bees, birds & lazy gardening

The first thing I do every morning is go out in my wellies and nightie to feed the chickens. Luckily we don’t have near neighbours. After a long winter of frosty mornings, I am relishing a warmer (slightly) start to my day and the birdsong lifts my spirits on the dankest of days. Even on those plentiful grey, damp days the pale yellow primrose and slender, pink rhubarb catches my eye. It feels as if despite the lack of sun, Spring is a lovely, unstoppable force.

At the weekend on a wonderful natural beekeeping course run by Bees for Development I was reminded that this unstoppable force could do with being a bit less tardy. The poor bees we saw are desperate for forage after a tough winter; winter stores of honey are depleted and they are in dire need of nectar and pollen. At least the bees I visited at the weekend inhabit a wildly beautiful part of the UK, in between Monmouth and the Forest of Dean and with a rich variety of blossom about to offer feasting for bees – on trees, in hedgerows, in vegetable patches and on the native wild and cultivated flowers in the area. The laziness gardener in me loves it that bees are very partial to veggies left to go to seed/flower over winter too.

This great natural bee-keeping course highlighted the plight of bees (and hence of our food-chain) partly because of the popularity of pesticides and mono-culture in farming in recent years. Our landscape is increasingly over-cultivated and over-tidied, which must seem like a desert for the bees whose foraging we so depend on for our own food.

On a more positive note, Bees for Development sent away a group of us on Sunday afternoon with a huge amount of enthusiasm for becoming bee-keepers ourselves.

I’m about to order a Top Bar bee-hive which seems a beautifully simple way to encourage bees to flourish in my garden, supply us with tasty, healthy honey and beeswax, and encourage pollination of my veggies. Hopefully it could also be good for the wider environment.

Ruby, now 10, is keen to get involved in bee-keeping too, mainly as she loves sweet honeycombe (oozing with honey) slathered on toast. Have to admit she is a little nervous about being stung though. We are both hoping that the lavender, herbs and flowers in our garden are attractive to bees.

As part of my research for a recent article on Natural Beekeeping for Green Parent magazine I spoke to some wonderfully enthusiastic people about getting children involved in beekeeping.

Jilly Halliday, who helped start the Broomley Bee Project (a charity working with schools in Northumberland to introduce young people to bees) when her own children were at Primary School is equally enthusiastic about the contagious buzz of beekeeping:

“Bees are so inspiring and beekeeping is such a trigger for looking beyond nature and beyond bees – kids really take ownership and you can weave it into the curriculum in so many ways. You just have to smell a hive, hear it.”

Five years ago Jilly went on a bee-keeping course and learnt about our native black bees, and became passionate about sustainable beekeeping. After PTA fundraising for beekeeping at Broomley School, she realised that there was a major risk assessment issue in involving children with bees: they sting! After some initial piloting with her own children and friends’ children, one of her friends who was an Ofsted inspector and a Fellow of Newcastle University specialising in project based learning became involved with the project and helped hugely with risk assessment:

“We wanted to be able to get the children practically involved, not just talk about it. Due to risk assessment and to be fair to the bees (Black bees who are really gentle) we found that we could only take 4 children at a time to the hives.”

By starting a “meadow project” more children could get involved in a way that emphasised the importance of a whole ecosystems approach to beekeeping:

“The children really took ownership in planting the meadow, we talked about pesticides, we got compasses to look at where to position the hive, they ordered the plants themselves, looked at whether to have a native meadow, took soil samples.  They’ve gone on to look at winter clustering, we mocked up a hive, one of the children acted as Queen bee, while we talked to the children about working in teams like the bees. Now the honey is sent to Cardiff University for sampling – we’ll talk about what percentage of pesticides are in the honey, how it reflects what’s going on in the environment around us.”

Lovely how looking at these neat little communities of bees from a child’s perspective reminds us how bees may be good for the environment they’re in but that environment needs to be good to the bees too.

I’m currently researching hives and browsing smokers and bee-keeping outfits on ebay, keen to be ready for any swarms I may hear of in May. A local bee-keeping friend has promised to let me know of any swarms and I am feeling full of childish enthusiasm myself at the idea of heading off with a basket to a tree harbouring bees who are on the look-out for a new home. It is reminding me of reading Winnie the Pooh to Ruby when she was little: famously rarely without a jar of honey, in ‘Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree’ he follows a bee to climb a honey tree after finding his honey jar is empty at breakfast time.

I fear it may not be quite that simple.

Will write more about the realities of bee-keeping and more about natural bee-keeping soon! If anybody is keen to learn more, I can totally recommend the course I went on with Bees for Development near Monmouth.  It covers the basics of sustainable beekeeping including selecting the right sort of hive for you and a demonstration on how to make your own top-bar hive

chickens & eggs & apple cider vinegar

Bob, Greedy and Giraffe moved into our garden this summer. Named by Ruby, these lovely ladies have added entertaining life to a neglected spot, and made great use of gluts of chard (they love nibbling it) and all manner of gone-to-seed greens. Seeing them forage/scoff all day long I’m quite envious.

 

The rich yolked eggs have been pretty lovely. Great in frittata, gypsy eggs and custard tarts, their eggs make the best omelettes and fried eggs I remember having.

Our hens came from a local trade supplier of eggs whose hens are free range but part of a very large flock. They sell their hens when they’re one year old as commercially they aren’t considered to be consistent layers beyond this age.

Initially two of our ladies had a fair few feathers missing, Bob in particular was pretty hen pecked and had a non-laying period of looking lacklustre and moulting. Her (the names were Ruby’s choice) comb is still pale but the hens, who presumably had a lot more competition for food in their old home, are all looking healthier.

Feathers have grown back. They all seem to have settled into their new home well; their house is within a good sized area where the ladies are protected from foxes by electric fencing but when we’re outside they roam completely free in the whole garden. I particularly like how they follow me around while I’m digging, eager to forage in newly cleared ground. Our hens love patches of greens too – it may be a tad trickier in Spring when I’m trying to protect little seedlings.

 

Now that it’s dark earlier and cooler, egg laying is slowing down. I’m relaxed about the fact that everybody needs to slow down a little in the winter months – and when there are eggs in the nesting boxes they’re savoured more than ever.

They are fed organic layers pellets plus a handful of garden greens for a treat in the afternoon, sometimes some corn, and I’ve also been reading about garden herbs that are good for the health of hens. The following appear to be just as good for hens as they are for us, with their natural  antibiotic and antioxidant qualities:

Bay leaves, lemon balm, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, lavender, mint, parsley.

 

 

As these all grow freely in the garden I’ve been picking the odd handful to give to the hens to nibble. They can also be dried and added to their food (great for the winter) and lavender is apparently good in the nesting box as an insecticide and aromatic stress reliever. Guy reckons I’ll be giving them gas and air next.

 

Apple cider vinegar (raw, unpasteurised) also appears to be as good for the health of chickens as humans and I’ve discovered, that if like me you have an abundance of apples currently, it’s very easy to make.

All you need is water, apple peel/cores and sugar or raw honey – so if you’re baking apple crumbles and making apple sauce it’s perfect.

I followed the method here and am diluting it (one part apple cider vinegar to twenty parts water) to give to the hens every few weeks. Bob, Greedy and Giraffe seem to love it. Hope it’s going to help keep them healthy through the winter. Would be interested if anybody with more experience of hens than myself has tried this too?

granola, figs and quince – mellow september fruitfulness

At the beginning of September I’m always reluctant to let go of those last days of Summer. This year I was glad that a christening on the Lyn peninsula gave us the excuse to wave jump in a surprisingly warm Welsh sea before hunkering down to Autumn cosiness. By the end of September I’m full of enthusiasm for lighting the wood-burner on chilly evenings and baking granola to go with the last of the figs from the garden. There are apples and pears to pick, Autumn fruiting raspberries to enjoy with thick yogurt, and cobnuts to scatter on blackberry cakes.

I’m relishing those misty, mellow mornings with their gentle golden light. Today morning when I went out to feed the chickens, two surreal muted rainbows linked the hills. Romantically, I thought how beautiful it was and optimistically looked forward to running back over the hill from school. Less romantically it was chucking it down when I puffed and panted in my attempt to make it home. At least it hopefully burnt off some of the September comfort food I’m scoffing and I felt properly alive after too many workdays inside on a screen.

September just has so many delicious offerings tempting me. We had copious bowls full of plums this year, the last went into a jar of Russian Plum liqueur that I made from a recipe in Diana Henry’s salt sugar smoke. Pears are being roasted, apples are going into butterscotch pudding and, more healthily, the rainbow chard is as handy in the kitchen as it’s stunning in the garden.

I love September, it’s a time of plenty but with an air of sweet decay. On the road leading to Ruby’s school, abundant apples are crushed along the road – reminding me of cider every time I go on the school run! I have plans to make raw cider vinegar with apple peel and cores (for the chickens as much as us) but that’s another story…

In the garden there’s a chaotic mixture of vibrant flowers (pink Cosmos, yellow Rudbeckia, Sunflowers grown by Ruby from her own saved seed) and fading blooms.

 

 

So many things that I haven’t cleared including seed-heads that are providing treats for birds, butternut squash in danger of being covered by rampant nasturtium and plenty of runner beans for the kitchen. Only a few quince this year so no quince brandy or quince membrillo I fear, the few precious quince are probably destined for lamb tajines. The damsons are fast falling and heading for more sweet decay but still have hopes of making Liz Knight’s delicious sounding Damson Chocolate cake. Definitely a month to relish.

hygge & wood-burner cooking

Last time I wrote here it was about Midsummer madness, now my feet are cosy in sheepskin slippers and I’m warming myself next to the wood-burner. This morning it was -2 degrees first thing, beautifully frosty outside but the garden is looking sadly bereft of vegetation. There are still lots of seed-heads and much as I like to think my tardiness when it comes to Autumn clearing is good for wildlife (I hate bare earth with all those nutrients being lost) it does now look decidedly scruffy.

Time to prepare the ground for some new planting I think. First though, there’s the lovely winter pleasure of planning it all, dreaming of red speckled borlotti climbing up teepees and of rainbow chard edging beds – while I sip tea by the wood-burner.

Having written recently about Hygge for Smallholder magazine I’m trying not to do that post-Christmas dreaming of Caribbean beaches and embrace the wood-burner cosiness of these chilly months. Maybe bake some salty, rosemary-scattered focaccia to eat with good coffee on a weekend morning.

Hygge (pronounced hue-gah) is of course a Danish term used to describe cosiness, comfort and generally taking pleasure in the good things in life. The sort of feeling you get when snuggling up on a sheepskin, warmed by an open fire, maybe a mulled cider to hand and some home-reared pork effortlessly slow-cooking in the oven.

Candles would of course be lit and there would be friends and family around to share all this laid-back pleasure with.

Along with Scandi-chic, hygge is currently everywhere, in fact it’s being used a lot by stylish and far too tempting home-wares stores to sell everything from Icelandic jumpers to expensive candles. With the bank balance reduced significantly by the festive period, I’m doing my best to resist. Trying to remember that hygge isn’t all about lovely knitware; the point is surely that we should remember to celebrate the simple moments in our day whether it’s noticing the first shoots of spring buds appearing or enjoying a mug of tea with a friend.

Danish winters are long and dark and perhaps call for a lot of nourishing of the soul! Hygge is a way of not just dealing with those winters but relishing them, an attitude that is just as relevant to our British way of life, when winter always seems just a month or two too long.

A lovely place for inspiration is Trine Hahnemann’s ‘Scandinavian Comfort Food. Embracing the Art of Hygge.’ Many of Trine’s recipes are so enticing for this time of year (meatballs with celeriac and apples or duck legs with potatoes, apples and brown cabbage) plus there are numerous healthily delicious recipes for home-grown vegetables. It’s the spirit in which they’re cooked, shared and enjoyed that seems to be vital though, along with the relaxed setting.

from Trine Hahnemann’s ‘Scandinavian Comfort Food’

The more I explore hygge (including reading this lovely piece by Mrs Thomasina Tittlemouse) the more I’m reminded that my wood-burner cosiness is all the more enjoyable after being outdoors. Whether it’s a run across the fields on a bright but chilly morning, half an hour stacking the logs in the wood-store or venturing out for a walk up the hill.

All that bracing fresh air cries out for some easy, imprecise, slow-cooking on the wood-burner to return to, maybe a tasty stew or roast vegetables using the last of my colourful stripy beetroot:

Roasted Vegetables with Winter Herbs – Recipe

Substitute herbs or veggies (celeriac or swede is also good here) according to personal favourites/gluts in the garden – most winter root vegetables go well with the robust flavours of woody perennial herbs.

Ingredients

Several sprigs of rosemary, thyme, sage and a couple of bay leaves (or substitute myrtle)

½ Squash such as butternut (about 250g) cut into 1 inch (2.5cm) wedges, no need to peel the skin off.

2 medium potatoes, cut into wedges

1 medium beetroot, scrubbed and cut into wedges

2 carrots

2 parsnips

2 medium onions, peeled and cut into wedges

6 garlic cloves, unpeeled but bashed with the blunt end of a knife

3 tablespoons rapeseed or olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Scrub your vegetables well/peel if needed then dry on kitchen roll and place in a bowl with the garlic cloves, and herbs – all except the beetroot, which needs to be added at the last minute otherwise you’ll stain all the veggies a vibrant pink. Season with salt and pepper and mix well so that everything is well coated with oil. You can cover the vegetable mixture with clingfilm and leave for a few hours before cooking if preparing ahead.

When you’re ready to cook, preheat the oven to its highest temperature, or ensure the fire in your wood-burning stove is roaring. Lay the vegetables on a baking tray, then add the beetroot chunks, tossing carefully to coat in oil and herbs. Now roast in the hot oven for 35 minutes or so until tender.

Serve as a side dish with meat or fish or scatter with chunks of feta cheese and rocket to enjoy with crusty bread as a warm winter salad.

Hopefully I’ll be able to resist rushing out to buy hand-knitted socks and forget those thoughts around lottery wins and a month or so spent in the Caribbean. Remembering there’s something about returning home at dusk after a winter walk, the smell of wood-fire in the air. I’ll keep my fantasies to planting/harvesting dreams of purple beans snaking up canes and squash running amok. Making sure in the meantime that I have a pile of blankets to hand, a few candles and a good book.

 

 

goose eggs & greens, rhubarb & custard

Goose eggs-rhubarb (640x425)Even on rainy days, May surely has to be the loveliest month – after a downpour, the fresh, lush growth is even lovelier. The Sweet Cicely in my poor, weed-strewn herb border is covered in frothy creamy umbels, competing with the cow parsley in the field next door. Jewel-like drops of water glisten from the Lady’s Mantle  and there’s blossom everywhere – spilling from the wild cherry tree from which our hammock hangs, and promising good things from the apple, pear, plum and quince trees.

Despite all the lush green growth, we’re still in the hungry gap of course. There’s so much hope of good harvests from the tiny borlotti beans pushing out of the damp earth towards my teepee (if they can race the self-sown nasturtium seedlings that are springing up everywhere) to the new potato plants that are loving the current mix of sun and rain.

But hope and promise is about all there is just yet when it comes to eating my garden.Apart from the greens that is.

Hens eggs-Kale (425x640)

There are plenty of chives and numerous herbs to be sprinkled on my lunchtime omelettes and sandwiches. Last year’s chard is utterly flourishing and crying out to be made use of before it runs to seed. Nettles a plenty of course. And there’s lots of wild garlic to be gathered from the woods – we’ve found a great new spot that’s a handy bike ride away for my daughter, while I turn puce running behind her.  Mixes of greens seem perfect for May – for mixing with soft cheese and filling pasta parcels, pies and definitely adding to concoctions such as frittata with the goose eggs that happily coincide.

Goose Eggs AW

Pie 4 (640x425)

As perfectly May as rhubarb and custard, the still slender pink rhubarb making a perfect tart partner to rich ice creams and custard (goose eggs are perfect here again).  Lots of other rhubarb recipes I’d like to try too, maybe combining Liz Knight’s rose dukkah. And if the slugs and snails get in the way of my May optimism, there’s always rhubarb cake to cheer me up. Made with this easy Diana Henry recipe at the weekend, it’s moist and yummy, a bit too tempting with my morning coffee while working.

Foraged Fritatta

The seedlings on my windowsill may be dawdling but the nettles are sprinting. Weeds are rampaging everywhere in the garden and there doesn’t seem enough time to tackle half of them. Eating the pesky things seems the best option. Along with last year’s chard (valiantly braving the elements while newer sowings take their time) and some wild garlic from the woods, one of my favourite ways of eating those nettle tops is in a fritatta.Frittata 3 AW (1)

 

I’m full of enthusiasm for similar mixes of greens at the moment, mainly ‘foraged’ from the garden. I glance out of the window and the garden still seems to offer meagre pickings. Yet there’s always a handful of greens to add to a quick lunchtime omelette or to wilt and mix with ricotta and parmesan for filling pasta shells. I might add some of last year’s Italian greens that are hanging on in there in the asparagus bed and a few dandelion leaves. Then there’s the tops of the Brussels flowers I grew last year, the plants are pretty much over and look very scruffy but I’m reluctant to pull them out while they’re adding to my colander of tasty, nutritious (and free!) greens.

Foraged Frittata

6 eggs (I often include goose eggs as they’re around at the moment and add a richness, their large yolks making the frittata SO yellow)

A colander of chard, nettle tops, wild garlic, whatever edible cultivated and wild green take your fancy.

I onion, chopped

A small bowl of grated parmesan.

Salt & pepper.

Olive oil.

Add a glug of olive oil to a frying pan and add the onion with a pinch of salt, then cook on a low heat slowly until it’s softened and deliciously sweet. Meanwhile wash the greens thoroughly in a colander then wilt in a pan. Once cool enough to handle, squeeze the excess water from the greens then chop – I find this easy with scissors. Beat the eggs in a bowl, add the greens, parmesan, cooked onions and season.

Add another glug of olive oil to a frying pan, turn the heat to medium/high and add the egg mixture, Turn the heat down to low immediately and cook slowly for 10 to 15 minutes until the frittata is almost set then place under a pre-heated grill until the top is set. Great eaten straight away but leftovers are lovely cold too.

Makes me relish the hungry gap!

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