Of all the hatchlings, goslings hold a special place in Em’s heart. Years ago she had one which used to follow her around and sit on here lap and I’m sure all that special care really did it good as it made a splendid Christmas dinner! Our black naked neck hen has managed to hatch one gosling from four eggs. A bad ratio, but better than nothing.
2013 is not going to go down as a great year for poultry production. Our new stag turkey proved unwilling or unable to mate successfully, the Aylesbury drake was well under par in the fertility stakes and my Ixworth cockrel, of which I had high hopes proved a complete dud. All in all a very disappointing effort from the male contingent of our smallholding. Still, eggs have been begged and stud birds changed and the first chicks are hatching. Soon there will be broodies clucking over their charges in pens all over the garden.
Everything is turning green. Trees are rushing into leaf and even the oak and ash are in too much of a hurry to make weather predictions!’ Oak before ash in for a splash, ash before oak in for a soak’ is how the old saying goes, but this year ‘Oak and ash together any weather’, would be more accurate and probably just as useful for deciding whether or not to water the seed beds.
The advent of May beckons us down to the old Bramley orchard to take in the pink blossom and then on to Bowling Ally Wood where the senses drown in its silent sea of bluebells. Em and I have always taken this annual pilgrimage and now the tradition continues with our two children. Gabriel is more interested in sticks than flowers and Primrose more interested in milk than either, and yet the scent is sweeter and the enchanting beauty more, simply for them being there.
My friend P is keen to try his hand at a bit of brewing and needing no encouragement, I invited him round for a session. As a female friend once said ‘brewing really is the ideal subject for men’. It is a simple process which can be made splendidly complicated with a veritable host of terminology. For example ‘sparge the mash tun with hot liquer’ means ‘rinse the grain through with hot water’ and after all that unintelligible chat and fiddling with hot water, grain and hops you get to drink beer – need I say more?
P went for an I.P.A and I created something dark which smelt beautifully of treacle and chocolate. I don’t know what it’s called yet because as it’s my own recipe using home malted barley, wheat and hedgerow hops, it could be quite original!
As anyone who has come on a foraging course will know I’m fond of saying that nettles have a sting because they are worth protecting. Course members also have to endure me extolling their extraordinary eating qualities, but yesterday that’s not what interested me. Young stingers contain phenomenal amounts of protien (up to 25% in dry samples) and if the plants are allowed to break down in water this converts to nitrogen and the stinking liquid can be used to feed plants. I usually combine nettle fertilizer with a little wood ash to introduce some potash to the mix and the stuff works miracles on tomatoes and other crops.
The council kindly provided us with a brown wheely bin for compostable rubbish, but to send organic waste away instead of converting it ourselves would be a self sufficiency sin of the highest order, so it has become my fertilizer barrel.
Pea sticks are up and I am transported back to those winter days, trimming stakes and binders for hedge laying. Warm days and germinating peas seemed an impossible dream then, but still the hazel tops went on the pile to be bound into bundles and stored until spring.
Although the days are getting hot now, we are still living with the consequences of a cold spring. Early flowers and blossom held back by the frost and chilling northerlies are blooming away at the same time as later varieties and up on the drovers track primroses, celandines, wood anemones, blue bells, black thorn and lady’s smock can be seen in a single vista, backed by the luminous yellow rape .
St. Gorge’s mushrooms have been patiently waiting for favourable conditions to produce their fruiting bodies (mushrooms), but this year the window is short – as the ground has warmed it has has also dried in the intense heat and I have found many half formed and desiccated. The temperature favours the mushroom fly though and every cap I picked yesterday was riddled with maggots. A desperate shame as Em and I long for some fungi.
It is easy to imagine that the domestic rabbit is a passive creature without urge or instinct when seen in the hutch, but give them a bit of space and the buried instincts come bursting out. My New Zealand doe has certainly become a bit of a character since I’ve had her despite being of a breed developed for intensive meat and fur production. Late last year she spent a while living loose, and when I did manage to capture her I her white belly was swollen with young. I had noticed her returning from the wood several times and clearly she had been fraternising with the natives!
It is not unusual for a flirt kindling to end badly and that being the case my white doe was left living alone in the long enclosure which skirts the veg patch. Some while back I glanced out of the widow to see her clambering out over the 3 foot chicken mesh and before I could get down the stairs, the lustful creature was off into the woods. Half an hour later she was back and virtually surrendered herself, running straight up to me.
Sure enough she was pregnant and kindled two nights ago depositing her young (as rabbits do) in a luxurious nest made of fur plucked from her belly.
For the avid gardener and even more so for the avid gardener who relies on their garden for food, there is no sight more thrilling than seedlings pushing up through the bare ground. Broad beans and peas are unfurling their first tender leaves and a few parsnips are just beginning to show. Fed up with annual failure to germinate decent numbers of parsnips, this year I chitted them in the airing cupboard on damp cotton wool , putting them in the ground just as the tiny rootlets became visible. Alarmingly less than a quarter of the seed germinated in these ideal conditions and I am suddenly less surprised that the parsnip rows have been a little sparse in years past.
The days are warm and the salad cops planted back in the freezing month of March are a welcome additions to almost every lunch.
Being ‘rural’ doesn’t always mean rummaging the hedgerows or wandering the woods, gun in hand. Occasionally the committed countryman is required to don a dress and uphold an ancient tradition or two!Whether this statement does anything to excuse the fact I spent all of yesterday dressed as a woman, scaring children with a pig’s badder I don’t know, but it was worth a try.
5.32am May 1st saw me standing on Goudhurst High Street with the other Weald of Kent Morris men welcoming the first sun rise of summer with the traditional song ‘Hal and Toe’ and never has saying farewell to winter felt so welcome! By 7 am the first pints of beer were being consumed over a hearty breakfast and then it was on to the local primary schools to entertain the children. Young kids are unaffected by being ‘cool’ and given half a chance will get into the spirit with gusto. Twice the final dance which consists of me leading the whole school in a long line around the grounds descended into chaos. With no real concept of what a bladder was, the object I brandished was soon renamed a ‘pig’s booby’ and I was surrounded, ten bodies deep with screaming children leaping to catch the thing and lifting my skirts to laugh at my frilly bloomers. I was struck with a similar feeling to when I feed the pigs, that if I tripped up, it would all be over!
On May day eve we ate wild garlic pizza and reedmace shoots. To say that they rival asparagus is no exaggeration. The tender morsels are delicately flavoured and simply wonderful.
The refreshing dry bitterness of bramble tip tea is too good only to enjoy in spring, so I have gathered a bag for drying.
Whether I’m an innovative gardener or a lazy gardener I don’t know, but I’m always looking for efficiencies of time and effort when it comes to the veg patch. The root veg bed, without the benefit of a good manuring (to prevent ‘fanging’ of the roots) has come up rather rough this year, but instead of going to great lengths to reduce it to a fine till, I have simply filled the carrot drills with sieved compost. This I hope will give the seeds a perfect environment for germination, as the dark compost will attract warmth, hold moisture and not ‘pan’ during rain (when soil forms an impregnable crust as it drys). Some soils, especially clay based ones such as ours are very prone to this latter problem and during last year’s soaking wet spring I re- sowed four times.