Spring Tidings

The past few months have been consumed with a lot of travel.  These work demands on my time have taken me away from Crockern and its rhythms.  Meanwhile, Roger, Sam and Millie have held the fort.

Being away does give me a chance to recover from some of our projects.  Pot holes, roof repairs, fencing, ceilings, gardening, etc. all leave me feeling some aches and pains.  A few days away and my sore muscles recover; and I return to see anew the beauty of Crockern.  What may take a week or two to unfold seems to happen overnight.  After a recent two-week trip to the States, I returned to find spring in full force at our little homestead.

IMG_2222

Driving back from the train station, the woodlands, lanes, verges and hedgerows are bursting with wildflowers.  British flora may be modest by international standards, but it is full of pleasure.  Wild garlic, gorse, buttercups, bramble, nettle, red campion, cow parsley, poppy, primrose, daffodils, cornflowers and soon to come, speedwell, teasel and foxgloves.

As we cross the cattle grate and climb up onto the moors, a chequered scene appears with green fields, scrubby land, river valleys and patches of woodland.  Newly born lambs, cows and horses chase after their mothers.  Across the hillside, gorse flashes its golden yellow flowers and fills the air with a heady scent of coconut.  These low shrubs are still prickly and I worry about my eyes when I get too close, but they make such a spectacular accent to the landscape.

Spring at Crockern comes later than other parts of the country, even those parts just 5 miles away.  Still, and despite the colder temperatures, things are in bloom.  Bleeding hearts, hostas, geraniums and comfrey are all erupting in growth and flowers.  The bees are starting to buzz about reminding us all this planting is worth it.  So too, the rabbits are making their tunnels in the flower beds making me shake my fist like Elmer Fudd.  Blasted little buggers!

The other day, Roger flew out the front door only to return with dirt all over his hands.  “I saw a rabbit in the spinach bed; I’ve had to block its tunnel.”  Despite last year’s efforts to protect the vegetable beds, this one needs increased attention.  These rabbits never rest, nor do they seem to stop having sex.  Once again, we are spotting several generations dining on grass in the yard.  Of course, our chickens seem more than happy to share space with them under the rose bush.  If only my camera were to hand to document three chickens having a dust bath while two rabbits are curled up napping just inches away.  I suppose if you’re a rabbit, you can let your guard down when clucky chickens are busy preening nearby.

And the birds are back in town!  While walking Sam and Millie, I hear the call of our cuckoo.  Yes ours.  Each spring I anxiously await the return of the cuckoo, worried that its migratory flight may have met with disaster.  But when I hear its melodic mating song across our valley, I feel a peace descend.  So too, the swallows are making their return.  We have only a few so far, but the rest of the crew should soon be here busily making their nests and raising their young.

Of the many bulbs I planted two years ago, the daffodils and snowdrops made their showing earlier.  I noticed, a few of the bluebells were bravely poking through the ground.  With luck, in a few more years, they will spread and form a visual treat under the trees.  To celebrate spring, Roger and I joined our friends on a circular walk taking in acres of woodland carpeted in native Bluebells.  Oh, how I hope ours will one day look like this!  British bluebells are somewhat endangered from cross-fertilization by the hardy Spanish bluebells which were introduced in many gardens.  But I don’t care.   As I pause to inhale the unique sent of spring growth on the breeze, I wonder if the bluebell issue will come up in Brexit negotiations?

Livin’ on the Veg

It isn’t easy gardening in winter, let alone on Dartmoor.  The UK, with its distinct seasons, offers a challenge to keeping a year round vegetable supply.  By late autumn, it feels as if there is nothing left to harvest after the near glut in summer.  Even in spring, as plants are beginning to grow, there are too few things ready to harvest.  We’ve had to learn about what to grow and when, protecting our vegetables, and making use of different vegetable varieties to fill empty spaces in the garden.

So far, the new and improved raised beds, which Roger built this past spring, complete with their chicken wire surround to keep out pesky critters, are working a treat.  We have been feasting the past few months on kale, beets, spinach, winter purslane, radishes, and land cress.  The rainbow chard is beginning to look pickable and our spring cabbages are blossoming out to a respectable size.  Our progress comes as a huge satisfaction.

Growing for winter is truly a year-round job.  It begins in the summer when we must resist being seduced by the bounty of veg we gather at that time, staying focused on the leaner months of autumn and winter to follow.  By October, light levels are low, affecting the speed of germination.  Add in a healthy dose of wind, rain and cold, which begin to dominate the weather forecast, and it is tempting to throw in the trowel.  As is our style, we ignore all the obvious discouraging signs and charge ahead.

p1030688

A typical frost covering the plant life on the hillside.

We’ve never had much luck with leeks, and so didn’t bother this year.  But now, I’m regretting having not given leeks, garlic and more onions a spot in our winter beds.  In reading up on these edible alliums, I discover that garlic actually needs a period of cold and so wants, nay begs, to be in the ground and growing well before the arrival of winter.  I will need to make a note for next year in my little black book.

We have a forecast of snow for later today, so Roger has just put on his waterproofs and headed out to cover the beds with horticultural fleece.  Most days this autumn and winter have been easy for us to tend to the garden.  But this week it feels like wind, rain, freezing temperatures, rabbits, slugs, and a host of other challenges are joining hands to welcome us each time we go out to pick some lettuce.  I have half a mind to forego our Five-A-Day.

Roger outside in the rain and sleet protecting the veg beds.

Roger outside in the rain and sleet protecting the veg beds.

Despite all the challenges, lettuce does well through the winter as does spinach, which actually is easier to grow in winter than in summer because it doesn’t go to seed so quickly.  We are always thinking about what to grow and whether or not to bother.  I don’t have any interest in growing peas and beans, they aren’t suited to our location.    Nor, do I have any interest in Brussel Sprouts.   Despite how much I love them, they take up too much space in the garden.

Winter gardening also involves planning for the spring.  While sitting by the fire with the snow coming down, thoughts drift to:  What will we repeat?  What will we try new?  What will we completely abandon?  Two years of aubergines and we aren’t going to bother again.  They grow, they flower, and then nothing.  It’s best to learn from mistakes and build on our successes.  With that in mind, Roger has purchased several fruit bushes which do well in acidic soil.  Where to plant these is yet to be decided, but we will need to get them in the ground soon.  Of course, my make shift bird netting for the blueberry bushes will no longer do, so we are discussing how to go about building a fruit cage which will be easy to access and yet not blow over in some of the strong winds we get in our moorland valley.  Despite this new challenge, which we brought on ourselves, we are both looking forward to growing more fruit.

While the rain hammered down this morning, I was dry inside the greenhouse giving it some attention by tipping out pots with finished plants from the summer, pulling weeds which are making their home inside the greenhouse, watering the strawberry plants, and giving it a good sweep.  In the early spring, we’ll take everything out and clean the glass and give the floor a scrub to rid it of moss and mould, but there’s no point doing this in winter.

With our winter garden, it’s vegementary, really.   It’s all down to the planning.  Typically, we have big gaps form March through May and in the past, November onwards.  Not this year!  We gave some thought to how we were going to rotate our crops in the raised beds and when we needed to plant things out for winter.  Because there are any number of things that can go wrong:  Some leafy crops are prone to bolting; caterpillars seek out and find cabbages; there’s club root, flea beetles, birds, slugs, snails, whitefly, and heavy rains, and strong winds.  It’s apocalyptic!  But the stuff that survives, thrives and provides, delights us.  Really, we just try a few things, see what works and then repeat.

Magic Rabbits

There are small moments in life when you may call into question your beliefs.  I love nature with its great vistas, cool and soft breezes, and birds soaring on thermal updrafts.  Nothing matches the fresh green of new leaves unfurling on trees in spring, or the harmonies achieved by a dawn chorus.  Moments such as these elevate my heart and give peace of mind.  But the intensity and proximity of nature at Crockern brings with it other challenges.  And, seeing yet another furry-bastard-rabbit in the garden can turn my bliss into rage.

A whole crop of cabbages destroyed last autumn!  Holes dug into the flower beds.  A pot of chives laid to waste in under thirty minutes.  Chives!  Who ever heard about a rabbit eating an onion?  Crockern rabbits seem not to be interested in a specific cuisine, rather, they are content to eat anything and everything.  This is war.

Strong words, but when we moved to Crockern we didn’t have rabbits.  This year, it seems we could supply the local pub for their rabbit pies.  When there was just the one rabbit two years ago, perhaps we could have prepared better, knowing that when there is one rabbit there will soon be an army.  As a prey species, rabbits will keep reproducing in the wild in order to survive.   These little buggers reach their sexual maturity in 3-6 months and can become pregnant again within 24 hours of giving birth.  At this rate, it would take a Google algorithm to calculate their numbers.

About a year ago, while our garden was flourishing, I heard a piteous shrieking outside.  Rushing to see what was happening, I found a baby rabbit being attacked by a slightly larger not-to-be-named predator.  I ran to its rescue and Roger quickly appeared with a box filled with straw bedding.  We made a safe space for the wee-rabbit to recover.  Knowing it would one day mature into its reproductive years, we threw caution to the wind and provided it water and nourishment in the form of fresh, tender lettuce leaves from our garden.  At the time, we felt good about our efforts to save this injured rabbit.  In hindsight, I wonder if we weren’t the classic marks in a short con game as we now have dozens of rabbits testing our garden and our patience.

Crockern Farm

Seemingly a single rabbit, but where there is one, there are many!

Just the other morning, I saw four baby rabbits eating grass among the chickens.  Our chickens have made peace, and yet we cannot.  Then again, the chickens have been known to do some serious damage on the garden beds, too, so perhaps they are allies.  And our dog Sam has a deep reverence for life.  A lot of traditional dog stuff is missing from him.  He never chases squirrels or birds.  And when it comes to rabbits, I recently caught him laying in the sun just napping while a rabbit nibbled at plants only a few feet away.

In truth, we could live with all of this if they would just stay out of our vegetable beds.  Last year, we surrounded the vegetable beds with seemingly impenetrable fencing.  Despite the fencing, one particularly cunning rabbit has repeatedly found her way onto one of the raised beds.  Each morning these last few days, we would see her on top of the same plot, scratching at the surface.  We hadn’t yet planted these beds, so there is nothing but dirt and a few weeds.   Beatrix Potter lovingly referred to all those rabbits in Mr. McGregor’s garden as “improvident and cheerful.”  With all due respect to Ms. Potter, I would quickly amend improvident to Grifter!  These little tricksters, driven by the need to frustrate and annoy, seem capable of all manner of magic and sleight of hand.  How else to explain their determination for jumping onto an unplanted garden bed?  What’s in it for them?  There’s nothing there to eat.

We needed a new game plan.  We needed to think rabbit.  And we need to do this before planting out all our tender plants this season.  Purchasing more scaffolding planks, compost and chicken wire, we doubled the height of the raised beds.   We secured the perimeter fencing.  We waited and watched.  And much like the magician who pulls a rabbit out of his hat, there suddenly appeared a rabbit on top of the same bed.  I watched her one morning as she dug a small area and sat in it.  She reminded me of our chickens when they are laying an egg or having a dust bath.  I called Roger to show him this behaviour, and in that moment, she had disappeared.

New double-height beds with chicken wire fencing perimeter! P1050396

The following day, when I returned from a morning walk with Sam, there was a deep and perfectly formed tunnel in the very same vegetable bed.  Again, with some form of misdirection, when I turned to reveal the tunnel to Roger, it had been covered up with soil.  A smooth, seemingly untouched surface left behind.  Where had the tunnel gone?  Where was the rabbit?  What was going on?

Like forensic scientists, we examined every corner, and possible access spot.  We eventually discovered a small hole where the rabbit was burrowing up under the bed.  A difficult to access spot as there was a giant boulder buried under the ground at that point.  Difficult, that is, unless you are a rabbit.  So, in a flash of genius, we blocked off the hole with rocks.  In another, somewhat dimmer flash of genius, we fenced off all the beds, barring this one as we had a plan.  Roger dug up a ton of compost and soil, laid chicken wire into the bottom of the bed, and returned the soil.  Job done.

That night, as we nodded off to sleep, we listened to the sounds of owls in the trees and another strange sound we couldn’t identify.  It wasn’t an owl, nor did it sound like a fox, and as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.

By early morning, I looked out the window and saw the rabbit once again by the vegetable bed.  Not on top, but a tunnel dug nonetheless.  With her dirty little paws, she was by the edge where we had placed the stones.  She had moved the small stones and by her side were three baby rabbits!  When I went to investigate, the four of them were gone.

This is the classic magician’s illusion:  Rabbits appearing from tall silk hats. They appear.  They disappear.  The single rabbit suddenly becomes four.

After confirming there were no baby rabbits left behind, we added  new and larger stones on this potential breach.  Wilful and unaffected by our prevention efforts of the past year, the rabbits seem reluctant to grasp our efforts.  They come in droves, like creatures in a horror film.  We’re engaged in furious combat.  I don’t wish a family of foxes to return and jeopardise our chickens, but I wouldn’t mind them passing by and helping to return the rabbit population to a more manageable number.   The rabbits have rightly identified Roger and me as easy marks and we could use a little back up.  Clearly, this is going to be a long battle.  The enemy may never run out of soldiers to occupy our gardens, but we are stubborn and will never surrender!

 

Zan_Zig_performing_with_rabbit_and_roses,_magician_poster,_1899-2

And The Beet Goes On

“I can’t remember such an extended period of wind and rain.” Roger utters as we study our very soggy garden beds.   We are standing in the wind and drizzle taking an inventory of the spring gardening projects.  We have a lot.

For such a mild winter nothing has grown.  Too much rain and a complete lack of sunny days have laid to waste much of our winter vegetable beds.  The remaining hopes — cabbages —were attacked by rabbits, despite our fencing.  In short, our winter garden this year has been a washout.

Looking out upon our vegetable beds, I can’t help but feel weary and careworn.  Procrastination taking hold like a tap-root weed as I anticipate the exhaustion I will feel BEFORE we begin to tackle these jobs.  To keep the rabbits out, yet make access to the raised vegetable beds easier, we are considering building them up another plank level.  Currently the beds are 12 inches high.  If we double that, the additional compost will give us better growing conditions, a little less bending for us, and an easier defence from the rabbits.  That is, the rabbits who don’t burrow into the beds.  We’ve just discovered a bloody big tunnel right in the middle of our artichokes.  Those little bastards!

 

A year ago, I planted nearly 300 bulbs and this past November we planted 100 hedge plants — blackthorn, holly,  dog rose, maple, hawthorn and guelder rose — to create a habitat for wildlife and ultimately create a hedgerow where the fencing is failing.  What is giving us hope and renewed energy toward our garden are the snowdrops and daffodils poking out from under their mulch of fallen leaves.  These brave little harbingers of spring are defying the rains and mud reminding us to just get on with it.   So too, the hedge plants are all showing signs of establishing themselves.

The ever hopeful snowdrops!

The ever hopeful snowdrops!

Beginning their floral displays are the garden plots we re-established this past year.   Lifting rocks into place and creating drainage, we added rich compost and planted bulbs and bedding plants artfully along the perimeter of the house.  When my brother was visiting in September, he helped relocate and separate some plants that had wilted or suffered shock by being moved.  Peter and I looked at them with a strong sense that our intervention had likely killed these voracious plants.  Happily, they are perking up, budding new leaves and sporting a few purple, pink and white flowers as they shake off their sleepy winter state.

I am ready for spring and accept that I have another month or two before we are in the swing of it, but the past several months of endless rain and skies, which on most days look like dirty plastic hastily placed to cover a broken window, are enough.  There are days when the clouds are like low-hanging mist rooms, testing my usually sunny resolve.  Or, there are days when the clouds lift up high and play hide and seek with the reluctant sun, setting out to tease me with hopes of a dry day.  While our winter vegetables didn’t grow, the potholes along our track certainly did and we are facing a much larger job this spring than in past.  Most of the trenches to the side of the track have been restored, and once we have several days of sunshine, we can begin to fill the ever deepening potholes.

The activity of Sparrows, Tits, Robins and Finches at the bird feeders is on the upswing.  And those noisy Jackdaws are starting to make a mess in and around the barn building their broken-twig-messy-nests. The lambing season also heralds the arrival of spring and soon the sounds of bleating lambs calling to their mothers will fill the air.  Slowly, our chickens are beginning to up their egg production and the recent daily appearance of a blackbird perched atop one of our window boxes, which will soon be planted with marigolds, delights us with his melodic mating song.  Yes, we need to get a move on with these projects.

The light is lingering later into the day and further inspection of the garden shows we need to build a new bed for the rhubarb as it suffers in its current location.  The blueberries need a prune.  And when a sunny day rolls around, the greenhouse will get its spring cleaning and the strawberries inside will be replanted.  Our potatoes, beets, lettuces, tomatoes, radishes, carrots and onions will all be ready for planting in April and May.  We carry on with our outside inventory, picking up fallen branches from the trees as we go.  We stop and listen to the birdsong across the valley, and notice small buds appearing on the trees.  The beard of moss and lichen on the trees and rocks sports new little flowers.  And just below where we’ve stopped I spy the beginnings of nettles.  Despite any garden setbacks, there will always be successes. Perhaps in a few weeks there will be enough of these pesky plants to make some soup.

The chickens pecking for worms, bugs, and other snacks. Despite the sunshine, they are electing for a shady feed.

The chickens pecking for worms, bugs, and other snacks. Despite the sunshine, they are electing for a shady feed.

The nobel Sam. Not much of a gardener, but happy to supervise the whole scene.

The noble Sam. Not much of a gardener, but happy to supervise the whole scene.

Raking with Chickens

Raking leaves is one of those necessary projects with no end during autumn.  I rake and then rake some more.  Next, the wind blows or it rains and there are more leaves.  But.my approach is simple:  Get the majority of leaves up and into the compost and liberate the electric fence from any which lodge themselves onto it.  If I dedicate myself to doing this every week for about an hour, then it is a small and manageable task.

That is, unless you have chickens.

Love our hens.  Hate their help.

Try digging a garden bed with chickens around.  They are there to supervise and assist, and eat all the worms.  Clean their coop, and they are all a flutter to closely inspect our efforts.   They peck at newly discovered insects, make certain the feeders are topped up, and kick about any new hay to make their nests just so.  Truthfully, they are a little micro-manage-y.

But rake leaves, and they are beside themselves with mischief.  Just look at the photos:

 

The beginnings of a row to make a pile for moving.

The beginnings of a row to make a pile for moving.

 

Here come the chickens.

Here come the chickens.

 

"Let's do it!" say the hens.

“Let’s do it!” say the hens.

 

A guilty member of the flock has spread the leaves back into their original location.

A guilty member of the flock has spread the leaves back into their original location.

 

After twice as much time, I managed to collect a sizeable amount of leaves for the compost.

After twice as much time, I managed to collect a sizeable amount of leaves for the compost.

 

The hens have taken themselves off to bed and seem to be having a conversation along the lines of, “It wasn’t me.”

The hens have taken themselves off to bed and seem to be having a conversation along the lines of, “It wasn’t me.”

How’s it Growing?

 

Last year there were three growing in this spot, now look at them!

Last year there were three growing in this spot, now look at them!

 

For some, gardening is a science, backed up with generations of wisdom and bookshelves filled with horticultural tomes. For those serious gardeners, there is a secret stash of seeds and an encyclopedic knowledge of tried-and-tested-grown-in-proven-ways approaches to their planting. My skills and knowledge are nothing of this order and I am often intimidated when the serious gardener casually uses Latin names for plants.   For me, gardening is hard work and a complete mystery. Not the miraculous, awe-inspiring, divine-wonder type of mystery, more the, “What on earth did I do this year and why is this growing (or not) now?”

When it comes to our garden, Roger and I are experimental. Sure, we keep a little black book of when and what we’ve planted, largely because we can never remember year to year. We even do that thing called crop rotation, although I need to confirm the plant category in order to know which bed to position everything for the growing season. Despite our shortcomings, we enjoy the work, the worry and the payout of a fresh salad at dinner, strawberries for breakfast and most recently globe artichokes dipped in melted butter.

 

These potatoes grew overnight!

These potatoes grew overnight!

 

The onions and rocket suffered several attacks from wildlife.  Struggling a bit, but seem to be rallying.

The onions and rocket suffered several attacks from wildlife. Struggling a bit, but seem to be rallying.

 

To protect the lettuces, we had to construct this crazy barrier.  Happy to report the rabbits have moved elsewhere for their greens.

To protect the lettuces, we had to construct this crazy barrier. Happy to report the rabbits have moved elsewhere for their greens.

 

To watch us, one could be forgiven for thinking we possess wisdom and skill. I faithfully tend my compost piles, producing bags and bags of our rich, loamy product for our raised beds. We weed. We harvest. We enjoy the produce we grow. We smile with joy when something we planted grows and briefly frown when it doesn’t. We listen to Gardener’s Question Time on Radio 4 in hopes of inspiration and insight, but alas, they never address growing vegetables, flowers or anything in the middle of Dartmoor. Undaunted, we keep at it.

We have learned a good deal as we head into our fourth summer of gardening here at Crockern.   I may still dream of one day successfully growing sweet corn, but know we don’t stand the proverbial snow ball’s chance in hell of success, so we’ve move onto something else: aubergines (eggplants) in the greenhouse!

We began our gardening adventure by clearing areas and building raised beds for the vegetables. We repaired and created infrastructure along the stonewalls, fencing and gates.   We’ve learned a thing or two about keeping slugs, chickens and rabbits out of the beds, even if it does look like a fortress in places. We’ve built a greenhouse and have a bounty of strawberries and soon, tomatoes. And this year, by moving fallen stones and layering in tons of our homemade compost, we completed two flowerbeds and up-cycled an old bathtub.

 

The up-cycled bathtub.  We built the stone wall around it, filled it with drainage stones and then compost before planting it with these perennials.

The up-cycled bathtub. We built the stone wall around it, filled it with drainage stones and then compost before planting it with these perennials.

 

One of the newly planted flower beds.

One of the newly planted flower beds.

 

When I went to the garden centre for a few pretty plants for these new beds, I had to consider our weather conditions: wet, windy, cloudy, cooler and vulnerable to rabbits, chickens, slugs, badgers and moles. Hmmm. Embracing my “give it a go” approach, I made my selection and planted the new flowerbeds.   So far, so good with a single rabbit attack, necessitating a barrier for the time being. The honeysuckle we positioned into one of the flowerbeds last year has flourished. And so it should, you can find these growing wild in and among the oaks at Wistman’s Wood.

 

The honeysuckle is well established.

The honeysuckle is well established.

 

Having rebuilt the walls, this will be next year's project.

Having rebuilt the walls, this will be next year’s project.

 

Nature is our guide. Outside our garden, seeming to grow without any effort, are the wild foxgloves, full of grace and elegance. Despite looking like pink periscopes coming out of the field to observe us, these bold architectural spires, with bell shaped flowers hanging from one side of the tall stem, mingle in and among the soft tufts of grass and reeds in the meadow.   They seem to grow anywhere that might be awkward: In the wet patch of bog or next to the dry rocks of a stonewall.   They are casual and informal, and also perfect.

What is it about this summer that has nearly ten times as many growing? Last year, my friend Jenny was visiting and commented that she loved seeing the foxgloves, unable to successfully grow them in her own garden. I must quickly point out, Jenny has a serious green thumb and is one of those gardeners who knows what she’s doing. Last year’s small show has become this year’s blockbuster bloom! It’s a Broadway and West End smash hit!

 

Wild foxgloves

 

When I look out to the foxgloves, I realize that our gardening technique of trial, error and humour might be a little haphazard, casual, and sometimes thwarted by mistakes and oversights, but it actually works. Our onions are struggling a bit and there was a giant rabbit hole in our asparagus bed back in March. The rabbits chewed through netting to feast on lettuce until we put chicken wire around the bed. But, if I don’t get too hung up on the why’s and how’s of what we are growing, and instead roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty, I soon notice the tomatoes are in full flower, the potatoes have doubled in size over night, and we are soon to have a large number of blueberries, having wisely netted them before the birds could get to them. Maybe the thing about gardening, particularly our garden, is similar in concept to the surprise showing of this year’s foxgloves: we aren’t supposed to know what to expect and instead enjoy what we get.

 

It is still hard for me to believe that these are growing so well here on Dartmoor.

It is still hard for me to believe that these are growing so well here on Dartmoor.

The Great Outdoors

Magically, recent weather has been on our side. Not always warm, but at least mostly dry which has allowed our spring and summer work to commence.  We may have only recently turned our attention to projects outside, but Mother Nature hit her stride weeks ago.

The leaves on the trees are unfurling, the wildflowers are poking through grass and amongst the stones, the Redstart has resumed his curious habit of tapping at our window, and there are more than a few bees zipping about pollinating flowers. There must have been a dozen on the blueberry bush the other day, which gives me hope that this year we’ll eat more than 3 blueberries a piece for breakfast!

The Cows are watching.

The Cows are watching.

A week ago, Roger and I planted out the vegetable garden: Potatoes, beets, onions, radishes, carrots, lettuces and still more lettuces. In the greenhouse we have cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries and this year, aubergines. Our Rhubarb, while not exactly huge, has already seen its way into a crumble. And after a three-year wait, we have been delighting in harvesting our asparagus. Nothing beats the taste of asparagus picked moments before eating it. I am filled with memories of being sent to the garden by my Dad to bring back asparagus and the flavour that captured spring. Years of the store bought stuff hadn’t put me off enjoying this seasonal veg, but having it so fresh has certainly made me a food-snob about buying it in a grocery ever again.

The most noticeable seasonal transformation has been among the local bird life. About six weeks ago, one or two Swallows made their way up the valley to take up residence in their summer home at Crockern. Now, the skies are filled with several dozen as they conduct their dive-bombing flight stunts to catch insects on the wing, return to build and tend to their nests, and periodically rest to chirp, chirp, chirp their very happy songs. Their sound is like a recording of dolphins.

The scene at our bird feeders is also back in full swing with a diverse gathering of birds: Nuthatches, Green Finches, Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Siskins are joining the regular crowd of Chaffinches, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Robins and Jackdaws. I’ll look forward to seeing the Yellow Hammer again, as there wasn’t a single visit last year from this lovely little bird. On the ground, below the hanging feeders, is the nursery of baby birds being fed by their parents. Their downy feathers all puffed up as they twitch in place and open their mouths as wide as they can to receive a perfectly selected seed from their parents.

The sounds of the valley are alive too. Baby lambs call to their mothers, who answer back until both are reunited. The colony of Herons is alive with raucous squawking from their nests in the boughs of the pine trees. Throughout the day, we hear the Cuckoo calling for a mate. The one who has returned this year to our area of Dartmoor has a distinct throat condition. The first “cuckoo” sound is melodic but the next few are off-key and horse, as if rather than spending time exploring his territory for a mate, he’s been down at the pub drinking and smoking for several hours.   Along with the unique utterance of our local Cuckoo is the sharp loud call, much like two stones being tapped together, from the Stone Chats. We can see these pretty little birds flicking their wings while perched on top of gorse bushes. What we can’t see, but definitely hear, are the ratcheting sounds of the Grasshopper Warbler. We suspect there are a few nests among the reeds in the fields below.

In addition to tending to the vegetable garden, we have been repairing stone walls, pulling weeds, moving fallen branches and building new stone walls to re-establish flower beds outside the house. This is an act of determination and strength, peppered with craziness, as these stones are heavy and often partially buried below ground in the same sort of ratio as an iceberg is in the ocean. The walkers past the house take little notice of us exerting our energy toward an immovable object, but we are being observed. In the meadow beyond our house there is now a herd of cattle, and the calves watch us with bemused eyes. So too, the two Dartmoor ponies who have laid claim to this patch of land, observe our madness between bites of fresh spring grass. The most mocking, however, is the Green Woodpecker. His laughing call somehow perfectly timed and delivered moments after we nearly get a stone into place, but not quite, frustrated as it rolls elsewhere.

The Ponies are watching us.

The Ponies are watching us.

Heading into the barn the other morning, the three Jackdaw nests were alive with a chorus of high-pitched sounds. The chicks hatched in recent days and they now announce any movement near or inside the barn, either as a warning or a lively and cheerful, “Hello!” Not wishing to cause stress, I move carefully in the barn as I try to put some order back to it. I was getting a big load of firewood delivered and needed to be ready to stack it so to season it for the fall and winter. The baby birds got used to me being in the barn, but if I got too close to the nests (within 5 feet!) they all started singing out their “Oh no you don’t!” call.

Most days Roger and I are busy planting, weeding, watering, or harvesting the gardens; repairing, building, or moving stone walls; or, clearing branches, building debris, and a recent land subsidence, which we will need to address sooner rather than later. We carry on with all our activities until our bones and muscles ache, taking breaks to walk Sam or have a cup of coffee. By the end of the day, covered with dirt, we put away our tools, clean ourselves up, and prepare dinner. Afterwards, we take a glass of wine and make our way back outside to soak in the hot tub.  We make plans for the next day while the night shift of wildlife clocks-in. On a clear night, one by one, the stars appear in the sky and the bats flash past to feeding on new insect life. No doubt, the foxes and badgers are making their plans for the evening’s hunt and forage, and the tawny owl in the stand of pines across the valley picks up his turn to riff musically.