The poor garden has been sadly neglected this year. I may have had visions of some kind of Victorian cottage garden, but I certainly didn't have a team of professional gardeners, and so my vision has (so far, at least) failed to become reality.
Back at the start of September things still felt fairly orderly. I had beds laid out, apples growing, and we had even strimmed the grass. I'd planted sunflowers, and while yes, I'd had to plonk them in any old place rather than finding somewhere ideal, some of them had grown - not very tall, but they were looking rather cheering.
Back then (and it does feel like forever ago), it was still warm enough to sit outside with a cuppa and do a spot of plotting and scheming.
The signs of autumn were there though, and as we moved into October we harvested our first ever apple and the weather got slightly more inhospitable.
The garden has been quite disrupted these past couple of weeks as we've had to create a temporary enclosure to separate the builders from the chickens. They're not impressed (the chickens, that is - I'm pretty sure the builders appreciated not being followed round by the a hoard of pestering birds), but they do seem to forgive quite quickly (especially when faced with treats).
Now we're near the end of October, and it feels like it's been raining for weeks, although my photographs do give me a slight glimpse of sunshine here and there. Our drive has turned into a bit of a river, with a new (and inconvenient) water feature developing just outside the garden gate.
The clocks went back last night, so our chicken routine has to change slightly. I'd been letting them out later and later each morning and yesterday it was around 8am and they still seemed quite sleepy. This morning with the changing clocks, I went out at 7.15 (which would have been 8.15 yesterday) and they seemed quite content still having a bit of a lie in.
The sun was shining (for once) and if I'd been dressed, or had a pair of wellies that didn't have a hole in (must do something about that) I might have paddled up the lane for a bit of a morning wander.
As it was, I pottered round the garden in my dressing gown (one of the many advantages of living in the middle of nowhere, although I do sometimes forget that there's a public footpath running past our house).
Maybe autumn's not so bad after all.
The start of August was rather soggy round here, and we developed a few new water features.
The sun did emerge eventually, but I confess the garden has been mostly left to fend for itself. Between the chickens, Tiny Hare and the local invading sheep, I've not managed to grow much other than a few courgettes.
Oh, and one raspberry (which was swiped by a passing chicken), and a fairy ring of non-edible mushrooms.
Still, I've had plenty of opportunity to sit in the garden, and even if there's not much edible growing, there is still plenty of lush growth.
The chickens are never far away when I'm outside, and if I sit down with a book they'll often come and join me to sunbathe.
The apples are developing on the trees, and at the end of August everything looked relatively peaceful. I definitely need a more coherent plan for next year though. I've planted seeds in the greenhouse and then not watered them, planted things out and not protected from the chickens, and generally wasted my time and barely grown any food. Sitting around is all very well and good, but I do want to grow things to eat as well.
I'll tidy up over the autumn and winter I think, clear my stock of old (goodness knows how old) seeds, make my beds a bit more raised, install a couple of extra water butts, and make a decent plan. Watch this space.
My last 'in the garden' post was May, which feels like an awfully long time ago now.
We had rather a lot of rain throughout June and July, and also a small period of sun so hot (for round here, anyway) that I wasn't capable of doing anything for several days.
At the start of June, things were looking good. The plum and apple trees both had fruit starting to grow.
Where did it go? There are still some apples, although not as many as there were, but it looks like we won't get any plums at all this year. Did something eat them? A stray sheep, or deer? Or have the chickens perfected the art of precision jumping when I wasn't looking? They've certainly had the gooseberries off the bush - I caught Rusty in the act.
The garden is looking reasonably tidy after a good strimming session.
The chickens are doing a reasonable job of keeping the weeds out of the raised beds - unfortunately they've also accidentally dug up most of what I'd planted in the process.
The beans eventually made it out of the greenhouse and into the ground (after some rather complicated untangling), but sadly they too have fallen victim to the chickens.
I kept meaning to go and buy some kind of mesh, or chicken wire, or something, but never quite got round to it, and it seems a bit late now. One frustrated evening I wound wool between bean poles in an attempt to 'discourage' them, which worked for a few days, but eventually Bessie found her way in and the others swiftly followed.
So I don't think we'll have much veg to speak of this year, and probably not that much fruit either. The windbreak is coming along nicely though (the chickens can't do too much damage in there other than eat the gooseberries).
It looks significantly better in the other direction, and after a bit more strimming.
I have mixed feelings about strimming. I'm not one for a 'tidy' garden (as you can see...) but it is nice to be able to lie on some grass occasionally without it being taller than you. The raised beds feel much less overwhelming when you can see the edges of them. We ignore the drive for the most part, but when the grass from each side starts to meet in the middle then it's time to do something. We do some bits with a scythe, but my scything skills are not up narrow strips of grass alongside dry stone walls, so the strimmer wins for some things.
There are far too many seedlings still in the greenhouse of course. I really do have to work out some kind of better schedule for getting things outside next year. I leave it later than some people as we're so high up and exposed, but then time runs away with me, and I find it's almost August and my tomatoes are still only three inches high.
Oh well. Even if the garden isn't producing much food, it's still providing us with entertainment. We have a young hare who has adopted us, and who spends probably more time than is sensible for a hare in our garden.
We see Tiny Hare most mornings, and often in the evening too, and if we're sitting still it seems quite happy to lope about the garden while we're there. It's found a nice spot behind the plant pot to wash its ears, and often hunkers down there late in the evening too.
Between Tiny Hare, the bank vole that lives in the wall, the woodpeckers, spotted flycatchers, dunnocks, buzzards, and the young robin that's set up home here, there's always plenty to watch, and we often find ourselves sat on the swing seat with a drink in the evening. Who cares about veg anyway?
We've had some glorious weather round here lately. I stopped on the way to work the other day to take this picture, which I've been meaning to do for months but the conditions have never been quite right (and after all that I snapped in a rush and got the phone wire too - oh well!)
I've been unexpectedly busy at work lately, which has taken up a lot of head space. And the garden is growing, my greenhouse is overflowing with plants that are too big for their pots, and I have slight palpitations every time I look at a dry stone wall as they all seem to be falling down in front of my eyes.
Still, we are here, and things are peaceful aside from the chaffinch that calls outside the window for sixteen hours a day.
And I now have a phone which will take photographs, and will also supposedly let me write blog posts, although this is the third time I've typed this now and it's still not let me post. So while I was going to say that will encourage me to post more often, we'll have to see whether that happens.
In the meantime, here's Bessie flouting the 'no chickens on the furniture' rule.
Chickens very much love the sunshine, and given half the chance will lay about and sunbathe. They mostly seem to do this when we're nearby and, presumably, give them a feeling of safety. They lie down and spread out a wing and a leg, and look for all the world like they're dead. It's quite alarming.
We're spending quite a bit of time sitting outside with them now the nicer weather is here, and they quite often doze off while we're there. It's especially sweet in the evening, when we shut them in their run and often take a cup of tea and sit there ourselves for a while. They potter about at first but slowly settle down and often a couple will shut their eyes and have a rest.
Most of the time they're not resting though. Most of the time they're wandering about looking for treats, or lying in wait outside the back door, or marauding around whatever outdoor project we're trying to do, making a nuisance of themselves.
I wouldn't be without them now though. They give an air of cheerfulness to the place, and I do so love to see them pottering round the garden. I can hear one now squarking outside the front door, hoping to be let in to find a stray apple core (not that there are ever stray apple cores lying around our living room, oh no).
Chicken keeping is much more fun in the summer though. They can spend more time outside, and we can spend more time outside with them. Much better all round.
I'm delighted to report that the new ladies are settling in nicely. Fences have been removed, squabbling has largely stopped, and while there are still two distinct factions (old and new), there is at least some peace in the chicken run (for now, at least).
Rusty is proving to be our new quiet adventurer. She doesn't say much. She's usually the last out of the hen house in the morning, and from what I can see is the bottom of the pecking order. But she's often the first to try something new (although she's only eaten out of our hands once).
Beaky likes to stick her beak into everything, and has an endearing habit of flicking food everywhere. Bessie is affectionate, and is the only one who will voluntarily sit on your knee.
Mildred and Maud have stopped bossing the new ladies about, and have moved largely to ignoring them. They've also stopped laying in their favourite garden bush, and have taken to laying in the coal shed instead. Mildred was even investigating the boot of the car the other day.
The new ladies have been exposed to quite a lot of weather since they've been here. Their first week the sun shone, and they enjoyed their new-found freedom to wander.
Then it got rather wet and windy, and they spent most of their time not coming out of the cosy chicken run.
Today it's snowing.
Beaky managed to fly up on to the arm of the garden bench - but then didn't want to get back down again. I've had to scrape the snow off some of the grass near the chicken run for them (yes, I'm a softie).
Mildred and Maud are old hands now. They were exactly the same the first time they saw snow (Maud wouldn't stand in it at all), but today they just strode off like it was no big deal.
They're heading for the coal shed, which they've recently decided is a more desirable laying spot than either the nest box (too many new chickens hanging round) or their usually preferred garden bush. I caught one of them in there this morning, so I must go back and check how many eggs are nestled among the coal and kindling.
The garden is slowly starting to wake up. At the minute it feels manageable, but I know it won't be long before I'm overwhelmed by mowing and weeding and too many seedlings and Things To Do.
January was rather gloomy and snowy, and I didn't take many photographs. I did turn the compost, and spent an afternoon barrowing the almost-finished stuff to cover a layer of cardboard on the not-very-raised beds. The chickens were a menace, following me from place to place and eventually I attempted to confine them to one bed, thinking they could turn over the soil for me while I worked.
Needless to say, that didn't work, and first one, then another, then all of them escaped and went back to following me around.
I also planted an edible windbreak, consisting of damson, crab apple, blackthorn (sloes), gooseberry, blackcurrant, and elder. It's not very picturesque at the minute, but I have high hopes for a gin-filled future.
February has been somewhat brighter, although of course three weeks of that month were taken up with chicken rehabilitation so not much happened in the garden at all (apart from fortifying the chicken run). Still, towards the end of the month I did manage a few hours of working outside (and even more once I had the thrilling idea to put the table and chair inside the greenhouse.
Of course, the new chickens arrived towards the end of the month, and had their first few days here bathed in sunshine.
The snowdrops are dying off now, and the daffodils are starting to arrive along the drive. We're now two days into March, and today I spotted buds starting to appear on the willow and the fruit trees.
I'm not really prepared though. I never did properly sort out my rainwater collection plans, and when the plastic greenhouse blew down in the autumn I just threw the whole lot (including plant pots) into the garage, so that's going to be a job sorting that out.
Still, the rosemary in the greenhouse has flowers on it already - I'm delighted as I raised it from cuttings from the rosemary in our old garden (which never had flowers - perhaps this one is drier and warmer). That will need planting out somewhere at some point.
But not now. We're forecast rain and strong winds for the next few days so we've battened down the hatches in the chicken run, and I intend to stay inside and cosy by the fire (a real fire, now that I've reclaimed my study from the chickens).
I bet the garden will look very different by the end of March.
Yesterday was a big day.
I collected three new hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust, who had intervened to prevent them becoming pet food (or baby food, or soup).
The new ladies started enjoying their freedom straight away. Bessie immediately lay down in the soil and started flicking it under her feathers, and Beaky rapidly followed suit. They've been in cages for around 18 months so they'll never have dust bathed before, so it's lovely to see them enjoying themselves.
Bessie is the largest, and has the most feathers. She was the first to dust bathe, and the first to jump the temporary fence into Mildred and Maud's territory. She was the first to try the food, and the first to try flying up on top of the temporary shelter to roost.
Beaky is the second largest, with a bare patch on her chest. She's the scruffiest, and like Mildred (who was the scruffiest of the previous batch), seems to be making up for her lack of feathers by bossing the others around. She quickly followed Bessie across enemy lines and started a fight with Mildred and Maud.
Rusty is the smallest and quietest hen. She's darker than the others, with a bare patch above her tail. Beaky keeps pecking at her whenever she passes, and I've made sure there's three bowls of food so they all have equal access (although when I was there earlier, Rusty did nothing but eat whenever she had the chance). She's clearly at the bottom of the pecking order, and I'll keep a special eye on her.
Mildred and Maud don't seem too impressed with their new pals so far. They've done a lot of shouting, and a good deal of glaring through the fence. They didn't take kindly to this afternoon's accidental invasion into their space, and engaged in quite a dramatic battle with Beaky and Bessie which involved two pairs of chickens flying into the air and dramatically bumping chests, and Mildred ending up with a mouthful of feathers.
Mostly they're ignoring the newcomers though, and just delivering an occasional peck through the fence to show who's boss.
We only have one hen house, so they're all sleeping in together, which took quite a bit of arranging last night. I had to wait for Maud and Mildred to go to bed, which was later than usual as they were pacing up and down complaining about the intruders until long after dusk.
Eventually they went to bed though, and once they'd settled, I gently placed the new (rather confused) ladies into the hen house with them.
There was quite a bit of fidgeting, and a bang and a squark - one of the new hens had perched on the partition between the nest boxes, which wasn't really designed to take the weight of a large hen, and which had collapsed onto Maud who was sleeping the other side of it. When I opened the door, Maud looked very bewildered, so I evicted the new lady from the nest box, put Maud back in next to Mildred, and waited til all went quiet.
When I peeked in again, all five ladies were on the perch in a row - and the same happened this evening too.
So I'm hopeful that they can learn to live together, in spite of initial squabbling. I'll be in the chicken run in my pjs at dawn again tomorrow to make sure there's no fighting in the hen house and to supervise breakfast, but I hope they'll settle down soon. The new ladies need to be kept in the run for a few days to learn that it's now home, but Mildred and Maud can come and go as they please, and I hope that by next weekend they'll be showing Bessie, Beaky and Rusty where the best dust bathing spots are.
Well it's been an odd few weeks, and I haven't really felt much like posting here with everything in such disarray.
Our chicken ladies have been living in my study while they recover (and while we fully stoat-proof their run), and this has not been a satisfactory arrangement for anyone.
It's been awful to see Mildred and Maud so traumatised, but slowly, over the course of a couple of weeks, they started eating again, wandering around again, making a noise again, and by last weekend were a pair of menaces again.
Once it got to the point where having two chickens living in the house was as annoying as you might imagine it to be, we felt comfortable letting them wander outside unsupervised. Before that, we'd been out with them, but they were cowering every time a blackbird flew over and spending most of their time hiding in the coal shed.
Now though they are wandering around as normal, dust bathing in the sunshine and playing in the compost.
We have been covering their run and house with quarter inch mesh. Their run is eight foot tall, with wire dug into the ground, and hopefully completely fox proof, and this extra step should ensure that nothing larger than an earthworm can get in (and any self-respecting chicken can make short work of an earthworm).
They mostly seem fine now, but two chickens does not really make a flock, and so we are collecting three new ladies from the British Hen Welfare Trust tomorrow. The new ladies have been living in cages, so are likely to be more threadbare and scared than our previous ladies, who had been in a large barn (they'd still never been outside though). It'll be a big change for them, and a big change for Mildred and Maud, who are likely to be extremely bossy (especially Mildred - Maud is a bit more relaxed about things generally). We'll have to supervise interactions to start with.
Speaking of supervising, our existing ladies have been keeping an eye on our chicken run renovations, to make sure they meet the required standard. They don't seem remotely bothered by all the banging and hammering - a sure sign they're back to normal. In fact they're often found standing on a hammer, or trying to peck at whatever I'm trying to hammer.
This is Mildred yesterday, inspecting the quality of my work. Not sure she's impressed.
This is one of my favourite photos of Hermione, taken just last Sunday when she picked up a shopping list I'd dropped in the snow and carried it around for a while, before deciding it wasn't quite to her liking.
On Tuesday morning, the ladies were uncharacteristically quiet when I went to let them out. Normally there's a kerfuffle, jumping off the perch, squabbling about who will come out first.
That morning when I opened the door, none of them came out.
Fearing the worst, I stuck my head in the hen house. Hermione and Luna lay dead on the floor, and Maud and Mildred cowered at the back with blood on their necks.
I tried to tempt them out, but they wouldn't move, so I ran back to the house for Peter to bring a box. We brought Maud and Mildred inside to see how injured they were, and I went back outside to see if I could figure out what had happened to the other two. The hen house was still locked - the only gap is the air vent, which is less than an inch high. Surely nothing could get in there that could kill a chicken?
I spotted the culprit as soon as I went back outside - the white stoat I'd been excited to see the week before was sneaking around the two ladies I'd left on the bench. I chased it off, and brought them inside too.
Not many vets know about chickens, as it turns out, so we trekked for 20 miles to see a lovely man who confirmed that Maud and Mildred, while badly shaken, only had superficial injuries. He advised us to keep them warm and comfortable, and try to get them to eat and drink something.
Birds in general are quite vulnerable to shocks - you often see them keel over if they fly into a window. But apparently chickens (and pigeons, as it happens) are quite resilient, so the vet was hopeful they'd recover in time.
We set up a temporary hospital wing in my study - and you have no idea how grateful I am that we have that room available. We plied the ladies with treats, but they mostly just stood and stared. It's awful seeing them like this - they're normally so inquisitive and pesky.
The following morning they were still alive, and the room was unsurprisingly beginning to smell. We shifted the makeshift hospital, removed the old curtains we'd thrown down the day before, rolled up the rug, and put down several inches of chicken bedding. Things are a lot more fragrant in there now (although I won't be working in there while they're still using it).
Each day the ladies look a little brighter, although they're a long way from normal. They mostly just stand still, usually next to each other. They will eat out of our hands, but don't seem to touch food when we're not there. Maybe we've become honorary members of the flock (or maybe they just think we'll be on look out duty).
I don't know how long they'll be living in there for. As long as it takes. I can't in all conscience put them back outside while they're still like this. If the weather clears over the weekend we'll take them out for an hour, to see if they regain some enthusiasm for scratching and pecking, but if they're just going to stand and stare, they're much better doing it inside where they can be safe and warm (apparently warmth is the best thing for a bird in shock).
Longer term we'll have to get them some friends - chickens are much happier in a flock. But we won't be doing that until we've fully stoat-proofed the hen house and run, and until these two are showing more signs of life. Initial chicken introductions can be savage while they work out the new pecking order, and that isn't what these pair need right now.
We buried Hermione and Luna among the fruit trees. They were out there just last week, making a nuisance of themselves, scratching around in the mulch and jumping into holes as I dug them to pull out the worms.
We knew there was a chance they'd be eaten eventually, but always figured it would be when they were out roaming free, which they did most of the time. These ladies spent the first 18 months of their lives locked in a barn with thousands of other chickens, and had never even seen daylight when they came to us. They'd reached the end of their commercially viable life and were destined to become pet food. We didn't want to fence them in.
It never occurred to us that they'd be killed overnight while shut 'safely' in the hen house. We'd seen stoats, and knew they might take eggs, or even chicks, but even the local farmer said he'd never heard of one killing a fully grown chicken (although now we know it does happen we've seen other accounts of it too). At any rate, we didn't think anything would be able to get through the tiny air vent.
At least they had five months of freedom and sunshine. RIP little feathery pals.
Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I'm Jenni, and I write here about our new forray into country living, which includes growing food, knitting, baking, wandering around the fields, and seeing which local cafe serves the best cake.