Saturday, November 19, 2016

The oiling of the figs: the verdict

I  tried olive-oiling my figs to get the biggest of fruits left on the tree to ripen earlier this autumn.

I can now report that, as a method for ripening late figs, it does seem to have worked ... except that I think I left it too late.

Yes, the figs are much riper - softer and brown rather than green - than those that were not oiled but they are still not ripe enough to enjoy eating.

I oiled them on October 3rd but wish I'd done it at the end of August or perhaps even in mid-August.

I will do it again next year to ripen late figs as it definitely does work and there are lots of reasonably large figs on the tree that would otherwise go to waste.

But, for this year, anything larger than a pea will be removed to avoid wasting the tree's energy on developing fruit that will not ripen.

And those tiny fruits will be the start of next year's harvest.

Into the wood – on oak steps

The 45-foot oak we felled last winter not only gave us a couple of years’ firewood but also enabled us to keep 18 rounds from the main tree trunk to use as oak steps.

The idea was to create a route from the corner of the yard, next to the stables, into our wood.

It is a small copse of dozen or so large oak and ash trees with one odd beech. A couple of hazel trees, plus hawthorn, elderberry and numerous holly trees provide the shrub layer of the wood.

It is also bursting with bluebells in spring, followed by wild garlic and shuttlecock ferns and a vriey of woodland flowers and herbs.

You can enter the wood from the orchard. And there’s also a route in – for the adventurous – from nearer the house, although a 4.5 tonne manure heap currently makes that less attractive a proposition.

But this new route, would enable you to walk through the wood from the yard and out into the orchard.

The oak rounds, which are between 24 and 36 inches in diameter and between nine and 15 inches deep, climb about 12 feet up from the yard into the trees in a crooked staircase.

And I finally got round to putting the tree trunk steps together this month. The first six rounds, arranged as piles of one, two and three pieces, created the first three steps which takes you up to the edge of a low stone retaining wall around the edge of the yard. They stand on the concrete apron of the stable block.

From there, it is up into the wood and the rounds are embedded in the rocky earth from which the trees and undergrowth emerge.

This is the site of a former quarry which was filled in with large rocks from about 400m away on the other side of the lane where a reservoir was blasted into existence in the 1950s. Consequently, there are some large pieces of rock here – several that are six-by-three feet and nine inches thick litter the surface and we simple don’t know if there are bigger ones under the surface.

Over the years, leaf litter has rotted down and ivy and other shrubs have grown up through the detritus.

Consequently, the oak rounds stand on a combination of mud, rubble and pretty unmovable rock. I’ve packed them in as well as I could, building footings for them and shoring everything up. They’re pretty solid to walk on but I’m sure I’ll need to level them again and add more material around them as the foundations settle in with the help of the weather and light footfall.

But for now, I’m calling them finished. Job done. Kelly and I have been up and down them several times. And we got them finished before the first spell of heavy rain for about six weeks, which will also help bed them in.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Bounty for birds this beautiful autumn

It’s been a beautiful day in South Wales with temperatures in our patch as high as 19oC in the early afternoon – exceptional for the last day of October and the wildlife came out in force to enjoy it too.

Although it’s been colder in the last week, that’s only been because the fog from the Severn Estuary has been rising and drifting up over the South Wales Valleys. But the weather forecasters, who said the warm weather was over, got it wrong.

So off I went up onto Mynydd y Grug to enjoy the sunshine. And it was glorious.

Flocks of fieldfares (left) and redwings (below) – mainly winter visitors from Northern Europe – were tucking into the bumper crop of berries the ubiquitous hawthorns are bearing this year. Quite a few blackbirds were gorging themselves too. They’re probably natives nesting in the vicinity and don’t need to hang out in the flock of visitors. 

While the dry spell, with hardly any wind, is set to continue in the week ahead, it now promises to be very sunny with the fog being held at bay. And today was the start of it.

Further down the valley side, squirrels have moved onto the haws on Cwm the lane below Stonecroft, having finished the hazelnuts by the first week of October. Now every few yards a splatter of small red berries litters the lane, marking each overhanging hawthorn tree.

Back on Mynydd y Grug, there were a few wheatears around though not as many as I saw last winter. The goldfinches are flocking together further east along the ridge between the Rhymney and Sirhowy Valleys. They seem to favour a stand of beach trees surrounded by sheep pastures.

A couple of ravens tumbled in the sky and three buzzards had found a thermal above the south-facing slope of the valley. I didn’t see any red kites today but they’ve been around increasingly frequently.

A field used for grazing by dairy cattle at the top of the valley has recently been ploughed and reseeded with grass. This has acted as an invitation to crows, ravens, buzzards and red kites to come and snack ... on earth worms.

It’s not what you normally associate with these birds eating but think of it as birds’ convenience food – a tube of protein or the avian equivalent of a pot noodle.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Emporer dragonflies hanging on to life

With South Wales’ last warm, sunny weather of 2016 forecast for this week, it’s at this time each year that I notice those creatures for whom life is running out.

Insects in particular catch my attention and dragonflies more than any other.

We have a decent-sized wildkife pond in the garden and, with a couple of benches overlooking it, we spend a fair bit of time just sitting and watching.

The Emperor dragonfly (left) is our largest and most spectacular. And they patrol not only the pond but also the hedges and three large oak trees in the vicinity. The males are very territorial and fight each other off. Other species are tolerated … but briefly chased off if they get too close.

It’s now October 17th and, in the sunny spells today, one male was still around, determinedly searching for a female to mate with or the right kind of tasty morsel. Ever optimistic, he can’t realise that time is running out. Can he?

They’re pretty fussy eaters. They patrol backwards and forwards through the air which, in the height of summer, is thick with other, smaller insects – especially around the pond and around the canopy of the larger oak trees. Yet they ignore them, until WHAM!

They pounce in mid-air. A quicker burst of speed, they grasp their prey and without pausing for breath, the fly off into one of the oak canopies to feast. A few minutes later they are back, again in no hurry to catch more prey.

It’ll be sad to see them gone. But I’ll be watching the wildlife pond, as I work or sip a cuppa or a pint on one of the benches, from early spring.

They’ll not be back until June or July as they’re one of the later arrivals but it’s like the first swallow or the first cuckoo – it’s more than a box to be ticked: It’s a note of joy.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A good 2016 apple harvest and a reprieve for an underachiever

2016 has been a good year for apples in our small orchard. We have seven trees altogether: three different sized Katy trees, one Bramley, one Sunset, a Cox’s Orange Pippin and a Red Windsor.

The first to be harvested are the Katy variety. They’re bred in Sweden where they are known as Katja. The books tell us the fruit should be ready for picking in the first week of September but ours are always ready earlier, between August 20th and 27th over the last eight years.

We had a bit of windy weather around then so had quite a few fallers. In addition to this, the birds started on them. They’re bright red when ripe and birds seem to be attracted to them, just as they eat red berried fruit in the garden before yellow, blue or black ones.

So having lost a fair number we got our act together and harvested the rest, whether fully ripe or not. Those that weren’t soon finished ripening in their crates which were left in the sunshine for a few days.

Altogether we had about 40lb of them. They’re good eaters, though they don’t store well, but they are also grown commercially for cider making. So having eaten an apple a day for a few weeks, the last few pounds were used to make cider in a demi-john.

Next up were the Bramleys. These ripened over a more extended period, starting in the mid- September, though some weren’t ready by the second week of October. However, by this time the birds were on to them and with more windy days, I stepped in and harvested all the apples that were left on October 8th. 

From the one 10ft tall tree we had a decent crop of 30lb. Quality was mixed but okay over all.

Sunset started ripening on the tree in late September but strong winds in early October brought quite a few down. And with the birds, again, starting to cause a problem, I picked the lot. They are still ripening in their crates on the patio.

It’s a medium-sized tree, about six-feet tall but more than 10-feet wide and always sets loads of fruit, so many that I need to thin them. Even then, it produces small apples but of very good quality and flavour. This year we had around 25lb.

Our Red Windsor, however, has never been a productive tree. It’s grown well – to about 15ft – and and it’s reasonably healthy. But we don’t get much blossom on it and in the six summers since I planted it, it has produced just three apples, of mediocre quality. And so, sadly, I decided it’s time was up.

Miraculously, by intentions seem to have got through to it and this summer we had, for the first time, what could be described as a crop of fruit. Admittedly, it wasn’t large for the size of the tree, but about 10lb of good quality fruit was a massive improvement and enough to earn it a reprieve for at last another year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The mole menace is back

Second week in October and here they are, tunneling beneath my feet, just below the turf in between the house and he sun terrace.

I said before that they are supposed to come higher up in the earth in February when the males are seeking a mate and wondered why ours were so early.

It’s since occurred to me that they may be finding a rich source of food in leather jackets – the larvae of crane flies or daddy longlegs as they’re known. These seem to be plentiful when I cut through the turf and are probably available whenever the ground is not frozen, though I’m not sure at what point the larvae reach a size worth hunting.

I had intended to be ready for them with a cunning plan to stop them in their tracks (or tunnels). But unforeseen circumstances this summer meant I had no time to prepare. So now I’m fighting against time as, potentially, an army of moles is about to cause carnage.

Tomorrow I shall enquire about training courses in mole catching.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Red onions: Electric or Red Baron?

As well as the garlic, I also got the onion sets in today. I usually grow two red varieties: Electric and Red Baron.

Electric are started off in autumn. They grow to well over 1lb each and have a good flavour. But they are thin skinned and don’t store well. So they need to be used up fairly soon – certainly by Christmas.

Red Baron on the other hand, are almost the polar opposite. They don’t get planted until February but are thick skinned and store well.

Like Electric, they have good flavour and can be used cooked or raw in salads. And that brings me to the main reason I grow red onions: it is to use them in Greek Salad, which is one of our staple meals … but not in the winter.

So do I need a variety like Red Baron that stores well into the new year?

Well, they never go to waste. We cook onions all the year around but they are also cheap enough to buy. But the problem I have with Red Baron is I can never grow them big enough. They’re nearer ping-pong balls than tennis balls. So this year I’m just growing for Electric.

The sowing process is the same as for the garlic … dibber, hole and job done. Bear in mind the onions do grow big – expect one or two to get more than six inches across – so give them plenty of room. I allowed about eight inches between sets.

I normally buy the sets by weight – 250g would give me around 120 sets. Make sure there are no rotten ones. Any that are soft are unlikely to grow too. I sowed 72 in a 9x8 grid, starting with the biggest and firmest. Those that are left will be fine but someone else can have them.

They’re in the same bed as the garlic. The last few feet of the bed will be used for shallots. I haven’t bought them yet but there are plenty of varieties to choose from and they too have a good track record at Stonecroft.

Sowing the garlic

I bought next year’s garlic at the RHS’s Malvern Autumn Show a couple of weeks’ ago. This is the first chance I’ve had to get them sown.

I sow different varieties each year in the faint hope that I’ll be able to find one that’s outstanding – head and shoulders above the rest in flavour or size and so well suited to our conditions that it becomes the choice forever after.

But the simple truth is that they all seem to do really well here.

This year I’m trying Provence Wight and Solent Wight – both of which I have grown before – and two that are new to me – Carcassonne Wight and Bohemian Rose.

The first two are softnecked varieties and the last two hardnecks. The two classifications quite literally refer to the neck of the bulb which, when dried for storage, are either rigid (hardnecks) or flexible (softnecks).

Softnecks tend to have more numerous, smaller cloves. Hardnecks tend to have stronger flavour but don’t store as well. And, of course, softnecks are easier to plait.

Sowing them is dead easy: Make sure the bulbs are broken up into individual cloves. Then you just make a hole with a dibber, drop the clove in and fill the holes in.

There are couple of key points for those who haven’t grown garlic before though. First of all, don’t peel the skin off the cloves. Then make sure the cloves are the right way up with the root plate at the bottom. The wisp of skin at the top of the clove should just be sticking up out of the ground.

The second key point is to avoid using the clove itself to make a hole – though it can be tempting to do so. By pushing the root plate through the soil you could damage it and let infection in.

Cloves are normally sown six inches apart but it’s worth giving enough space around them so that you can weed with an onion hoe.

Once they are in, you need to make sure they don’t dry out and, in South Wales over autumn and winter, that is unlikely. They are hardy and capable of withstanding hard frosts.

The only other problem they are likely to face at this stage is birds, or more precisely, blackbirds. They seem to have it engrained into their behaviour to pull up any wisps of vegetation that are left poking above the ground. Perhaps thy think this may be a piece of leaf litter dragged into the soil by earthworms.

Whatever the reason, I can almost guarantee that the numerous blackbirds in the garden will pull up several cloves before they root and shoot and I will have to reposition them. I’ve built it into my routine for the next three or four weeks to check the bed daily.

And here it helps to have cloves that – at least at this stage – look different from each other so that I know where to replace them.

They’ll shoot fairly quickly – most probably in two or three weeks – and be ready to harvest in July or August.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Have you oiled your figs lately?

It’s not a question I ever thought I’d ask but it comes from asking another question: We’ve got loads of figs on our tree right now but they are not ripening, so what can I do about it?

Our figs are a variety called Brown Turkey. It’s probably the most widely grown variety in the UK and we’ve had a good few in the last couple of years since we planted the tree on our sun terrace, where a south-south-east facing wall will radiate warmth and offer shelter from some of the wind.

I’d wondered if I could harvest them and put them in a sealed container with a ripe banana to ripen them. The trick works with plenty of other fruit. The banana produces a hormone – ethylene gas – which stimulates ripening in itself and many other types of fruit too.

But apparently, it won’t be effective on figs unless they have already started the road to ripening themselves. However, there is another card you can play: you simply dab a drop of olive oil on the eye of the fig (the end opposite the stork) while the fruit is still on the tree.

And – odd though it may seem – there are plenty who testify that it works and otherwise hard, green figs can be ripe enough to be harvested and eaten in around three weeks.

I wish I’d done it a month earlier. It’s October 3rd and it’s getting colder in these climes at night – a night which, in turn, is quickly getting longer (longer by the day in fact!).

But we’ll see what happens and I’ll report back – either when it does or when I’ve given up for a year on the idea of harvesting any more delicious figs which, right now, are more appealing than any other fruit in our generous and productive garden.

Fungal forays in a South Wales valley

Having enjoyed my field mushrooms I decided to see what other mycological marvels – edible and not – I could find.

Fields and meadows aren’t the best places to search. The woods above us are more productive. Not only do they provide a more varied habitat but many fungi grow in close association with trees.

Many are commensalists – living in a mutually beneficial relationship with trees. Others are parasites growing at their hosts’ expense. And more still are saprophytic, living on dead wood. Some only grow in association with specific species of tree and others are less selective.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the fungi, their job being to disperse microscopic spores that help spread the species.

Most people associate them with the autumn but different species grow at different times of the year.

That said, late summer and early autumn is the prime season for a productive fungal foray. Here are some of the species I’ve found around us and tentatively identified.

The Parasol Macrolepiota procera (above) is edible although I didn't try this one. Firstly, I wasn't convinced enough by my identification at the time of finding it and it was the only one I found at the time, so not much of a meal.

I was right though. It is most readily distinguished from the Shaggy parasol, Macrolepiota rhacodes, by the snake-like pattern on the stem which is absent from the Shaggy variety. You discard the stem and eat the cap. And the Shaggy parasol, while not poisonous, causes stomach upsets in some people, so I saw no point taking a risk.

And where I found this one on rough pasture on the ridge between the Rhymney Valley and Sirhowy Valley in August, I found more in September.

This one, however, I could not identify properly. It looks like coral, stands up to about 5cm tall and appears to grow from soil through grass and moss in a damp, mainly coniferous wood above the Rhymney Valley in early September.

It looks like the common and widespread Jelly antler fungus Calocera viscosa but with longer branches than I could see in teh pictures I found of it. Or could it be one of the other Coral fungi, perhaps one of the large Ramaria genus or the Clavulina genus?

Whatever it is, it stands out because of its bright yellow colour.

This mushroom, growing on the side of a tree trunk, was a real beauty - but what is it? The cap really was very a vibrant maroon and about 12cm across.

Underneath, the gills and stems are white. And you can see from this angle, it's not a bracket fungus but growing on a true stem.

I found it, along with others on this page, in the coniferous wood at the top of the valley in late August. Any ideas?

But this specimen below was growing on the forest floor. And I could not find anything reliably like it in guide books

Again, all ideas are welcome.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

More mushrooms – chanterelles

Since finding the impressive cauliflower mushrooms in the woods on the northern ridge of the Rhymney Valley, I have to dutifully record another fungal find – a couple of small patches of chanterelles or Cantharellus cibarius.

These first appeared in the dying days of August though I left them for a couple of days before harvesting them as they were too small and too few to make much of meal. It was a risky strategy but it paid off and five days later I picked about a dozen significantly larger specimens.

To some, they are the most prized of British mushrooms but you have to distinguish them from the false chanterelle.

Both are relatively small – up to about 9cm across the cap – with short, often-bent stems and range from bright yellow to orange. The caps flatten out as they get older then turn upwards and flute around the rim. They grow on mossy banks, often close to conifers as mine were.

The best guide books agree the most clearly distinguishing feature between the two types are the gills. In the chanterelle, these are called false gills and are like shallow veins, branching and relatively spaced apart. In the false chanterelle they are much more closely packed and finer.

I was thankful to be able to judge them on this with confidence because several other traits used to distinguish them seem to be of little use.

Cantharellus cibarius is said to have a faint apricot smell – but not is you have a late summer cold and a bunged up nose.

The colour was one cited in most books – the chanterelle being more yellow than the orange false chanterelle. But in the very same books the accompanying photographs showed them to be of almost exactly the same colour. I guess this trait varies significantly, as does the consistency of book printing processes.

And I can testify that they turn a more generic beige as they dry. Mine have just finished drying but still only look like a mouthful, so I’m saving them in the hope that I‘ll find a few more before the season is out.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Cauliflower mushrooms

In the woods above us, on the ridge between the Rhymney and Sirhowy Valleys, I had been exploring for many moons too.

Here, a couple of years ago, I found an example of the extraordinary cauliflower fungus – Sparassis crispa. It was too old to eat – still firm of flesh but a little manky and potentially maggoty.

Helpfully, the cauliflower fungus fruits in the same place year after year. And this year I finally found a fresh one in exactly the same spot.

They’re very easy to identify because there is nothing else quite like it. It was the size of a bath sponge and indeed looked more like the sort of large, natural sponges we’d seen on sale on our Greek island than a mushroom. And it smelled … well, mushroomy (mental note: try and find better ways to describe mushroom smells). So, anyway, I harvested it.

Cleaning the beast wasn’t easy. It is full of holes which make perfect hiding places for little beasties from the forest floor but I resisted the temptation to wash it, as advised in a couple of mushroom guide books.

Instead, I gave it a good shake and dabbed around hopefully with a damp cloth. It was fresh and quite sturdy so didn’t break. I hoped I'd rid it of most of its occupants.

I cut three slices – about half an inch thick – laterally across it with a bread knife. The flesh was quite flexible but almost brittle so it still held its shape apart from a couple of loose pieces that became separated.

Then, I simply fried it gently in some olive oil. There were recipes for it but I wouldn’t to understand exactly what it tasted like, so I just ate it on buttered toast.

Sparassis crispa had a surprisingly mild mushroom flavour and firm texture. Pleasant, but not stunning. The best part of the experience was finding it. I’ve actually found another one in the last few days too, but this specimen was, once more, too old to eat.

The remains of the one I did harvest – about half the fruiting body – have since been dried in a paper bag hanging in our Grecianesque conservatory. I’ll try them in a different recipe later this autumn.

Field mushrooms of dreams

'If you build it, they will come' ... well, I built my dreams up when it came to field mushrooms this year, only to have them crash down around my head.

It was always going to be a risk as we were away on holiday for two weeks of guaranteed Greek summer sunshine at the start of August. 

Back home, our first holiday week – from the last few days of July – was wet. The second, however, was dry and when we returned I went out mushroom hunting at the earliest opportunity, August 11th.

The meadow below us on the side of the valley, where the soil has probably remained undisturbed for decades, usually bears a bumper crop of field mushrooms. Two years ago I was able to collect as much as a kilo in one day. 

Last year, however, the field was left ungrazed all summer and the grass was too long to collect mushrooms. So my hopes were raised for this season as I had a point to prove.

However, a grand total of nothing on the 11th was matched by a similar result on the 12th, the 14th and then every other day as my faithful companion and I searched in vain. Mushroom hunting – in this field at least – had turned in to simple dog walking.

Finally, on August 28th – a couple of days after some heavy rain – we found three. Followed by two more the following day. Then, after a few more fruitless days we gave up for the year.

I suspect that we missed the harvest while we were in Greece. It’s usually around the second and third weeks of August on this side of the valley but perhaps this year it was early.

However, all was not lost. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Why we had no apricots this year

We’ve several theories regarding what's gone wrong – conspiracy theories involving neighbours, blackbirds and the Government among them – but, first, the facts.

We had a couple of dozen fruit set and matured on our one and only Goldcot apricot tree last year, the first year after it was planted on the sun terrace where it was sheltered by a four-foot wall behind it facing south-south-east.

We managed to keep the birds from just a dozen or so fruits which were delicious and we looked forward to a bigger crop this year.

The variety itself was developed as a late blossoming variety for the British climate, the idea being that it avoids late frosts. And it is a dwarfing type too: it shouldn’t get much beyond seven feet tall but has grown fairly bushy already.

I took out one significant branch which was growing in the wrong direction and blocking our movement around the sun terrace and I also removed a handful of spindly branches that were growing into the wall and could have got damaged in the wind.

There was still plenty of good fresh growth left. And, for the record, apricots bear fruit on spurs borne on both older wood and one-year-old wood. So I could have pruned everything out.

We had a mild, wettish winter with very little frost and that could be a key factor. But the tree itself came through nicely and produced plenty of fresh green leaves in the spring – apart from on one three-foot branch – about as thick as a finger – which had clearly died. I’m not sure why it died but I removed it anyway. It didn’t show any sign of disease.

But then we had no blossom at all and, consequently, no fruit.

The tree has continued to grow nicely, with no sign of disease – a little insect grazing on some of the fresh leaves early in the year – but, apart from that, it seems perfectly healthy.

So what could be the problem?

Reading up on this it seems apricots, like cherries, need a cold period in winter – less than 45F or 7oC – to prompt them to blossom. Different varieties need different lengths of cold, ranging between 300 and 900 hours.

Surely our winter wasn’t that mild? Three hundred hours is just 25 or so nights and 7oC isn’t much more than chilly. But perhaps 900 hours or 75 nights presents a little more of an issue.

I’ll do have to do some more research to find out and get back to you with an answer but all suggestions are welcome!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Salmon Faverolles: Introducing new chickens to the flock

One of my hens sadly died.

“Sad? It was only a chicken.”

But it was a part of the flock, one of Barney the cockerel’s girls. And he and the other hens were unusually subdued when I took the ailing hen away.

She – Sylvie, a large Silver-laced Wyandotte – was lethargic, lost her balance, wouldn’t stand and wasn’t feeding or drinking. The condition had come on pretty quickly. I saw something similar a few years ago in a Light Sussex hen and thought then that she may have had a stroke.

However, this time I was concerned in case it may have been a transmissible disease and so, in order to protect the others, I duly took Sylvie to the vet’s.

£85 later and totally none the wiser, I embarked on five days of hand-feeding her soaked and mashed-up layers pellets three times a day plus the expensive antibiotic tablets (‘…just in case she has an infection’). Then she died while I was feeding her.

Apart from being subdued, the other four hens and the cockerel were all healthy. So I decided it was safe to replace the hen I’d lost.

But introducing new chickens to the flock – especially a young one at point-of-lay – can be tough on birds. Hens do bully each other or, more specifically, newcomers to the flock. They establish a pecking order – quite literally.

So I decided to get two new hens rather than one, to keep each other company and dilute the impact of bullying. I hoped.

I wanted large birds and chose Salmon Faverolles for several reasons. First, they are a different colour – light brown – from the mainly white Light Sussex and dark grey-brown Cuckoo Marans. And they are also good-natured, curious birds, In addition to this, however, they are said to lay well over winter, an activity my other hens could do with support in.

I had to go all the way down to the deepest, darkest New Forest to find the right birds - more than a 200 mile round-trip. By coincidence, I’d bought Sylvie and another Silver-laced Wyandotte from just up the road from here.

The Faverolles had each laid their first eggs in the last seven days and were not yet into full production but seemed healthy, tame and curious. I was pleased with the purchase.

The other hens, however, were suspicious of them, as was Barney. I had to lift them in to the hen house that night – and for a few nights afterwards too. They have stuck together and do get pecked and chased a little by the Light Sussex and Cuckoo Marans – even though they are slightly bigger.

But they’ve worked out their pecking order and a relative peace has settled on the hen pen. And in all of this, Barney – who totally rules the roost – wasn’t nearly as aggressive to the newcomers as his harem was.

The other aspect to report on, of course, is that they are laying nicely – six or seven-eggs-a-week each. However, let it be noted that I’d call the eggs small rather than medium sized as some of the books describe them.

I’m sure I’ll update you on this in the weeks and months ahead.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Felling the ash and the large oak

I felled the 40-foot ash quite easily, taking off the larger, lower branches first, then cutting and hauling the main tree down in the direction I wanted it. It came within about 10 feet of the gate into the yard.

It was easy enough then to strip it down, sawing it quickly into manageable pieces for fire wood. Ash is the best firewood grown on any scale in the UK, both in terms of the heat it produces and also in terms of drying out quickly. Oak is good too but takes twice as long to dry out.

Felling the oak was another matter. I needed help. A farmer with a tractor joined me. Again, we stripped the lateral branches and then went for the main trunk.

We had to cut it low to keep the centre of gravity close to the ground for safety. And we used the tractor to pull it over as we cut through the trunk.

And it worked, coming down exactly where we wanted it. But it did take a lot more cutting up.
The logs were split within about three weeks – surprisingly easily with my maul (a wide-headed axe for splitting logs).

But we also left 18 complete rounds from the main trunk of the tree, each between 9 and 14 inches high. These will be used as steps going in to the wood from the yard. A nice touch, I hope.

The smaller, 40-foot oak is still standing. I could chop it down now but I have nowhere to store the wood. So it will stand - I hope (!) - for one more year.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Felling three large trees

Three large trees are too close to the homestead for comfort. And, sadly, they have to go.

A 45-foot-tall oak – a beautifully shaped tree – stands about 20 feet from the house. You see it coming up the drive as soon as you enter the yard.

But some of its longer branches now overhang the house. While it takes a lot to bring down oak branches – they are incredibly robust trees – it still leaves us feeling uncomfortable.

We’ve already had one narrow escape from  tree in the yard. When we moved in, the first tree you saw when coming up the drive was a 40-foot ash tree which split into three trunks about three feet from the ground.

Of course, as the trunks grew up they leaned outwards, away from the centre of the tree. And all the branches from he trunks grew outwards too, away from the tree towards the light. There was little light available to feed branches growing inwards, toward the other two trunks.

This put all the weight on the outside of the tree and which started to pull the three trunks further and further out from the centre.

Waking up after one stormy night we realised the kitchen was quite dark. The top 20 feet had been blown off the trunk nearest to the house.

But we were incredibly lucky. It had landed in the 90o angle formed by the kitchen and the entrance hall jutting out next to it, missing the walls and roof by inches. The only damage was the breaking of one end bracket on the uPVC guttering. We breathed a sigh of relief. As did our insurance company.

The other two trunks were promptly taken down, exposed as they  were to winds they had previously been sheltered from. 

And now, rather than ride our luck again, I not only ave to fell the 45-foot oak but also a 40-foot ash and an oak of similar size which are growing in a raised bed next to the yard. 

They would crush the cars if they fell on them and their roots are not wide-spread enough to support trees of that height. In addition to that, they back on to other larger trees and so, once again, are growing out towards the light – and the yard and cars.

I'll say my goodbyes to the ash first. The oaks are on borrowed time