Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Christmas Extra - missing link

That fieldfare is still enjoying the hedgerow sloes! 
Now that Dobies is back in session post-Christmas, it's been possible to check the website error, that would not allow me to post the link to the remarkable 'fruity' hedgerow plants that would enhance any garden, whether in groups or on-the-edge. Here you are: the Hedgerow Collection - and should you have been irritated at not being able to check what was/is incorporated, take a look below right now at what is offered.

Three hazel, one crab apple, one cherry-plum and five sloes - ten plants for only £24.95! Wildlife will benefit from the early pollen provided by hazel catkins - nuts for woodpeckers, nuthatches and squirrels. Crabs and cherry plums will entice thrush, blackbird, fieldfare and redwing, amongst others, whilst the bitter blue-black sloe will be saved until last, food for creatures in frosty weather.

Fat catkins whose pollen will fall onto the crimson stigmas of the female 'shaving-brush'
flowers, resulting in fat tasty nuts, come Autumn
But why should wildlife be the only beneficiaries? How about us gardeners? Hazel nuts can be cracked and eaten fresh, pounded into a paste to fill cakes, or toasted in butter and sprinkled with salt for a pre-evening treat. Crabs can be 'roasted' around a joint of pork (or as in Shakespeare's time, warmed over an open fire to "hiss in the bowl"); they can be made into jelly or dried for a picnic snack. The cherry plum flowers early - nectar for bees - and can by made into a subtly-flavoured jam in early autumn; use equal quantities by weight of washed fruit and sugar, a wetting of water, and cook as for all wild jams. As for the sloe, fruit of the blackthorn; it's best to steep it in gin with half its weight in sugar for a spiritous liqueur; the longer it's left, the sweeter (and more alcoholic!) it will become. Prick the washed sloes before steeping - Irish recipes advocate the use of a sharp thorn obtained from the blackthorn itself.

This extra post is offered to alleviate any irritation caused by the lack of a website link on Christmas Day - it's infuriating when a site goes down and there is no means of instant rectification. Our apologies. 

Sunday, 25 December 2011

A fruitful Christmas

Seasonal Greetings to all Dobies readers 
Unlike many 'of the moment' seasonal reports and newsy snippets that appear in the media around this time of year, this blog post is truly 'live', though somewhat late for Christmas Day. The intention was to have prepared words and pictures during a week that subsequently escaped me (pre-Christmas), and then all I had to do was just hit the 'post' button this morning. But that was before the 'blog lady from Devon via the Cotswolds' was struck down with some sort of incapacitating virus. You can work through some, but not others. Doubly infuriating, as the exceptionally mild days this last week were perfect for being out in the garden, ahead of new year resolutions. But I digress from my previously chosen topic. Fruit. Trees and bushes to order and plant in the next month or so. They add that extra dimension to any productive garden, augment the eco-value (surplus for birds - and birds eat unwanted grubs and insects), and - as I discovered from the leaflet supplied with one of my orders from the Dobies website - any fruit has the capacity to be turned into alcohol. Very Christmassy! 

A Redlove apple tree would make a perfect belated Christmas gift
Eat fruit fresh, press it for juice, ferment it, even (illicitly) distill it. Fruit: straight from the bush or tree, or turned into syrups, pies, tarts, jam, jelly, alcohol or whatever you wish. So, on the alcoholic front, think apples (cider), pears (perry), cherries (soak in white rum  for a distinctive liqueur), blackcurrants or the more modern fourberry juiced and added to spirits as a medicinal for sore throats. Almost any fruit can be made into wine, which, in our experience is far easier (we still have a bottle of our 1969 apple and blackberry awaiting some special evening). A little light reading over the new year for fans of Joanne Harris might be her 'Blackberry Wine', first published in 2000. Clever and intriguing.

The moment I spotted that Dobies are stocking the Mirabelle, it was on my  2012 list  of 'must-haves', transporting me to summer visits to France
The Dobies leaflet I have beside me as I write introduces the Mirabelle de Nancy, reminiscent of summer visits to France and a breakfast preserve so liquid it would have been better to drink it than eat it with croissants. The Mirabelle is a small, plum-like fruit that has been widely cultivated in France since the 15th century. Enjoy it in pies or other desserts, as jam, or - more traditionally, made into plum brandy. 

A fieldfare enjoying a bitter sloe from a garden hedgerow
And why not plant an alcoholic wildlife hedge? Dobies 'Hedgerow Collection'  (ref  44 70 97) is perfect actually for creating a boundary around your plot or any gardening group's allotment. Comprising native hedgerow plants, you'll be helping the environment by planting native species, and benefiting pollinating insects and birds that come late autumn will consume all that you have not harvested. The collection comprises 3 hazel bushes, 1 crab apple, 1 cherry plum and 5 blackthorn - the blue-black sloes form the basis of sloe gin. (An online link to the lovely 'Hedgerow Collection' will follow next week, as the gremlins have struck again. So sorry.) Meanwhile, enjoy what is left of Christmas Day; I'm off downstairs for a little cold turkey and a touch of sage and onion stuffing. (This is intended to be a lighthearted holiday post, so my apologies to those readers for whom alcohol is a no-no.)

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Chickens are not just for Christmas!

My birds in the early 1990s - brown 'rescue' hens and rare breeds I reared
from  hatching eggs. (I kept the one handsome cockerel - not a necessity; he was just rather special!)
Walking down the garden to let out the hens this morning, I again contemplated their advantages to the gardener as well as the cook. Eggs from your own hens bear no resemblance to shop-bought eggs - as anyone who buys my surplus regularly will testify. Supremely fresh, with golden yolks and oh, such taste. They are like they are because of the garden. I've blogged before about our hens, but haven't offered tips on their benefit to the garden, nor cautioned the beginner as to potential problems which you should consider before buying hens for yourself, your children or grandchildren.
'Rescue' hens in the late 1990s, obtained from an organic egg farm when the birds
had served their turn. High egg yields - but this run is far too small; they were
put in here to be photographed.
Hens are not difficult, but require a regular routine. They need letting out in the morning and shutting in at dusk, which can prove tricky if you are out at work and particularly so during the winter, unless you have a TOTALLY secure house and covered pen. Holidays could be a problem unless you have a kind neighbour who will care for them in exchange for eggs. You should not overstock, but assess available space for keeping them in the first place - even a coop with run attached (safety from foxes, badgers and marauding dogs) will need to be moved every few days. Too many birds, and your grass will be scratched to bits; it will become a  mud bath in winter - though the birds will benefit from dust-bathing in summer.

Vegetable plot perfect for hens! Sorrel, lettuce, beet tops - and weeds.
What we didn't eat ourselves, or feed to the hens, went onto the compost heap.
But to thrive, hens must have greenery, which is where your garden benefits. Firstly you can feed them weeds! Groundsel, dandelions, chickweed and docks; keep harvesting dock leaves but don't let this invasive perennial run to seed and you'll keep it under control. Just watch how the hens love it. Secondly you can throw into the birds' run any thinnings of beet, spinach or perpetual spinach, turnips, salad leaves, cabbage, broccoli and other greens. Thirdly, in any available space, grow extra salads and greens specifically for the chickens; sorrel (herb) is a good tonic, too.
The same plot (other way round), mid 2000s, converted to raised beds
and far more productive. Note the greenery - sorrel and chard in the foreground.
Clean their house regularly and add the droppings to your compost bin or compost heap, layered with your usual compostings. I've been keeping hens for 40 years, in the past raising them from eggs set in an incubator (very educational) though you have to wait a long time for them to come into lay - around 20 weeks from hatching) and a large proportion will be cockerels which become a nuisance! I now buy point-of-lay birds (around 16 weeks) from a very reliable source: Cyril Bason Ltd will supply in small quantities and deliver to your door; collecting your first eggs from a new batch of hens is always a joy.
My quartet from 2010 enjoying overwintered broccoli that had run to seed.
(Sadly, these were all killed by a neighbour's dog who burrowed through the fence
and jumped into the run. An excellent breed that I have been unable to replace.)
Covering all there is to be said about keeping hens cannot be done in a single blog post. If you have queries, please leave a comment, and I'll answer as much as possible in future posts or e-newsletters.

N.B. Last date for ordering Gifts for guaranteed Christmas delivery is mid-day Tuesday 20th December. Check the website here.