January update.

I’m a few days late here and I’m well aware that we are now into February, but just where has the time gone. January is always a strange month for me as its my birthday and every year the numbers get higher and as my brain believes its still 30 I get more dispondant. This year I got an electric propagator for the said event, it doesn’t top the industrial sized wheelbarrow I got the other year, but it’s pretty darn close!

I started some chilli and tomatoes in it last weekend and the tomatoes sneaked up yesterday while I wasn’t looking and are already a bit leggy. It’s not a problem as I tend to prick out quite quickly so will plant them deep.

In the garden we mainly missed the snow with only a millimetre or 2 Friday night which soon went. We’ve had some sharp frosts though so that has knocked things down.

A few Hardy souls carry on. The hebe is an unexpected treat as we often loose them and usually I move any in pots into the tunnel. This one was just a bit big. The primrose spreads everywhere but usually flowers later, it does look very nibbled though so some bug is still awake. Probably the slugs who are prolific all over the garden.

Here in the tunnel I’ve surrounded the cauliflowers with ash from the log burner to keep them at bay.

The fleece is giving the impression I’ve got a huge spider in there. It’s not needed today but the temperature drops to freezing at night. The poor plants must wonder what is going on. I leave a spider plant amongst them, if that survives I know the rest have a good chance. It’s still going strong this year!

My favourite plants at the minute are this little hellebore I brought for 75p at the supermarket this week. I do love a discounted plant!

And my sarrococca or winter box. It was given to me as a tiny cutting, by a fellow beekeeper, a couple of years ago. It’s very slow growing but these few flowers smell amazing. It promises a wonderful future and will be planted near the house to be enjoyed for years to come.

2019 is looking like being a better year here at the cottage. We have upheaval to face with building work scheduled for the water damage we suffered last year and I’ve had a huge birthday that I just didn’t want, but I’m feeling positive. Funny what a bit of sunshine, a few pretty flowers and some new growth can inspire in you, if you only look for it!

How not to make cherry jam.

In England we have expression that someone is ‘cack handed’. It’s not used much anymore but it basically means clumsy, careless, not very organised or rushing in without thinking. As a child my mum used it regularly to explain to people how I’d got my latest bruise or small injury. I once explained to a teacher that the reason I couldn’t do something was ‘because mum says I’m crack-handed Miss.’ having disputed this and tried her hardest to teach me the teacher conceded ‘on this occasion I really do think your mum knows best’.

Today I struck again.

Having successfully made red onion chutney this morning I decided to make a batch of cherry jam. I found two recipes that both indicated that as cherries are low in pectin I needed jam sugar and I don’t have any. I do however have lots of granulated left from feeding the bees in the autumn and I hate spending money unless I have to, and, I live 20 miles round trip from a jam sugar stocking shop.

One recipe suggested redcurrant juice which again I didn’t have. But I do have redcurrants frozen from the summer. Remembering my good friend had used some in strawberry jam in the summer, with great success, she said, I decided to throw in a handful. That was my first mistake!

I stirred and softened the fruit, warmed the sugar and put the jars in the oven to sterilise. It didn’t smell very fruity so I thought I would try a bit.

Now jam gets hot, VERY HOT and I burnt my tongue, followed by the realisation that I had a mouth full of what felt like pea-shingle. I then remembered that the reason I hate redcurrants, and only really grew them for the chickens who don’t, is because they have pips. Lots of tiny, hard pips.

If you are a beekeeper it is at this point that you will notice that the pips look very like varroa mites and are just as annoying. Having lifted out the fruit with a slotted spoon I sieved the juice and put it back on to boil. The W. I. recipe that had sensibly suggested the juice also suggested a hard boil of that juice with the sugar before adding the fruit.

If only I had listened. It took me half an hour to pick through the cherries. Who realised that redcurrants are exactly the same size as a cherry pip and fit inside the pitted middle so exactly? I now know this!

I also know that they don’t all come out but do float to the top when you jar the jam allowing you, with the help of your reading glasses, to skim off even more. I also now know that 4oz of redcurrant pips go a long way in 4lb of cherries.

Eventually I ended up with nine jars of jam, a kitchen covered in jam, sticky hair and clothes(it’s hard to swap between normal and reading glasses while jarring jam without touching your head/jumper and various other surfaces it seems!).

Now I don’t really eat jam so if my family don’t rave about my new cherry jam and discreetly pick out any remaining pips without a fuss I well might have to gift 8 jars to my lovely friend who clearly didn’t notice the pips when she used them.

If they do like it I have at least another 4lb of cherries in the freezer. I can have another go but maybe I’ll be more organised and juice those redcurrants first!

December update.

Rudbekia in December. Crazy!

What a month it’s been. Miss C and I try to do something christmassy every day during December and this year I think we managed it. She also managed to fit in a fair bit of her maths while I sat working on a homemade present for the new nephew. We baked, crafted and made sweets. Some well and some less successfully, but all great fun.

Now the holiday is nearly over and after a couple of days of sitting on the sofa eating, drinking and being sociable hubB and I had cabin fever. We decided to cure this by going into the garden and cutting down a tree and claiming a bit more of our overgrown land. After 2 days of clearing, chopping and digging we replanted with a Hazel tree and a poor excuse of a blackcurrant I’d grown myself and not looked after enough. They should be happy here, dressed with homemade compost.

It might not look much but as well as the huge tree the ground was covered to some depth with ivy. Over the years ivy seemed a better bet than weeds but it’s tenacious and hard to eradicate once it gets a grip.

The tree trunk is stored for the log burner but the left overs were burnt on other parts of the ivy just to show how thick it all is. I determined to beat it this year. (no I’m not holding my breath while I say that!).

We have also been able to cycle down to the bees. At 14 degrees they are all flying and eating food. That’s not good and starvation will be a real threat for English bees this winter. Although my hives were all fairly heavy going into winter I’ve been supplementing with fondant. So far they have had 2 1/2lb each which is unprecedented in all the years I’ve had hives. It’s a worry but a necessary evil to feed in such warm weather. Although there’s no nectar I did see a small amount of pollen, probably Hazel, going in so there’s some good.

Here’s me adding another pound of fondant to the 4 of my six hives that needed it today. I have never had to wear a suit in December before but then I’ve never seen them fly in such quantity and over such a large area. I even took a sting to the hand, unheard of!

November update.

The weather is still good here with daytime temperatures in the middle teens. However it’s cold at night and this week the trees have finally started giving up their leaves. The whole garden has started to take on the look of autumn at last.

This osteospermum is still looking good and the cyclamen in the summerhouse has finally come into its own after I brought it reduced at the end of last season.

In the polytunnel after removing the summer crops I moved in a lot of pots that needed winter protection.The warmer days have caused an outbreak of mildew and mouldy leaves so I have been cleaning the plants regularly. I have also had to remember to water which is a job I don’t expect at this time of year. With hindsight I perhaps should have left everything outside for another month but at least it’s a job ticked off the list.

The cauliflower seedlings that were eaten by caterpillars are recovering.

Outside the sprouts are a different story

What with the caterpillars still appearing, the wooly aphids and sooty mould and the lack of leaves the poor things are looking decidedly feeble. I’ve not given up on them yet though!

The parsnips look hopeful although the leaves are flopping a bit.

The beds are all still full. Leeks, celery and calabrese in this one.

Raspberries still cropping although they are few and far between now.

The bed of peas still give a few pods but again there’s an attack of mildew which make alot of them unattractive.

Unlike this marigold that has self seeded itself and looks a treat and this strawberry that just might ripen fully.

I’ve harvested two pots of sweet potatoes as well.

Neither did brilliantly in the heat of the summer but I’m pretty amazed by this one which weighs a whopping 2lb.

If only all my veggies were this successful.

October update.

The weather has taken a real turn for the worse. The sun may be bright but the temperatures are cold and last night we even had hail stones that laid in piles. This all seems so much worse when your house still has no heating and falling masonry due to a water leak of phonominal proportions.

Outside the garden clings on.

The dahlias I grew from seed in the spring have been lovely and, although everything else in the bed has gone over, they still flower with abandon.

A heather in my blueberry bed makes up for the death of the actual blueberry bush.

A tray of viola seedlings needs a permanent home. The front garden is calling!

My new strawberry bed is establishing well. A November strawberry would be amazing.

In the polytunnel the peppers and chillies are still cropping and lots of tender pots are ready to over winter.

My cauliflower seedlings were eaten by a sneaky group of late caterpillars but, since planting out, look like they might recover.

My £1 bargain pear tree will be a fun experiment.

The edible fuchsia which quite honestly tastes horrible has got tired of my insults and is not ripening but my bargain bucket herbs are coming on a treat.

Outside the Brussels are struggling with white fly, wooly aphids and sooty mould but give their best.

Mildew has attacked the peas, who gallantly pod on.

Sweet potato still looks fairly green and the onion and garlic bed looks healthy if not a bit weedy.

The same can not be said of the raspberries that have been on their last legs all summer and yet still fruit. Amazing plants and definitely worth the space.

George the cat followed me everywhere today and I struggled to keep his tail out of all the pictures. So here he is, along with Mr Bones.

Happy Halloween.

Autumn sunshine.

It’s been a difficult month here, full of ups and downs, but today has been lovely. For Xmas we were given a voucher to go Segway riding and it’s only now that we have been able to fit it in. We brought an extra ticket for Miss C, drove into Huntington to the venue and spent a happy hour spinning in circles and driving around the woods. Great fun!

After a snack in the coffee shop we went for a walk around Grafham Water. The sun was lovely, the water no so.

For some reason the water was thick and murky and edged with this unattractive foam. A bit worrying for a reservoir we get drinking water from!

On the way home the view across the fields was lovely. I took a few pictures of our big skies to remind me of the sun when winter arrives

Many years ago Miss C asked hubB why there is always one wind turbine in the group that doesn’t work. He told her it’s where Santa’s elf sits to oversee the naughty and nice list. She might not still believe him but she still looks for that turbine.

Today, this was the one.

Christmas may be only weeks away but today it felt like summer still.

Mutant pumpkin

Remember this pumpkin that was brazenly growing up a fence panel?

The plant had reached the roof of next doors garage and although it was loving the sun it was also blowing in the wind and rubbing on the wood so it had to be harvested.

I was curing it in the summerhouse when Miss C noticed it was starting to rot on the damaged part so I decided a pumpkin soup was the order of the day.

We brought it into the house and happily chopped it in half only to realise something wasn’t right.

Miss C instantly recognised courgette genes and started tutting, as only a teenager can. She hates courgette with a vengeance and seeing that she might be getting it in a soup for tea was more than her usual sunny nature could contemplate.

The pumpkin flower has obviously been pollinated by a wandering bee visiting from a nearby courgette plant. The fruit is just all seed with little flesh and smells quite acidic.

Miss C was much happier with the butternut squash soup we made instead!

September update.

The weather here has taken a real turn and we are definitely now in autumn. Although the temperatures have been good we have had more rain and in the last few days a lot of wind

This part of the garden was my pride and joy last week but now with the sunflowers broken and blown over and the dahlias stripped of lots of their petals it’s looking very sorry for itself. Everything in it was grown from seed this year and the whole point of it has always been that I would compost everything in the autumn and leave it bare all winter. That way I can dig out all the persistent weeds and dig in lots of goodness. It also gives me a blank canvas to plant all the seedlings I grow each spring but never have room for.

On the other side of the same part of the garden is this mess

We took down a huge mixed up bundle of trees, bush and weeds between us and next door only to find our neighbour had filled the no-mans land behind it with rubbish. The new fence was put on hold while we cleared it and then life took over, closely followed by a swarm of bees. We had no sooner sorted out the first swarm when another moved in. In the mean time the spare earth called me to plant just a few pumpkin plants,

Which climbed over the weeds and up the neighbours shed and over his garage!

Some butternuts which grew through the hive legs

The bees are using the leaves as landing boards and seem happy. They will be moved next week but for now have enjoyed their close proximity to the garden to build up their reserves.

A couple of summer squash I was given also joined the mix, along with some late sweetcorn and leftover zinnias. They were a plant to far and have not done so well. Like every year I vow not to plant so close next year.

The tomatoes are finishing. The cucumbers have been replaced with peas and I picked 9 more peppers this morning before remembering to blog! These chilli are hot whatever the label says!

Plants outside still look green and lush. The late peas are podding, the sprouts have outgrown their butterfly net, the leeks, parsnips and celery have tons of leaves and the new strawberry bed is flowering.

The rhubarb is still crazy and I have my first ever bunch of grapes. All be it mis-shapen and tiny.

Even the raspberries that look as if they are on their last legs are still fruiting prolifically.

I intend moving them this winter, should time allow. But then we also intend putting in the new fence, sowing a new piece of lawn, cutting down some trees, clearing out an overgrown ivy or two.

The garden is never finished and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Who wants to shop, rest or party at the weekends when you can chop things down, dig them up and make changes!

Changing the eco system.

It’s early days at the apiary. I’ve only been there for just over a beekeeping season, but already the environment is changing.

When we arrived last early summer the trees were smaller. There were a lot of stinging nettles, no sign of smaller birds, no berries on the trees in the autumn. It was very undisturbed down there which was, in part, a good thing.

I was delighted the first time two young crows hopped around my feet and walked with me to the bees. They knew no fear having never seen humans at their young age.

The grass was long and getting through could be difficult, my visits have not gone unnoticed by the local dog walkers many of whom have made special journeys into the copse to see what I’m up to. The grass now has a clear track through it. Good for dry legs in early morning but also a more obvious entry to anyone who wants to be up to no good. Hive thefts/vandalism a regular worry to ‘beeks’.

The trees have grown well over the last year. Considering the copse was planted many years ago this year’s growth seems extraordinary and I think a lot of that is also down to the bees.

The bees have pollinated everything they could get their little wings on. Previously the only thing in the area were the bumblebees and there’s not many of them to be seen because there were no other flowers later in the season to keep them going. My regular journeys and the farmers thoughtfulness in mowing the track to help me, has allowed more wildflowers to grow along the verges. This in turn has encouraged more butterflies and bumblebees.

The smaller birds are also seen in larger numbers. I hope they are seeing all the insect activity in the air and are following it in. Hawthorn and cornus are full of berries this autumn which in turn will only attract more bird life.

The extra tree cover has also given them more nesting opinions and the leaves have blocked some of the stinging nettle growth and allowed other smaller weeds to grow. Miss C has been delighted with the caterpillars she kept finding.

More smaller birds are attracting birds of prey and so far as well as the buzzards, who sit and watch me work the hives, I’ve also flushed out sparrowhawks, kestrels, barn owls, the long eared owl I’ve written about previously and what I think was a goshawk. The trees are a wonderful quiet place for all birds to rest between visits around the villages. The pigeons and ring collar doves are really taking a hammering but they seem to be able to breed almost all year round so hopefully they will cope. The ground is regularly littered with corpses which in turn will attract fox and badgers, both of whom have left evidence of their presence even if my wildlife camera hadn’t caught them!

The trees are showing signs of being nibbled by rabbits or deer as well so I guess they also enjoy the solitude.

In all I claim credit on behalf of my fuzzy friends for what I hope will be the continued improvement to an amazing ecosystem. Let’s just hope it doesn’t become so nice that everyone starts to find it. Humans ruin nature, in my experience, and already empty water and beer bottles and the odd sweet wrapper are becoming a more regular occurrence.

The season’s coming to an end, it’s always sad to think another year is almost over but the future looks bright in one small copse of trees!

Am I a beekeeper or a cruel manipulator?

On social media recently my local vegetable box company proudly announced the introduction of organic honey.

Now as a bee keeper I was instantly interested to know, firstly, how they can guarantee organic status in an insect that flies at will and secondly, how much they sell it for!

If I’m honest I can’t remember the first answer and they didn’t tell the second ( it probably makes Manukau honey look cheap). So I had a quick look in the comments to see if anyone else had asked the question for me.

I was amazed by the strong feelings honey invokes in some people. It’s tantamount to cruelty and slavery to entrap bees in hives apparently and more than that it’s a sin punishable by keeping beekeepers in wooden boxes themselves.

The most popular comment with likes running into three figures was from the woman who has brought three bee hives, put them at the bottom of her garden and is leaving them to live a free and natural life without any input from mankind ( or woman kind in her case!) She is proud that they swarm regularly, ‘wander off and then come back and re-nest’ ( her words) in the spring.

It got me thinking…

Honey bees are a man made insect bred from strains from all around Europe and even the world for their ability to make honey, resist disease and any number of other traits. The ability to live alone in the wild probably never even considered.

Honey bees do naturally swarm, but to leave them to it is often allowing them to die a slow death, as these ones found in the frost last winter.

We do take their honey but a good keeper doesn’t then leave them to starve. We feed alternatives or better still, only take the excess.

Bees get diseases. Sometimes you have to treat with something if you want them to survive, just as you would your pets or children.

Bees are livestock. They need the intervention of humans. They could probably survive but would they thrive without us. In fact in this modern world of neatness and order would they even survive. Let’s face it we aren’t doing such a good job of protecting the rest of the environment or wildlife.

If the most popular poster had written that she went out and rescued a litter of kittens which she then put in a rat infested barn ( all cats eat rats after all) and hadn’t looked at since, would she be so popular. I think not.

Bee keeping may not suit all but like everything, if you are going to do it, do it properly. Be informed, ask questions, take advice and listen to it.

If you genuinely think keeping bees is a crime then don’t buy any and become a criminal. Look for other ways to help the species.

Plant more forage, put in a natural pond, allow your garden to run slightly wild, ( Slightly. I’m not advocating abandoning your plants either.)

Buy local honey. Support local bee keepers. Work with your surroundings and that will support the bees. Then we’ll all be the winner!