Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Chickens in the Garden

Why keep chickens? The obvious answer is for their eggs, but they have many more uses as far as gardeners are concerned. They enjoy eating meat and fish scraps, love chickweed and dandelion leaves, benefit from beet tops, sorrel and gone-to-seed spinach and can be fed lettuce thinnings. Of course, it’s a toss up between offering such delicacies to the chickens or adding them to your compost heap or wormery (the leaves, not the birds!) - it’s possible to do both. I am ‘between chickens’ right now, and missing them. The taste of a fresh egg is unsurpassed by anything you buy from even a farm shop; and I am convinced it is because I feed them a mixed diet, as well as their usual mixed corn and layers pellets.

years ago, we went in for hens in a big way (hatching and rearing our own rare breeds); so a large secure shed was essential - we built this one ourselves from reclaimed materials
How to start? First assess the available space, and whether you will keep just two or three in a coop to which a run is attached, or a chicken shed in which you can house more birds and, if it is sufficiently large, even keep them indoors if you are away for the weekend. Most breeds lay between 250 to 300 eggs per year – a good starting point when deciding how many will keep you and the family in eggs. Even with only four hens, and cake-making, I am able to sell the surplus – much in demand locally.

part of my flock in the early 1990s - and contrary to popular belief, you don't need a cockerel for hens to lay well
Will you begin with point-of-lay pullets (literally almost ready to give you your first eggs), or venture into acquiring hatching eggs and an incubator? That’s a totally different ball game and not one for consideration at this time of year. You may like the idea of acquiring rare breeds (such as the Light Sussex or Rhode Island Red) but these tend to be more expensive and inclined to go broody. Instead, a hybrid cross is sensible, or even one of the modern commercial breeds. I buy my birds from Cyril Bason who offer a good selection of breeds – they will deliver countrywide, and in small quantities, too. For housing, take a look at the coops supplied by Heritage & Sons – very eco-friendly as their products are made from recycled plastic. Or build your own.

modern hybrids and fantastic egg-layers - these taken last Autumn were enjoying brassicas that had run to seed (sadly this lovely quartet was killed a few weeks ago by our neighbour's dog)
Hens love to scratch and weeds that are running to seed can be thrown into their run – they’ll peck grubs and insects as well as the seeds; and their manure is invaluable, too. Use any spare ground to grow vegetation that will augment the birds’ diet – particularly valuable in winter (protect under cloches). Favourites with my birds are leef beet (perpetual spinach) and swiss chard. Once my new housing and birds arrive, I’ll update you as to their progress and after-care. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking after my grandchildren’s hens – and ducks – whilst they are on holiday; so we’ve spent the morning cleaning out our big shed ready for their arrival.

hens love to dustbath and it is essential that they do so, to keep themselves in good condition and free from insect pests (this bird is one 'rescued' after the end of its commercial egg-laying life)

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Crafty Gardener

a living willow 'fedge' - a cross between a fence and a hedge and easily grown from willow cuttings; dense and impenetrable once in full leaf, the crafty gardener can easily create one as a barrier around even a small plot
Living plants are by their very nature, ephemeral; never remaining in a static condition - their one aim to reproduce, to multiply. We prolong the usefulness edible crops in many ways, preserving or freezing fruit and vegetables, but for aeons of time, mankind has also made use of the properties of flowers and woody materials.

willow-weaver Mary Zammit is skilled in the art of turning withies into garden artifacts, from plant wigwams and baskets to ornaments for house or garden
Take willow, which can be woven into baskets and platters, or a living hedge. Or flowers, some edible, many medicinal, most highly decorative ... but when utilitarian needs are met, turn your attention to their aesthetic qualities. You might be amazed at what you can do with what you grow, from weaving cloth and dyeing it to decorating our homes when fresh flowers are out of the question.

arranging some of the plant material grown in my own garden
Herbaceous plants that can be cut and dried bring delight in the darker months of Autumn and Winter, but need to be harvested now. Lavender is easy - indeed sun-loving semi-woody herbs are amongst the most successful; many a dried-flower protagonist will include a cutting border within their plot for fresh flowers, actually forgetting that they many will serve a dual purpose. Amongst the plants I grow - introduced as plug plants, or grown from cuttings or seed - are: achillea, alchemillia, artemesia, feverfew, catmint, hydrangea, marjoram, verbena bonariesis and annual cornflower; I leave this until last for blue is such a fugitive colour and the most difficult to retain once dried. Evergreens to try include box (buxus), bay (laurus) and the silver-leaved sage and santolina (cotton lavender). Method of drying: cut on a sunny day before when any dew has evaporated from flowers and leaves; either stand upright in a cool dry atmosphere out of direct sunlight, or encase in brown paper bags and hang upside down, again in a cool place.

a herb ring woven from willow and the dried plants
grown in my garden
Other plants such are cardoons (artichokes), carnations, peonies and roses can also be dried but require more specialised treatment. They are dramatic and well worth the effort of catching them at just the right stage of growth. For an equally oppulent effect, think seedpods and seedheads as well as flowers: I just love angelica, foxglove, honesty, nigella, opium poppy and rue - and, garden philistine that I am, WEEDS, particularly teasel (leave all of these to desiccate on the plant before cutting). And don't forget grasses, and twigs - corksrew hazel as well as willow. Spend a rainy afternoon trawling the Dobies catalogue for possiblities.

a joy to behold
I could not close without showing this lovely planter taken today at the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show as it shows cornflowers and calendula offset by luscious salad plants - a perfect mini potager - and all seeds available through the Dobies catalogue. The Show takes place from Wednesday 20th July until Saturday 24th; there's so much to see in the most beautiful parkland setting.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Progress in the Potager

It's been quite a summer here in my new potager - remember those images back in mid-February of the tangled space which I set out to convert into a square-metre plot of four raised beds to grow vegetables, herbs, salads and edible flowers - and all surrounded by a wild-life friendly shrubbery? Click here if you would like to remind yourself of the task I faced exactly five months ago. It's come a long way since then and has proved to be the most enjoyable and productive of all the six potagers I have created over the last 20 years - the others all still exist in one form or another, but this has become my favourite, and the most easily managed. 

one corner of one of the square-metre beds has been devoted to lettuce; spring onions alongside and in the very centre, a bamboo tower up which are climbing borlotti beans
All the vegetables and salads have been grown from seed supplied by Dobies; many are new varieties specifically designed for small spaces; you can pack the plants closer together, and operate a cut-and-come-again system with salads - pick what you want and allow the plants to re-grow. 

these cabbages were grown last year from Dobies plug plants, using the method described below 
A sheltered spot is a bonus;  for the first time ever, it has allowed me the opportunity to follow a successional cropping plan. Space I am just clearing where the broad beans grew will shortly accommodate the Brassica Collection of 36 plug plants - six each of six varieties: sprouting broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale. But hurry - orders must be placed THIS WEEKEND - by Monday 17th July at the latest. Greens all winter and into Spring: what edible joy. I can cover them with netting against the birds, and fleece or cloches in bad weather.

The WWF Show Garden at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show last week;
demonstrating that they are as concerned to save habitats as pandas.
Beyond the Garden Gate: we are endeavouring to bring you news of various gardens or gardening shows around the country. Last week we were at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show in Surrey, and next week will be blogging live (WiFi permitting) from RHS Tatton Park Show just outside Manchester. Take a notebook and camera: there is always something to inspire at any show; one hopes for fine weather, good food, pleasant company - and a car boot that will accommodate all the purchases!

Technical note: we have been experiencing a few difficulties on the website of late with the monthly e-newsletter and its archived editions. The problem is being resolved; please bear with us.