Cracking eggs and mystery spuds

IMG_1773We might not have achieved true self-sufficiency or anything approaching that lofty ambition, but we can at least claim – like many of our fellow henkeepers – to be self-sufficient in eggs. And it felt positively indulgent at the weekend when I raided the rack and used all 11 freshly laid beauties in some simple dishes for a lunch with friends. It was a delicious feeling beating those stunning deep-orange yolks and firm whites together to make two different recipes, the first of which required a whopping ten. I cooked double the quantity of ‘Courgette Slice’, an easy summer main course that makes the most of fresh garden produce at this time of year. It was created by an allotmenteer called Tessa Webb who starred in a Country Living series called ‘Grow & Cook’ during 2011 and features in her own delightful cookbook. IMG_1771Alongside it, I served salad and our own potatoes – not any ordinary tatties, but the source of some controversy in our household. In early spring, James and I chose a few ordinary spuds to chit on our windowsills ready to plant out over the Easter weekend. We decided to plump for straightforward, reliable first and second early types – having grown some weird and wacky varieties in the past that either disappoint in terms of yield or prove fiddly to clean and cook (I don’t rate ‘Pink Fir Apple’ for this reason). When James went to lift some the other day he dug up a huge number of purple potatoes just like the ‘Violetta’ tubers that I planted back in 2013 when I visited a Potato Day in Suffolk with my gardener friend Lucy. My theory is that we must have left some of these in the ground from then and the spirited spuds grew from the same crop. Having thoroughly dug over the bed, James is adamant that this couldn’t be the case and that we must have accidentally selected this kind again from the garden centre this year. Can anyone shed light on this peculiar event and resolve the dispute between us?! Is it possible that potatoes can crop two years after an initial harvest? Whatever their origin, they are a tasty and colourful addition to our dinner plates, retaining a gorgeous indigo-blue hue when cooked and proving a good topic of conversation with guests – as well as the source of a continuing debate between James and I. In fact, it turns out they’re rather moreish and may well be a staple of the Smallholdings plot in the future. Anyone else cultivating some mystery vegetables this summer? Happy henkeeping all!IMG_1761

Animal antics

IMG_0518 In a bid to simplify life a little now that we’ve our baby Charlie to care for, James and I are laying down a few ground rules for our beloved, but rather needy, menagerie. Although the way Margot and Audrey make their way into our house is very charming, we are constantly clearing up droppings in our porch and utility room as a result. Plus, there’s the embarrassment it causes when visitors (of which we’ve had many in recent weeks coming to meet the new addition to the family) arrive and accidentally step in one; and the horror when we inadvertently track it through the house. So, as much as it pains us to do so, we now keep this cheeky pair of Araucanas confined to their (very large) run. If we could trust them to roam around the garden like the other free-rangers we’d happily let them do so, but they’re strangely drawn to our home, as I’ve declared in this blog before.

Beau, our rather highly strung Bengal, is insanely jealous of Charlie and does his best to make his sentiments clear whenever he can. Unfortunately, all baby paraphernalia – cots, playmats, bouncers – are super feline-friendly in terms of size and cosiness and the cat probably assumes, in a way only that species can, that it’s all been bought for him. The other week he not only crawled into the (unoccupied) pram, but was actually sick in it (my mother, very altruistically, dealt with the carnage). A dirty protest, if ever there was one. So now our dining room is crammed with all this extra equipment we’ve acquired in recent months and Beau is barred from access. That way we can keep it free of the naughty feline.

James enjoys lifting some spuds after a hard day's DIY – the house is coming on a treat and we're confident that this year it will be finished, at last!
James enjoys lifting some spuds after a hard day’s DIY – the house is coming on a treat and we’re confident that this year it will be finished, at last!

Even in the garden we need to animal-proof our veg from our poultry and pets. A couple of summers ago, our German Shepherd Darcy dug up several potato plants and ate the tubers without our knowledge for several days. The first we knew of it was when he collapsed due to dehydration and James rushed him to the vet’s. It turned out the dog had continued his raw spud diet despite being ill each time he consumed them. Those were the most expensive potatoes ever – the bill for his treatment, which involved a stay in animal hospital while he was on a drip, cost several hundred pounds. Tomatoes, however, don’t seem to attract any canine attention, thankfully, so they’re thriving in growbags in front of the barn, the brick walls of which radiate heat long after the sun’s gone down.

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This year, we’re trying ‘Golden Sunrise’, which has medium-sized yellow fruits, and ‘Gardener’s Delight’, of the red cherry kind – both varieties are from nearby merchant Kings Seeds. As well as looking forward to a their harvest, one of late summer’s simple pleasures, around this time we also bear winter in mind and order logs now so we can finish off seasoning them and save a few bob on an autumn delivery when the wood’s ready to burn.

IMG_1547Every season has its highlights and autumn’s is lighting the stove for the first time. But we’re certainly not wishing these warm months away – we’ll be outdoors as much as possible with Charlie in tow making the most of the glorious weather. Happy henkeeping all!

Eggless!

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There’s very little going on in the nesting boxes at the moment. No doubt this is mostly down to the heat, although we also have an ageing flock with just a few young hens to keep up the yield. Twice this week we’ve opened up the lid to search among the warm straw to see not a single egg to collect. Coming back from the chicken coop with some freshly laid beauties is a ritual we never tire of, so when you’ve nothing to bring in to the kitchen, it can leave you feeling surprisingly hollow, I find. At least our Ixworths and Araucanas (the black birds pictured above with one of our white Ixworths) are pulling their weight the rest of the time. We scrambled their fine offerings this morning for a superb start to the day.

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Our disappointing egg yields have been compensated for by the arrival of our latest toy. James has finally fulfilled a long-held ambition: becoming the proud owner of a Little Grey Fergie. Named the smallholders’ tractor when it was first made, the Ferguson TE-F 20 was created for working small parcels of land. This one was made in 1954 and has had just two previous owners and is in pretty good nick.

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If we’re honest, it’s a slightly overblown piece of machinery for our modest plot of just over an acre but it’s a lovely thing to own in itself and we’re hoping it will hold its value. The plough attachment will come in handy for cultivating the old pig run, on which we’ve kept the animals for two years so needs to rest before we have more on it – we’ve plans to loosen up that well-fertilised soil and cart it up to our veg patch to work its magic on future sowings. This season, we’re growing a limited range of crops – potatoes, tomatoes, salad leaves and courgettes. Due to cracking on with renovating the house, we didn’t have the time to dig some larger beds earlier in the season as we’d hoped, so we’ve a ‘capsule’ collection of edibles on the go instead. How’s your growing season going? 

Happy henkeeping all!

Special delivery

Over the past fortnight, members of the animal kingdom of The Smallholdings – a dozen hens and a cockerel, a German Shepherd, two chocolate Labradors and a highly strung Bengal cat – have been acquainting themselves with the latest addition to the family: our baby son. Charlie George was born in the early hours of 9 June and came home exactly two weeks ago today. 

 It’s been fascinating to watch the behaviour of our pets around the new addition. Our cheeky brown hen (pictured above) gave the pram a full inspection yesterday, pecking at the wheels and parasol in the basket. Of course, the poultry are mostly oblivious to Charlie – Araucana cockerel Jeffrey crows freely right by the pram and, remarkably, doesn’t wake the little fellow from his afternoon nap – in fact, the garden is where he sleeps best. However, our cat Beau’s nose has been seriously put out of joint – despite our best efforts to make him feel as loved as ever, he spent much of his time in next-door’s greenhouse where our neighbour made a fuss of him. The poor creature can’t work out why all the new feline-sized pieces of furniture and transportation are out of bounds. We’ve discovered him sleeping in an empty pram twice now, despite it being covered with a cat net. His attempts to make himself at home in whenever he gets the chance is a little exasperating, but we’re trying to be patient…

It’s Amy, one of our 12-year old Labs, who’s been transformed by our little one’s arrival. Rather touchingly, she seems to have taken it upon herself to guard her new charge and has been lying loyally beside Charlie’s cot, pram and newborn highchair whenever she has the chance. 

There’s obviously something in the air here, as new father James is keen to bring on some chicks. We’re going to start breeding Jeff (below) with the black Araucana ladies as well as the marvellous Margot. The eggs of this trio are our favourites, not only for their pastel-blue shells but those stunning deep-orange yolks. It would be great to have some more young birds to draft into the flock – and rather fun to try our hand at hatching out our own hens’ fertile eggs for the first time.

Yet again, I’ve recently been reminded just how special freshly laid eggs are. Poached on toast, they are proving the perfect speedy, nutritious lunch in between feeds, changes and naps at the moment. 

 Happy henkeeping all. 

On the nest

Our baby son hasn’t shown any signs of appearing after 42 weeks so we’ve had to change plans from a home birth to being induced in hospital. Meanwhile, our usually trusty hens have decided to start generously spreading their laying efforts throughout the garden. They range so freely these days, over the best part of an acre, that a waddle back to the coop is clearly too much of an effort for most – so the birds are adopting new cosy spaces in which to leave their much sought-after eggs. The diminishing yield in the nesting box was the first clue that this was happening – then our dogs’ sudden enthusiasm for certain spots in various outbuildings around the plot. Especially popular is their old kennel, which is still straw-strewn from housing Poorly Pig when he was unwell back in the autumn is one such hunting ground – it combines warmth and darkness, two qualities much favoured by laying hens – and the bales that are stacked under the lean-to on the back of our brick barn.  Labradors Megan (pictured above, observed by Beau the Bengal, top left) and Amy and German Shepherd Darcy love nothing better than a freshly laid egg, which they eat shell and all. In order to outwit these scrumpers and reclaim the supply for ourselves and our families, we’ve taken to keeping the flock in the confines of its run until early afternoon when there is a decent yield in the nestboxes to satisfy human demand. Then the hens are free to peck and scratch on the plot for the rest of the day to their heart’s desire. Naturally, our foraging canine companions are disappointed and can’t quite work out why there are no longer any of these convenient snacks scattered about the Smallholdings for their delectation. Meanwhile, once again we’re collecting enough eggs to feed us, plus our relatives and friends each week. 

Happy henkeeping all. 

Playing pied piper and the free-range feline

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Spending my days mostly in the garden during these past few weeks of maternity leave, I’ve relished the opportunity to stand and stare. Having the leisure to stop whatever I’m doing and observe all our animals has been among the highlights of what feels, at the moment, like an extended holiday – and being a week overdue, there’s even been some borrowed time, too.

Every time James or I head down the lawn, our trusty flock of chickens begin to run after us in a highly comical fashion. They’re after a helping of corn and who could resist their imploring expressions? I rather like the way they form a drift that follows us all the way down to their house and run.

The hens have also taken a leaf out of the Labradors’ book and enjoy hovering around while we eat our lunch outside. In fact, one particularly bold brown hen has taken to hopping onto a chair and then onto the table to see what she can nibble on. Suffice to say I encourage her back down to the ground, but she’s just as persistent as her canine counterparts and returns to try her luck within minutes. Naturally, German Shepherd Darcy doesn’t wholeheartedly approve (he’s just as greedy as his sisters) and the other day more or less let her know his thoughts on the subject (pictured below).

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Patterns of behaviour continue to shift as we prepare for our baby’s arrival. Beau the Bengal has, until recently, been entirely free-range – able to come and go whenever and wherever he chooses but, bearing in mind the fact that he would enjoy shredding our lovely wicker crib to pieces and the cautions about the appeal that sleeping infants hold for cats, we’re now having to keep our bedroom off limits to him. Naturally, being a contrary creature, he sees entering this forbidden part of the house as the holy grail and takes advantage of any chink in the new security system, runs in and immediately falls asleep – with a virtual ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign above his head – at the end of our bed.

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Back to hens… The flock’s eggs have been abundant recently and are keeping us well-fed – not only in cooked breakfasts and omelettes, but as ingredients in some homemade meals, including Delia’s fisherman’s pie (which includes hardboiled ones and is all the better for it), that have been squirrelled away in our freezer – all ready for when the little chap decides to make his appearance.

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I’m finding that watching these productive, amusing creatures is particularly helpful while waiting for this life event to occur – yet again the simple truth that their soft cooing and chirruping, pecking and scratching, preening and dust-bathing is so thoroughly absorbing to observe and can take your mind off all manner of subjects is confirmed.

Happy henkeeping all!

Power and patience

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The theme of authority continues at The Smallholdings this week. There’s not only the ongoing minor battle between Audrey and Margot and Labradors Amy and Megan and German Shepherd Darcy – the Araucanas are slowly but surely pecking away at the dogs’ status (eating their food, drinking water from their bowl and entering our house) – but between Beau the Bengal cat and Jeffrey the cockerel. I caught them this morning having a Western-style face-off across the garden (pictured above) and, on a few occasions over the past week, they’ve had some rather amusing crowing/meowing competitions, which Jeff’s won wings-down. For every impressive proclamation he made, Beau tried to out-do him with what sounded like a distinctly underwhelming cry. The cat  seems to have mastered almost every other creature at The Smallholdings, including James and I, except for this charismatic rooster. It will be fun to see who wins the contest.

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Elsewhere, Margot and Audrey continue to show interest in our domestic goings-on. I spotted them appearing to watch the washing (pictured above) the other day which I thought was probably taking it all a bit too far. Invading the house on a daily basis I can just about understand, but don’t ask me why chickens should be interested in the laundry.

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Talking of watching and waiting, when on earth are the nights going to be warm enough to put out tomato plants? I sowed ours – ‘Moneymaker’, ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and ‘Golden Sunrise’ – into propagators on various windowsills around the house way too early (beginning of March) and, having transferring them to the potting shed a few weeks ago, have been doing what I can to keep them alive and strong ever since, including the emergency rescue effort of a dilute feed the other day, based on the advice of my gardening expert friend Lucy. This has perked them up no end but, as you can see from the picture above, some still need propping up. Anyone else been brave enough to take theirs outdoors yet?

Being patient is key at the moment as our baby is due tomorrow and I’ve a feeling he’s going to be a few days late. Still, any borrowed time gives us more opportunities to carry on with the decorating plans for our house which we’d more or less stalled on until a few months back and are now progressing with gusto. We look forward to our latest livestock delivery whenever it takes place!

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