for a while – they grew big and strong, and had loads of flowers, and when we got back from Durham, there were small runs of healthy, fat-looking green fruit. And then they turned brown. The stems withered and went slimey and the brown consumed the fruit as well. I think I got blight.

Whilst I was on my planting spree, I put a row of sweetcorn seeds in the ground too. It was far too late to sow corn in May, but I figured what the heck? Of about 5 seeds, two came up, and have put on healthy leaves. They too are being munched, but have so far survived. I don’t have high hopes, however, just because they went in so late. They’ve no signs of flowers or cobs, and they need to get on with it at this time of year.

Over the years, I’ve had many attempts. The potatoes I planted and never earthed up that didn’t grow very much.  Other people’s surplus tomato seedlings – including the ones I put so many slug pellets on I didn’t quite dare eat the ensuing tomatoes;  the year I planted beans, but didn’t pinch out the tops, and only really got a plateful; and the other years I planted beans, and nothing came up.

Oh well. There’s always next February / March. What with a general election expected in 2010, I can’t think I’ll be busy around then?

Seed catalogue

My plan to grow my own veg has taken its first baby steps with a large order from the Organic Gardening Catalogue.

The following seeds should shortly be on their way…

  • PARSNIP The Student
  • ROCKET Rucola
  • MUSHROOMS White Cap Spawn – April-July
  • FENNEL Finale
  • HERB COLLECTION – Summer Sowing (Borage, Chervil, Coriander (leaf) Sorrel, Sage, Lemon Balm, Purslane (pictured), Peppermint)
  • LETTUCE Mixed Lettuces
  • ONION Long Red Florence
  • CARROTS Rainbow Mix
  • COURGETTE All Green Bush
  • ONION Ailsa Craig
  • ONION Bedfordshire Champion
  • SUNFLOWER Russian Mammoth
  • PUMPKIN Tom Fox
  • PUMPKIN Rouge vif D Etampes
  • RUNNER BEAN Desiree
  • DRYING BEAN Soissons
  • POTATO COLLECTION Blight Resisters 5kg (1kg each of Colleen, Orla, Milva, Robinta and Valor)
  • SWEETCORN Sweetie
  • SNAP POD PEA Sugar Bon
  • RADISH China Rose
  • RADISH French Breakfast
  • SPRING ONION White Lisbon
  • CABBAGE Christmas Drumhead
  • CABBAGE Greyhound
  • BRUSSELS SPROUT (Late) Seven Hills

I have also been reading my new allotment book, that tells me how to spend 30 mins a day getting the most out of an allotment, and erm, handily tells me not to buy seeds, but to get pre-started plants from the garden centre.

Culinary/cultivation bulletin

I haven’t had a chance to cook much at all recently, what with being away, but here’s a few gems:

One birthday present was a book on cooking with coffee and chocolate. Greatly appreciated: I love coffee flavoured things, so can’t wait for opportunities to make things out of it. P not a consumer of caffeine at all, so we may have to wait until we next have guests. Since the early part of next year will be devoted to electioneering, and since we’ve been here nearly a year and not had a housewarming party or even had many of our friends round, we plan on doing as much entertaining as possible in the next few months. Once we’ve tidied up. It’s CHAOS here – Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome.

I had an attempt at making watermelon sorbet before I went away: puréed most of a watermelon left over from a picnic and froze it with a mugful of sugar syrup. I didn’t stir it enough so it froze rock solid, and is rather difficult to eat. I’m having to attack it with knives every so often and pretend I meant it to be a granita. Perhaps that’s what ice grinders are meant for. I’m also attempting using it to flavour cocktails. It’s currently sharing a glass with a gin and tonic. I overdid the the gin a bit as the bottle was nearly empty so I can’t actualy tell whether or not it tastes nice. I think it would also work quite well in a champagne punch. We have some very cheap fizz from France. Must try! Have been very tempted to throw a garden party of our own, but we’ve probably missed the best of the weather now and our garden is hardly tidier than our house.

I roasted a chicken last weekend to check whether I still could. I can. The cats go crazy for hours once they start smelling the chicken and frenzied begging ensues when I actually start to carve the thing. The chicken did four human meals (fricaséed the remainder into a sweet and sour sauce the following day) and kept the cats fed for a couple of days as well. Bargain.

Kimbo has been pruning her bay tree and rather than compost or chuck the trimmings, she offered spare leaves to all takers in UMRA. I waved my little hand, eventually managed to get my address through her spamtrap, and when I returned from my holiday I had a jiffy bag full of bay leaves to add to my recipes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many. For a couple of quid, the spice vendors at the supermarket will offer maybe ten leaves. I got a jiffybagful out of the goodness of Kimbo’s heart. I must send her a postcard to say thanks. The first bayleaf helped stuff last weekend’s chicken. I’m sure it was thrilled.

Don’t think it will be a struggle to find blackberries this year. Just one bramble poking over the fence has already yielded over half a pound of blackberries, with plenty more unripened on the bramble, and still more out of reach until I take a chair into the garden. Not sure if I should make jam, since we brought an unfeasibly large collection of obscure Bonne Maman flavours back with us from Normandy earlier in the year, and we still haven’t eaten all of last year’s homemade jam, some of which is lurking in the cupboard. But I really must get some strawberries before it’s too late. I should have gone picking whilst I was in Herefordshire.

My chilli plants don’t look like they’re going to flower in time. Nights are drawing in already, and although they look healthy and bushy, there is no sign of any flowers, and without the flowers, there aren’t going to be any fruits. The lean-to is ideal for them – the max-min thermometer says it’s been nearly 40degC in there at times – but still no flowers.

Asking a friend of P’s what we could plant in the garden now for eating overwinter resulted in her coming around with a pot of leek seedlings, so I’ve planted those out and am hoping for better results with them than with the attempts at peas and beans earlier in the year that just simply never came up. P’s friend also brought us some packets of seeds for rocket, lettuce and spinach, but there just isn’t any bare earth to put them in. I shall try harder at clearing some space tomorrow, but until we get the fence fixed, the best flowerbeds are overshadowed by collapsing fence panels.

The mystery fruit in the garden is still unidentified, but they’re getting bigger and bigger and starting to turn blue when they ripen. Damsons? Sloes? If they’re sloes, then archdruid has some interesting ideas about putting them in with an anise spirit like pernod, vanilla pods and coffee beans and making a liqueur called Patxaran. I don’t think they can be sloes — they started red, and then turned blue. Cut them in half and they have pips like apples not a stone. I think they’re also too big.

Photos from the garden

When I got back from electioneering on Thursday, it was still bright and sunny , so I hopped round the garden happy-snapping at plants. It’s taken til now to find time to upload them. The full results are here, but below are some edited highlights.

We’re still following the advice of letting the garden get on with it for the first year before taking any radical decisions, so most of the plants there we inherited. The only exception is the large row of evergreen trees that the insurance company wanted us to cut down because they were endangering our foundations. Amongst the tree-stumps, I am planting veg seeds, so far runner beans, French beans, peas and lettuce. Nothing has sprouted yet.

An overview of the garden visible from the house. There’s a cat hiding under the bush in the middle, and you can just see the patio. Just out of shot at the bottom is the patio with plants in tubs, and the lean-to, with clutter. With the trees in leaf, the garden is very little overlooked — they mask the tower blocks almost completely. Out of shot on the top left is the bottom wedge of the garden, with the shed and compost bin.
This plant is growing up the wall next to the lean-to and seems to be suffering some kind of disease that is killing off half the leaves. They’re turning a white colour. I don’t think it’s variegation.
First step off the patio is this lovely yellow thing, now mostly past its best and probably in need of a prune. Growing underneath it is a pansy.
This is a well trodden animal path down the lawn–we’ve seen a regular parade of black and white cats come through the garden, and we suspect foxes do as well. It’s overdue time to buy our first lawnmower!
Eight bean poles, sixteen bean seedlings in the ground for nearly a fortnight now, but no sign of germination. Runner beans are one of a select band of vegetables I actually like. My grandfather used to grow huge quantities and freeze them.
One of the many black-and-white cats that parade through our garden every day, peeking impertinently through the French windows and wondering that we have the temerity to walk in our own garden.

There are two different pink flowering trees at the bottom of the garden.

The bench faces the birdfeeder.
The bottom of the garden looks like remote woodland, not city suburb. There’s a squirrel in that tree.

Blackberries




Blackberries

Originally uploaded by nilexuk.

Aha! Found some. In a councillor’s garden. Enough to fill a punnet, but not enough to jam, so I’ll be freezing them and coming back to them later.

Hmm. Interesting formatting, thanks Flickr.