Rays of sunshine

This week has been very grey. Despite temperatures around 17ºC, we’ve hardly seen the sun. That combined with the hour changing and thus it being dark so early in the evenings has made me rather gloomy. It’s great, therefore, that I have such lovely friends to bring some metaphorical sunshine into my life.

Beauty from New Zealand

Beauty from New Zealand

First, I received the first contribution to the ‘lap blanket of late-comers‘. All the way from New Zealand (my most distant square ever) from Mrs P, the Contented Crafter, came this lovely square. And not just a square, but some of her beautiful cards… which I think I’m going to put in a frame… possibly with a crochet border. If you like her cards (and really my photo does not do them justice), do check out her etsy shop.

An abundance of friendship!

An abundance of friendship!

Now that was something to make me smile straight away, but on the same morning I also received a parcel of knitted squares from a dear friend in Yorkshire. These are squares that she had intended to make into a blanket for herself, but she’s got distracted by quilting and decided to contribute them to the friendship blankets that we are making to support Denmark Farm, the conservation charity I am a trustee for. I may be naughty and divert one of these squares (and perhaps one of the ones below) to my lap blanket, even though this will mean that Nia has contributed to both that and the Masterpiece.

And another lot

And another lot

But that was not the end. Yesterday I went to my regular learning guild meeting and was presented with yet more squares for the Denmark Farm friendship blankets. Again, another friend who was planning to make use of these squares for herself, but decided that she had enough projects and that we could give them a better home. In fact Ann has made the most wonderful bedspread out of squares in some of those rich colours that you can see… I must get a photograph of it sometime, I’m sure you’d be impressed. The squares were not her only gift, though. She also presented me with something for the chickens. Originally grown for popping, this colourful corn just didn’t want to cooperate, so it has been consigned to being chicken feed. I tried it out on the girls this morning and they weren’t sure whilst it was in the tin, but soon tucked in once I’d scattered some on the ground:

So, even though the sun hardly showed its face this week, there were many bright moments. Many thanks to everyone who acted as a sunbeam!

PS You may notice that Esme is looking rather the worse for wear… on Monday about half her feathers fell out, but the reason is now clear… she had a whole batch of new ones just ready to burst forth! I have never understood why chickens moult in the autumn, but this year she’s certainly not getting chilled!

Weekend 2 – Palletgate 4

The Snail of Happiness:

Mr Snail has been writing about the garden again, so once more I can just reblog his post for your entertainment (he was really chuffed with all your visits the other day and even more chuffed that some of you decided to follow his blog too). Enjoy…

Originally posted on writinghouse:

Drilling Holes in Palletgate - that'll teach it!

Drilling Holes in Palletgate – that’ll teach it!

With still-aching limbs, and an extra hour in bed as we moved to GMT (proper time), I trepidly approached my other task of the weekend – the repair of (cue halloweeny-type scary music) PALLETGATE.

Ex-hurricane Gorblimey didn’t only vent its anger on the willow hedge. It also encouraged certain nails in Palletgate’s construction to make various bids for freedom, leaving the gate looking decidedly weak.

Fortunately, I had already assessed the situation and, realising that I couldn’t simply ignore it and hope it would fix itself*, I had been and purchased roofing bolts and plates (the flat metal kind rather than the good ones you eat yummy stuff off). Although the bolts and plates had come from our nearest town (Lampeter, the first town in the UK with a loyalty card scheme) I actually had to buy more bolts from my local…

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Glutney

Since I still haven’t worked my way through all the apples I brought back from Herefordshire (despite continuing to bottle them), on Monday night I decided to make apple and pie-melon chutney. You will notice that I have now decided to use the Australian name for my Curcurbita ficifolia. This is because (1) I never have any intention of making Sharks fin melon soup and (2) the name ‘pie-melon’ is just so much nicer*. In addition, since narf gave me some great links (see her comment with this post), I’ve decided I’d like to carry on the long Australian tradition.

My pie melon... is it ripe?

My pie melon… is it ripe?

Actually, there seems to be some debate about the actual species that constitutes ‘pie melon': in some places these are Curcurbita ficifolia, like mine, but elsewhere the name refers to Citrullus lanatus var. citroides (a sort of ancestral water melon with red seeds and also known as citron melon). In both cases, the fruit is pretty bland and I think can be used for similar purposes, hence the confusion. It appears that Citrullus lanatus may have softer more glutinous flesh, whilst Curcurbita ficifolia has tougher flesh with fibres. Both seem to store well and there is some suggestion that they ripen in storage, so I will definitely be keeping some of mine to see how they change over the months. Having said that, all of mine are still growing in the garden apart from the one harvested last week.

Anyway… having discovered that I might be able to use my Curcurbita ficifolia glut for preserve-making, I decided to explore the possibilities. We don’t eat very much jam, so there seems little point in making large quantities that will simply sit in a cupboard for ages. However, we did enjoy some apple chutney that we were given last year (delicious with Glamorgan sausages) and so, I thought that this might be something worth attempting. I consulted various recipe books and settled on using the general one from River Cottage. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall calls this glutney because you can use it to make a chutney from whatever you have an abundance of…. and for me at the moment that is apple and pie-melon. The choice of recipe was also was partly based on the fact that I’m not a big fan of vinegar-based preserves (I really don’t like pickles) and this recipe seemed to use an acceptable amount of vinegar. I chose cider vinegar because of the apples, but also because it is, to my taste, quite mild.

In the end, I used the following recipe (the River Cottage recipe I started from just gave an indication of relative amounts of sugar/veg/vinegar etc so this is my interpretation and choice of specific ingredients):

1kg pie melon
1.5kg apples
500g onions
500g dates
500g soft brown sugar
600ml cider vinegar
A spice bag containing: 50g fresh root ginger roughly chopped and bruised; green peppercorns; white peppercorns; whole coriander seeds

Basically, I chopped all the fruit and veg and the dates, then put everything in a preserving pan, brought it gently to the boil and simmered it (uncovered, stirring occasionally) for three hours, before potting it up in hot sterilised jars.

In order to avoid the house filling with vinegar fumes (as happened the only other time I tried to make chutney… mango, sometime in the last century) I had the extractor hood on over the cooker all the time.

The resulting chutney looks like bottled rhubarb! I had a little taste and it seemed ok, but it needs to mature for a couple of months before it’s ready to eat… I will report back.

Lots of jars of chutney... I wonder what it will taste like!

Lots of jars of chutney… I wonder what it will taste like!

-oOo-

* It does, however, mean that my previous post should be re-titled ‘Pie attack’… which I’m not convinced has the same ring!

Weekend 1: Where there’s a willow, there’s a day… spent taming it

The Snail of Happiness:

Just like Kate (Tall Tales from Chiconia), there has been some severe cutting down of stuff here Chez Snail. However, rather than write about it myself, I’m going to point you in the direction of Mr Snail, who can tell you all about it…

Originally posted on writinghouse:

Spot the Chicken

Spot the Chicken

We know what you're doing...

We know what you’re doing…

After a week of Urbanity, it’s nice to return to the outdoors particularly when it involves saws, cutters and my favourite plant in our garden, the willow hedge.

As regular readers of this blog and that of thesnailofhappiness know, we have a hedge that, from 30 tiny sticks, has grown into a living companion of immeasurable worth. It provides us with wood for the Kelly kettle, shreddings for the compost heaps and chicken area and a means of controlling the water flow off the field behind our house.

And, whilst others have their gym membership to keep them in trim, I have the willow hedge to keep me in trim while I, well, trim it.

Last week, the remnants of hurricane Gordino (a service station on the M5, surely?), er, Godzilla, er Gonzalo (a character in the muppets?) swept across Wales and in…

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Dark evenings

Over the weekend we changed from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time, putting the clocks back by an hour so that the mornings are lighter (chickens up earlier) and the evenings darker (Max wants to be fed at 5pm). The implications for me are that I’m even more tempted to snuggle down in the evenings with tea, cake and a crochet hook or set of knitting needles.

Squares and Ripples

Squares and Ripples

I am trying very hard not to start any new projects, but this isn’t much of a problem because my crochet sofa covers allow me to work on different bits using different techniques. With this in mind, over the weekend I made a start on the third of the cushion covers. The first uses Attic24’s ripple pattern and is awaiting completion once I’ve sourced some suitable buttons. The second requires 32 granny squares, of which I have made about 20 – some from my new crochet book Connect the Shapes.

Bavarian square

Bavarian square

And so, having been itching to have a proper go at it, cushion number three is in Bavarian crochet. I made a small square using this technique and following Dani’s brilliant tutorial on Teddy and Tottie for the Masterpiece and I have been wanting to make something bigger ever since. Dani sent me a square that is also in the Masterpiece, so I had a beautiful example to follow… always a help when you are learning a new stitch. I made good progress and now I have got the pattern in my head it’s going rather well.

The sofa is currently plain dark blue… I think it’s going to be much more exciting when covered with all this lot (and more):

All destined to be part of the sofa covers

All destined to be part of the sofa covers

Shark attack!

Well, actually me attacking a shark’s fin melon. And, my word, they do take some attacking!

I finally decided to harvest one of these earlier in the week. A friend had suggested leaving them to grow until the foliage was killed by frosts, but since the temperature reached 20°C last Saturday (yes in mid-October in Wales, which really is in the Northern hemisphere) the prospect of frost seems a long way off.

This one decided to engulf the fruit cage

This one decided to engulf the fruit cage

I have been researching this species since it has been such a success in my garden. It is variously known as Shark’s Fin Melon, Siam pumpkin, Fig-leaved gourd, Chilacayote and Pie Melon (in Australia and New Zealand) and its scientific name is Curcurbita ficifolia. According to Wikipedia, it has black seeds, but mine doesn’t and the seeds I planted weren’t black, so I’m not sure whether there are different varieties, or whether this is a different species (although all other features match) or whether Wikipedia is just plain wrong (surely not!). Apparently the very tough skin – and, believe  me, it really is tough – means that it stores well, which is good because I have six of the things…. possibly about 20kg in total.

A good weight

A good weight

The one I harvested this week weighed nearly three kilos and I’m sure it wasn’t going to grow much more because the skin was so hard. When I finally broke my way into it, I was greeted by a distinct smell of melon, creamy white flesh and large pale seeds. The reading that I had done suggested it would be fibrous, and it is a bit when it’s raw, but it actually breaks down into strands (a bit like thick fish bones) when it’s cooked.

When I finally got inside it looked like this

When I finally got inside it looked like this

When you search for recipes, there are dozens for ‘sharks fin melon soup’, but I don’t ‘t really fancy that and so I have decided to experiment. The melon smell did make me wonder how useful this was going to be as a vegetable, but I bit the bullet and put some chunks into a chicken casserole, along with parsnip, carrot, swede, onion and potato. In fact, I really didn’t notice any taste from the melon – the strands retained a slightly crunchy texture and that was about it. Certainly as a way of bulking up a stew, it seems fine. In the coming days I will be experimenting with it roasted and steamed, plus I intend to have a go at apple and shark’s fin melon chutney (as you can make anything you have a glut of into chutney, according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall).

I will report back, but I don’t have high hopes in the flavour department! However, it produced lots of biomass (good for composting) and apparently the flowers and foliage are edible as well as the fruits. You can seed save because it, supposedly, doesn’t hybridise with any of the other curcurbits and I’m guessing that livestock would enjoy it too, although I haven’t yet offered any to the hens. You never know, it may be a crop I come to love!

A duty of care

Safe, happy hens photographed today

Safe, happy hens photographed today

It has become very popular in the UK in recent years to keep chickens. Many a back garden, like mine, contains a small flock of hens. There are all sorts of companies selling fancy hen houses, feeders and accessories. From Eglus to gypsy caravans, you can treat your backyard chickens to grand accommodation, co-ordinated with your garden design. But, before you embark on keeping chickens, there are a few things that you should consider.

First, they are not garden ornaments. This means that, unlike a statue, they do stuff. They poo, scratch, dig, eat things you don’t want them to, escape and poo. Yes, I know I mentioned pooing twice, but it’s important – you will have to clean out their housing (even if it is a gypsy caravan costing nearly £4000) and dispose of the soiled bedding; and you will get poo on your shoes, because you cannot train chickens to use a special place – hens (unlike badgers and horses) do not have latrine areas! And you can’t not clean them out – just adding extra layers of bedding works up to a point, but eventually you will need to clean the house and scrub the perches.

And so we come to parasites. If you don’t clean out their housing, you will find you get a build-up of parasites. Similarly, if you have a small enclosed area for your hens, you will get a build-up of parasites. Hens that are able to range about over a wide area will have much less chance of re-infestation with intestinal worms than those that are enclosed in a small space. In addition, enclosed hens will scratch up a small area and turn it into mud (even if you do start with grass) and then they will be deprived of the opportunity to graze. One way to get round this issue is to have a ‘chicken tractor‘: a mobile coop/run that you reposition regularly. It sounds like a great idea, but they can be unwieldy to move and they tend to work best if your ground is nice and smooth as lumps and holes make them wobbly and provide ideal escape routes for determined hens.

I’m not terribly keen on small pens for chickens – I think they should have room to stretch their legs and their wings, have a dust bath and go for a run if they feel like it. Ours do have a run that we can shut them in if necessary, but most of their time is spent wandering round their half of the garden, which includes the compost bins, shed and lots of hedge. Chickens are the descendants of Jungle fowl and, in my experience, they like being underneath trees and shrubs, and they enjoy rooting about in fallen leaves and in the soil building up underneath deciduous woody plants. Understanding the needs and behaviour  of your livestock is important, whether they are chickens, goats, sheep or rabbits, so that you can supply them with everything that is required.

Don’t get me wrong – I love keeping hens. The do all sorts of things in the garden that are really worthwhile: they provide fertilizer, they eat pests (especially slugs and snails), they provide eggs and entertainment and they consume vegetable waste. By keeping hens I can be assured that the eggs we eat are from happy and healthy birds that have led a good life and have not been pumped full of antibiotics and other chemicals. And, thus, it is important to ensure that your hens do lead a good life: that you do provide for all their needs.

The beans did not survive the storm

The beans did not survive the storm

With all livestock-keeping you take on a duty of care. And so it was that in high winds and driving rain, in the dark, yesterday evening I was hunting chickens in the garden. We experienced the remains of Hurricane Gonzalo yesterday – mainly in the form of strong winds. Even so, our hens were out and about and doing their normal thing, albeit with rather ruffled feathers. I kept an eye on them on and off all day just in case, but all was well. Usually they put themselves to bed at dusk and I go out a little later to close up the run and the door to the house (double security over night). So I was most distressed to get outside and discover the house door had been dislodged and was closed (that has never happened before) and a large bag of bramble prunings had blown against the entrance to the run, blocking it completely. Both these things had happened in the hour since I last checked on them and just at the time they would have been going to bed. Hopefully I looked into the house, but none of them had made it in before the entrances were blocked. So, I set off in the rain, with my torch (flashlight if you are in the US… I wasn’t carrying a flaming brand) to find the girls. Even though it was still very windy I could hear the gentle noises of roosting hens and was quickly able to locate Lorna and Annagramma in the ‘nest’ under the hedge where Anna lays every day. Although it was awkward, I was able to crawl in and extract them, one at a time, and place them safely in their house. What about the others? Not in the nest, not under the old chicken house (which was quite sheltered and dry), not tucked up by the compost bins, or in the nettle patch. Back to the hedge I went and listened again… I could here chickeny noises. Illuminating different areas, I finally spotted a hen behind the old wooden hen house and thus inaccessible without moving the structure… which I did. And there was Esme – balancing on the edging that surrounds their raised area of woodchip and runs between the old house and the hedge. I battled my way into the gap I had made and got number three out safely. But where was Tiffany? I shone my light into the bottom of the hedge but could see no sign of her. I listened again and thought I could hear her somewhere in there, but where? Hunting for a grey hen in a hedge on a dark night is not easy, but I really felt I needed to find her.

At this point I want to remind you that it was raining and I was very wet. I wasn’t wearing a waterproof as, normally, shutting them in is a really quick job and I certainly wasn’t going to shred a waterproof as well as myself by diving into the prickles!

Tiffany was in the depths of this

Tiffany was in the depths of this

More light shining, higher up in the hedge this time looking for a possible roost… and there was a patch of grey at about waist height. Sadly, deep in the hedge amongst blackthorn and brambles, not just willow. I fought my way in, reached out and sure enough I had found Tiffany. However, getting her out was not easy. She’s a big bird and the gaps between all the pointy things were not large. In the end I just had to reach in and grab her, hoping all the time that she didn’t struggle too much. Usually they are quite docile once they are roosting, but she was quite upset and I had to hold her firmly to get her out, but finally I had all four in the hen house.

I was wet, I was scratched, I was bleeding… but my girls were safe and under cover. I peeked in and they were arranging themselves quite happily in the dry… cooing gently. After a change of clothes, vigorous towelling of hair and a large glass of wine, I too settled down, just without the cooing. I’m happy to report that all was fine this morning – all four girls emerged from their house with barely a feather out of place and no signs of any lasting damage – the same cannot be said for my arms and hands, which will take a while to heal.

And the moral of the story? If you decide to take on animals, you have to put their needs first. You have a duty of care. You will have to make decisions about their well-being and take action, and this is likely to mean you sometimes have to do things you would prefer no to, possibly including sticking your finger up a hen’s bum and fighting your way through a hedge in a storm. And, be warned, few vets are chicken specialists! What I really want to say is that chicken keeping is great, but do your research first and make sure you are really willing to take on the responsibility.

The height of fashion

What do you give as a gift to a glamorous young lady who works as senior cabin crew for a major airline? Perfume? Ear rings? A spa treatment? Well, apparently, none of those things… what she really wants is a comfy pair of crochet slippers!

Iced slippers!

Iced slippers!

And so, last week’s task was making slippers in blue Axminster rug yarn from Texere – it’s very robust, but a little hard on the fingers! I chose to combine royal blue and forget-me-not to get a mottled effect since I needed to work with two strands, and I used my favourite pattern for these adult chunky slippers. I put a layer of latex on the bottom for extra strength and safety, and whilst I was about it I did the same for Mr Snail’s latest pair. I have found the value in this endeavour of adding some thickener to the latex, as this means the job can be achieved in one step without having to apply multiple layers. The only slight issue to remember is that it takes about three days to dry, even in a nice warm house!

Now the finished slippers have been packed up and sent off… I really hope they fit and provide a winter of cosy feet!

Toasty toes guaranteed

Toasty toes guaranteed

Oh, and Max helped!

Oh, and Max helped!

 

 

Cocoon

I took the afternoon off yesterday to go an visit an exhibition entitled Cocoon. My friend Lorraine Pocklington has her felting and natural dying work on display at Rhosygilwen near Cardigan. It’s well worth a visit if you are in Pembrokeshire over the weekend (until Sunday 19 October).

Tŷ Solar in the rain

Ty Solar in the rain

The work is being exhibited in Tŷ Solar, an amazing eco-house on the Rhosygilwen estate that shows off just how energy efficient a well-designed house can be. Even on a rainy, grey day the house was bright and warm inside and provided a lovely setting for all of Lorraine’s creations. Her work adorned the kitchen, living room, hall, bathroom and two bedrooms. She had included practical items – place mats, oven mitts, a bath math – as well as clothes, shoes and decorative objects. It really goes to show what a versatile material wool is. I think that the work speaks for itself:

What a talented friend I have!

The privilege of water

I have been feeling rather grumpy lately… about two weeks ago our electric shower died and I was forced to use the bath instead. I found a plumber and he quoted for a new shower and sorting out the long-failed element on our back-up immersion heater (the main one was fine). He arrived eight days later and fitted the shower, but couldn’t do the element as he’d mislaid some particular sort of wrench he needed. Unfortunately, by the time he discovered his loss, he’d drained the water tank. So, rather than waste water he left it empty, promising to come back in a few days to finish the job. This meant I could use the shower, but had to boil the kettle to do the washing up… and I couldn’t have a bath (not that I wanted one after so many in the previous 10 days).

He was as good as his word and turned up today to replace the element. Everything is sorted out now and from tomorrow (our water heats over night) I will have my choice of shower or bath and I will be able to wash dishes/the floor/the car/the greenhouse to my heart’s content. Even better, the cost was remarkably low.

Water on tap

Water on tap

A great result, but one that has got me thinking. Here in the UK we take our good fortune for granted. We expect to have hot water… from multiple sources… and in general we get it. We expect to be able to turn on a tap and be provided with as much treated water as we desire. We take it for granted to such an extent that most of us use this treated water (produced at the cost of energy and resources) to dilute our waste. And then we send it down the drain with no further thought of what will happen to it, namely more costly treatment to make it safe to discharge into the environment.

In many other countries, people are not so lucky. Here are some distressing figures:

  • 748 million people in the world don’t have access to safe water. This is roughly one in ten of the world’s population
  • 2.5 billion people don’t have access to adequate sanitation, one in three of the world’s population
  • Over 500,000 children die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. That’s over 1,400 children a day (statistics from Water Aid UK)

I was most concerned, therefore, to read recent reports on the web saying that the CEO of Nestlé  did not consider water to be a basic human right. It’s hard to work out the exact truth behind this story, but in 2005 Peter Brabeck-Letmathe the CEO of Nestlé at the time stated that NGOs who declare that water is a human right are taking an extreme view (you can see him say this on this video, from about 2 minutes 25 seconds – it’s in German, so I’m relying on the accuracy of the subtitles). Of course his remarks have been addressed by Nestlé, who now state on their web site that ‘He is, and always has been, arguing for more efficient water management by individuals, industry, agriculture and governments.’ Whatever Mr Brabeck-Letmathe  meant, the whole thing highlights the conflict between the rights of individuals and the demands that large corporations (whose main function is to make profits for their shareholders) place on scarce resources.

So, however much water falls on me from the sky here in west Wales and however much I might moan about one of my sources of water failing, I will try to remember that other people do not have access to clean water, let alone hot water. With this in mind, and since the plumber cost less than we expected, I have just made a donation to Water Aid… perhaps you might consider doing so too?

 

 

 

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