30 November 2009

Last tomato harvest

I took the aubergine and tomato plants in the greenhouse down yesterday. They were still alive, but as the temperature is going to drop this week, it seemed sensible to clear them away. I picked some of the remaining tomatoes and was surprised to find one last aubergine/eggplant, too. The pepper plants are still producing, so I've left them in place for now. It seems amazing that we're still picking such things in late November: the greenhouse has made a huge difference, but the mildness of the month has been a significant factor. I'm not assuming that we'll have the same level of success next year.

Elsewhere in the greenhouse the oriental greens are coming on well:

And the flat-leaved parsley is still looking embarrassingly exuberant!

I turned the eggplant, some of the tomatoes and a pepper into a quick and warming winter lunch today.

Two-cheese eggplant bake

1 small aubergine/eggplant
1 clove garlic, minced
1 red pepper, chopped
4 small tomatoes, halved
Soft goat's cheese (about 2 inches of a small cylinder)
1 thick slice bread
½ cup grated cheddar

Heat oven to 200°C/400°F. Bake eggplant until it is soft (this only took about 10 minutes for this small specimen). Put the bread slice in the oven towards the end of the cooking time so that it is crispy, then turn it into breadcrumbs in a blender. Let the eggplant cool slightly and then scoop out the flesh, which should be soft, and roughly chop it.

Fry the garlic and peppers and then add the eggplant pieces and the tomatoes. Turn off the heat and stir in the goat's cheese until it is melted. Pack this filling into two ramekin dishes. Mix the breadcrumbs with the grated cheddar and cover the eggplant with them. Put back into the oven for 5-10 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are beginning to brown.

29 November 2009

A mouse ate my Christmas tree

The festive season is all about traditions, old and new. Becoming a parent means that you get to create customs for your new family and I went about this quite consciously when we had our first child. One thing I bought was a re-usable cloth Advent calendar in the form of a Christmas tree, which I thought would make a good leading-up-to-Christmas tradition for us to have, many years into the future.

This is how the calendar looked at Christmas 2005. You can see that there are small cloth decorations for each of the days before Christmas.

We've used it for ten years now and it is as popular with the children as I'd hoped it would be. I was consequently horrified this morning to find that it had been well and truly nibbled by a mouse. The middle section of the tree was ruined and the lower part of the numbered pouches that hold the ornaments had been badly damaged, with the figures 22 and 23 missing.

Now needlework is not something I can claim to be any good at. My mum had to invent a dentist's appointment for me when I was fourteen so that I could avoid the last dressmaking lesson of the year. I'd managed to completely ruin the blouse I was supposed to be making and couldn't face admitting it in front of the rest of the class. I've never enjoyed sewing since, so the prospect of making good this ruined tree did not appeal.

Luckily the ornaments were in fairly good shape, although the Noel heart at the bottom of this photo had been chewed upon and one of the others, a striped candy cane, had disappeared completely. Spookily, the candy cane was one of only two ornaments that represented something edible. This mouse was clearly smarter than the average rodent.

I was loth to throw the whole thing away and it did look as though it might be salvageable. There's me trying to lead a more self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle, I thought. I should be able to do this, just on principle!

I cut the damaged middle section of the tree out and re-sewed the top to the lower half. It makes the tree look slightly squat, but at least it's in one piece again. The lower part was more tricky, as first I had to patch it with green cotton (taken from the back of the removed middle section) and then create a new red part for the pouches. Child #2 had an old red t-shirt of roughly the right colour, so I used that. I knew that I'd never get the numbers to look right, as I didn't have any white embroidery thread, so I used plain white cotton and they now look decidedly rustic:

At least it's now usable again. I just have to find a replacement for the stolen candy cane. I even managed to mend my broken heart:

I'm hoping that my amateurish repairs will become a new part of this particular Christmas tradition: "Do you remember the year when a mouse ate our Christmas tree?".

POSTSCRIPT: The morning after I wrote this I had an idea for a replacement for the candy cane ornament. Using the old red t-shirt again, half a tissue, a piece of velcro from an old pair of my son's shorts and a piece of ribbon from my (sparsely equipped) sewing box I came up with this:

27 November 2009

Small pleasures

The sun came out after a wet morning and made jewels of the berries of this European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). I can almost forgive the plant its noxious, invasive, non-native nature when it sparkles in the sunshine. The glistening effect proved difficult to capture with a camera, but this photo came the closest:

The other picture which pleased me today was this one:

Any guesses as to what this shows?

UPDATE: Here's the bigger picture: it's a seedhead of Queen Anne's Lace.

26 November 2009


We had ten hens and now we have nine, so our laying flock was decimated in the pedantic literal sense yesterday by some predatory beast. Mike found the birds in their run at lunchtime, which was unusual, as they're usually out frolicking in the orchard. Then he noticed that there was one missing and he found her out in the open, dead, with half of her breast eaten. It was our first loss since getting them as little chicks in May, so it was upsetting, though not unexpected.

For now we're keeping the survivors in the run and hoping that whatever the hungry killer was, it goes elsewhere for its next meal.

22 November 2009

Schadenfreude is the spur

It's a shameful thing to admit, but it was a fellow blogger's foiled plans for this weekend that got me working today. Soilman promised that he'd be cutting down his asparagus and spreading muck. Then the weather let him down.

I had no such excuse: a glorious, windless, sunny day with temperatures nudging 10°C/50°F. My asparagus needed cutting down, too:

Perhaps I would have done the job anyway, but I have an unpleasant feeling that the knowledge that poor Soilman was unable to attend to his allotment was the main motivation. I cut down the old spears, Child#2 carried them off to the compost pile and I weeded the tyre/tire beds. I emptied one of the compost bins and topped up the beds with chicken-manure-enriched kitchen waste. The asparagus/rhubarb garden is looking a lot tidier now:

I'd like to claim that Child#2 helped out for the pleasure of it, but there were frequent comments along the lines of "What do I get for doing this?", which would suggest that the simple joy of gardening is not quite enough for the younger generation.

I had to enlist further help to harvest the parsnips. There's something about the stoniness of the soil here that makes it difficult to extract them intact from the ground. Carrots and potatoes are no bother, but parsnips are just impossible. Mike did a good job:

He didn't ask for any reward, either. He's known me a bit longer, though, so perhaps knows not to expect any! After preparing and blanching them, I ended up with five pounds of parsnip in 64 pieces, now all in the freezer.

There's not much left in the open to harvest now: half a dozen leeks, some pak choi, more cabbages (of course!) and the broccoli, which is still producing well (though probably not for much longer).

I'm sure that next weekend the wellington will be on the other foot and we will be deluged with rain (or worse) while the south-east of England basks in sunshine. Then it will be the UK garden bloggers' turn to gloat over how much they've got done outside...

21 November 2009


It's called an Egg Skelter, really, but I prefer my son's name for it. It was an early Christmas present from my mother-in-law. They are made by a Devon firm, so I ordered it to be delivered to her house and Mike collected it when he took his mum back home in October. I've been patiently waiting for the moment when it would be full of eggs before I took a photo.

I like the simplicity of the design: you add the most recently-collected eggs to the top and use the eggs from the bottom, so that you always use them in the order in which they were laid. The eggs roll gently down the slide as you remove the lower ones. It is supposed to hold two dozen eggs and I notice that we had 25 on there when I took this photo, so obviously our eggs are still on the small side!

17 November 2009

Chicken news

The chickens have been causing some concern recently. This is mainly because they are constantly trying to escape from the orchard. Poor Mike has been steadily improving the orchard's defences since the summer, but they are still managing to breach them. Today we found three eggs in the wrong barn. The dog had found a chicken in there last Wednesday, sitting on a couple of eggs: she had obviously found her way back in there again this week.

We found another hen on the wrong side of the orchard fence at lunchtime and this time we clipped her wing feathers to stop her flying over. The other hen that has been worrying me is the one on the left in this picture:

She hasn't left that nest box for more than ten minutes in the last few days, or laid any eggs. To begin with I thought perhaps she was egg-bound and that was the problem, but she didn't seem to be distressed at all. Eventually I realised that she had gone broody. I knew that Buff Orpingtons were prone to going broody (it means that they make great mother hens), but I honestly wasn't expecting one to start acting motherly after only two months of laying (and I thought it would happen in the spring, rather than late autumn!).

As you can see from the state of her feathers, this bird is popular with the dominant cockerel, so perhaps going broody is her way of having a bit of a break from his attentions...

She was off the nest and eating the evening meal of scratch mix with the others tonight, where the last few evenings she's been resolutely staying in her nest box. I'm hoping this means that she's got bored of the game. In the spring, I'll be happy for her to try and hatch some eggs, but right now I'd rather she was laying. We're still not up to full production yet, but I think there are five laying hens out of the ten at the moment. Will be six if this one gets going again!

16 November 2009

Browned off

The landscape turns sepia at this time of year and you have to look hard to find other colours.

Nightshade berries always look good against the stump fence.

The blue jays have been raiding the bird seed in the mornings.

A few clover flowers are clinging on.

I don't know if you can call a long spell of mild and sunny weather in November an Indian Summer (probably not), but it has been warm enough to confuse this one goldenrod into flowering, while all the others are gracefully greying into old age.

In the greenhouse, the peppers are still, miraculously, going strong.

12 November 2009


There's something a bit other-worldly about milkweed seedpods. Or maybe it's just that they look so prehistoric.

It is hard to believe that these are the same plants that were being so enthusiastically consumed by the monarch caterpillars back in July.

09 November 2009

Postcard from Boston

I'm on another one of my occasional city jaunts. I had some spare time to explore Boston today, so went walking around the city centre, intermittently following the Freedom Trail which is a route marked by a red line around the town. Only intermittently though, as after a very short period of time I decided that I didn't like being told where to go (where's the freedom in that?!). On one of my detours I found myself unexpectedly coming into the Granary Burial Ground by its north entrance. I spent quite a while in this graveyard, which was peaceful and covered in fallen and falling leaves.

It was one of the few places in the city where you could feel connected to the original inhabitants, away from the noise and bustle of everywhere else.

I re-followed the red brick road after this and it took me straight to the King's Chapel burial ground, which is even older. The carvings on the stones have weathered amazingly well:

I suppose it is entirely predictable of me to prefer to spend time in those parts of Boston that are quiet and full of trees and history!

06 November 2009

Here comes winter

This tree stump is the closest our garden has to a piece of sculpture. I love it and have a lot of photographs of it, taken at different times of the year. These three were all taken in 2007 and show the gradual onset of winter.

November 11:

November 22:

December 11:

The middle one reminds me of British costume dramas, when they spray artificial snow around in an unconvincing attempt to make it look like a real winter.

Here's one from 24 January 2008, looking at it from the other side. According to the weather station records it was -9°C/16°F at 11.45am when I took this photo. Brrr.

What does this piece of wood make you think of?

03 November 2009

More 'shrooms

I thought I'd better do another post today in case anyone was worried that I'd poisoned us all last night with the wild mushrooms I'd picked. I did have a shuddery moment this afternoon when I reflected that I'd served them up based solely on information scavenged from the Internet. What if it had been wrong? I'm amazed that Mike ate them without checking up on my identification, though. There's trust for you. I suppose it helped that I was eating them too...

He found these ones today, growing on a stump of ash tree. I have no idea what variety they are, or if they're edible, so have left them well alone. They are lovely-looking though: like glazed bread rolls fresh from the oven.

02 November 2009

Dining on lawyers' wigs

I've been away for a week and the weather has been damp. This has brought forth a respectable crop of mushrooms in the grass of the orchard. These are shaggy ink caps - also known as shaggy manes or lawyers' wigs (Coprinus comatus) - which gradually dissolve into a black ink as they mature in a process known as deliquescence. The ones in the foreground are young specimens, while those behind them are beginning to deteriorate at their bottom edges.

In this photograph, the inky cap is well on its way to disintegration.

The mushrooms are edible, but you have to eat them shortly after they've been picked as they will start to deliquesce* once they are harvested. They don't have the same nasty side effects as common ink cap mushrooms (Coprinopsis atramentaria), which make you ill if you consume alcohol(!). I'm planning to pick some lawyers' wigs for supper tonight. This will be my first ever attempt at eating wild mushrooms. Hoping it won't be my last...

*I think this qualifies as my favourite new word of the week.