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?

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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.”

I Heart Compost

In the cooler months, steam visibly rises off the heap.  Each day, the pile on the right grows with new additions, while the pile on the left seems to transform into a dark, rich, and crumbly material.  There’s no smell.  There are, however, bugs swarming about, the sight of which even in the cold depths of winter, provides an anticipation on a par with hearing the coffee grinder on an early Sunday morning, knowing that I do not need to get out of bed to walk Sam – Roger’s already done it.  This week’s clear blue skies, warm, soft breezes, and the determination of the snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all announcing spring, my low level of anticipation is ramping up into something approaching giddiness.  Yes, it’s happened again and I am completely obsessed with our compost, my steaming pile of pride and joy.

I’m clearly not alone in this world with my affection for this decayed organic material as books could easily line several shelves on the topic:  Easy Composting; The Humanure Handbook; Compost This Book; and, Let It Rot! are among the many.  I am curious about the Diary of a Compost Hotline Worker, but haven’t had the local bookshop order it for me.

When we moved to Crockern two years ago, we set about clearing an area of nettles and stones, building up some wind breaks and constructing seven raised beds.  We built our compost bins, erected a greenhouse and armed ourselves with determination to grow in an exposed, windy, cold, and wet environment.   Over the seasons, we have had successes and failures leading to a more focused list of what we intend to grow this summer.  Our winter beds are miraculously still providing lettuces, chard and spinach.  We are feeling proud and I affectionately know our lovely compost has something to do with it.

I suppose, making compost is considered to be complex and may cause a level of anxiety among some, but all you need to do is provide the right ingredients and let nature get busy.  Simply dump some green waste and then brown waste in equal amounts, give it air, moisture and time and voila, rich loamy stuff for the garden!

Where we live we don’t need to worry about adding water to our compost lasagna, but we do need to consider air.  Twice a month, I stir with a pitchfork the layers of mass, giving them a good mix then cover the pile with some old carpet and a tarp.  After a few months, the compost is beautifully decayed and I transfer it into bags to continue its transformation for a few more months.  All in all, I can create around half a ton of compost every six months.

I don’t know how my love affair began.  Unquestionably, composting is an act of frugality, which has some obvious appeal.   There is also the environmental feel-good factor of using organic material that would otherwise be entombed in a bio-indestructible plastic rubbish bag perched somewhere in a landfill.  Around 40 percent of the average dustbin contents are suitable for home composting.   But like all love affairs, there is something magical and enchanting at play.  To observe in a matter of months a pile of melon rinds, apple cores and other leftovers from our kitchen and garden, along with cardboard or waste from the chicken coop become a super rich decomposed material containing lots of humus, carbon and nitrogen is pure delight.  I’m busy making black gold and I love it!

Two of our hens are assisting with the composting efforts.

Two of our hens are assisting with the composting efforts.

While one pecks bugs and adds poop, the other is off to assess the progress and quality of the black gold in the left bin.

While one pecks bugs and adds poop, the other is off to assess the progress and quality of the black gold in the left bin.

There are little areas of chaos that characterize the circus we call our vegetable garden.  The chickens enjoy their role as supervisors, determining the right balance of worms in the bed.  “Cluck, too many, this one must be eaten!”  The rabbits visit but so far remain deterred by the netting over the beds.  The slugs and snails nibble.  And the rain hammers down on our plants, stripping the beds of vital nutrients and adding to the challenge we like to call “satisfying fun”.   At the base of it all, is our home grown compost.

Early spring is always a mad scramble with the garden.  This past week, I’ve turned our future fertilizer, bagged some of the well-rotted stuff for further decaying, and emptied tons of the fresh and ready material onto the garden beds awaiting our spring plantings.  We have started to chit out seed potatoes for planting mid to late April.  Tomato seedlings are now started.   I am excited to see the budding on the blueberry bushes and am anxiously awaiting the asparagus spears to show themselves.  The rhubarb is already about 4 inches above ground!

Despite the trouncing this watery-winter gave us, we know warmer days are around the corner.  Some mornings, as I pad out to my compost pile with the plastic kitchen pail chuck-full of potato peels, apple cores, and coffee grounds, I think about the bounty our veg garden will provide.    We are enjoying the longer days and the reverie of birdcall aware the return of our summer migrants like Swallows and House Martins is near.  As I tip the contents of the pail onto the heap, my heart swells knowing a rind is a terrible thing to waste.

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Horrible Imaginings

About a year ago, a friend, let’s call him Mr. Green Fingers to protect his anonymity, sent me a snarky e-mail.  He is a keen gardener and our gardening exchanges always contained encouragement, advice, wisdom and occasionally, the gifting of plants when he had too many for his own garden space.  But after sending some pictures of the location for our vegetable beds, he wrote me, “I especially like your optimistic reference to the future vegetable plot. I have this image of a line of bunnies sitting on the stonewall with tiny napkins grasped in their dirty paws.”

Was this some kind of a joke masking encouragement, or true empathy anticipating any number of challenges that awaited us?  Possibly, it was a prophetic truth, akin to the three witches in Macbeth whose predictions hold the capacity to effect later events in the play.  No matter, I felt decidedly unnerved.  The very idea that our friend, this gardening man, could profoundly influence our garden’s future sent shivers.  We know when the three witches speak of those “Horrible Imaginings” they happen.

While not in the opening act, our character made his cameo hopping into the garden from stage left, as we were exiting stage right for 10 days of holiday.  Blast!   We had lined up friends to water the plants, pinch out anything before it began to bolt, and to harvest whatever looked ready.  But on the morning of our departure, while we loaded our suitcases into the car, Harvey, Bugs Bunny, Peter, Roger or Jessica Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy, or if you prefer, Cottontail burst onto the scene and we were powerless to do anything about a possible future invasion from this furry fiend and his colony of mates, grabbing their napkins to feast on the bounty of our garden.

Crockern Farm

The Rabbit

Crockern Farm

Trying to hide while nibbling grass.

Admittedly, rabbits are cute, and some people keep them as pets, but they can cause considerable damage in the garden.  If our garden came under attack, we would suffer heartache of epic proportions because we’ve worked hard.  As if the slugs and weather challenges weren’t enough, do we really need to fend off this little blighter, too?

Despite its late start due to an extended winter and a cold spring, we’ve done well with our summer garden.  Throughout the year, the vegetable beds were under siege from our own chickens, determined slugs, snails, cabbage butterflies, moles and, at times, harsh Dartmoor weather.   Let’s not forget our own learning curve, too, which was steep:  We planted many plants too close together and our companion planting was sequential rather than simultaneous, letting the aphids get the better of our broad beans before the nasturums blossomed to the rescue.   Despite all this, every day since mid-June we’ve managed to collect something from the garden for our table:  A variety of lettuces, cabbages, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, chard, beets, tomatoes and onions.  Soon to come are the celeriac, celery, purple sprouting broccoli, courgettes, peppers, squash, swede and Brussels sprouts.

Much of where we live, in the high moors, is not ideal for rabbits, who prefer kinder soils in which to burrow and breed like, well, rabbits, kicking out a litter of three to six babies each time.  It’s inconceivable, but the females can become pregnant again one day after giving birth!  We may not have the cultivated land favoured by rabbits, but we are surrounded by gorse, which provides shelter.  We are also surrounded by historic man-made rabbit warrens.  Centuries ago, people built these from stone and earth to provide the ideal burrowing places so rabbits could breed and then be caught for their meat and skins.  Still today in the UK, rabbit is available at the butchers and some supermarkets.  At a local market, I once spotted some dead rabbits hanging next to pheasant and other small game.   And if it is on the pub menu, Roger will always opt for the Rabbit and Bacon Pie.

After our ten-day adventure in British Columbia and Montana, celebrating our 50th birthdays (for the careful reader, our birth year was 1963 – The Year Of The Rabbit! – an unusual coincidence, me thinks) with childhood friends, we returned to find the garden doing well.  Whew!   It is nearly two months later and we still have daily visits from this single rabbit, which has us wondering what happened to the others?  It was a small baby when we first spotted it in June and now it is a medium sized adult.  But, we only ever see the one.  Or, is that is what we are being led to believe?

Usually, when you see one rabbit, you’ll soon see many.  Like Bugs Bunny, these critters are known to be tricksters, and it is possible we are under a cunning illusion cooked up by a warren of rabbits that are planning a stealth operation to devour our garden.  It’s also possible a fox got the rest of this rabbit’s family and it was spared, but we are keeping up our guard.  While I find myself rooting for this one rabbit to survive, find a mate and make a happy bunny family life, I look at the bounty in our garden and hope it keeps to nibbling the grass, commits itself to a life of celibacy and stays far, far away from our vegetable patch.

With a rabbit population of one, we happily welcome this bunny to join the wildlife of Crockern.   But if things change and our garden becomes a bunny smorgasbord, then we may grab our own napkins and cook up a rabbit pie.

Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy

Summertime

Summertime view from Crockern

Not that long ago in May and June, we began to release our reluctant and extended grip on the memory of winter, all the while continuing to keep a watchful eye for last minute frosts on the garden.   By late spring and the subsequent arrival of a few weeks of sun and warm weather, everything seemed to erupt in a bout of growth and fertility:  eggs hatched, flowers bloomed, and the leaves on trees finally gave shade.

Now, in the height of summer, and in the heat wave in which we currently find ourselves, all of that activity has slowed and it appears July is a time when there are to be no dramatic changes.  The garden is growing steadily without sudden surges.   The dawn chorus is quieter and while the birds regularly visit the feeders, they do so with less noise than in the spring when they were busy attracting mates, building nests, and raising families.  Even the way Roger walks down the track has a quiet to it.  Unlike last year, we are experiencing days of full sunshine, warm breezes and a pace that is reminiscent of the summers of childhood:  Long, lazy days, seemingly without end.

The sunshine, heat and soft breezes have life around Crockern hiding in the shade.  The chickens like it best under the car or the rose bush.  The horse has a shady spot by the wall.  Even the sheep seem to be in hiding, with only the occasional bleating noise from some faraway stand of trees.   However, what we have in abundance are butterflies, moths, bumblebees, dragonflies and loads of other insects.  They buzz, hum, flit and flutter, pollinate, bite, get eaten by birds and know no difference between the inside and outside of our house.

Chickens in the shade of the Car

Two of the chickens keeping their cool in the shade under the car

Chickens in long grass

Our chickens enjoying the long grass of our Slow Gardening efforts

Once we finally managed to keep the sheep out of the yard, we had to address mowing the grass around the house.  We elected to adopt a Slow Gardening approach and keep the grass long in some areas.   No close-cropped, emerald green lawn for us.  Instead, we have longer grasses, ferns and reeds, and with them, wildflowers such as buttercups, clover, speedwell, cow parsley, violets, daisies, stinging nettles, poppies and dandelions, among others.   The Foxgloves and Thistles, with their purple heads, stand tall and spiky and accent, along with yellow gorse flowers, the green landscape.  One might say we are being lazy, but we would argue that we are embracing the essential premise of a Slow Gardening approach where less intervention helps create an environment of wildflowers and grasses for all those beneficial insects that are helping with pollination around the garden.

Dragonfly

Dragonfly in the Reeds

Slow Gardening

Slow Gardening and its benefits

Despite our slower pace, we have recently received a 20-tonne delivery of road plannings to repair the potholes, which developed with the torrential rains of winter, along the track to our house.  We set aside two hours a day on this project in order to preserve our sanity and our muscles.  From one of three large piles, we shovel the rocks into a wheelbarrow, which is then carted down the track to the next pothole in need of filling.  We dump the contents into the pothole, rake it smoothly, and then return to the large pile and repeat the process on the next pothole.  This is a labour of love and cheapness.   My achy muscles have me wondering if we shouldn’t just learn to embrace the potholes?  But admittedly, my vanity lights up when people notice the improved track.  Either way, when I stop to take a drink of water, the beauty around me momentarily transfixes me and I’m happy to be enjoying the summer, forgetting my suffering shoulders and arms.

We still have an unending list of things to do, and the next big project is the downstairs and all that it entails:  central heating; new floors, walls, and ceiling; replacing windows; installing stairs and a new bathroom.  Oh my!  But in this seasonal low activity of hot summer days, we appear to be settling into a nice slow pace.  However, we do have another item on the “To Do” list and that is participating in The Big Butterfly Count in Britain next week.  On the national count map from last year, there were no reports representing the middle of Dartmoor.   How can this be?  We have spotted Meadow Browns, Small and Large Whites, Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admiral, and a few that I can not identify as they flitted past too quickly during my practice observation.  I am positive the day we do our count; we will add some numbers to the national tally.

I admire butterflies, with their highly coloured wings, and since they are unable to bite or sting like some of their insect relatives, namely the midge, I think they are marvelous!  Sadly, butterflies and moths are sensitive to environmental change and in the past few decades, have suffered dramatic declines in numbers in the UK as their habitats have been destroyed.  Sir David Attenborough said, “The Big Butterfly Count should be great fun.  Butterflies are extraordinary, heart-lifting creatures – visions of beauty and visions of summer.  Butterflies in profusion tell us all is well with nature.  When they decline, it’s a warning that other wildlife will soon be heading the same way.  So with the big butterfly count we will be doing more than just counting butterflies, we’ll be taking the pulse of nature.”

http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/

It couldn’t be easier to participate and does not disrupt our summer pace:  Fifteen minutes of watching for butterflies, counting what is spotted and all this from my garden chair!   So serve up a beverage and snack, hand me my notebook, and let me take a seat and register numbers while I delight in seeing the butterflies flit about from flower to flower, doing all the hard work in our garden.

Life can be so expansive and yet we still return easily to the elements of childhood.  On a recent trip to Montana with a group of childhood friends, the smells from a backyard grill in the air, we sat on a deck reminiscing about our days growing up in Ohio, and I was instantly transported to a time when life slowed, laughter erupted, and we watched butterflies and clouds with carefree abandon.   After a day of work outside, I admit to a weakness for the ordinary pleasures of the end of a day:  a shower, a gin and tonic and a book.   In the evening, while sitting in the hot tub, we are grateful for the diving patterns of all our resident Swallows as they feed on the midges that are in pursuit of our pliable, edible skin.   As the evening draws in and the last of the Swallows head to their nests, the remaining million or so midges set about their full attack on us.  We retreat, hiding deep in the water until the bats begin to sail past and pick up the Swallow’s abandoned feast.  As the stars finally emerge in the night’s sky, we know to experience a long summer’s day is well worth a few itchy bites.