Tuesday 27 September 2011

Horrible Jobs...

Normally I blog in an upbeat tone, (I hope,) preferring to focus on success here at The Larches. Of course there are times Hubby and I throw a wobble, especially when we find that we haven't won the lottery and THAT bathroom ......

and THAT crumbling porch .....

will remain with us for the foreseeable future... breathe.... but on the whole we're chipper.

It is with this positive attitude that I tackled a job on Sunday morning I'd been putting off for almost two years.

The south facing walls of the the kitchen garden actually belong to the original cottage c. 1700. It's in a sorry state really but I use the last remaining full room as my potting shed and the 1st floor, albeit unstable, we use for light storage. The lottery win would really help to save this building!

When we had the house peeled of wisteria and Virginia creeper we decided to keep a toupee on the cottage..... it may be the only thing keeping the roof in place.

From what I can gather, over the past fifty years the cottage has been used for various purposes, but in the past decade the whole space seemed to become a general dumping area.

View from the driveway

View from the Walled Garden
Open the 'front door' to the cottage (rather grandiose term for a bit of a door with woodworm) and you are greeted by a chasm of darkness. Immediately facing you is a rugged ladder leading to the first floor, seemingly barring your path. Bearing in mind that this is the way the entire family gain access to the house, preferring to use the back door rather than the dilapidated porch and front door, it's a wonder no one's lost their lives.

Last year I tackled one side of the downstairs, taking load upon load of non combustibles to the dump some twenty five miles away. I tried to ignore the other half of the space, segregated by wooden boarding behind which lay a fifty year old mountain of coal lying on top of fifty year old coal dust.

This Sunday, after almost four hours I had sifted all the coal, storing it in borrowed boxes in the wood shed and wheeled many a barrow of black dust to the monumental bonfire in Home Field.

My hair was a greeny black colour and I'm sure my lungs were similarly shady. But, the job was done and I now have more room to sow and report all through winter in my water proof'ish shed. Bliss.

.... Next blog post: Plan and Plant - Autumn sowings for next year; veg and flowers.

Thursday 22 September 2011

No one here but us Chickins!

I have finally evicted Archie and her brood of 8 from the walled garden. These chicks grew remarkably fast and the grass paths between the raised beds were being annihilated by the constant scratting. I had planned to let these chicks free range on the 1st of November but now, at approximately 5 weeks old, they are either the same size or bigger than the free range Bantams. Time for freedom (for me and for them.)

I locked them in the bungalow (the granny flat annex built by Hubby which attached to the main coop) last Sunday morning. The 8yo and I had a bit of fun as Hope, (the tiniest girl,) managed to escape, luckily some corn soon tempted her back to her prison. Sunday passed, then Sunday night and I kept the brood topped up with water and food. Normally I'd leave a new gang of hens locked up for three days to imprint on them their new home, but I figured Archie was an old hand at the routine so I trusted her to teach her brood about roaming and coming home to bed at night.

On Monday afternoon I let them out to roam. 

It's one of my greatest pleasures to give chickens their freedom. We've done it several times with ex-battery hens and it's lovely to see them blossom with good food and space to move. The chooks are fairly safe here at The Larches, there are no big roads and us humans feed them and ensure the coop is locked and electrified at night against predators. Touch wood, we've only lost one hen to a badger and that was before we put the electric fence up.

I gave the hens a treat on Monday - a little pot of cream cheese. One of Archie's babies loved it [check out the video. He's the one on the right with the tawny feathers. If you can't see the video in the email version of this post, click on the blue post title to be transported to the web version.] 

However, we now have 28 chickens and with approximately half of them in lay I have plenty of eggs for baking and sharing. Trouble is I have too many roosters; 4 bantams, Road Runner (our dominant rooster) and of Archies's chicks, I think 5 are boys!.... Too many.

It's not just that I object to feeding these lads when they donate no eggs and, thanks to a plea from the 8yo, we now have no plans to make Coq au Vin for Christmas..... I object to the fact that they are so flippin' noisy AND the Bantam boys constantly encourage the girls into my walled garden.... naughty.

But I must admit they are beautiful, with gorgeous feathers and plumed tails and hilarious personalities. The cock fights are interesting too.

But it's time to be realistic, soon I'm going to take them to the Poultry Market some 25 miles away, hopefully to trade them in for something else......

........ North American Turkeys anyone?......

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Rugby Star Returns.

The 6yo has nagged, cajoled, begged and bribed to be taken to rugby training on a Sunday morning. Last year the then 7yo played. She loved it and was pretty good but as she was the only girl playing, her love soon waned and she decided not to continue this year. The boy, who was aptly named the 5yo last year, flatly refused to play after two training sessions. [Apparently sausage and chips didn't outweigh mud and cold!]

This year the 5yo is the 6yo and he's huge, a good two foot above some of his peers and he seems set on playing the sport. Hubby is delighted and fed up all at the same time. A big fan of rugby, he is delighted that boy wants to play but gutted that a Sunday morning lie-in is a thing of the past. The training ground is 27 miles away.

This year we've decided not to invest in kit till we're sure sproglet II is serious. He's currently playing in hand-me-down AstroTurf trainers and jogging bottoms.

'Excuse me Dad,' he said on Sunday, in a chastising tone. 'But I need rugby boots.'

Hubby retorted. 'Can you remember last year when I spent a load of money on boots for you? What happened then?'

The 6yo looked unfazed by this line of questioning by the 'would-be' sports reporter.....He sighed condescendingly.

'Last year I retired. Now I'm back.'

I'm sure the world of Rugby will be delighted with this news.

Friday 16 September 2011

Recipe: Damson and Apple Mixy-Round.

Have you noticed how the damsons are huge this year? I managed to pick kilos of the fruit just before they ripened, preferring their tart taste and high pectin for my jam but now, when the fruit is so sweet you can't help but chuck one in your mouth every time you pass the bowed tree, now is the time to make Mixy-'Round

Before I learned to make jam I either made thick fruit condiments (accidentally) which I used for meats or cheeses, purely because I'd let the jam go too far, or I made a sort of luscious fruit coulis, (again accidentally) on account of not letting the jam cook for long enough. In fact, for several years when my children were young and I was constantly distracted, jam eluded me completely.

The benefit to this period of culinary hit-and-missness was finding out that we Archers liked Mixy-Round almost as much as we liked jam. We particularly like it over ice-cream, in strawberry milkshakes mid-winter (!) or poured into fresh plain yoghurt. The yoghurt recipe gave us the inspiration for its name: You mix it 'round in the yoghurt to get a delightful pink concoction that children love. It's a great back up desert.

Ingredients (Makes approximately 3 jam jars)
1kg of washed Damsons (or any fruit you prefer)
.5kg of washed Cooking Apples (chopped, unpeeled, uncored, as they come... easy eh?)
500ml of water
1kg - 1.5k Granulated Sugar depending on how sweet you like it.
- - -- - - - - - -- - 
  • Ensure you have the correct number of jam jars washed and sterilized. While I make my jam I usually keep my clean jars, but not the lids, in the oven at a warm, not hot, temperature. 
  • In a jam pot or stockpot heat the first three ingredients, stirring occasionally.
  • Add the sugar, again stirring occasionally. Cook till all the fruit breaks down and the stones of the damsons begin to appear on the surface of the mixture. Take care to monitor the heat so it doesn't boil over.
  • To release as many stones as possible, mash the mixture with a hand potato masher.
  • Turn off the heat.
  • Skimming off the damson stones can be a fiddly operation so instead of individually removing them as they rise to the surface, just use a large soup ladle and a colander and sieve the entire contents. Take care not to splash - it's hot! This will leave you with a runny fruit sauce.
  • Fill your jars as full as possible with this mixture, pop on a waxed disk, seal and allow to cool before slapping on a label. Store in a cool, dark place.
  • Once opened use and refrigerate. Yummy.

Thursday 15 September 2011

The Village Show and the Prize Twit!!

Our Village Show is wonderful. Who knows how long it has been operating, although one gentleman farmer told me it had taken him 40 years to win the prized Show Cup. As relative newcomers to the area [we celebrated our 2 year anniversary on 28th August,] we already cherish this event. It seems to bring the huge summer growing season to a close, a precursor for Harvest Festival. This year the 8yo and the 6yo wanted to join in too.

The Village Fete and Show took place this past Saturday so there was mayhem in The Larches last Friday. After taking the children to school I dashed back to uproot the walled garden in search of winning veg. I rather regretted entering the family into 28 judged classes, but being that I was out of the wind behind the old stone walls and the late season sun was beating on my back, I soon had a good array of produce to choose from. The good news being that I might grow 'em and supply 'em but hubby had volunteered to prep and present them.

The Dwarf French Beans have been awesome, with bushes less than two foot in diameter and not much taller [perfect crop for a small garden or container] producing between 10 or 20 good sized beans, this has been more than enough for a meal for four on each bush each picking, just a shame there wasn't a show category for them! However, one of the entries was a display of veg with 'no less than 5 kinds of vegetables,' so this allowed me to enter all sorts of produce, including these beans, my tiny Jack Be Little pumpkins and my delish garlic, (pic above.)

The potatoes and onions weren't an issue as they have been safe and dry in hessian sacks in the 'dairy,' (the name we call our walk-in pantry,) for some weeks now. The beetroot was easy to harvest, the big purple globes sitting high above the soil. The carrots were woeful: Too small, full of holes, too wiggly or else blessed with extra hands and toes!

Cucumbers were easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, there were lots of ridged heavy fruit weighing the stem down,  as I snipped them off one by one the stem sprang to attention on its tied string, grateful for the relief I'm sure.

Runner beans were fine too, tomatoes dreadful...sigh.... courgettes good..... Flowers WONDERFUL...

The 8yo entered 10 classes and was placed in 7! Wow-wee. She won first prize for a poem written in ink, thanks to her handwriting, and received a silver platter trophy which she keeps for the next year. She also  won first prize for a vegetable salad on a tea plate and first prize for a miniature garden and for each first prize she was awarded a medal.

The 6yo won first prize for his Autumn (musical) shaker and was placed 3rd for his miniature garden. Hilariously he'd placed all his Star Wars figures in the dense undergrowth. He was placed in 3 classes having entered 7.

Personally I could retire happy, (but I won't!) this is because I won first prize for my onions.... Oh Yeah! [Big Head. Big Head] Apparently they were perfectly harvested - whatever that means. Husband maintains that it was due to his excellent presentation..!  and absolutely nothing to do with me improving the soil in the raised beds, planting the sets last Autumn, caring for them over winter then lovingly lifting them, drying them and storing them. Nooooo, it was all him.

Won 1st prize for my herbs - ( that's 'erbs in American... sooo multilingual me....) and out of the 11 categories I entered, I was placed in 8 classes. Overall in the show I was placed joint third sharing the honour with a proper good gardener who excels in growing tomatoes, (I may need to ask him if I could be his apprentice.)

I. was. So. Happy.

There were a couple of faux pas; the first was when my big flower display was judged in the wrong category. Having entered it as a large wedding arrangement somehow it got moved into the hedgerow display class. [Sabotage d'ya think? Hmmmm... maybe someone thought it was too messy for a wedding display and moved it into the correct class????] Anyhow I won 3rd prize in the hedgerow category (what!?) but I also received a cute note from the judge asking whether all the flowers had been collected from the hedgerows..... cough, cough, oops! The really galling thing about this class is that I was actually pipped to 2nd place by the 8yo. She was chuffed to bits.

The second slip up came at the end of the Fete - Prize Giving. I noted with delight that there were ornate silver trophies for winners. I may not have been paying full attention to the proceedings as I was gossiping with my friend, when she suddenly nudged me.

'Your name's been called!' She said. ' Go! Go!'

I positively skipped to the awards table, excusing myself through the dense crowd of locals. The HUGE silver bowl was absolutely amazing and I gathered it to my breast.... they do love my gardening, they do love my gardening....

A more senior lady, also standing in front of the table looked perplexed, turns out the bling was hers and they'd only called out my name to confirm I was joint third overall.... no sexy silver for me.... I contemplated legging it  but in the end chose to grovel and hand it back. How embarrassing!

Thursday 8 September 2011

Decorum ... not!

Hmmmm. Funny week really. It's a shock to go back to school after 8 weeks of holiday, early starts and chillier weather doesn't help either.

This week began on Saturday 3rd for me. I don't usually begin a week on a Saturday but it seemed appropriate somehow. On the Friday, the 2nd, I'd closed that week off nicely by dropping off all school kit into classrooms and onto pegs. The items were ironed, labelled, out of my hallway. Smug, Smug, Smug. Never in the history of my 8 years of being a parent have I been so organised.

I woke on the Saturday feeling free and very ready to tackle a week in which I got to be alone with the devastation of the house.

Wonderfully we were invited to a lunch party at the home of the 8yo's pal.(Homes and Garden eat your heart out.) We got a bit spruced up, I wore heels (kissed the wellies bye-bye) packed up a pavlova, booze and children and went off to play.

The weather was behaving itself and we had drinks in a summer house in the gardens. Delightful. All was going well till we sauntered back to pick up the food from the kitchen. Traversing the bridge spanning a monumental drained fibre glass pond, the children spotted a stranded creature, a tiny shrew lost in rodent hectares of fibre-glass. At least he has a drink, I thought gazing at the rain water reservoir in the deepest part of the sloping chasm.

For at least another hour I tried to forget him, block him from my mind but as my intake of wine increased, the wind gathered and the rain started and we toddled back over the bridge to the warm kitchen, my Steve Irwin tendency took hold.

'That's it, I'm off to save the shrew!'

'Oh God' murmured the host, no doubt concerned about a death on his property

I kicked off heels and strode towards the picket fence. I may have been better off keeping my heels on, as I needed to be at least another foot tall to get over the pointy bits. As my eyes watered the host kindly lifted me off the fence and the medical procedure was halted. Phew!

'I'm going to enjoy this,' my husband commented to no one in particular.

By now there was an audience of rubberneckers well-wishers.

Our host then showed me a very deft way to enter the electrified enclosure, [anti-otter kit,]  you roll over the bridge railing. This involves straddling the railing, then lying flat on the rail (I found a bosom either side helped balance...dear god!) before rolling over onto a ledge 5ft above the pond.

Outfit severely compromised, arse examined by approximately 9 children... I made it over... alive...just. Now for the rescue part.

Trying to look young and athletic, I hopped down into the waterless pond, the surface clammy and slightly slippy under my bare feet.

'There it is,' the children shrieked as a brown ball hurtled passed me, it lashed under the bridge to the furthest wall where it attempted to climb some damp moss, clearly desperate to escape. I followed, ducking under the thick beams of the bridge. This was going to be easy, I could pick it up by the tail and put it on the bank.

Funnily enough, the shrew didn't seem to appreciate that I was friend not foe. He wasn't interested in being picked up by the tail and darted behind me to the mini lake of rainwater and algae. I made a valiant effort to get to him but swamp water, fibre glass and bare feet is a bad combination and I was suddenly aware that I was losing the battle of uprightness and would soon lose my dignity too. I felt my trousers to my knees become a bit grungy and in a slight panic, fearing the rest of me might follow, I reached up and clung to the bridge.

My husband was really enjoying himself now! The hostess started taking photos for heavens sake!!.... call the bloody fire brigade or something!

Anyhoo, we did eventually catch the little bugger and apart from the antics associated with getting back out of the blessed rodent enclosure, flexibility in my legs being reduced due to old age, the rest of the day went fairly smoothly. Deep breath.


Monday was wonderful; returning the sprogs to school felt good (sorry and all that but 8 WEEKS!) and all was going well with the week till I forgot to collect them at the correct time on Tuesday and the bursar called me to check whether I remembered I had two children. Oops. Wednesday we went swimming after school and everyone we met seemed to be in a weary mood. The 8yo commented through her changing room curtain,
'Why is everyone crying today?'
'Stress and tiredness.' I offered.
I felt like crying for no particular reason, other mothers nodded in agreement. I think going back to school after 6 or 8 weeks break is like a big change to all our lives and we all go through that Tuckman's Group Development model of Forming, Storming, Norming before we can get to Performing (in June no doubt!)

Tonight is Thursday and we seem to be settling into a routine.

Friday night's a biggie, we're entering loads of categories for the Village Fete Show on Saturday. Got to get the veg done, flowers arranged and all the children's entries in the car to drop to the village hall for 9am. The 8yo has school till 12. I'll update you on our failure success next week in the show. To read what happened at the fete last year (Lordy Lordy!!) click here.

The Archers at The Larches

Lou - Chicken whisperer....

Lou - Chicken whisperer....

Snowy and Moon

Snowy and Moon