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The Somme

The Somme

The meteorologist-in-residence says that it rained every day in November. Sometimes just constant, gentle ‘Tet’ rain as we call it (anyone who has been to Hanoi in February will know exactly what that is) or chucking it down, hammering on the roof and creating enormous red puddles. Combined with mild temperatures it means that the garden is disappearing under knee deep grass so that even going out when the sun does shine means coming back soaking wet.

It means that the hen run really is a huge mud bath and great precaution is needed when putting Skittle and his harem away at night. Fortunately the field next door, which they can have access to from the back entrance of the coop, is on the way to being a lovely lush meadow and they’ll be able to appreciate that soon. We are still getting eggs every day.

It means that there are flowers as well as berries on some of the bushes; here the medronho (strawberry tree) and the hawthorn think it’s both autumn and spring:

It means too that we are having a particularly colourful autumn. The leaves have remained on the trees for much longer both in the garden and out in the countryside. The acer campestre we planted almost 5 years ago has put on a stunning show for the first time:

Meanwhile in the veg patch I was astounded to see red peppers as well as green on the plants. The hens appreciated the last of the toms, a little manky from the wet. I’m pleased to say the garlic which I’d planted earlier in the month are already sprouting, the broad beans are in as well as the leeks. The asparagus has been chopped down and mulched.

Also a certain event next month has not been forgotten. Both the cake and pud have been made, and the sloes decanted. Richard has also mended the pallet tree so we’ll be decorating that tomorrow. Which reminds me: the real Christmas tree we planted in the garden will be celebrating its tenth festive season this December; I must take a photo of that, it looks marvellous.

Alas, the olives have still to be picked but December seems set for blue skies so a combination of warm afternoons and frosty mornings ahead. Perfect picking weather.

Happy anniversary

Happy anniversary

A typical September which saw us pottering about plus a short jaunt across the border for an over indulgence in seafood. However, the big day was September 11th, the day we landed in sunny Portugal 10 years ago. We celebrated with a family photo and some of Richard’s home made beer, of course. They do say never to work with children or animals, this was our fourth attempt… Jussi really did not want to look at the camera despite a dog biscuit perched on top.

September is typically one of the harvest months and we enjoyed, for the first time, not exactly a bumper crop but really a fair number of almonds from the tree we planted. This is just a few of them that Richard spent an afternoon shelling.

We certainly do have a huge crop of prickly pears. I shall have another attempt at making some syrup from them, otherwise the birds are in luck again.

The dyeing pots and pans have been out again. First up, the blackthorn berries which, despite being shrivelled up, made a marvellous green:

Plus, more excitingly, I had a go at using the woad plants I had sown back in the spring. It’s a rather long and complicated process but seeing the yarn turning blue as it oxidizes once taken out of the pot is amazing. I shall, I keep saying, write up all these experiments one day…

We always knew, with a cockerel and 7 different hens, we would collect a colourful clutch of eggs most days (although Skittle has nothing to do with the egg making) but sometimes that is just too many… These are to be given away. Oh, and more soap-making done this month too.

We have been appalled at the reduction in insects every year. This moth was rescued from the deckchair and placed far more appropriately on some lichen. The camouflage was so good you couldn’t see it in the photo. Compassion now for the giant grasshoppers and locusts, they are left to munch on the leaves of the bay tree rather than getting flicked off and eaten by Jussi.

Finally, the garden is crisp and dry. The rain we have had was welcomed, and there’s more to come. The summer may be over but the new seedlings that have all shot up are already giving everything a green sheen, and a fresh, springlike look. Yesterday, we had all three meals outside; I suspect that’s the last time. It does seem strange that the autumn mists and fallen figs are here when only last month we said summer had arrived at last.

Please tell us if you want some eggs!

Belated congrats

Belated congrats

We just realised the other day that we missed two milestones, or whatever they are in kilometres, last month.

The first one was Skittle’s birthday. Yep, Little Chick was born July 2018 and is now the handsome, and somewhat frightening, Skittle, who loves nothing better than seeing his ladies have all the best tidbits that are thrown to them. He does this by picking up a morsel, a small piece of cucumber or torn cabbage leaf and then dropping it. He then stamps his feet and makes a low clucking sound until a hen comes and takes it. Very endearing. Wakes us up first thing in the morning he certainly does, but he has become such a great addition to the feathered family.

So Happy Birthday, Skittle!

The second milestone was that ten years ago last month we wrote our very first blog post! It was called Dream to reality. So a whole decade of blogging, and not a single month missed. Parabéns to us, too!

The B word(s)

The B word(s)

Bracing Just as we thought summer had kicked in the clouds came over, the wind picked up and temperatures fell.  It’s a max of 18 today and it’s barely gone much over 20 since the start of the month.  So what are the other B words (and no, not that one)?

Birds Since the first week of April we have been welcomed every morning by the nightingales. There is always one singing in the olive trees at the end of the garden, we never get to see it until it dives for cover when we get too close.  The number of nightingales in the UK has fallen dramatically, and a lot of research has been done to find out why. Loss of habitat seems to be a major culprit. The British Trust for Ornithology states: “…the ideal habitat is probably a dome of increasing vegetation heights, with a crown of vegetation dense enough at the centre to create bare ground underneath, and a gradient of ground-cover towards the edges where the species can nest…” and that is exactly what we have here. Many of the fig trees have grown very tall and are surrounded by smaller bushes including blackthorn and hawthorn, all favoured by the nightingale. This group is in the neighbouring meadow, you can’t see the thick ring of brambles around the base, it’s impossible to enter:

Interestingly, it’s the increasing deer population in the UK which takes some blame, they are simply browsing on the shrubs and bushes where the birds want to nest.

In the courtyard we have had three sets of birds nesting this season (not counting the wrens which made a nest in February but didn’t use it). Firstly, serins built a nest in the rose bush above the door in exactly the same spot as one last year. We would love to know if it was the same pair, or perhaps their offspring. Secondly, goldfinches built a nest in the top of one of the orange trees and lastly, in our plane tree, there are blackbirds. We are surrounded by countryside, there are bushes and trees galore everywhere and yet again our courtyard is chosen. (I think this now makes 6 or 7 different kinds of birds.)

Bugs It would be nice to say that we also have lots of insects but, like the UK, these are definitely on the decrease. We have two buddleias in bloom, their scent is heavenly, but very few butterflies are seen. The lavender has been a magnet for bumblebees in the past but again there are far fewer this year. We really hope the cooler weather has been the main cause and that once the temperatures rise they’ll come out to play.

Broccoli I planted 12 broccoli plants in one of the new raised beds and they grew amazingly well. So much so that most of them had to be frozen, even half was too much for us for one meal. I did find a great pasta dish (I remembered Inspector Montalbano loved pasta and broccoli) and we had that a few times. So for a first crop with the new system that is a happy success.

Baking The first of the fruits are coming now. The cherry season sees me making one of my favourite desserts: clafoutis. The cherry version I do as the French and leave the pips in, and then, as we have had an abundance of gooseberries, I made it with those and that worked really well too. Fingers crossed for a good raspberry crop because those make the best clafoutis of all.

Branca We tried to introduce Rocky back into the flock but the attentions of Skittle were too much for her. Not only did he make her neck a little red she cowered for the rest of the day under the bramble bushes. So we decided that she really did need more time for the feathers to grow back and she also needed company. Welcome, Branca. From day one they have become the best of friends. The plan is that once Rocky is completely ready, Branca will be old enough to meet Skittle too. And with two new hens he’ll, with luck, be less obsessed with Rocky. We’ll see! On the left Branca and Rocky sharing some quinces, and little Hazlenut:

Lacey with Mo and Preta, and the ruler of the roost, Skittle:

Just bossy boots Hattie not shown here. So one cockerel and seven hens – what on earth are we going to do with all those eggs?!

 

Marching on

Marching on

The nicest thing about March is that it’s the month with the biggest difference in terms of moving on from winter. There’ll be some cold weather ahead, the cloudless days still give us mild frosts, but there’s a real change in the air. Although much of the blossom in the garden has gone the new leaves and greenness are more than welcome. The plane tree in the courtyard has begun to sprout and the garden is alive with noisy birds, emptying the feeder every day and building their nests. The sun has been really warm so lunch outside has been the norm.

The constant sunshine has also meant we’ve been able to get on top of lots of outside jobs. Some of these have not been planned. The dozen ‘roasties’ were happily enjoying the spring and so far no sighting of the sparrowhawk:

Until Foxy came along and dug a hole under their hut (the old pig pen) in the middle of the night and then there were nine.

So we’ve had to have an emergency plan until there’s time for Richard to rebuild that shed. A layer of chicken wire has been placed flat around the edges and held in place with heavy breeze blocks. We’ve caught it on our night camera having a good sniff around a few times since but so far this set up has worked as it hasn’t been able to dig again. A new shed is a bit more of a priority now, not just because the fox can dig under it, but because the wood is completely rotten and termite infested, one good shove and it’ll collapse.

Meanwhile Richard is getting on with building the Pallet Palace. At the moment we have two chicken coops and these too, along with the pig pen, are past it really. So a single, bigger one is in the making, one that I can walk into. Up until recently Skittle was in his coop and Hattie and Rocky in theirs, and he was allowed to ‘play’ with them in the afternoon. We always knew that if we kept Skittle he’d need a few more hens and if we had more hens we’d need another coop.

So Skittle was put in with Hattie and Rocky and then we got Cagney and Lacey!

These are a cross between a Brahma (like Skittle) and Wyandotte hens, and beautiful they are too. They were given to us by friends, and we’re delighted with them.

They stayed a few days in their own coop and field until they felt it was home, and then we let all the chooks get together. Hattie is sometimes a bit pecky (she is the top of the pecking order after all) but in fact we think they are so pleased that Skittle is sharing his amorous advances they are actually quite relieved. We’ll get two more and so in the end Skittle will have six ladies. What we’ll do with all the eggs is another matter…

As the name suggests the new coop is made of pallets mainly, Richard can add more about this in the next post. It’s already been painted front and back and the door added. Then he’s going to add a caged area, again tall enough to walk into, and this will all be covered. You can just see Hattie and Rocky giving their advice.

Otherwise it’s been seed sowing season for me. I’m always trying different techniques. This year I decided to avoid the seed tray / pricking out stage.  The tomato seeds were all from last year, I’d chosen the seeds from some nice fruit, cleaned and then dried them on kitchen paper. Then I simply cut out the paper with seeds on and put them straight into paper pots with a thin layer of soil on top. I did these on the 19 March:

Here’s what they looked like on 25, less than a week later:

Each paper pot was then plonked in a bigger pot and all but the strongest seedling cut, leaving a single one to grow. It was so much easier and quicker than pricking out individual seedlings and transplanting them. Alongside the toms there are now pots of gherkins, various types of squash, broccoli, sweetcorn and goodness knows what else. There is only one slight problem: I have no idea where these will all go as the raised beds are already filling up and the original beds are still abandoned.

March has not only seen changes in the garden but the village too but these again (some more sad news unfortunately, along with the latest on the roadworks) will be for another post. I’ll leave you with yet another video of the javali who, we hope, we have managed to keep out of the garden at long last. Here is one enjoying a good scratch in the field next door. I love their wagging tails!

Plant of the Year Award 2018

Plant of the Year Award 2018

New Year’s Day was lovely. We sat on the green bench (one of Richard’s very first woodworking projects which is still going strong) enjoying the surprisingly warm winter sun. Then we heard a strange noise. We looked at each other, and then looked over towards the chooks. There was Skittle, wings held out wide, standing high on feathered toes and head thrown back. He opened his beak and crowed again. Yep, he. Sir Skittle it seems after all. Putting off what to do now (coq au vin seeming less likely) we left all three together but when I tried to record Skittle crowing I found myself filming this instead (not for the faint-hearted):

Poor old Rocky, and you can see Hattie making sure she wasn’t next. Since then Skittle has been rather too keen on Rocky and as he can’t share his advances with other hens they are now separated (witnessing Rocky squawking and running away from Skittle made it an easy decision). They are still near, and can see each other through the fence, but until we have some more hens we are keeping the girls and boy apart. There has been something nice though about hearing a cockerel doing his cock-a-doodle-dooing, it feels like we have a proper farm.

We have two orange trees in our courtyard. Every January we are reminded how lucky we are to have them. This year I made our regular batch of marmalade and Richard made vast quantities of orange juice for the freezer.

This year I also had a go at making some orange leather from the left over pulp. Normally the leather is made from summer fruits and allowed to dry in the sun but the oven was fine too.

We’ve already had some for our walking trips.

And as I have got back into making bread every week we enjoy toast, marmalade and juice of a morning with a certain amount of smugness.

The courtyard is also home to our plane tree which gets pollarded this time of the year. It always look so forlorn with its haircut.

Another task has been to stack our year’s supply of wood. We have been having something of a saga over buying a new wood burner, and getting it installed, but we’re really hoping it’ll all be done for next month’s post. The fact that the boiler has been on the blink much of the month hasn’t helped.

Another big project on the go is the making of raised beds. Hattie and Rocky here are inspecting Richard’s handiwork, again full update next month.

But it’s also that time of the year to find out who’s the lucky winner of the Casa Azul Plant of the Year! And this year it goes to the trusty toms. I’m not sure how many different varieties I had last summer: there were cherry ones, plum ones, heritage ones, yellow ones, black ones, large beefsteak ones and normal round red salad ones. Some were tall and staked, others bushy. I think I’m right in saying that they were all grown from seed I’d kept from the year before which is marvellous. I should be able to do the same this year too.

And not only did they do well, and taste great (and were all free!) but many were then preserved: roasted, made into passata, sun dried and/or frozen.  The freezer is packed with bags of sauces!

In fact if I had to choose my favourite crop it would be the tomato.  They’re easy to grow really, come in such a wonderful range of shapes and colours (in the past we’ve had the stripey ‘tigerallas’ too), taste so much better than bought ones and are just so versatile.  They also smell nice too. We had them from July until early November.

We’ve been making the most of the sunny weather away from Casa Azul.  Nothing nicer than having a seafood meal on the beach:

You’ll be pleased to hear though that rain is forecast now until the end of the month. Sun and rain with a touch of frost: the perfect month 🙂

 

Leslie, lichens and little chick

Leslie, lichens and little chick

The clocks have gone back, the wind is cold, some potted plants have been moved to frost free areas and all the outside cushions and paraphernalia have been brought under shelter: autumn is well on its way. This blog post has ‘change’ as its theme.

First up is Leslie. Now, I don’t know about you but there’s something strange about calling a hurricane ‘Leslie’. It just doesn’t sound right. According to Wikipedia, ‘Hurricane Leslie was the strongest cyclone to strike the Iberian Peninsula since 1842. A large, long-lived, and erratic tropical cyclone, Leslie was the twelfth named storm and sixth hurricane of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season.’ Well, funny name or not, we were all waiting for the tempest of a lifetime (remembering the storm of January 2013 when we lost power and water for three days, an olive tree and the local bus stop) but in the end we managed to escape lightly. We were, however, on the fringe as Coimbra district was in fact the worst hit.

One casualty was the pergola on the threshing square. Firmly cemented into rocks and built of sturdy beams it took off, the vines acting as a sail. Luckily the plum tree stopped it from falling out of the square. We think it’s repairable. On the right shows the structure a year ago, on the left is what it look like now:

Our neighbour’s peach tree was blown in half (and we got such lovely peaches from it last year!) and on our various walks in the local countryside there is evidence of some of the strong gusts.

Elsewhere Little Chick is no more. No, not in a pot. She (fingers crossed) is just not little anymore. And sadly, less loved by her step mother. One day Hattie was by her side, making sure she got the best of the raspberries, clucking if she went too far, and sleeping together. Now, Skittle (new name!) is bottom of the pecking order, bullied a little in fact. She must feel quite confused going from fussed over to pecked at. Anyway, she will grow larger than her fellow feathered friends and no doubt will get her own back in time.

Change too refers to the new dye colours I’m seeing as the lichens turn green to dusty pink. I have decided to write about my dyeing experiences separate from this blog (hurrah, says Richard). For those interested just follow the Natural dyeing link on the right under Pages (or if you really interested check out my Etsy shop ).

And our courtyard has a new addition, many thanks to my friend Sue for bringing one of her wonderful ceramics for us on a recent visit:

Otherwise, some things never change.

The sun still has its hat on in October which means continuing to have lunch outside. We’ve been busy with typical October tasks: figs have been made into chutney, made into jam, bottled and stolen by Jussi; walnuts have been gathered (we still have loads from last year!) and stolen by Jussi; the pond has been cleared and the leaves swept up. There are still cherry tomatoes to be had but otherwise the veg patch is a sorry sight. The three hen paddocks have been cleared, the brambles hacked away as much as possible and all the debris burned. We have yet to light our first fire but Richard has been doing things with the wood pile.

So that’s it for another month. Rain and almost freezing temperatures are set for the days ahead. Leccy blanket time.

August Yo-Yo

August Yo-Yo

Burrs? What Burrs?

We learnt a new word in Portuguese today. The news was talking about the weather and referred to it as ioiô. Yes, yo-yo. Indeed very high and very low. Richard’s weather station, if I remember correctly, measured over 44C, a new record for us. That was at the start of the month, out of nowhere it seemed this scorching heat that kept us indoors, the fan full blast and the duvet kicked to the floor. Either side of that, however, cooler temperatures, misty mornings and a feel of autumn in the air. It’s settled a bit since then: the last few days have been just a normal ‘hot’, but it’s still a bit chilly first thing.

So, says Richard, what on earth happened in August?

Well, it seems we found ourselves collecting elderberries from a friend’s tree; these were turned into liqueur, jam and cordial. We said a tearful goodbye to Spot the dog although Betty was less upset. A play fellow he turned out to be but in the end Betty is The Boss and little Spotty was sometimes getting far too much attention. Somehow, he ended up sleeping on the bed each night…

The house smelled of tomatoes:

Everyday a batch would picked to be roasted. These were then frozen or, if they were Italian plum tomatoes, whizzed in the mouli for passata. And we are having endless salads, the yellow ones making a colourful addition. And many of the cherry toms have been sun dried. The peppers are eventually doing their thing:

Little Chick is over 7 weeks old. Richard is particularly unpleasant about our latest feathered friend. He thinks it’s growing far too slowly and should up its game. I remind him that, although the ducks and ‘roasties’ are ready for the chop at this age that is really not natural. They have been bred to put on so much weight so quickly that anyone foolish enough to keep a roastie alive for too long would realise, with some horror, that it can no longer stand, its weight far too heavy for its legs. Little Chick is growing at a normal speed. We still have no idea yet if it’s destined for the pot or not…

And yes, there has been more time to experiment with the dyeing. Hurrah!

In fact, so much time has been spent on dyeing there is an embarrassing pile of colourful skeins mounting up. Luckily I have hatched a plot with a friend of mine to have a stall at a local market where I’m hoping to sell some (and she her every growing bundle of knitted toys and dolls).

So a strange, unsettling summer in many ways. Despite the huge fire in Monchique we have yet to see one single plume of smoke, quite bizarre after last year’s catastrophe. But a welcome change that’s for sure. For Jussi, autumn can’t come fast enough:

The heat and the dust

The heat and the dust

So let’s start with the bad news: 61 dead, so far, in the worst forest fires in Portugal for many years. Fires continue to blaze since Saturday in some places and new ones pop up all the time. The firefighters are exhausted, their heroism is extraordinary. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures and videos yourselves. Despite this we count ourselves as exceedingly lucky. We have the smoke, the ash, the drone of the helicopters, the intense heat of a 40° sun but we are safe and sound. Until the weekend I was lamenting the fact that the temperatures were affecting the vegetables but now I realise losing some of this year’s crop is nothing compared to those who have lost all.

It’s been very hot, of course, for the chickens, all three batches. The ‘roasties’ seem to suffer the most, sitting panting on the ground dipping the beaks into the water. Ah well, Richard is sharpening his knife so they won’t be suffering for much longer! The new hens, we are really pleased to say, are continuing to grow well. The eldest black one laid her first egg 27 May and has since been laying every day; perfect, nut brown eggs.

Many years ago, we saw that one of the fields allocated to the hens had little shade midday so we planted a couple of lime trees. It gives me great joy to see our new hens sitting under them, exactly as planned!

The veg patch is bursting with growth, somewhat curtailed by the heat, but battling it out. Far too many crops to mention here but we are eating the cucumbers, a little celery, the parsley, the runner beans and I’ve already pickled a jar of gherkins. Oh, and the courgettes of course.

The sweetcorn should be ready soon and some of the many tomatoes too.

Fruitwise we are eating the raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries. Having our own eggs again means ice cream is back on the menu so we’ve had some delicious gooseberry and elderflower ice cream. The neighbours’s peach tree put on a good show again for us too.

We are really hoping for a bumper crop of plums. Alas, our Stanley plum tree has died – such a shame when we had so many last year and they were just so delicious. The redcurrant almost died, a few twigs left only, and the blackcurrant also died. At the end of the day some things can cope with the freezing temps (remember it went down to -6° quite a few nights over the winter) and blistering heat, and others can’t. The red and yellow plums, damsons and greengages will make up for that we’re sure.

Meanwhile, back in the courtyard, it’s looking lovely since being painted and the pink against the blue is surprisingly striking. Just a shame it’s too hot to sit outside and enjoy it – ha!

Finally, the most important things in our lives are also fine. Less lively in the heat…

…but thankful for the cool of the outdoor ponds.

Richard has just come in from watering the garden. He says there are more helicopters over the valley from us and a new fire has broken out. With the summer just starting these are certainly unsettling times.

Hens back on track

Hens back on track

After the disappointment of our Orpingtons, we happened to meet an old friend who told us that she bought her chickens from Miranda do Corvo market (not far from us) and that they had a wide variety on sale. We had not been to this market before so we decided to give it a go and picked up some more chickens. A couple of weeks later we are really pleased. Although the seller wasn’t sure what breed he sold us, after a search on the internet we are fairly sure they are crosses between Rhode Island Reds and French Marans. Two of them are Bluebells – the Bluebell sisters and the other is now known as Rocky. We still have one Orpington – Bright eyes. And one of them has already been laying eggs for a few days – beautiful brown ones.

A bluebell sister

Rocky

Meanwhile our two original hens have officially fully retired from laying duties.

And in the third pen the roasties and ducks are about ready for the chop. Once they can eat from the feeder while sitting on the ground definitely means they are ready!

roasties and ducks