Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Reader, I married him...

As you may have noticed, I've been a somewhat distracted from my blog these past few months, and now it's time to offer an explanation as to why. During late spring and early summer, life at Newhouse Farm became busier by the day. There were so many seedlings to be planted and tended to, weeding and digging that would cause my back to ache and burn in the sun, and of course the animals perpetually needed to be cleaned out, rounded up, or in the case of the chickens, defended from rat attacks and the overly amorous attentions of the cockerels.

I began to realise that, instead of constantly having to ask for advice from Dick and James, I was starting to develop an air of confidence and independence around the garden. I knew what needed to be planted and where, and what tasks to keep myself busy with during the lengthening sunny days in order to ensure the vegetable beds looking ship-shape and productive. I'd been living at Newhouse Farm for over a year now, and I was no longer the befuddled city slicker who arrived one snowy February morning and couldn't tell her beans from her brassicas. With a perpetual layer of dirt beneath my fingernails, and a healthy tan from long days in the outdoors, it appeared that my transformation from city girl to land girl was almost complete.

By the beginning of Spring, whilst the fruit trees were covered in delicate blossom, I acquired three little garden helpers. Unable to resist the temptation that lurked within a mound of smooth, alabaster eggs that I found hidden in the goose house beneath a bed of straw and feathers, I decided it was time to whip out and dust off the Brinsea 200 Octagon Advance... in other words, the incubator. Less than a month later, and catching me unawares and unprepared once again, three goslings burst out of their shells and into the wide world. These three little hooligans rapidly grew and started following me around the garden as I went about my daily activities. They'd sit with me whilst I sowed seeds and potted up seedlings, tear leaves off tender young plants whenever my back was turned, and generally made a very adorable nuisance of themselves.

But now it's time to be totally honest with you, and confess to a secret I've been keeping ever since I started this blog. And no, it isn't to do with geese, or pigs, or turkeys, or ducks or any of the other animals that have provided a constant source of inspiration for me to create this blog around. It wasn't merely the increasing list of garden tasks and the attentions of my latest incubated brood that was keeping me distracted from my blog. Something of an altogether more romantic nature was filling every spare minute of my time. Newhouse Farm was to host a grand event in the early summer that the entire household was getting increasingly excited about... a wedding.

It wasn't solely the appeal of working in the great outdoors that finally tempted me to leave everything I had in London and head to Cornwall. A certain person had more than a little to do with convincing me to take the plunge and head for the unknown. As the seasons went by I fell in love with this alternative lifestyle and the realm of new possibilities that were opening up before me. And what's more, I also fell in love with the aforementioned certain person... James Strawbridge. We first met in an air-conditioned television office in Central London, he proposed to me whilst I was sweaty, grubby and somewhat grumpy after a long day of bramble bashing, and I am absolutely delighted to announce that we married at Newhouse Farm this June surrounded by our family, close friends, and farm animals.

James and I chose to hold our wedding celebration at Newhouse Farm as it was the very environment that had brought us together in the first place. Booking ourselves into an anonymous stately home just wouldn't have felt right. What's more, we wanted to strive to make our wedding as 'green' as possible, with local and seasonal food, British grown seasonal flowers, and even good ol' fashioned slow transportation in the manner of two Shire horses and a cart. Alas, despite my efforts to the contrary, I still ended up buying a dress from a high street shop, but hey... nobody's perfect!

Which brings me, sadly, almost to the end of my blog. I've decided that for the time being I cannot devote as much time to keeping it up to date as I'd like to, so I feel it's best to end well on a happy note. However there's one last tale to tell... of Honeysuckle the gypsy caravan and Pegasus the tractor. Coming soon...

HOW TO STRIVE FOR A 'GREEN' WEDDING... a few tips from me

Food, food, glorious food. We are absolutely spoilt rotten with glorious locally grown, seasonal food in this country. So why not build your menu around local ingredients that are in season, and therefore absolutely delicious, at the time of your big day. Rather than being restrictive, this is actually great fun and provides a unique, memorable and downright tasty experience for your guests.

Flowers. Local and seasonal aren't just terms that apply simply to food, but also to flowers. More and more florists are springing up that cater for the increasing demand for seasonal flowers, grown in the UK rather than abroad, and that are not only pleasing on the eye but come with a much smaller carbon footprint. Once again, thinking seasonally with flowers provides a chance to really get imaginative and creative. With a June wedding, I chose to go for a 'hedgerow' kind of look, and found a marvelous flower company who managed to transform my hazy ideas into some beautiful bouquets. www.flowerpatchcompany.co.uk

Dress. I've got to admit it, this one is a really tricky one, as I'd argue that a bride's dress is perhaps the most important item of the day and, as I confessed, I hit a stumbling block here. There are couple of options for the eco-minded bride: either to buy a second hand dress (there's lots of websites where once worn dresses are listed), or buy a dress (or have a dress made) that uses organic fabrics that are produced in a sustainable way. I came across some gorgeous fabrics made from hemp, organic cotton and peace silk... it just takes a bit of searching.

Transport. The problem with weddings is that they tend to involve people trekking from all over the country, and often from all over the world, in order to attend your special day, and all this traveling tends to cause a whole load of dreaded carbon emissions. But fortunately, all is not lost, as there are several measures that you can take to help. a) Try having your wedding reception near to the place where your wedding ceremony occurs to cut down on transport needed inbetween. b) Encourage your guests to travel by train, or help to organise car sharing for those traveling from the same area. c) Rather than booking a limo or a classic car to whisk you away, why not use horse power instead, such as www.piknashirehorses.webeden.co.uk. What could be more romantic than heading off into the sunset with a horse and carriage?!

Booze. There's a huge variety of organic wines available today, but if you really want to impress your guests then why not consider UK grown wine. We're a bit spoilt for choice in Cornwall with several local vineyards that produce some delicious wines and proseccos: Camel Valley, Polmassick Vineyard and Bosue Vineyard to name a few favourites. And there's plenty of other British vineyards to choose from, as well as an amazing selection of local ales. However if your budget is limited, why not make your own booze! Depending on the time of year you could consider making elderflower champagne, mead, cider, sloe gin, pea pod wine... the possibilities are endless!

Cake. Don't let the hens suffer for the sake of your cake! Free range eggs from happy hens... simple! Any decent cake maker should be able to bake you a cake made with free range eggs, and if they don't then I don't think they're worth even considering no matter how fancy their icing is! And if they're using UK grown sugar, organic flour and butter, so much the better. Personally I'm not a fan of marzipan or tons of dried fruit, so a traditional wedding cake was off the menu for me. And also my budget was running pretty low by this point, so I opted to bake my own mountain of cupcakes crowned with a goose and gander! If you can't be fussed to do it yourself there's load of companies out there, but here's one I can recommend that has one of the best named websites ever: www.cakeadoodledo.co.uk

Thursday, 11 March 2010

A Crab Apple, With Love

Mother's Day always seems to sneak up and catch me unawares, one way or another. Last year as Mother's Day arrived, so did seven and a half goslings that I'd been incubating, who decided to hatch out of their eggs several days ahead of schedule, much to my surprise and delight. So caught up was I with becoming 'Mother Goose' to these gorgeous yellow fluff balls who totally captured my attention, that I have no recollection of whether I actually remembered to send my own mum a card and a present to make her day.

So in order to make up for my ineptness last year, I've been thinking long and hard about what to get my mum for Mother's Day this year. Mum - if you're reading this, look away now! Because my mum lives at the opposite end of the country from me, a good 350 odd miles away, the easy option would have been to send her a mail order bunch of flowers. After all, who doesn't love a bunch of gorgeous flowers? Well, me and my newly developed eco-conscience, that's who.

Since I moved to Newhouse Farm I've been learning a huge amount about the questionable ethics and ingredients behind many of the household products we take for granted, mail order flowers included. 'Locally grown' and 'seasonal' are terms that have become mainstream and accepted when it comes the to fruit and vegetables, but it seems to me that the same logic hasn't been transferred to cut flowers. I never used to think twice about ordering a big bunch of cut flowers to send to my mum as a birthday or Mother's day treat, but I never once considered where the flowers were grown and whether or not they were in season.

Now I've discovered that lots of mail order cut flowers are seriously bad news, as many of them are grown overseas in hot houses that use up a lot of fossil fuels to heat the flowers and transport them to the UK. What's even worse is that some flower producers, in order to produce the perfect blooms, use up a huge amount of water from the surrounding area, meaning that the local population has to pay extra just to get enough water to drink. So without wanting to get too doom-and-gloomy, perhaps you can now understand why I knew I couldn't possibly send my mum the usual bunch of flowers for Mother's Day, as my land girl 'green' credentials simply wouldn't allow it.

Instead I've decided to send my mum an alternative Mother's Day gift. Mum - if you're still reading this, you really must look away now! A little while ago I stumbled across a brilliant little company called Tree2MyDoor, who send UK grown trees through the post as an alternative to cut flowers. As my mum is about to move into a new house with an unestablished garden, I thought a growing tree gift would be a much more appreciated than flowers.  After all, a bunch of flowers would only last for a few days, whereas a tree will hopefully last for years and years to come.

The tree I opted for was a Crab Apple tree, which has a beautiful blossom and after a few years will bear lots of bitter little fruits that can be made into jelly or wine. I was intrigued to discover that the crab apple was also known as the 'Tree of Love' by the Ancient Celts. Apparently many beliefs stem surround the humble crab apple, mostly to do with love and marriage partners. One example is that if you throw the pips into the fire whilst saying the name of your true love, if the pip explodes the love is true. Admittedly, I'm choosing to interpret the whole 'tree of love' thing as a more mother / daughter type of love, so hopefully the Ancient Celts won't disapprove.

Happy Mother's Day mum! I hope you like your tree!

Monday, 8 March 2010

To incubate, or not to incubate... that is the question

Oh dear, I've been having a spell of writer's block, which meant that February has disappeared without a trace. But I'm back and have plans to write with a vengeance.

In short, February at Newhouse Farm meant cold, mud (lots of it), some very short glimpses of delightful sunshine and spells of warmth, and much preparation in the garden. The polytunnel has been cleared and the beds have been filled with compost; the greenhouse has also been cleared and the glass has been cleaned so that it gleams; the outdoor beds have been forked over and weeded; and the whole garden seems to be holding it's breath in anticipation of the spring planting. Of the overwintering plants, the garlic and onions that have been stoically growing through the deep winter chill have survived the frost, and the broadbeans are popping their heads up above the soil and adding welcome splashes of green to the otherwise empty beds.

February also meant that the animal inhabitants of Newhouse Farm became incredibly frisky. I shan't go into details (don't want to attract the wrong sort of readers to this blog if you follow my drift!) but the ducks, geese and chickens have been permanently 'at it' for the past four weeks! This is not a good time of year to be a female duck, goose or hen, because every five minutes a drake, a gander or a cockerel is attempting to do you-know-what to you in broad daylight. The Muscovy ducks in particular have been so overwhelmed with spring fever, so tunnel visioned in the throws of their passion, that I'm sure a fox could simply waltz up and walk off with one of them without raising a quack of alarm.

The pigs are still with us, and have grown even bigger and hairier. They've also developed a delightful habit of frothing saliva and dribbling great long threads of spittle whilst I prepare to feed them their dinner. I really ought to teach them some table manners, especially as my hand got coated in their frothy saliva this evening when I attempted to scatter their feed into the trough. I've also been moving the boundary of their enclosure several times, to give them fresh grass and weeds to root through and churn over. The pigs, when they realise they have a new expanse of grass to roam in, get very excited and playful, and start charging around their new enclosure and squealing happily. When I moved the pigs into the turkey's old area, that had a couple of large wooden stakes used as perches, the pigs were elated and started using the stakes as back and bottom scratching posts. Seeing a pig in seventh heaven as it scratches it's behind against a wooden post is a pretty entertaining spectacle, take my word for it!

But the big question on my lips during the past month has been an egg related matter: to incubate, or not to incubate. The geese have been laying so many big, beautiful, pearly white eggs, that whenever I've picked one up and cradled it in my palm I've been filled with a yearning to look after goslings all over again. I've ummed and ahhed, and gone backwards and forwards in my deliberating. It's not a simple case of just popping a few eggs in the incubator and forgetting about them until they hatch - last year learning how to incubate was an emotional roller coaster, and I spent many an anxious night and shed more than a few tears during the highs and lows of the incubating process. No, it is not like watching paint dry! It is a very exciting and tense procedure and the closest thing I've had to a sense of motherhood so far. If this makes me a desperately sad person, I don't care!

So, what's been the result of my incubating pondering? Well, earlier this evening - after a long day of bramble bashing under a brilliant blue, but bitterly cold sky - I found myself lifting a dusty box off one of the shelves in the potting shed, and determinedly carrying it into the kitchen. I pulled back the edges of the box and lifted out none other than (drumroll please) the Brinsea 200 Octagon Advance... my lean, mean incubating machine! Now it's all plugged in and ready to go, and tomorrow morning I'll be carefully placing some goose eggs inside its cradle. You guessed it, come what may I'm intent on being mother goose all over again!

Last year's goslings that hatched on mother's day.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Hens' Visit to the Polytunnel Spa

The big chill had swept snow and swathes of ice in a freezing blanket across the UK, causing temperatures to plummet and sales of wild bird seed to soar. Even Newhouse Farm had received a liberal dusting of snow and ice that had transformed it into a picturesque winter wonderland, despite being in close proximity to the sea which usually prevented the snow from settling. The morning round of letting the animals out of their houses and feeding them now involved bashing and breaking the thick layers of ice that had formed on the various water containers during the night.

The snow-covered ground was soon covered with the tracks of the various animal residents of the farm: some pawed, some clawed, and some that were trottered or webbed. The tracks meandered their way across the snow in a manner reminiscent of the weasels and woozles that perplexed Winnie the Pooh, and revealed the many different journeys that the animals of Newhouse Farm habitually made throughout the course of each day. Nigel the depressed Muscovy Duck's webbed-footprints were the easiest to identify: each shuffling step was placed closely one in front of the other, and his tracks led to his favourite tree where he spent most of each day snoozing, or to the back door where he had a habit of pooping and pinching the dog's dried biscuits.

Inside Newhouse Farm the mission was on each morning to get the fires blazing and raise the temperature within the house above bitterly cold. Soon the sweet smell of woodsmoke surrounded the farm, adding to the crisp fresh scent of the wintery countryside. It was colder than I could ever remember the winter to have been, but the clear blue skies, frosty landscape, and phenomenal sunsets more than made up for the bitter temperatures. What's more the wintry weather necessitated me piling on the many layers of thermals, hand-knitted woolly jumpers, and fingerless mittens that I'd received for Christmas.

The ducks and geese seemed to be oblivious to the cold, jumping into the pond for an icy dip each morning as soon as I'd opened the doors to their houses to let them out. But the pigs weren't at all fond of the icy conditions. They'd spend even longer snuggled up together inside their house having lengthy afternoon naps, until the evening came when they tentatively stepped across the frozen muddy ground to eat their dinner. We made sure that they had plenty of straw inside their house to keep them cosy during the long cold nights.

One of my first activities of the year was to prepare the polytunnel and greenhouse for planting. The beds were still littered with skeletal tomato plants and a few limp rows of baby leaf salad, which needed clearing out and tidying ready for me to dig in a load of compost. As I was clearing the polytunnel of last year's plant detritus I suddenly remembered what James and Dick had told me about the hens. They'd said that each year they put a few hens into the polytunnel to help clear it of slugs and snails that might be hibernating in there, waiting to munch their way through any spring seedlings, plus any fallen fruits that had gone mouldy. I particularly love it when I discover that the animals at the farm can be used to help with tasks and chores, such as the pigs who are natural rotivators and geese who are nature's answer to the lawn mower. So without any hesitation I headed straight over to the chicken run to grab myself a few hens.

Trying to avoid encountering William the cockerel who would be bound to object violently to me stealing his ladies, I snuck into the hen house and as stealthily as possible, grabbed a hen and carried it over to the polytunnel. I repeated this procedure several times until I'd assembled a small gathering of hens. After providing them with some corn, and making sure there was enough water in the pond to quench their thirst, I sat back in a wicker chair in the polytunnel, put my feet up on a stool and waited to see what would happen.

Because the polytunnel was enclosed and protected from the chilly elements outside the ground was dry and dusty. As soon as the hens were placed in the polytunnel they immediately made a bee-line for the dustiest spot and started to take dust baths. First they'd lie on one side and vigorously scratch and flap so that dust would fly all over them, and then they'd repeat this process on the other side. James had told me that dust baths are very hygenic for hens, as the dust helps to kill off any parasites and mites. The hens clearly seemed to be loving the opportunity to pamper themselves, as soon they were all scrabbling around kicking up the dust into clouds, rolling from one side to the other as they preened themselves.

Although there was snow coating the exterior of the polytunnel, the bright wintry sunlight caused the temperature inside the polytunnel to feel quite mild. It suddenly occurred to me that this visit to the polytunnel dust baths was the poultry equivalent of a trip to a spa, and I vowed to treat all the hens to this luxurious experience the following day. After a lengthy session in the dust baths, the hens soon got to work scratching at the earth in the raised beds that lined the polytunnel, pecking at any hidden grubs that they uncovered. They were doing a fantastic job and saving me a huge amount of time and effort by digging over the beds.

The following morning I caught the hens one by one and carried them to the 'spa', putting half of them into the polytunnel and the other half into the greenhouse. Within no time the hens were busy bathing and scratching around for bugs, whilst the cockerels remained outside in the snow looking a bit perplexed. Every now and again the cockerels would emit a plaintive "Cock-a-doodle-doo" as if to say "Where are youuuu?", but the hens weren't listening. This was a girls' day out at the spa, and there was going to be no interference from pesky males to spoil their fun today!

Once I was happy that the hens were content and had plenty of water and corn available I went inside to check my emails, only to laugh out loud at one that I received from a close group of female friends in London. These friends wanted to know if I fancied meeting them for a girls' weekend outing to Bath, where the plan was to spend time pampering ourselves at a spa. The comparison between me and my friends nattering away on our girly spa weekend and the group of hens clucking away in the polytunnel 'spa' was just too funny, and I quickly emailed my friends to let them in on the joke.

Shortly before sundown I returned to the greenhouse and polytunnel to provide the hens with their transportation back to the safety of the henhouse. This meant catching the hens and carrying them one by one, but did the hens want to be caught, oh no they did not. They'd all clearly had a very pleasant day at the 'spa' and they didn't want to leave. Hens can run pretty damn fast when they put their mind to it, and I had to dodge and dive in the dirt in an attempt to get my hands on them. There was a lot of clucking, flapping and swearing as we all charged up and down and around the polytunnel as the sun gradually sank lower in the evening sky. Eventually, dusty, angry, and with a very sore back I managed to return the final hen to the hen house. The hens had clearly had a great day's respite from the wintry weather, and had thoroughly repaid me by eating up lots of hidden grubs, but from now on only one us was going to be visiting a spa and that was me!

(Pictured to the right: Hobbes the cat having a sneaky afternoon nap amongst the clucking ladies.)

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Hello World!

It amazes me how many hits my blog seems to get from international visitors. Who'd have thought that my tales of turkey traumas, gallivanting geese and depressed ducks could be of interest to people across the Atlantic ocean, or from even further flung climes.

This has been heightened in the last 24 hours thanks to an article written by somebody called Tim Handorf which gave a lovely mention of my blog and placed it 4th on a list of 30 farm blogs. Bizarrely, this news seems to have been picked up by a news site in Croatia, which means I'm getting an extraordinary number of Croatian visitors. Zdravo!

To all my new international visitors I'd like to bid you a very warm hello, thanks for visiting, and I hope you enjoy your trip to this blog based on an eco farm in Cornwall. This makes the world seem like a very small place indeed.
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