Across the Pond

We had an unusually long spell of dry weather last summer, prompting Roger to dig a test hole to see if we could have a pond. Sections of our fields are often soggy or flooded by the river.  They are only really good for grazing, or being turned over to create wildlife habitats with trees, wildflower meadows, and a pond.  We sought advice from Devon Wildlife Trust and felt a pond could work.

The pilot hole was about four feet deep.  We both hoped Roger’s digging might tap a natural spring to feed our future pond.  That didn’t happen.  Roger filled the hole with water from the river and then took daily measurements.  Our test hole mostly held, but through evaporation and lack of any additional rain, the water level dropped somewhat.  We were uncertain if a pond was going to work.

When we began our discussions of creating a pond, I never considered there could be so many different types.  Shaded.  Vernal.  Overgrown.  Stream-fed.  I can’t go anywhere without looking at ponds.   For selfish reasons, I’m especially interested in seasonal ponds, the kind that partially dry out in summers, as that is what we will likely have.  While on a mini-holiday in Yorkshire, the dogs and I were on an early morning walk through a foggy and flat landscape.  Off to my right I spied a small body of water in and amongst some gnarled old trees.  I’m only a visitor, but I suspect this is a seasonal pond and somewhat overgrown with leaf mulch.  It’s lovely.

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When I think about our pond, I have visions of clear water, rich in wildlife, surrounded by a smattering of waterlilies and fringed with rushes, cat tails, and native tall grasses.  Caressed by a soft breeze and warm sun upon my face, I emerge from a grove of trees, fishing pole in hand.  I stop not too far from the house, yet far enough to be out of earshot and cast my line.  My “bobber” floating on the water.  I wait and then wait some more for a fish to bite.  Meanwhile, the mosquitos are biting at my legs.  Hold on!  This isn’t Crockern.  I’m at Aunt Jeannette’s farm in Yellow Springs and I’m five.

Meanwhile, back to Crockern when in September we hired a man and his digger to do some work for us.  After several attempts with my shovel to clear the overgrown drains along our track, I accepted defeat.  In two days, Matt cleared these long neglected drains, facilitating the passage of water into the culverts beneath the track, the flow of runoff water we get from heavy and extended rains.  Of course, the new and freely flowing drains revealed that three of our six culverts had collapsed or were blocked from decades of neglect.  We still have work to do once the winter rains ease.   Anyway, while Matt was here we had him dig our pond.

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Matt’s the kind of person you want doing this work.  He knows his stuff, engages in the discussion of ideas, has great problem-solving-insight, and works with a surgeon’s touch as he operates a 3-tonne digger.   Not only did he dig our pond in a day, he moved earth to create a raised edge at the deeper end of the pond, creating a windbreak, and shifted stones on the shallow side of the pond, making a slope for wildlife to be able to access with ease.

The day after we dug the pond it rained.  Two days later, our pond was full and has remained so ever since.  No surprise as we’ve had rain almost without break since September.  From our living room window, our new pond looks like a donut in the bottom corner of our lower field.  The ground surrounding hasn’t grassed over the mud, nor are there any native plants to soften its edges.  But standing next to it, it looks splendid.

During the past century, nearly 70 percent of ponds have been lost from the UK countryside.  For wildlife, adding a pond has increased importance.  I wonder, what delights lay ahead in this new haven?

We spotted a Grey Heron standing on the island.  There aren’t fish, but perhaps it knows of some other food sources present and will become a regular visitor.  Two Mallards were paddling in the waters in November.  Not much cover, but at least they could retreat to the island if they elected to breed here.  Before we committed to the pond, I saw a duck with eight ducklings paddling in a quiet part of the river.  I never saw them again.  Our river is, at times, torrential and populated with all sorts of predators along its shores, not ideal for rearing young ducklings.

Every spring, we have swallows and house martins.  Our pond will serve as a great place for them to use muddy areas to aid in their nest building.

Perhaps some grass snakes?  We know our field has snakes, having spotted more than a few Adders.  Who knows what they may hunt near the water’s edge?

Having “constructed” our pond in the autumn, this spring and summer is our time to plant.  Roger has ordered 120 trees for the field and around the pond.  We have some naturally growing lilies and fox gloves, so I may do some transplanting.  In time, plants and wildlife will colonise the pond, but we want to help establish it.  I read placing some dead branches into the pond can enrich the habitat considerably.  That’s easily done.

Our pond, our seasonal pond.  Unlike my childhood memories, this pond most likely won’t have fish and that’s okay as they themselves can predate on insects and amphibians.   In our pond, if you’re not being eaten, you can thrive!  Bring on the newts and water beetles.  Welcome frogs and toads!  Caddis flies, damselflies, dragonflies, mayflies, pond skaters, snails and water beetles get your groove on and breed in our pond.  And you ducks?  Come back and raise your duckling brood.

 

Spring Into Action

The Vernal Equinox, that day which holds hope for a turn in the season, came and went like a drift of snow.  We may have recently experienced the astronomical beginning of spring, heralding the start of longer days, new blooms and warmer weather, but much of Britain is still shivering.

As I write, the fire is ablaze in the wood burner, and my feet feel like ice cubes.  Just outside the window, a pair of jackdaws are busy collecting fallen twigs to build their nests among the rafters in the barn.  They seem to be getting on with things despite the wind and now hail, but this is still not the weather to be starting a brood.  I am thinking twice about suiting up in fleeces and waterproofs to take Millie for an afternoon romp across the moors.  I feel as if I’m in a state of limbo waiting for an extended period of sunshine.

Long celebrated as a time of rebirth in the Northern Hemisphere, the Vernal Equinox is associated with spring time festivals and holidays.  It holds the promise of fresh starts, spring cleaning, flowers, long days and sunshine.

But there’s no sign of settled weather ahead and my twitchy green fingers want to get things done in the garden.  Our potatoes are busy chitting on the window sill, and in about a month’s time our plug plants will arrive for planting out into the vegetable garden.  My February hopes of pruning the various rose bushes, hedges, blue berries, and other shrubs is delayed by weeks.  I did managed to lightly clean the greenhouse during a downpour, but it isn’t ready for planting.  With the cold and grey, even the strawberries are delaying the start of their spring growth.

It’s frustrating to not be able to make a start, but the soil is still cold and sodden.   When the last of the snow retreated into dark hedges sheltered from the sun, the land may have thawed but it was once again saturated with the deluge of heavy rains.  We must be patient.  Experience tells me to wait to put in the carrot and radish seeds.  Still, I would like to get out and prepare the soil, prune, and tidy.

Instead, I watch as the channel I dug to protect the track from runoff has been destroyed in places by the cattle.  The potholes are growing, despite a mini break in the weather several weeks ago when we filled dozens.  The moles, rats, and rabbits have left us with some ankle turning land.  Repairs to some of the outbuildings remains on hold as it is too wet to make the needed interventions.

At this time of the year, it is hard to focus on anything other than the cold and wet.  But, there is a beauty in this seemingly dead of winter.  The grass is not simply green, but accented with colours of gold, brown and red.  Layers of cloud upon cloud cover the sky in multiple tones of grey.  Gone for the winter are the summer migratory birds and it has been months since the Swallows and House Martins have been here dive-bombing about the house feasting on insects.  I know their return soon will announce the arrival of spring, so too the Cuckoo.

The wildlife is different during this time of the year as much of it is in hibernation or just lying low until spring.   Much, but not all.  The earthworms are being tugged out of the ground by our chickens as they seek foraged delights.  The Sparrows, Tits, Robins, Finches, Nuthatches and Jackdaws are taking it in turns to sustain themselves on the seeds we put out daily.   And none of this winter rain, wind, or mud has stopped the walkers.   Why should it?  If we waited for fine weather, then we would never go outside.  These intrepid souls have been out in huge numbers loaded with their binoculars, cameras, maps and walking sticks.

At the end of last year, Roger planted 150 hedge plants as we are trying to create a border which is friendlier to wildlife than simply stock proof fencing.  A mixture of viburnum, maple, blackthorn, hawthorn, and alder to join the 120 we planted the year before.  Our diverse hedging should – in several years to come – provide a thick, messy growth of native species for birds to nest and hide.  Ideally, it will also provide a good natural hedge to keep unwelcome critters out, namely the sheep!  Thankfully, those bare root saplings seem to have escaped the harshness of this winter and the weight of the snow fall we experienced.  A close examination shows early budding.

One sure sign of the impending turn of the season is the recent return of the sheep.  We have had almost two months of them being away on their reproductive winter holiday.   But these ewes are of a hardy stock and will not be cloistered for long, returning pregnant and wearing thick fleece for the remaining months of cold and wet.  Soon they will give birth then we will be surrounded by cute little lambs, lots of noise and a new generation to dissuade from jumping onto our stonewalls.

As we changed the clocks, the light is lingering later into the evening, bringing with it the promise of warmer days and softer breezes.  Our chickens are laying a daily bounty of eggs.  The daffodils are standing tall with their trumpet flowers and I’ve made a note to plant several more bulbs in the autumn.  Yesterday, I heard the lovely melodic song of a blackbird, letting me know that the mating season of this favourite bird is soon to commence.  As I await the true change of the season – not just the day when the sun shines directly on the equator – and its call to action, I will soon spend more time outside rather than inside.  Today isn’t that day.  Perhaps this isn’t that month.  But it’s coming.

 

Great Eggspectations

This ain’t no chick flick filled with love and romance, it’s a block-buster disaster at Crockern!  Our hens are not laying eggs.  They haven’t slowed production, they have stopped.  Even our new point-of-lay hens which I picked up about a month ago, haven’t produced a single egg.  In real terms:  No omelettes, no soft-boiled eggs, no cakes, no nothing.  Production is one big-fat-goose egg.

We have a mixed flock, not just breeds, but ages.  On average, each of our hens is capable of 250-300 eggs per year.  Our eldest hen, who is about 7 years old, may have slowed to one or two eggs a month, but she’s fed us well for over 5 years.  Our other 9 hens range in age from 7 months to 4 years.  On the low end of expected production, that is 3-5 eggs a day for a flock this size.  So where are the eggs?

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Over five years of keeping chickens, and we’ve never had this.  We have had broody hens, flighty hens, friendly hens and darn right angry hens.  We have nursed hens with coughs, bound eggs and uterine prolapse.  We have lost hens to natural causes and grisly fox, badger and dog attacks.   Our hens have laid soft eggs, weirdly shaped eggs, and the most beautiful, delicious eggs.  But we have never had weeks of no eggs.  Like any hard-boiled detective, I turn to our chicken library in search of plausible reasons for hens to stop laying.  Where is that book, bok, bok, booook?

The most common reason cited is diet.  But, we haven’t made any changes.   We are feeding the same pellets as in the past.  Our hens get plenty of bugs and worms as they free range all over the yard, including a drive-by feeding at the bird feeders.   And they have ample access to water.  For heaven sakes, we’re on Dartmoor!

We know three are busy moulting, but the others have all their feathers.  A quick examination shows all to have clear eyes, healthy coombs and behaving in chicken-y ways, indicating tip-top health.   None are sitting on the nest all day being broody.  In fact, none seem to be heading toward a nest at all.

Could it be daylight?  The experts say chickens need 14 -16 hours of natural daylight.  Okay, so in winter I appreciate the laying slows.  But this has been going on for months, beginning in the long days of summer.  We could put in some artificial light into their coop, but we won’t do that. The chickens love to roam all over the yard and I don’t want to force them into some sort of egg-laying drudgery with a light therapy box in the corner of the roost.  Being a chicken should be fun!

Two months ago, faced with a future of no eggs, I brought home six point-of-lay hens to up the egg game. When we introduced the new hens, we removed the electric fence since the rabbits had chewed through it.  The experts claim chickens love routine and a slight disruption can cause them to stop laying for a brief period. Do our hens really remember a month ago?  Two months ago?  How developed is a chicken’s memory?  Have our hens forgotten how to lay eggs?  Is this even possible?

Fed up with not having eggs, we hatched a plan and examined every inch of property.  We looked under fallen branches, up in the rafters of the barn, behind shrubs and even in the obvious nests boxes.  Searching high and low for eggs, we came up empty.  Ome-not-letting it slide and for two days, I spied on the chickens.  I watched their every move – worms eaten, dust baths taken, preening completed — to see if they have a hidden, special spot for a quiet bit of egg-laying.   Sadly, there are no secret nests filled with dozens of eggs, but their daily routines are poultry in motion.

I can hardly say I’ve cracked it, but when I mentioned to my friend Joanne that I thought they were on strike, she quipped, “Are they French?”  We are unaware of any problems with worker rights, hours or conditions, but we do seem to have la solidarité du poulet.

Roger and I are scrambling for an answer and it may be all in the timing:  Winter is coming; our point of lay hens may just not be ready yet; and, the old hens are on vacation.  If we were tougher, we’d be making chicken stew.  Instead, we’ll carry on providing food and shelter, keeping them safe from predators, looking for eggs in all areas of the yard, singing and chatting to them when we are out in the garden, and giving them a winter’s rest.  In the meantime, I’m keeping my sunny side up in hope we’ll have some eggs in the new year.

A Small Gathering

Sometimes, you just need a holiday.  It’s not necessary that it be a great distance, an exotic location, or even an extended period.  A few nights away, visiting friends is enough to help relax and restore.  And that is just what we did.

With our chickens secured for the weekend, Roger and I packed our overnight bags, Sam and Millie’s belongings, and a few gifts of flowers, wine and snacks into the car and headed out for a two-night stay with friends.   Road Trip!

Ian and Carol have a wonderful set up, living and working on twelve acres in a lovely house.  We arrived in time for drinks, dinner and an evening of catching up and sharing laughs.  The following morning was cool and sunny so we set out with the dogs and walked along the old Roman wall of Silchester, which is near their home.  Often on walks in England, I will think of who travelled along that route before.  Was it Jane Austen in Bath imagining bumping into Mr. Darcy?  Or perhaps, was it an Edwardian farmer gathering gorse on the moors to feed to her horses?  In this instance, I found myself considering the Roman Centurion who protected the homes along these walls.

According to English Heritage, Silchester is considered one of the best preserved Roman towns in Britain.  Growing up in Ohio, we didn’t have such things, suffice it to say, I’m excited.  These ancient ruins were the centre of an Iron Age kingdom from the late 1st century BC where once there would have been a significant town with houses, public buildings and public baths.  There is an old Roman amphitheatre, too.  The wall we are walking along would have been part of the ancient town’s defences.  But now, along parts of the path are hedges bursting with blackberries, sloes, and rosehips.

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Last year on our visit, we gathered bags of wind fallen apples and plums, returning home to make jam.  This year, we filled our bags with perfectly ripe blackberries and barely ripe sloes.  There is something appealing about foraging.  The idea of gathering food from the hedges, while the dogs run up and down the path, helps to accelerate the relaxing effects of a get-away weekend.   It slows us down, it connects us with the abundance of food on offer for free.  And, being out and about, soaking up vitamin D and eating several juicy blackberries lifts our spirits.  Glancing up at Roger, who is tall and can pick the higher berries, I laugh to myself with the image of him in a Roman outfit and helmet.  “Now, conjugate the verb ‘to go’.”

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As the day unfolds, Roger and Ian head over to a local farm to see the recently hatched turkey chicks, soon to grow to size for Christmas tables across the region.  Meanwhile, Carol and I take to pruning some of the garden.  It is a massive garden, and our few hours of cutting back the shrubs and deadheading the roses worked wonders, but maintaining this garden will require several days a week.  Sensibly, we call it quits and head to the pub.

English pubs remain one of my favourite places.  They are filled with people sharing a drink, perhaps a bite of food, and conversation.  No loud music or multiple TV screens showing sports.  Dogs are welcome.  And if the weather suits, sitting outside in a garden nursing a drink.  Honestly, it doesn’t get better than this.

Before leaving, Carol and I pick beans (we cannot successfully grow them where we are as it is too windy) and then head to the chicken coop to select a cockerel.  Roger and I have never had a cockerel as they can sometimes be mean.  Besides, hens can organize themselves just fine.  But Carol and Ian have three cockerels, and that is too many.  We select a Bantam who appears confident and friendly.  He’s beautifully coloured with head feathers about the ears making him look like he’s wearing headphones.  I’ve named him Tommy.

It’s a three-hour drive home, if we don’t hit traffic.  Our bags and bounty are packed in the car:  beans, berries, sloes and Tommy are all in the car with Sam, Millie and the two of us.  We make our way back to Crockern and strategize just exactly how we are going to introduce this small cockerel to our rather large hens.  He was fine at Carol and Ian’s, where they have a crazy collection of large hens, Bantams, geese and something that looked to me like a cross between a chicken and a pheasant.  We are hoping Tommy respectfully asserts himself in his new setting in Dartmoor.  Meanwhile, we can get on with making a crumble, some sloe gin, and putting some beans on the table to go with the rest of our dinner.

Now well rested, tomorrow we’ll get back to work.

 

I Found My Thrill On Gin & Tonic Hill

To the back of our garden there is a small hill, an odd bump nestled in the corner of two very high stone walls.  The top of the hill spans approximately two square metres and is scaled via a two-metre high steep slope.  This little hill is covered in grass, nettles and a few wildflowers and virtually impossible to mow.  Also, a small Sycamore tree stands at the top.  Happily, each spring, a few Primroses poke through announcing the changing season, but there aren’t enough to declare this mound a gardening success.   I can’t believe this hill is a natural occurrence as the ground surrounding it is relatively flat.  Jutting out of the ground in the corner, it seems likely it once served as a dumping ground for broken bottles and other rubbish.  Or, perhaps it is where a pile of rocks was placed in anticipation of a future project.  Nature being what it is, the rocks and bottles have quickly over grown with grass and moss.

Whatever its origin, getting rid of this heap of dirt and rocks, with its tangle of tree roots, would require a good amount of digging and there is no certainty as to the gain from such effort. Applying my personal conservation of mass theory, any rock or bucket of dirt I manage to dig, will need to be relocated somewhere else.  I currently have no need to fill holes, or build walls, so for now we’ve left it.

But the idea of transforming this hill nagged.  When, our friend Hilary was visiting, she and I sat on two camping chairs atop of the hill.  It was lumpy and rocky, but the view was nice and the tree sheltered us from the sun that day.  As we sat sipping cocktails, her boys trimmed a few neighbouring tree branches to enhance our view up the valley.   It was at this moment the little hill became more than a hill.  It had purpose.  It had ‘project’ written all over it.  It would become Gin and Tonic Hill!  A fine place to repose in comfort – and to drink.

You won’t find this location on any OS map.  And few will ever know this little mound to be anything so fabulously whimsical.  In centuries to come, people will scratch their heads and wonder why on earth this hill was left behind.  Archaeologists may stumble upon it and think it perhaps an ancient burial mound.   Could my original theory explaining this hill as nothing more than a pile of rocks covered by grass was wrong?  Did previous Crockern residents from bygone times perhaps sip their end of the day cocktails here, too?

With a distinct goal now to hand, I set about clearing a few large rocks from the top.  Attempting to make a rocky hill “level” is a joke.  It can’t be easily done with huge lumps of granite stone hidden beneath the surface like icebergs, and tree roots jutting here and there.  “Never say never” I told myself and instead opted for “level enough” as my new goal.  Roger encouraged my madness by strimming the top every time we mowed the lawn.  Last summer, it became a good little place to sit on a blanket and enjoy the view.

But a few weeks ago, a similar madness took hold of Roger.  I found him outside studying our little hill.  About an hour later, he was digging and setting large stones into place.  Roger was constructing a fantastic, rocky, seven-steps-leading-up-to-the top-of-our-little-hill staircase.   Never one to do anything “good enough” Roger put the finishing touches on the project with a touch of inspiration.  He secured a bench.

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After stepping up the hill, I sit upon my new bench.  Roger arrives with G&Ts on offer and joins me.  We pause to take in the view across our field toward the river and the valley beyond.  The birds are chirping in the tree above.  The river is making those relaxing babbling noises that rivers do.   We clink our glasses and discuss our ideas for transforming our fields into wildflower meadows.

Cheers!

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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.

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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.

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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.”