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!




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?




Living in the future

On Saturday morning we went out shopping and to do some chores. All the latter were related to reuse or recycling: glass bottles to be recycled, polystyrene packaging taken to the Post Office to be sent back to the company it originally came from for reuse; and a bag of clothes and box of knick-knacks taken to a charity shop (finally those never-used wine decanters are out of the house).

Local cheese from Simply Caws - mileage specified

Local cheese from Simply Caws at the People’s Market- mileage specified

It appears that, in recent years, shopping has become a form of entertainment and this was certainly the case for us this weekend, although it wasn’t the goods that we purchased that provided the instant gratification, but the people we met. All our purchases were practical: nuts and bolts, ingredients for granola, local cheese, hand made bread… so we weren’t really supporting the consumer society. We are never going to be the people responsible for ‘spending our way out of recession’, but we might spend our way to a robust and sustainable local economy.

The lady who served us in Mulberry Bush admired my string bag. The lady in the Post Office was devastated that her broadband wasn’t working and so she couldn’t open properly, but was happy to take our Freepost parcel as long as we didn’t need a receipt (we didn’t). LAS, our local recycling company, was busy with folks dropping off all sorts of items, and the man at the charity shop welcomed our contributions with a smile.

Loyalty card and vouchers

Loyalty card and vouchers

Our final port of call was the People’s Market, where they were giving out prizes to the winners of a recent treasure hunt run in conjunction with the Lampter loyalty scheme. Lampeter has recently become the first town in Wales to launch a loyalty card, with 59 businesses currently participating. Every time you spend £3 or more in a business, you get a stamp in one of the slots on your card, but you can only get a stamp from each shop twice on the same card. Once you have 10 stamps, you can drop your card in one of the designated boxes around town. At the end of each month the cards are all be entered into a prize draw. The winner receives £30 in vouchers that can be spent at any of the participating businesses. The businesses involved in the scheme ran the treasure hunt as an additional incentive a couple of weeks ago and a friend of ours won one of the prizes. Because we helped her with some of the answers , she shared her prize with us and so, as well as our shopping, we came home with a couple of vouchers. All this is designed to keep money circulating in local businesses and, so far, it seems to be working.

Finally, I was stopped by a friend who wanted to show me a square she had crocheted – I taught her how to make granny squares a while ago and she has finally got the hang of doing it on her own. She was so pleased, she brought her creation shopping with her in the hope she would bump into me to be able to show it off. I was delighted.

And this, I hope, is the future of shopping – a social activity where we support local people and make our communities a richer place… just like we used to do in the past.

A week of wool

Today is the final day of UK Wool Week, a celebration of all things woolly and a good excuse to go out and buy some local yarn. In fact, I have rather a lot of British wool in my stash, so I resisted the temptation and, instead, made a set of British wool squares, destined to become part of the covers for my sofa (it’s a rather long-term project):

Six squares in New Lanark Wool

Six squares in New Lanark Wool

I’d already made quite a few traditional granny squares to use, but then I was tempted by a recommendation from Phil over at The Twisted Yarn, and so bought this wonderful book which has instructions in it for the six squares photographed above:

Connect the Shapes: Crochet Motifs

Connect the Shapes: Crochet Motifs

What is particularly good is the instructions are both written and in the form of charts. It’s great and I can see that quite a lot of my crochet sofa is going to be based on patterns in this book.

So my UK wool week has been very productive… anyone else made anything interesting?

Finally, we spent the night together

Our relationship began just before last Christmas. It started small,  a bit at a time and I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. Really it was just an idea to begin with, but somehow things grew and grew and before I knew it the whole thing seemed to have taken on a life of its own. Things did get rather hot over the summer and sharing a bed simply wasn’t an option. But, finally, last night it felt right.

The morning after

The morning after

And so, for the first time, I snuggled down to sleep under the Masterpiece*. And very cosy it was too. I foresee many warm and happy nights thanks to my friends from around the world.

Very snuggly

Very snuggly (and Max agrees)


* If you haven’t met the Masterpiece before (I know I’ve had a flush of new readers recently), the story starts here.

Under pressure

I have a confession… I’ve bought another a new gadget. It’s something that I’ve wanted for several years now, but have been unable to buy in the UK. Finally, however, thanks to the ‘global shipping programme’ available on a certain on-line auction site I was able to place an order from a seller in the US and pay all the import duty and shipping up-front for a very reasonable price.

So now (having coveted the ones belonging to several of my friends) I am the proud owner of a Presto pressure canner:

Hey Presto - a pressure canner!

Hey Presto – a pressure canner!

It was described on the Presto web site as an ‘entry level’ canner, since it only has a capacity of 16 quarts (US), but it’s certainly ample for what I need. Selecting an appropriate model took a while since I needed one that I could use on a ceramic hob. In addition, I had to read around to discover whether there was a difference between a pressure cooker (for sale in the UK) and a pressure canner (not for sale in the UK as far as I could find). It turns out that a pressure canner has a gauge so that you can maintain it at a specific pressure for a specific length of time (you can read more here).

Having a canner means that I can preserve all sorts of food in jars, not just acidic things like apples and tomatoes, without the risk of botulism. My first experiment is actually going to be with apples, because I still have lots of them to process, despite my dresser already looking like this:

It's an apple-fest!

It’s an apple-fest!

I will report back soon.


Making a grab for it

Sadly we are back down to four hens after Aliss died a couple of weeks ago. This leaves us with two oldies who are rarely laying and two newbies who are providing us with a steady supply of eggs. Tiffany doesn’t lay every day, but some days she lays a small egg with one yolk, some days she lays a large egg with two yolks and some days she lays two small eggs, each with one yolk. She quickly got into the routine of laying in one of the nesting boxes. Annagramma, on the other hand lays a smallish egg every day, although these are gradually increasing in size. However, we can’t persuade her to use the nesting box and she has a preferred spot in a lovely inaccessible part of the hedge.

We rapidly got fed up with fighting our way through blackthorns and bramble to retrieve Anna’s eggs, and so a long unused tool was brought out – the slug grabber. Since the chickens have mostly rid the garden of slugs, we no longer have to do the nightly slug hunt, and so the grabber has been hanging in the shed unused for a couple of years. It had been cleaned up after its last use and we realised it made an ideal tool to retrieve eggs. Here it is, expertly operated by Mr Snail:

… you see I know there’s a reason I don’t throw stuff out- you never know when it can be repurposed!


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