Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sweet peas

Cold winter, late spring, dry spell - everything in the garden is slow. The spinach has bolted, something horrible has happened to 3 rows of garlic and 2 hens have decided that life is too much of a trial and have, inexplicably, gone to that great roost in the sky. Sigh.

Never mind. The sweet peas are twining skyward on their canes and today I picked my first stems; fragrant beauties.

And the world seems a brighter, righter place.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

a trip 'oop north and other diversions

It was late morning when I finally got going, having fiddled around at home so much I wondered if I really wanted to go at all. Up north that is. Of course I did - my spirit of adventure and sense of curiosity were just a bit sluggish on Thursday morning. The hardest bit of any journey I think is actually getting in the car and turning out of the drive.

Once on the road, on my own, on my own mini-break, euphoria set in. I was off, unencumbered, the world for 24 hours at least was my own personal oyster. No husband. No dogs. No hens. No garden. No blasted WI. No commitments. Don't get me wrong I love 'em all - it's just sometimes a gal needs time to breathe. Freeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Here are my snapshots:

The hills and fields of Wales slip away as I head north. Lanes become roads and roads become motorways. Traffic increases as I enter the suburbs and the once familiar landscape of south Manchester. I don't know why I have a feeling that everything will be different because I have not been here for a while. Things are essentially still the same.

John Lewis did not disappoint.  How sad that what used to be (almost) my corner shop is now a treat. I stand and drool in front of the towel display. I touch and stroke fabrics. I try on extremely impractical clothes which mostly make me look like an overstuffed cushion or an old squishy sofa.  I am amazed by all the 'stuff' - like a monkey with a piece of glass. The choice of 'stuff' is overwhelming and faced with such an array and the need for some credit card action, I eventually buy a pair of shoes and 3 lanterns for the nearly-finished 'hovel'.

My friend J, head of things artistic at a college in south Manchester, has invited me to her students' end of year show. It is most, most impressive. The work is technically accomplished and mature. Students are showing parents their displays  and those parents are bursting with pride. The College has a new building which is also on display. It apparently cost £20 million and is superbly equipped; suites with banks of computers, a theatre, recording studios, dance studio, practice rooms and a library on the top floor with views across the city to the Pennines beyond.  I do wonder how those of us educated in medieval gatehouses or Victorian mansions using only pen and paper ever made our way in the world.

After the exhibition when the last student, high on achievement, has been shooed out with its proud parent, and the doors locked we go off for a meal and a well deserved glass of wine. We go to Albert's - a big old Didsbury pub once known as the Barleycorn and now reincarnated as a hip and trendy eatery. Its insides have been gutted; lounge bars, snugs and vaults replaced by a vast open space filled with tables and chairs and lots of ambient light and sound. It's pretty busy too - those tables are mostly full inside and out. We opt to eat indoors. The food is good and arrives quickly. The wine is chilled and welcome. I notice that on our table at least the iPhone is very much in evidence. (They have been placed reverently on the table by their owners who caress them periodically.)  It is very obviously the object de nos jours. There is much talk of Apps. I keep my crap-rubbish phone out of sight and secretly lust after a little Apple beauty. One of our number has an iPad which he ostentatiously flaunts, knowing, just knowing, that we all want one not-so-secretly. It is passed round the table for us, the Pad-less, to admire. I am reminded of back in the 80s how the early mobile phones - as big and heavy as car batteries - were also paraded as conspicuously; objects of one-up-manship.

I sleep in J's attic room, looking up at the stars through the skylight before I drop off. The night is not quiet and still. The traffic buzzes in the distance, a police car wails and there's one hell of a good party going on a couple of streets away.

The following morning after coffee and toast I take a nostalgic mooch around our old neighbourhood, resisting the temptation to knock on doors and do some catching up.  I am a tad nostalgic for those good old days, sunny afternoons which won't come round again - especially now that Heaton Moor looks so much brighter and vibrant than when I arrived fresh from the country in 1971.

However, the future now calls and I have an appointment in the YFC marquee on the Shropshire County Showground in Shrewsbury. I must don my badge and judge class YF2 - the best mounted photograph of the County Chairman in Action. I hope I made the right choices - that phrase 'the judge's decision is final' has a wonderfully authoritative ring to it don't you think.


Did anyone click on my medieval link above? I knew I was going to see a picture of part of my old school but was quite surprised to see my form room when I was in VI b2 - looking considerably less shabby than it did when I was there. In retrospect I guess it was something of a privilege to be educated in such a quirky and  historic building. I wonder if the winding stairway still pongs of the old lost property box which was always stuffed with grubby gym kit? I wonder if it found a buyer.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bird dog and birds.

Imagine. You've been bustled indoors while something interesting goes on outside. You have your nose pressed to the door the better to draw in those outdoor aromas; pongs of this and whiffs of that and.....................bird!

Your patience is rewarded when one of your Beloved People lets you out. With a leap and a bound you are on the case; no point in dithering. If you thought the words 'cartoon dog' were mentioned you would have heard correctly. You were bloody right too! There are birds! Let's get at 'em.
Sorry Chester, you and those chickens must stay on separate sides of the pen. No amount of text-book 'pointing' on your part will make me change my mind. I know they would be a tasty snack. Soft-centres too. You are a Pointer. Stick to pointing.

These are the chickens at just over two weeks old. How quickly they grow. They will need to be moved on from their 'tub' in the garage soon. Today was warm enough to bring them outside and let them see the outside world for the first time. I put them on the lawn in the dog crate, in the sun but with some dappled shade to retreat to. Quite an overwhelming experience for them I think. Sensory overload after a fortnight in a black tub under a warm red light. If they'd been under a broody hen she would have had them outdoors already, teaching them to peck and scratch. I am a poor substitute.

Their feathers are coming through and they are looking gawky. I wonder how many cockerels there are - it is a little too soon to tell from their appearance. One might expect 50:50, but with 13 birds that's never going to work out. Sod's law tells me that because I want hens there will be a predominance of males.

If you would like a cockerel in due course - please do speak up. They make excellent alarm clocks.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Longest day

If you live in the land of the midnight sun this is all going to seem fairly inconsequential - but I still find  evenings as light as this pretty magical.

I watched a thin red line on the horizon shortly after 4.00am this morning; dawn. It was light enough to see nothing was happening in the field under our window. Birds, beasts and people slept on. Me included.

The day rattled by - wall to wall sunshine. Places to go, people to see. Holes to dig, plants to plant. Stuff to do. Stuff not done. Sigh.

Now at 10.32pm it's only vaguely dark outside. I've watched flirty pink clouds jib from west to north; seen vapour trails from mile-high planes trace grey lines from north to south. In the west the sky is the palest clearest blue. Hens are reluctant to roost, daisies are luminous on the bank and somewhere in the distance a tractor driver makes a last cut of hay. There's a moon somewhere too. I can see my hand in front of my face, read the headlines in the newspaper - and if I wasn't so damned tired I'd go for a walk. Right. Now.

As it is I think I'll turn in - better make the most of what is probably the shortest night.

Monday, June 14, 2010

It's a jungle out there. A walk round the garden.

One moment I'm wondering what has survived the winter, then next gasping in amazement at how quickly everything has grown. A bit of warm and a bit of wet has stirred everything into lush and abundant growth. I seem to be the proud owner of a jungle.

To be honest I wish there could be a bit more warm and a lot less wet - I'm rather a fair weather gardener and prefer to do my weeding under sunny skies. The weeds grow regardless.
Just inside the gate is my 'hot border' - which I may have mentioned previously is something I'd never tackled before moving here to a virgin plot. It has been great fun to put together - vibrant reds and fiery oranges, sunny yellows and deep purples. I love its loud brashness. For a few short weeks these scarlet poppies are worth their weight in gold - they will be followed by lilies - a great painterly splash of brilliant red. I've noticed that some softer hues have inadvertently crept in - naughty pale Aquilegia undermines my careful scheme. They must be dealt with.

I have unwanted visitors in my 'white border' too - delicate papery poppies - variety unknown or forgotten - turn out to be pink not white. Damn.
This border at present is dominated by two mighty Angelicas - they seem to thrive here and the bee population of Treylstan is drawn to their fist-sized and skeletal umbels. Behind this border is a small lawn shaded by an allée of Carpinus betulus - Hornbeam. How posh that sounds. Just think 2 rows of big trees to hide the barns on the other side of the wall. I do like this space though - very quiet and calm after the boisterous reds and flouncy pink-and-white.

A snatched portrait of one pink poppy. I spy purple in here too - more Aquilegia.

Below is 'Snow Goose' - a David Austen rose bought from Sainsbury's which enjoys a south facing aspect outside the kitchen door. It's so good I bought it twice; a small rambler having clusters of small creamy flowers throughout the summer, lightly scented too. A good do-er.
Now to the back of the house and a north east aspect - not the easiest  - and what should be a topiary edged border with a spring-time wave of Allium 'Purple Sensation'. Those are both there alright, but I have vigorous geraniums making a bid for freedom too, bursting out of their box edged bounds. Beware of friends bearing gifts of 'Bevan's Variety'....
Spires of Foxglove tower at front and back - for the white variety I am grateful to elizabethm. The now ubiquitous Patty's Plum does well here too.
Then to the kitchen garden  and vegetables. At last the raised beds seem to be more green than brown.

How busy it looks with canes and stakes, netting and cages - and plants of course, all the usual suspects: onions, garlic and beans, peas, brassicas and a hedge of last year's parsley jostle for space. There's room for a few flowers in here to lighten the mood - sweet peas to twine up sticks and a handful of violas and marigolds to toss onto green salad leaves nestle in amongst Webb's Wonder and some esoteric ruby lettuce leaves. All very slow this year I think.
This is a non-picture and I can't think why I took it 'cept I know that on the right hand side is the most wonderful bank of ox-eye daisies and that I just love this little path which meanders through the grass. This is the Glam. Ass's wild flower meadow and my picture does not do it justice.
Then there are all the corners still unseen; the orchard, the pond and the dingle where we try to blend garden with the landscape beyond. Our places, loved, cared for and considered.

We sometimes, as the light is falling, trace this walk around the garden, taking stock. The dogs snuffle and scent the invisible while we point and comment on the day's minuscule changes to this or that. We make mental notes to do or to leave alone. There is bird song and the bleat of a lamb from the hill. Smells may be aggressively agricultural or sweet and of pinks and thyme. Like tonight the air may be wet and cool. The force of the green stuff growing around us is palpable and powerful. Just being can be breath-taking.

I am trying hard but not sure if I will ever keep up.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Not exactly hay-making...almost

We are moving the hen houses and their inhabitants onto fresh land and into what will be a fairly sophisticated arrangement of electrified pens and sub-divisions further up in the field. Trust me, it will work.
But first we must clear the ground - mow the grass so it does not 'short' the fencing. My ever resourceful Glam. Ass. first cuts the knee-high grass with his Allen Scythe. We now have swathes of wilting grass and the prospect of rain tomorrow. Better clear it up now then.
There is an area about the size of 2 tennis courts to rake up - plenty of time then to evoke scenes of yesteryear while I set to with the trusty hay rake. I pull and I drag. I make neat rows and sometimes, for variety I make little stacks. It's all a bit academic because the Glam Ass is not far behind with his little yellow tractor and transport box which we will load with all the cut grass to take up the lane. No one is going to admire this field work.

I've raked for all of 30 seconds before I've imagined myself into a Thomas Hardy landscape. I am Tess of the d'Urbervilles - and count my blessings that this is not a bleak turnip field but a sunlit mead. I rake for something like another 30 seconds before realising that I wouldn't want to do an awful lot more of this. All day for heaven's sake? I ache already.

We do stick at it and clear the small area. The Glam Ass has great fun driving his little yellow tractor and I take comfort in thinking about the calories burned up by raking and walking and loading....

My 'farmer's tan' is coming on nicely too.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

More chicken stuff...sorry

Well, I was going to suggest a walk round the garden but the weather is so unsympathetic that indoor things would be better instead.

Come and look at the chickens. They're in the garage now in their brooder. Chickens 1- 8 were first out there, followed a day later by the other 3. That's it I thought - there'll be no more now -  and took the lid off the incubator to remove the unhatched eggs. But look, there's a crack in one - perhaps it will hatch. Better late than never. 12 hours later an exhausted Maran flops out. Alive. Just about. I decide to leave it overnight. In the morning it's on its feet and chirping so out it goes to the garage to join the gang.

Now it is definitely time to tidy up. I unplug and start to dismantle, picking up the last eggs with a view to going and cracking them open over the compost heap to see if there was a reason they did not hatch. Ha! Another pipped egg, which, when I hold it to my ear cheeps and taps on the shell with its beak. Now this is a dilemma. Good practice would recommend jettisoning this late (potential) arrival. In the wild its mother would have left the nest and it would have died; maybe it is destined never to thrive if it does hatch. I decide to give it a go and some 14 hours later with a little help it too hatches. I go to bed not expecting to see it alive in the morning.

Alive and chirping it was however, on its feet and tapping at the incubator's perspex cover.

Anyway, come on - they're over there in that plastic tub behind the mountain of books. Don't trip over that strimmer which Has Not Been Put Away Properly and lies like a man-trap on the floor just where you need to put your feet...Whoops! Did warn you...and mind your heads on the boiler.

While you're at it, watch you don't step into those open bags - one's cement and the other's lime. The dog walks straight through and leaves a trail of footprints....and don't bark your shins on the Dog Cart (that really should be Polish Dog Cart). No dog of ours has ever pulled it and we have no way of knowing if any Polish dog was ever harnessed to it either. It has only ever stood in a garage and is now the sort of thing, that when provoked, a husband and wife can have Words about. And another thing - just why is it that the car, worth a king's ransom, sits outside in all weathers while a huge amount of tat is under lock and key, warm and dry inside?

Here they are then, my babes, warm under a heat lamp which gives them a cosy red glow and suspended as it is will keep them at 37 degrees while they acclimatise to the vagaries of our changeable weather.

13 chickens, happy enough I think. The pale ones are Rhode Island Reds and the darker ones Marans.  I am prepared to bet that the one in picture giving us 'the stare' is a cockerel - and am stealing myself to think 'dinner'. The eldest are four days old and already developing pin feathers on their wings.

They are so curious - see how if I tap their food dish with my finger they run to see what is on offer. I've noticed a mother hen does this. Much of what they do seems innate ; scratching, preening and pecking at vulnerable siblings. Drinking too - I'm not much of a mother hen so it is as well they've mastered that alone. I could watch them for hours.

I've not really thought about the next step, where to put 13 chickens when they outgrow this very temporary home. I think I might be whistling for a bigger brooder. Glam.Ass, Beloved - if you read this - please see what you can rustle up.

But now we'll leave them in peace. Look! the rain has stopped - the garden looks so lush, green and inviting. Maybe we'll stroll around tomorrow.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

....All beginings are difficult

Anybody who has sat and stared at a blank piece of paper, canvas or screen will know just how hard it is to get started - to make that first mark, jot down the first words. Becoming a mother is hard work too. Been there, done that - and yes, it was. I've had the experience of being born too but along with most others have absolutely no memory of the experience. Perhaps it's just as well. I've never thought before about the process of becoming alive being hard work - until today that is when I watched eggs become birds.

My desktop chickens have just hatched. This is my second attempt and I am reasonably pleased. I set 20 eggs and discarded 4 as infertile on day 6. Over the past 24 hours 11 of the remaining 16 have hatched. That's 8 Rhode Island Reds and 3 Marans. I've watched and held my breath; urged them on every inch of the way from the first 'pip' to the eventual wetstickyexhausting emergence.

An enormous amount of effort is required just to chip a small hole....
....which gets larger and larger, until it extends some way round the shell.

Eventually with a tremendous push and a shove the chick frees itself from the shell. A wonderful thing but not yet a pretty sight. (Too many bodily fluids methinks.)
It's an exhausting process which seems to have taken  hours. Time for a rest.

The first 8 chickens are now under heat in the garage - cute and fluffy at last. Their 3 'siblings' will join them tomorrow.
Proud mother? Moi? At the risk of being a chicken bore I may well post more tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Bird Day

Strange how some days have a theme running through them. Yesterday was a birdy sort of day.

We had kites. No, no, not those jolly colourful things with strings that are so much fun on a windy day, but Red Kites - Milvus milvus. And Kites plural. Not one, but two.

We're more familiar with buzzards up here, sometimes seeing 3 or 4 wheeling gracefully over Badnage Wood. Kites are a less frequent sight, although over the last 12 months we've come to think that one is living locally. Today though we had a pair circling overhead. They twirled over our heads, rising and falling, avoiding the Ravens which seemed most put out by these visitors. Eventually they drifted away and we returned to our chores in the field. I wonder if they are nesting locally - or looking for a nest site. There are plenty of eminently suitable places round here. I would like that very much.

Swallows. Until recently we didn't have a field shelter. The Glam. Ass is actually still putting the finishing touches to it in terms of owl boxes and down-spouts but it is, to all intents and purposes, a finished thing, a neat timber construction under a blue slate roof. It appears to be just what the swallows have been looking for - a very des.res. They have built a nest up in the apex of the roof and we hope they will lay and hatch a brood there.  They whistle round our ears if we go in for the tractor or for shavings and if a small bird can be threatening, well we get the message. Clear orf.

Another des.res. This is my new broody coop:
The hen in front, puffed up to twice her size, is a broody Maran. Until yesterday she was sitting tight in the big hen-house, intimidating all the other birds. I'd no intention of letting her sit in there and dutifully removed eggs on a daily basis. The ever resourceful* Glam.Ass. made me this sweet little house so I could set her on some eggs away from the hurly-burly of the rest of the flock. I truly think it's one of the lovliest little houses I have ever seen. So far there's a pot egg in there. Thought I'd get her settled before putting in a clutch of Rhode Island eggs....

Is she grateful? Is she sitting? Is she steady? Is she 'eck.  This morning she is pacing and clucking like a thing demented. Something is obviously not right. Perhaps this will be an un-broody coop. That's fine by me - she can go back in the pen and get on with egg producing again. A small hen house will always be handy. (Did I ever think in my former life I'd find myself saying something like that? Answer: No.)

*At the end of last week we called in at ICH Joinery and Timber - what used to be Powis Wood Yard, just outside Welshpool, opposite Coed y Dinas. The timber business not being what it was they've diversified slightly with a side-line in architectural salvage and we were lucky enough to buy a couple of pieces of furniture for the garden - when cleaned up they will look fantastic. There were boxes too - not just a few itsy matchwood things, but something like 1300 sturdy wooden crates....We bought 5 for £20 - thinking they would make good planters and, spotting one with a panel missing, thought that would form the basis of a small hen hut. Just add legs, a roof and a door. Well done that man.