chickens · Life in the Countryside

The death of a chicken

As you may remember we have six chickens who are all about 18 months old now. Once they started laying they were pretty consistent although have been less so recently. We suspect that Dorothy has been eating her eggs and we think the girls have been a bit put off laying by their home being moved about a bit and some of the workmen and machinery that we’ve had around recently. Anyway whilst we were away in Cornwall we used the services of a local lady to come and water the garden and tend to the chickens for part of the time as my father in law was away as well. She contacted us to let us know that Henry didn’t seem quite herself. Henry has always been the runt of the group really. She had a poorly leg not long after we got her which took a couple of weeks to heal and she had always seem the weakest. Well to cut a long story short, she died.

The chicken lady said it seemed like she had respiratory problems and was egg bound but whatever it was she didn’t survive. Whilst it is really sad to have lost one of our girls, it is all part of life in the countryside. In fact we’ve been lucky not to lose any of the girls before now to foxes. Chicken health care isn’t exactly available and aside from some home remedies, chickens are generally expected to either make a recovery or not. Simple as that. We have debated whether or not to replace her but have decided not to immediately. Chickens can be rather bullying to newbies and as such it’s best to introduce them to an existing group slowly and in pairs. So we’ll leave it for now as a family of five and may add to our brood in the future.

The big thing that we’ve had to do is to explain to C about Henry. She understands the idea of death but hasn’t had any direct experience of it until now. We decided to be honest about it and tell her that Henry was really poorly and the doctor couldn’t make her better. We also have a book with a story about death which explains it really nicely about a fox going to sleep forever and how his friends remember him. So when J told her he said that it was like the fox in her book. She seemed to understand and wasn’t sad but very matter of fact about life an death. Guess that’s what comes from being a country girl.

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Fruit growing · Raised beds

Is there such as thing as too many strawberries?

As you may know one of our raised beds is dedicated to strawberries. We planted it up last year with a couple of different varieties (none of which I can remember now) with plants of varying ages and had a very small but steady crop last year. Now I had planned to properly prune the strawberry bed in Autumn this year but things just got away from me and aside from removing the runners which had tried to escape the bed I did very little pruning. In fact I basically just left it alone. I promise you I haven’t neglected all of the garden this year. Anyway, come springtime our lovely little strawberry bed had an abundance of flowers. And we all know that flowers lead to fruit so we got rather excited about our potential harvest.

When we set up the raised beds J put semi-circles of piping over them so that they were easy to net as you can see above and once our strawberries looked closed to ripening we covered them with a black netting as shown below.

The netting enables bees to get in but keeps birds out. Once the strawberries were ripe it was a proper battle to keep on top of harvesting them. At peak time we were picking a kilogram or more everyday. In the end I was actually quite glad when the season ended. Aside from those which were eaten fresh we gave lots away; C took some into nursery where they made chocolate dipped strawberry ladybirds, I took some into work and we gave away lots to friends and family. I ended up freezing about 8 kilograms in the end to use up in the future. There really is something special about homegrown strawberries though, they’re so sweet that once you’ve eaten them you’ll struggle to buy regular supermarket ones again. I’ll update in the future about how we’ve started to use up our frozen ones.

Lazy beds · Vegetable growing

You can’t beat homegrown tatties

Growing up we had a relatively small garden and gardening was never something which played much of a part in my life. I remember my late great uncle being into his garden and he tended a vegetable patch in his back garden. My grandfather also grew vegetables at home and took pride in his greenhouse. But although their passion interested me, I was never that bothered about having a garden of my own. In fact the first little flat which I bought by myself had no garden and that didn’t bother me in the slightest. How times have changed.

Throughout the (very) hot summer that we’ve been having I have been watering my raised beds daily and my greenhouse twice a day. I still feel very much a novice vegetable grower and I have done things differently this year to last and will no doubt do things differently next year again. One thing which we have done differently this year is that we have grown all of our potatoes in growbags this year. Last year we grew them in lazy beds in the field but we lost a fair few to slugs so we decided to try and reduce that problem this year with the growbags. Last year we ended up planting all of our potatoes at the same time and planting them much later than intended so we ended up harvesting most of our tubers at the same time. This year I have aimed to be a bit better organised and planted the five varieties a bit more spaced out. So far we have harvested our Red Duke of York first earlies and our second early Charlotte’s.

The Red Duke of York’s were smaller than last year but tasted just as delicious and we didn’t lose any to pest damage.

The Charlotte’s were much better than last year. Last year we lost a lot to slugs and they were one of our weakest varieties. This year we’ve had a decent crop with no damage.

The other three varieties left to harvest are Cara, Pink Fir Apple and Pentland Javelin. We should be harvesting them in the next few weeks. I’ve also started to plant our Christmas potatoes ready to enjoy in the depths of winter. With the very hot and dry weather we’ve had this year I’m not sure that our crops have been quite as prolific as they might have been and feel that with a bit more rain we would have had larger potatoes. However that is pure speculation and based upon no great gardening knowledge!

Life in the Countryside

Sewage Treatment Plant

So back in winter we had some problems with our septic tank. A septic tank that is the appropriate size for the property (which ours is) should need emptying once a year. Ours was emptied over the summer and it needed doing again before Christmas, a bit early but then it had been raining a lot so we didn’t think too much of it. But then it needed doing again a month later which sent alarm bells ringing. Now as I think I’ve explained before our septic tank had a soak-away attached. A soak-away is basically a big pit of gravel where the waste water drains into and it then trickles down the gravel and disperses into the ground. However, a soak-away can fail if it anything other than liquid gets into it. The liquid will then fail to drain and the septic tank will become backed up and filled with water. This is what had happened with our system. A soak-away is not a perfect system and most end up failing at some point. In fact nowadays they aren’t installed anymore and instead you require a sewage treatment plant instead. This will filter the waste water before draining it into a ditch. As our soak-away was failing we took the plunge back in spring and had a sewage treatment plant installed. Unfortunately this coincided with my being home with tonsillitis for the first part of the week and having a digger digging up your garden to lay new piping is not exactly conducive to resting. In order to install the new plant they had to dig up and remove our old septic tank, install the new sewage treatment plant and then dig up and place pipes to run the treated clean water into a ditch.

A right pain in the backside to have done but it does now mean that we’re set up and shouldn’t need anything doing to it for the next 25 or so years at least now. Ours is one of the smallest tanks available as there are only three of us in our house but I was still surprised by how large it was.

It did result in a huge number of diggers and crane type vehicles at our house which delighted C but most people aren’t really that interested in septic tanks and now it’s installed and working neither am I really. But in case you are here are some photos from during and after the work.

One thing which did really impress me was how well the guys cleared up. They had had to move some of the bark area edgings in order to get the digger around as they had to manoeuvre around a forty-odd year old Acer tree. They removed them carefully and placed boards down to protect the ground and then replaced them carefully and relaid some grass seed where the ground had turned into mud around the tank. Now you wouldn’t really know that the tank was there as it blends in fairly well, all you hear is the occasional noise where the electric motor (goodness only knows what that does but it keeps it all ticking away nicely) is activated.

Fruit growing

Blueberries

Now some of you may remember that last year we had a great disappointment as we managed to grow only one blueberry from our three plants. This year, however, things couldn’t have been more different. Our blueberry plants are in pots as blueberries tend to prefer acidic soil and for where we live we can best provide for them in pots than in the ground. Now the blueberries have been fairly neglected this year as they were moved about to make way for some of the house works and I was very grumpy at their lack of productivity this year so basically just ignored them. However, when I moved all our pots over to the greenhouse (in about April time) they looked a lot more bushy than I remembered and seemed to hold promise for more blueberries this year.

The blueberry flowers themselves actually looked rather beautiful and were in abundance on two out of the three bushes. The third one did have some but not as many at all and in general it’s foliage was much less healthy looking. It all looked rather promising as the tiny green blueberries emerged from the remnants of the flowers and slowly (much more slowly than I would have anticipated) began to grow.

Now I don’t really know how blueberry plants are supposed to look when they grow but ours have just become rather wide. You’re not supposed to prune them for the first couple of years (I think) although I imagine I should have probably done something to support them. However, once the delicate fruit had begun to emerge there was no way that I was going to to try and wield their branches about. The only problem was how to net them from the birds. Birds will not take the fruit until it is ripe but then will strip it of ripe fruit at every opportunity. So I decided to take the rather lazy step of just moving our pots inside the greenhouse when the first fruits were nearing ripeness to keep them safe from being stolen. This did mean that the greenhouse became even more crowded than normal for a couple of months (turns out blueberries take ages to get ripe and stay looking almost ripe for quite a while) but it was worth it.

Once they began ripening there was no stopping them and we were picking huge amounts every day.

It has been a bit of a battle to stop C from eating them all straight away. Not that I blame her mind you as they are so sweet. They were a great snack for C and I really enjoyed having them in my yogurt for breakfast. I even managed to sneak away enough to freeze a kilogram or so to use in the future for baking or smoothies. They’re finished for the year now so have moved back out of the greenhouse which has given us a bit more breathing room there and hopefully they’ll continue to give us more amazing fruit for years to come.

Life in the Countryside

So I’ve been a bit busy…..

Now I know it’s been a while, a long old while, but I have just been busy. Really busy. A lot has changed in the past six months or so and I’m afraid the blog has been rather neglected. So what’s been happening? Well, in no particular order….

  • My father-in-law has bought the cottage next door. As some of you know our cottage is semi-detached on a small plot of land with one other cottage. The other cottage became available and J’s dad took the very brave step of moving from his home of 40 plus years to a dilapidated cottage next to his son and family. He’s currently living in his touring caravan until his cottage is renovated.
  • As a result of this purchase and a number of other factors our big works on the cottage (now two cottages) has yet to begin but is due to start on September 1st.
  • I’ve been on a new diet and fitness regime which has been rather time consuming but has had great results. It was a 90 day programme that I finished at the start of August and it really pushed me to my limits. I’ll do a bit of a post about it all if I get the chance.
  • The garden has really come on and in particular the greenhouse has give us some really nice produce this year. Again, I’ll aim to do a post about what’s worked well and what hasn’t worked well.
  • We’ve had the driveway done. Well the base coat of tarmac and the edging stones. The final coat of tarmac will go on when we’ve finished all of the works.
  • I’ve been doing some sewing. Actually truth be told I’ve been doing a lot of sewing, particularly making clothes for myself when I was dieting as it was a good motivation to keep going. And a good distraction from eating.
  • We’ve been emptying the house and are pretty much moved into the caravan. This has been quite an arduous task with trying to work out what we can be packed away and not looked at for a year. The plus side of this has been that it has made me quite ruthless in getting rid of things so a fair bit of decluttering has been done.
  • We’ve slightly adjusted our plans for the works (currently going through planning) to give us a bit more room upstairs.
  • I think that’s about it, although no doubt I’ll have forgotten something. I will try and start writing again more frequently especially as the works start progressing but for now here are some of my favourite photos from recently.
  • Life in the Countryside · Vegetable growing

    Potatoes in bags

    So this year we have decided to grow our potatoes in grow bags. There are several reasons for this. Partly this is down to our potatoes from last year. Across the UK last year was quite poor conditions for potato growth, lots of wet weather at the wrong kind of time ended up with blight and slugs being more common than usual. We didn’t experience any blight but we did have a fair amount of our crop hit by slugs. It was a real disappointment to dig up our lovely harvest and find it had been damaged. We also had our potatoes in the field last year and we trialled using lazy beds which were a lot of work to set up and I don’t think they necessarily gave us the best crops. This year a couple of things are different. We now have the dog and the dog kennel up in the field. We also will be living up there in the not too distant future in our caravan as the work is completed. The area we used last year has grown over a fair bit as we kind of neglected it a bit (oops). So we decided to grow our potatoes in bags this year. Growing potatoes in bags is a great way for anyone to start growing some of their own veggies as it requires very little outside space, it could even be done on a balcony, and requires very little skill. In a previous house of ours we had grown potatoes in bags one year so we still had some bags left over but they can be bought from most garden centres or online. I’m even planning on using some of our spare recycling bags this year for our larger main crop varieties.

    I always like to chit my seed potatoes, although you don’t really need to chit main crop varieties but as I buy all my seed potatoes at the same time it makes sense to. For chitting potatoes all you require is an egg box or two. Make sure that the side of the potato with the most eyes is facing upmost and leave them to sit in a warm dark place. Chitting just helps to give the seed potatoes a head start. Make sure before you start that you roll down the sides of the grow bag for ease of planting and for more sun exposure, we will roll them up again when we earth up the potatoes. For planting potatoes into bags I tend to go for 4 to 5 inches of a mixture of compost and well rotten manure and then water them and leave for 10-15 minutes or so to let it drain downwards. Then place three seed potatoes with the largest chits pointing upwards (as shown below). There are variations in the sizes of grow bags so if the label suggests to include more or less then go with that. Cover the potatoes with more compost (say three or four inches) and then lightly water again. As there have been a fair number of cold snaps (lots of snow) this year, when I first planted our early potatoes I kept them in the greenhouse to make sure they got off to a good start. If you don’t have a greenhouse then you could keep them indoors until all sign of frost has passed or just don’t plant until a bit later.

    In a couple of weeks you should see the first signs of growth. Don’t get over excited and start earthing up yet, I like to wait until I have a good four or five inches of growth first time so I can be sure that they’re well established. Then cover them with compost until the tops of the plants are only just showing. Repeat as often as you can until the bags are full and then just wait. Below are our Red Duke of York earlies. The three bags on the left we planted first and are just about to have their final earthing up, the two bags on the right were planted a couple of weeks later and are due their first earthing up. I’ll update more about how to know when potatoes are ready nearer to the time.

    Caravan/travel · holidays

    Caravan holidays

    So during the Easter holidays we took our caravan down to Dorset for a midweek break. We didn’t take Jessie with us this time as she is in heat and it would have been a bit of a nightmare with her. The weather was forecast to be poor but we decided to embrace our inner campers and go for it anyway. Now my husband spent much of his youth in Dorset and so is really familiar with the area and since being with him I’ve fallen in love with the area as well. For our first trip with the caravan down there we decided to go for a holiday park called Highlands End which we’d visited before to use the facilities in our pre-caravan-owning stage. The nice thing about going on holiday in a touring caravan as opposed to another form of self-catering accommodation is that you can have everything unpacked and ready before you leave home. Before we set off I had already put our clothes in the drawers and wardrobe in the van. Our food was already in the fridge and freezer and C’s toys were already in her toy cupboard. This meant that when we arrived there was only the setting up of the actual caravan onto the pitch to do.

    J is responsible for all the external sorting of the van and C and I do the inside. Although if I’m honest her assistance generally involves playing with her toys right in the middle of where I want to be. We are fairly efficient at setting up now to be honest and it’s lovely to arrive and feel your holiday can begin straight away. The weather whilst we were away was forecast to be rubbish rain all week so we had plans to visit the aquarium or go and see the new Peter Rabbit movie at the cinema or to visit the swimming pool on site or just stay holed up in the van watching movies. As it happens the weather was poor on the Monday night and into Tuesday morning but brightened up enough for us to head out for fish and chips in Weymouth for Tuesday lunchtime. It was even nice enough to have an ice cream on the beach. There is something about having fish and chips by the seaside isn’t there? It’s a proper British thing to do and it does taste so much better, and not just because it is inevitably fresher. Our favourite place for fish and chip in Weymouth is the Marlboro as their batter is really crispy and the fish is so delicate.

    Wednesday the weather was a bit more hit and miss and we debated a cinema trip but instead I insisted on visiting one of my favourite places, Lyme Regis. I don’t know what it is about Lyme that I really like but it’s just somewhere that makes me happy. We parked in the harbour car park and walked along the front to the base of the hill and high street. For C going onto the beach is what makes it a proper holiday and she loved walking along the sand picking up stones and shells for me to carry in my pockets. She has a little bowl of shells in her bedroom at home which they will be added to. It did drizzle on and off so we had to pop into a couple of shops to keep dry, but thats part of the fun on a British holiday. C is going through a phrase where she’s really obsessed with dinosaurs so we picked up some toy dinosaurs for her and some fudge for myself and J. There are some really lovely shops in Lyme where you could pick up some nice bits for the home but given that we’re about to rip our house apart I had to resist the temptation to get anything.

    Thursday we were blessed with incredible weather for the time of year which was perfect as we had plans to meet an old friend of J’s and her two daughters in Lyme. We had some fun times playing on the beach and paddling in the sea, I let J take charge of that one and I supervised from the comfort of the towels. Even though the sun was out there was still a bit of a breeze in the air but we were able to enjoy lunch overlooking the water and then a bit of crazy golf with an incredible view. I can highly recommend the crazy golf in Lyme, even though it’s not the best course I’ve been on, it is in an incredible location. That said, crazy golf was maybe a little ambitious for the two three year olds in the group. One of which had a tantrum and C only avoided a tantrum by picking the ball up and putting it directly in front of the hole before putting it in. But providing you aren’t too fussed about keeping score it’s not too bad a way to spend an afternoon. After all that fresh air the little ones were exhausted but we still had time to try out the new soft play at Highlands End which was the perfect way to end a very busy day.

    Friday was time to head home after a thoroughly enjoyable few days away. It always amazes me how a few days away can make such a difference. I feel so much more rested and relaxed and we’ve made some good family memories. C in particular was sad to come home and that was on alleviated by the promise that we could do some baking when we got home. Holiday really makes you appreciate the importance of family time and the simple pleasures that spending some time together can bring.

    Craft

    Recent makes

    Sewing has increasingly become something which I spend my spare time doing. Something which I enjoy and something which I am, with practice, improving at. Now I would certainly not consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination but I am getting to be more knowledgeable and more skilled as time goes on. I’ve made numerous items recently, many of which I haven’t photographed but some of which I have so I thought I would share some of my favourites.

    This was a Mother’s Day gift for my mum (obviously). My mum tends to only have coffee once a day and uses her French Press. C painted the mug and I created the cafetière cosy. It was made using a free pattern from a magazine, I forget which now, and was my first make using heat insulating wadding. It was a slightly snug fit and I know myself that the stitching wasn’t as straight as it should have been but it suits its purpose well.

    Next up is a top I made for myself using Tilly and the Buttons new sewing book Stretch. I made it using some lovely cable fabric from my current favourite online fabric shop Higgs and Higgs. It was a straightforward make and I used both my overlocker and my regular sewing machine to get what I think is a fairly professional look. It’s construction is relatively simple and the pattern gives lots of guidance at every step which is useful for those of use not well versed in sewing terminology. I paid careful attention to ensure that the cable pattern lay straight and I’m really pleased with both the pattern and the material. I can see myself using both again.

    Now I know it looks very crumpled in the picture and you can’t really see the top, but this is a party dress that I made for C. I actually made it at a local sewing class and have since made another using the same pattern. I actually made this back in October time and it was one of my first forays into sewing clothes. It has a lining inside the top and a pleated skirt and a zip at the back. I made it in pink dotty fabric as C is obsessed with pink (still) and she absolutely adores it. However much I iron it she always manages to look bedraggled within half an hour of putting it on, but that is just her! I actually made her the hooded cape as well back before I had my cabin and when I was more focused on knitting. This was her on Mother’s Day when we were on our way for one of my favourite treats, afternoon tea.

    I’ve made a couple more bits for C too recently. One of which is a hoody made using a pattern by a company called two stitches. Now little C hates wearing any kind of warm clothing. She is constantly taking her coat off outside at nursery and I really struggle to get her to wear any kind of warm top. I’ve knitted her a couple of really beautiful cardigans in the past and she point blank refuses to wear them unless forced. So I saw this pattern and decided to have a go at making her one, with the logic that if she chose the fabric she might actually wear it. The first was a grey number with sparkly unicorns on (I promise it looks better than it sounds), she absolutely loved it and has actually worn it loads without any objections. And the second was the blue shark material above. Both times she picked out the material herself and though I was dubious I went along with it and I have to say I’m rather pleased with how they’ve turned out. Perfect for colder days at the beach.

    Raised beds · Vegetable growing

    Preparing the raised beds for planting season

    As you know last year my husband and I designed and built our own raised beds which proved to be a really great way for us to grow our vegetables. At the end of last years growing season we covered the empty beds with cardboard (to prevent weed growth) and just left them alone for the winter. So when it looked like it might be actually getting warm enough to plant some seeds I started to ready the beds for the season.

    Two out of our six beds are occupied already with perennial crops (asparagus in one, strawberries in the other) so they need slightly different treatment but I’ll save that for another day. A good amount of the cardboard cover had began to compost down so I started by removing any large remaining pieces and then used a hand fork to thoroughly turn over all the compost to ensure it was lump free and crumbly. I’ve not added any extra nutrients to our beds this year but will probably give the crops some appropriate boosts once they have begun growing. I tried to plan out what to grow in the beds but have kept dithering about exactly what to go for so I’ve ended up starting with what we really enjoyed from our crops last year.

    We’ve planted one bed so far. Just with seeds directly sown into the ground rather than trying to grow seedlings and then transplanting them. We’ll thin as required, the chickens really enjoy seedlings and we have loads of free seeds from gardening magazines. Two of our stand out crops from last year were turnips and carrots. We only planted one row of turnips last year and we found they grew really well and were delicious. We really enjoyed turnip in soups and it is a great staple roast dinner side dish. Not only that but they grow relatively quickly, freeing up the ground for more crops. The second crop was a relatively late addition to our vegetable garden last year but became a firm favourite. As a late addition (we actually planted some in the space left by the turnips last year) we only had a small crop but they were probably the vegetable where we noticed the biggest taste difference with shop bought varieties. Carrots too are a relatively quick growing crop so the pair are well matched.

    So our first raised bed has two rows each of carrots (Nantes variety) and turnips (Purple Top Milan variety). If it turns out to be too early and too cold to have planted them then we haven’t really lost much more than a few seeds. Let’s wait and see in a few weeks if we have any sign of life, fingers crossed. Next week I’ll have a go at planting one of our other beds up though with what I haven’t quite decided yet.