31 December 2009

Grey and lifeless

We went back to Massassauga Point for a walk today, to blow away some of the Christmas lethargy (brought on, no doubt, from overeating). It has been nearly three months since our last visit, when the Bay of Quinte looked liked this:

The photo below was taken from roughly the same place. The Bay is now frozen solid, so there was no chance of seeing a boat this time, although the patches of snow and the different colours of the ice do make it appear as though there are waves in the bay. It is actually a colour photograph, although it doesn't look like one!

On the way to the conservation area we stopped to take a photo of a derelict house. This photo was originally in colour, but I have turned it monochrome to enhance the creepy atmosphere that seems to surround the building (and to tone down the vivid yellow of the 'For Sale' sign!). I hope someone buys the place and restores the home to its former state; there are so many hideous modern houses on the same road. It would be a great shame if this old one were pulled down to put up another new one.

29 December 2009

Retrospective, 2009

I have a temperamental objection to committing myself to anything like a regular feature on this blog, but last year's retrospective post does contain a summary of events which might be useful in the future. So I'll do it again this year with the proviso that I might not keep up the activity in 2010.

Putting up the greenhouse was one of the big achievements of 2008 and this year we turned our attention to equipping the inside. Three large raised beds were built in February and filled with soil over the following months. Since then, they have been occupied with a succession of crops: carrots, herbs, lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, aubergine, kale and broccoli. I was still harvesting tomatoes in November and we ate the last fresh tomato at our Christmas party on December 20th. Needless to say, I am delighted with the greenhouse and hope to put some more raised beds in there next year.

The vegetable garden beyond the greenhouse did well again and we harvested the first few spears from the asparagus I planted in 2008. I grew onions from seed for the first time; that harvest is down in the root cellar and will last a good few months yet. It wasn't such a good year for potatoes (although there are still a fair few in storage) but we got more peas and corn than we did in 2008, though still not enough of either to have any left over to freeze. On the other hand, we did end up with rather a lot of cabbages. I grew too many from seed and no-one was interested in buying baby cabbages at my first ever plant-sale. Despite the disappointing cabbage sales, that was a useful and very enjoyable experience which has given me a better idea of what people might like to buy next year.

We got the first apples, plums and pears from the slowly-growing orchard trees. Actually the chickens got most of the apples, so those trees need to get growing more quickly if I'm ever to get the benefit of the fruit for the human members of the household.  This leads me on conveniently to May's acquisition of the said birds. They've been a source of fascination for me, never having got close to a chicken before. It seemed a long time before we got that first egg, but they're all now laying in a manner that more than compensates for the stolen apples. We lost two of them in recent months: one hen to an unknown predator and one of the roosters to another Buff Orpington enthusiast.

The minor fault with the geothermal system that I reported on in 2008 was fixed and the attic was properly insulated early in the year, giving us a comfortably warm home and saving a considerable amount in heating costs. The solar panels have been in full production since 9 January and over 2009 we've exported one megawatt-hour of power each month, on average. To put that into context, this is equivalent to 90% of the electricity we've taken from the grid in the same period. A longer-term aim will be to export more than we use. Another first for this year was our involvement in the Green Homes Tour. That was hard work, but great fun and led to Mike's five minutes of fame on YouTube.

Inside the house we've done a fair bit of painting: two bedrooms, hall, landing, stairs, dining room and downstairs cloakroom. There's a new white toilet and basin in the latter, too, installed by Mike (his first major piece of plumbing work) and replacing the delightful Harvest Gold* combo that was there before. Our main upstairs bathroom needs similar treatment: the suite there is an almost equally revolting 1970s shade of pale brown (which I'm sure has a similarly misleading name: please comment if you can tell me what it is!). Unfortunately, that job is going to require more major remodelling but I'd like to think that we might be able to get it done in 2010.

*If Harvest Gold is new to you, have a look at another blogger's attempts to make her Harvest Gold bathroom look beautiful.

28 December 2009

Brief interruption

It felt almost like Spring yesterday. The heavy rain of Boxing Day had melted a lot of the snow and the daytime temperature was above freezing point after a ten-day stretch of being below it.

The chickens got to roam the orchard for the first time since the big snowstorm on 9 December.

This morning, though, it's back to regular winter.

27 December 2009

When life gives you oranges...

We were given some grapefruit and oranges by a generous neighbour and I'd run out of the marmalade I made in February. Usually I'd wait until I could get Seville oranges, but they might not turn up for several weeks. The combination of a surplus of citrus and a paucity of preserves determined that this should be a marmalade-making morning. I used the same method as in February, but this time with a mixture of grapefruit and oranges.

Eating this will be like having sunshine on toast for breakfast: just what we need in the darkest days of the year.

24 December 2009

Four hens a-laying

The hens don't seem to be missing their erstwhile lord and master too much. We got a record-breaking eight eggs from them yesterday and they've been queuing up to use the nest boxes today, too.

And then there were ten

It was an odd journey to work yesterday. Next to me in the passenger seat was one of our roosters, on his way to Deseronto with me. We ended up with two male birds in our batch of twelve supposed-females and I had been thinking that we would have to kill one of them until I heard that another Buff Orpington-keeper might be interested in taking one off our hands as breeding stock for his hens.

The dominant one (known as Cocky) has been acting increasingly aggressively towards me (less so to Mike), so there was little debate as to which of the two would be sent off. Consequently, I packed him into a cardboard box yesterday morning and drove off to work with him next to me. I was worried that he would try to escape from the box and generally be a road-safety hazard, but he was as good as he is golden. Which made me feel guilty about getting rid of him.

When I arrived at his new home I was greeted by the man who was to take custody of him. He had blood on his boots as, he explained, he had just killed one of his own roosters. One that had been acting aggressively. I hope Cocky behaves himself...

Here he is in a photo taken last week, in characteristic 'king of the castle' pose with some of his harem around him. The pretender to his throne is also in this picture. Things should be more peaceful in the hen house now.

22 December 2009

Growing tips

One of our neighbours gave me some amaryllis bulbs last month. I've never nursed amaryllis plants into life before, so have been watching them with interest. One of the five seemed unresponsive to my tender care but this morning I spotted a small green shoot emerging from it. Usually I'm hopeless at looking after houseplants. Keeping these in the kitchen where I notice them more often seems to be helping. I dug the rosemary plant out of the garden last week and have placed it next to the amaryllis pots. So far, that is surviving, too, unlike last year's specimen which I put in the basement and completely forgot about.

It's good to have something that's actively growing while everything outside is frozen and white.

18 December 2009

Another sunrise

So, what I was saying yesterday about it not being long before the lake would be frozen turned out to be more accurate than I expected. Couldn't resist taking a chilly walk along the side of it this morning to catch the sunrise reflected in the ice (before it gets covered with snow!).

17 December 2009


The lake is not yet frozen, although it won't be long before it is. The cold weather and the waves generated by the high winds last week have left some strange and beautiful ice-sculptures along its banks. I like the Santa-beard on our neighbours' bent willow tree:

All down the lake the trees have been decorated in sparkly dangles of ice:

The shapely icicles on this fallen branch look striking with the light behind them:

Ice creatures

Cold enough this morning (-15°C/5°F) for delicate ice forms to appear inside the double-glazing. This could be a moth, or maybe a bird:

This one looks like two spiders:

14 December 2009

Turkey trot*

A soothing mixture of colours at the almost-frozen pond yesterday.

The area was being visited by a group of wild turkeys when I turned up with the dog. When he arrived they took off into the trees, with much heavy beating of wings. I've never managed to get a close look at them, thanks to Toby, but did manage to grab a distant shot of one, before it flew further away.

They left behind ample evidence of their visit. The footprints made me feel as though I were following a treasure-trail created by someone who was determined that I shouldn't lose my way.

*I was interested to learn from Wikipedia that the original dance of this name gained its popularity after being denounced by the Vatican (a pre-Internet version of the Streisand effect?). According to the New York Times, the newly-elected US president, Woodrow Wilson, cancelled the traditional Inaugural Ball in 1913 because
he feared there would be indulgence in the "turkey trot," the "bunny hug," and other ragtime dances, and thus provoke what might amount to a National scandal.

12 December 2009

New layer

It is hard to know how many of the chickens are laying (or not laying) now, but I think we can assume that the egg on the left here is from a hen who is fairly new to the game!

The egg was the perfect size to make an egg wash for the batch of mince pies I made this morning. The mincemeat filling was a cranberry and orange one, based on a recipe from Lakeland [which has now vanished - but this one on the BBC site looks very similar]. You cook the apples before making the mincemeat, which wasn't a method I'd used before, but the results were fantastic. I'd go as far as to say that this is the best mincemeat I've ever tasted. The only changes I made were to replace the regular suet with vegetable suet and I didn't have any walnuts, so I put slivered almonds in there instead.

11 December 2009

Snowy sunset

I was whining earlier this month about how cold it was as I waited for a decent photograph of the setting sun. While taking today's photo, the wind was blowing at 22 miles per hour and the outside temperature was -6°C/22°F. The 'feels like' temperature was a brisk -17°C/1.4°F. I don't know what I was complaining about on Sunday when the equivalent temperature was a positively warm -4°C/28°F.

09 December 2009

Fake winter, real winter

Tuesday morning dawned bright, with a civilised sprinkling of snow on the ground.

It had fallen gently in a windless night, creating delicate highlights on the trees and little white hats for the seedheads of the Queen Anne's Lace plants.

"This isn't too bad," I thought. "Maybe winter isn't as awful as I remembered it."

Today the real winter came. High winds, heavy snow and a horrible drive to work. The sort of journey that demands intense concentration and leaves you feeling washed out for an hour after you've finished travelling. This kind of winter doesn't look or feel pretty.

Now that's more how I remember it.

08 December 2009

Light alighting

A chickadee inspecting the Christmas lights.

06 December 2009

Next season

Tonight's was one of those winter sunsets that keeps you pinned to the spot as it tempts you with the promise of being even more photogenic in another five minutes. Never mind that there is a chill wind blowing across the fields towards you and that your thighs are beginning to freeze; you stay, beguiled, hoping to be there for that winning moment.

I've just realised that this is also what supporting a sports team must be all about. Now I get it.

04 December 2009

Disaster recovery (again)

If you were reading this blog back in January, you'll perhaps remember that I resolved to eschew supermarket drink cartons and snacks for the children's school packed lunches and, instead, provide home-made sweet snacks for them. I even got around to posting some of the recipes on the blog, too.

In August, with the new school year fast approaching, I decided to make a huge batch of chocolate chip muffins, which I would then store in batches in the freezer for use later in the year. Luckily, we had occasion to test them before September: we found that they tasted revolting. I had forgotten to add sugar and the overriding flavour was one of baking powder. Not very nice.

For nearly four months I've had this pile of carefully-wrapped muffins in a corner of the freezer, silently mocking me for my incompetence. Every so often Mike would say "What are you going to do with those muffins?", which didn't help at all.

Today I broadcast my problem on Twitter and got some useful responses:
  • Crumble them and turn them into a steamed pudding
  • Use them as the base of a trifle/tiramisu (three votes for this)
  • Make them into something like a bread-and-butter pudding
  • Mix them with a tin of over-syruppy cherries and then add to vanilla ice-cream
I've got so many minging muffins that I think all of these options will be used over the coming months (and if you've got further suggestions, please share them). I started tonight with the bread-and-butter pudding idea. I found a recipe (by a blogger who'd had a similar cake-related disaster) for Twice Baked Chocolate Cake, which I adapted for use with the muffins. I used just milk, rather than cream and milk and I obviously didn't leave out the sugar, as the blogger (Linda) suggests (not this time, anyway). I left the sugary custard mixture to soak into the muffin pieces for an hour so that they would suck up the sweetness and (I hoped) become edible again. The finished product wouldn't win any prizes in a 'most beautiful dessert' show, but it smelt wonderful. The original muffins, on the other hand, looked delicious, which goes to prove what I've always felt about food - looks aren't everything (or even anything).

I didn't tell the children what was in the dessert until they had both declared it "delicious". It was, too. It only used five muffins out of the sixty, so we will definitely be eating this again. Will have to try the trifle/tiramisu plan next...

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.