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.

Crazy Horse

The Wild Dartmoor Ponies

Dartmoor Ponies

There is no more an iconic sight than a herd of ponies grazing together, with stunning Dartmoor landscape as backdrop. So much so, when Dartmoor was designated a National Park in 1951, the image of the pony was selected to be the logo for the park.

Not only are these ponies an integral part of the moorland landscape, they are part of the area’s heritage having been on Dartmoor for centuries. Hoof prints discovered during an archaeological dig were found to be 3,500 years old. Due to their strength and sure-footedness, the ponies have been used for many purposes over the years: riding and pulling carts, as pit ponies, shepherding, and taking people or goods to market; or, carrying the postman delivering mail or the prison guards as they escorted prisoners at Dartmoor prison. Today, their role is largely environmental conservation through grazing the moor, which helps to maintain a variety of habitats and support wildlife.

These hardy ponies thrive on Dartmoor despite the harsh weather and poor vegetation. They are smaller than regular horses, and, let’s face it they are fluffy and adorable. It would seem every tourist visitor to Dartmoor would agree and if I had a pound coin for the number of times I’ve had to swerve the car to avoid a tourist stopped on a blind bend as they take a photo of one of these ponies, well I’d be rich.

When two ponies laid claim to the fields outside our house, we were thrilled to see them.   We would watch them as they ran freely by the river, grazed in the meadow, and came up close to our stone walls to watch us in the garden or say hello to Pie and Polly, the horses which graze in our paddocks. On occasion, they would chase the grazing sheep around them: harmless turf wars.

Because of their calm temperament…WAIT! Stop the press and hold your horses!

The Ponies are watching us.

Just the other day our neighbour said she had witnessed one of the ponies taking a lamb and throwing it up in the air the way a cat might play with a mouse it has recently captured.   I couldn’t believe it, let alone imagine the scene. The Dartmoor ponies are mellow. They are known for their placid nature. You can walk up to them and they don’t startle. I wouldn’t recommend feeding them (it’s against the law anyway) as they might bite or kick, but they are generally mild mannered.

More recently, while working in the garden, a man fishing in the river yelled up to us, “There is a dead sheep in the river.” Roger went to investigate and found a dead ewe mid river with a lot of fresh blood on her face. The cause of death remains unknown, but we couldn’t help but wonder about the ponies. They had been prancing and running near the river just moments before. The fisherman said the sheep hadn’t been in the river when he passed by a few hours earlier. Could one of the ponies have had a hoof in this situation? As possibilities raced through our minds, the immediate concern was the now-motherless-baying lamb nearby, the one which Roger saw being born in the fields not more than a week before. After a phone call, the local farmer came and gathered the dead ewe and took the lamb back to bottle feed it. It was a sad moment, but a part of the nature of things. Sheep die, lambs become orphans. You hope you discover them in time to avoid their deaths too.

So, imagine our surprise when Roger saw one of the ponies prancing and bucking along the same stretch of river. Quickly, out came the binoculars! Clearly this pony, one of the pair we had been lovingly watching for weeks, was harassing another sheep. As we headed out to address the situation, people walking past stopped us to let us know what they were witnessing. In an instant, Roger ran across the garden, sprang over the fence and raced toward the ponies in hopes of stopping the brutality. Our neighbour who was visiting quickly followed to help and I grabbed the phone to call the farmer. Something crazy was going on!

When I arrived on the scene, the horses were gone and a single, very stressed sheep was in the river panting. The three of us surrounded the sheep and as it darted, our neighbour swiftly grabbed her. We held her still, calmed her, and noticed a huge gash along her rear leg. The farmer arrived a few minutes later and he took her back to his farm to tend to her wounds.

We’ve asked a number of people about this behaviour and no one has witnessed anything like it.   Since these events, someone, likely from the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, an animal conservation group, has come along and moved the ponies higher up onto the moors. Perhaps the two needed more of their herd to keep them from terrorizing sheep. I’ll miss seeing these two ponies outside, and while I don’t like to see the sheep chased, I didn’t mind how effective the ponies were at keeping the sheep from jumping our walls and getting into our paddocks.

With our de facto sentries gone, we really now do need to finish repairing that bit of wall.

Springtime for Catherine and Crockern Farm

As the old year has given way to the new, we are preparing for a cold front, which will freeze the ground solid and grip us with another reminder that winter hasn’t fully left.  If it must be this cold, I’ll be pleased to get a dusting of snow or ice, providing us with the chance to see animal tracks left in the frozen mud.  I usually enjoy winter, but confess I am feeling ready for spring.   I understand 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, hiding any view or hint of blue sky, I have grown impatient for spring’s arrival.

Crockern Farm

Nothing says “winter” better than a frost covered skull.

Not to mention that we’ve had a few tremendous storms these past few weeks!  It is a huge relief that the new roof has kept us dry.    Did I just say the roof is done?  Days before Christmas, the major bits of the roof were completed.  We haven’t seen the end of our building friends, as there is guttering, a few side tiles, and the water pump shed to complete, but since it is dry and insulated, the roof is for all intensive purposes, complete.   We still need to address the walls and some of the less than watertight windows, but there is progress on this old house.  During the Boxing Day storm, the winds got up to about 60 miles an hour with rain pouring down in buckets, thunder roaring and flashes of lightning sending Sam to hide under the bed.   As the weather pitched a fit, we felt snug and dry inside.  The river at the bottom of the field raged in a most swollen state, looking angry and uncomfortable as if it had broken it’s own New Year’s resolution to not over indulge.

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 folks have been out in huge numbers loaded with their binoculars, cameras, maps and walking sticks.   Of a more fearless variety have been the kayakers who have taken to the rivers with their maneuverable river kayaks, waterproof everything, and helmets.  I am intrigued by their fearlessness as one of these rivers nearly took Sam and me under its currents one day when I misplaced a step, lost my balance and took on two bootfuls of river.  Our devoted dog, close behind, also lost his footing and did all he could to swim against the strong current.  We both made it to shore and it was there we agreed to give up the day’s walk, taking our soaking wet selves back home.  The power of the river that sunny day was enough to give me great admiration for those who negotiate its rapids during a winter storm.

Crockern Farm

The three of us out on a short winter walk. Crockern Farm can be seen in the distance.

At this time of the year, it is hard to focus on anything other than the cold, wet, and limited daylight.  But, there is a beauty in this seemingly dead of winter.  I’ve noticed that the grass is not simply green, but is accented with colours of gold, brown and red.  While the sky seems to be mostly grey, there are at least fifty shades of it during the course of the day depending upon whether the clouds are low-hanging mist rooms or floating up high playing hide and seek with the sun.  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 will announce the arrival of spring.

The wildlife is different during winter as much of it is in hibernation or just lying low until spring.   Much, but not all.  Those slugs are still in the garden as proved by my daily catch in the slug pubs.  The earthworms are being tugged out of the ground by our chickens as they seek foraged delights to aid in the return of all of their feathers.  And our bird feeders remain a scene of endless activity with the Sparrows, Tits, Robins, Finches, Nuthatches and Jackdaws taking it in turns to sustain themselves on the seeds we put out daily.   As soon as the sun is up, the whole gang of birds show up to their “local”.

Rescued Chickens

One of our four rescued hens showing off her new feathers.

We also have the birds seeking summer from the arctic as they migrate to England for the winter.  The very idea!   I spotted a Hen Harrier about a week ago with its striking white and grey wings tipped with black as if dipped in an ink well.  These jaunty birds of prey are just winter visitors to Dartmoor, and will soon move up to their breeding areas in northern Britain.  And almost every morning walk sends into flight a flock of at least two-dozen Fieldfare from the gorse bushes and reeds.  Add in the Redwing, and all these birds create a delightful and active winter scene.

The other day, I spied a large bird of prey sitting on a rock on the top of the hill.  I couldn’t identify it as it was backlit by the sky, and Roger wasn’t there for the more nuanced details giving name to this proud creature.  It was cooling its wings and watching over the valley.  Perhaps it was a buzzard conserving its energy before setting to flight?

One sure sign of the impending turn of the season is that the sheep are back.  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.  In March 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.  Everywhere, “Baaaaaaah!!” “Baaaaaaaah!!!” “Baaaaaaaah!!!!!”  will fill the air as the lambs and their mothers locate one another with their unique bleats.  Contrary to romantic belief, these calls are not sweet little “bah, bah, bahs” but more like the East Coast nasal accent of actress Mercedes Ruehl in Married to The Mob:  hard, angular and distinct.

Yes, I am convinced that the turn of the season is near.  The light is lingering later into the day, our chickens are starting to lay eggs again, and the bulbs are poking up out of the ground, making me regret that I didn’t buy hundreds of snow drop and crocus bulbs to plant this past autumn.  I will definitely be doing that this year as the very sight of them signals that spring is on its way.   The moss and lichen are all showing new little flowers and budding, but it does take getting close and using my reading glasses to see it all.  Just the other night, while putting the chickens away and covering the vegetable plots, I heard the lovely melodic song of a blackbird, letting me know that the mating season of this favourite bird is shortly to commence.  Ah yes, spring is nearing, even if we still have weeks of winter ahead.

Chickens

Yes, that grass is tasting of some early growth. It’s soon to be spring.

My Life is Crap

BM, crap, defecation, discharge, dung, excrement, excretion, fecal matter, feces, go to the bathroom, have a dump, manure, number two, poop, shit, stool or waste.  Call it what you will, thinking about it seems to occupy a major part of my day since moving to Crockern Farm.

Sheep and chickens

Early days with sheep in the garden.

First, there are the sheep.  They’ve found their way into our yard through every neglected bit of dry stone wall.  We lift the stones onto the wall, the sheep come back and knock them down.  We lift more stones into place, but the sheep return.  The thing about sheep is that they look so cute, and with their little lambs, they are indeed cute.  But, they poop everywhere.  They poop when you try to chase them out of the yard.  They poop while staring at you.  They poop while they are eating.  They poop while walking, milking their young, and yes, while climbing over the walls.  It must be an amazing thing to never be constipated.

And with that much poop, you just can’t help but step in it from time to time.

Birds of course can poop while they fly.  Flying would be a great skill to have, and I’ve often wondered if I were a super hero, would I want to be able to fly or to go through walls?  I think that being a shape shifter might be the most flexible super hero trait as I could become a bird (fly); ooze (go through walls); or a forklift (pick up the big stones and repair these walls more easily).

Many people believe being tagged by bird droppings is good luck. Although it is yucky, we take comfort in the fact that good luck or wealth is just around the corner.  We currently have some twenty-four nests of House Martins and Swallows.  They poop from their nests and it was a small learning curve knowing where to park the car to avoid their droppings.  Despite the proclaimed good luck, keeping the paint on the car is preferable.  The same learning curve taught us where to place things in the barn.

Sam poops and Roger and I discuss it.  We discuss the quantity, frequency and yes, quality.  It is a means to monitor Sam’s well-being.   This is certainly a common tendency as I have heard parents discuss their children’s fecal production, too.

When I lived in a city, having a dog meant that you necessarily had to become blasé about poop.  You had to scoop the poop or pay a fine.  Sometimes, caught short-handed by not having a poo-bag, the fine was a non-dog person spotting me as I rummaged around a garbage bin for some old newspaper or a bag to use.  Many years ago, I had a dog who would carry the newspaper in his mouth until he needed to relieve himself.  I would take the paper from him, he would assume his position, and then take aim on the photos of politicians who I was unhappy with in the news.  There was satisfaction with that daily political statement.

One of the worst poops is that of the fox.  I don’t think I could identify fox scat on a path, but I know that my boy-dog Sam can find it anywhere.  And when found, nothing brings him greater joy than dropping down shoulder first and rolling with all four legs up in the air.  The smell is not at all something you want in the house.  A quick jump in the river doesn’t get rid of that stench from any dog.  Soap, water, and a good scrub is the only solution.

Cows are similar to sheep since they too seem to chew and poop at the same time and can also walk and poop.  Horses do the same, even during the Olympic Equestrian competitions.  I hadn’t thought about this topic much until my garden became nature’s toilet.

Future vegetable garden

Location of future vegetable garden.

Future vegetable garden

Complete with Stinging Nettles

We’ve made some small progress on preventing the sheep coming into the garden.  We had two wooden farm gates made and hung them where iron gate hooks remained in the granite.  This has kept the sheep out of the garden area where we intend to put in raised vegetable beds.  We’ve pulled nettles, started to build a small wind barrier with stones, and have researched the best way to have a raised bed on highly acidic soil.  I found a site on the Internet where small holders write of their experiences.  I posted my question regarding gardening on such rocky and acidic soil.  A man in Wales posted back his suggestion:  Raised beds should be 3 feet high, the first third filled with, wait for it, well-rotted manure.  In other words, more poop!

Future vegetable garden

Some progress….mostly nettle free and the wind barrier coming along.

Dartmoor

Glad this old hook was here….much easier than drilling into the granite.

Crockern Farm

One of the two spots for the new gates.

We don’t think we are going to build such high raised beds, but will be putting in some of that well-rotted manure.  Having spent weeks trying to get away from all of this poop, I am back into looking for some quality stuff.  How do you go about finding a poop dealer?  Maybe I will take the wheelbarrow out and start collecting locally as it is freely available.  That certainly trumps heading over to a local stable, paying for “well rotted manure” and then loading the stinking mess into the back of the car.

In anticipation of the vegetable garden, we’ve built our compost bins and read up on brown waste, green waste, turning the compost, watering it, keeping the rats out, and all the important bits of creating quality compost.  It turns out, one of the great things for compost is chicken poop which we have in abundance!

Crockern Farm

One of the new gates in place and doing its job.

Just yesterday I was looking for the chickens to see what they were up to and whether they had laid any eggs.  Two were missing and my heart sank, fearing that another fox had cheated and snatched them mid-day.  Suddenly, two heads popped up from the compost.  The hens were poking around, finding worms, and I’m hoping, pooping right on the spot.  I’d like to think I’ve trained them to do this.

When we bought Crockern Farm, there was a casual mention that the septic tank needed to be emptied.  We had been warned to not use the previous septic tank cleaner.   We called around and found our “honey dipper”.  For many, a honey dipper is a wooden tool used for taking honey from the jar and putting it into a cup of tea.  In the US, someone who empties a septic tank is also known as a honey dipper.  There is no mistaking our honey dipper as a serious woman.   She is strong and you just wouldn’t describer her as small.  As we sat around our kitchen table having a cup of tea, we learned that she was the first woman in the county during the 70’s to be part of the volunteer fire department.  This was in the day when you had to carry a person up a ladder as part of your training.  Looking at her arms, I have every confidence that she accomplished this with ease.

She emptied the tank quickly and without incident, the job was done and the price was fair.  When asked, “How did it look?”  She replied, “That tank was long over due for being emptied.”   We happily paid for her work.  As our honey dipper drove away, Roger and I looked at one another knowing that we had just paid for someone else’s crap.