Wednesday, 29 January 2014

January in the Chicken Coop

This month our hens have been....

... laying eggs! Well, Pepper has anyway. As with last year she's been the first to end the winter break and is laying most days. We were very impressed that she started again within a week of last winters date, and that gives us great hope that Frog and Lemon might not be too far behind. 

... continuing the festive season. We've been filling the nest box with shredded wrapping paper (avoiding the shiniest stuff) which has been making things bright and colourful.

... enjoying weekends in the garden. While the weeks are spent wallowing in the muddy run, at the weekend we let them out into the garden still where they have a good rummage in the compost heap and scratch through the lawn. We took a sunny Sunday afternoon to get some jobs done in the garden recently and I was reminded of how pleasant pottering can be with the hens wandering around to keep you company.

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Sunday, 26 January 2014

A Winter Trim

Winter is a time of year for clearing up in the garden. With no fresh plants to tend to and the weeds mostly hiding there is space to focus on big things. Particularly trees. When the leaves have fallen and the trees are dormant it is generally a good time to give them a good prune. Fruit trees that are pruned when dormant will sprout more shoots whilst those pruned in the summer are less inclined to shoot upwards. Our apple and pear tree had suffered several years of neglect so I am pruning in the winter to try and encourage new growth that I can use to reshape the tree. This will take several years to achieve as I don't want to lose my entire harvest!

It is important to prune fruit trees to ensure there is space for all the branches (overlapping and crowded branches cause issues), that the branches don't get too long (getting in your way and potentially snapping under a heavy harvest) and to get a desirable shape. It is important to let light and air get to all the branches. It is also worth ensuring the shape of the tree doesn't get in your way. If it overhangs the lawn prune lower branches so you don't hit them when pushing the mower around. Trim the top if it is getting too tall. It might seem obvious but its surprising how long I will dodge and duck under a branch before I get round to pruning it!
If you want to take the shaping further you enter the realms of cordons and espaliers. We are attempting to train a pair of trees to form an espalier arch but as I am still learning with those I won't teach you my bad habits! In this post I will run you through how I prune my bigger trees - do share your approach if it is different. I am by no means an expert.

Joe's Guide to Pruning

The first thing I do when pruning is to try and make sure the tree has space around it. We have several larger trees to the north of the fruit trees. Although they don't cast shadows our main apple tree was starting to look a bit overgrown and crowded.

Next I check for any overlapping branches and for overcrowded areas. Decide which of the branches are healthiest and in the nicest shape and prune the others. Try and catch them when its a year old shoot causing the problem rather than letting it get several years old. If you need to take out larger branches do so carefully. Try and get a clean cut (with a saw if the branch is large) and avoid damaging the surrounding tree as it comes out. Be careful not to create places where water can pool and rot the tree - this happens most at large forks and points where multiple branches sprout from one point.

My parents always pruned with a rule of thirds. If you take a third out you are unlikely to kill it. I tend to do the same with the trees - if it needs a significant reshape (as our pear tree does) take out no more than 1/3 each year. It will be done in a few years and the old wood should still fruit in the interim. It may seem dramatic chopping out significant branches but it is worth considering that a tree should happily fruit for many years. Chatsworth have a fine apple tree arch that is 30 years old and very productive!

Thirdly check for any diseased branches or rot. If the shoots look shrivelled or slightly rotten prune it. Check any forks for rot starting to form. I tend to go over zealous on removing iffy wood. Its not going to do the tree any long term harm if I take slightly more off than I need!

Finally prune for aesthetics and the future. Look at the shape and see if any growth is going in a direction you don't like. Decide which of the years growth you want to keep longer and which wants cutting back. I try and prune mine to one or two buds left if I just want to fruit in that area, or leave it at 6-10 buds for a longer shoot. I don't like excessively long branches so I tend to keep them at that.

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Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Mini Knitting

I love how quickly knitting for babies comes together. By the time I'd thought about telling you I'd cast on a new project, this had happened:

One newborn size hat! Next up, some mini socks.

We have a few friends with babies due in 2014 and I'm quite excited about all the knitting opportunities that this produces. I'm spending lots of time browsing Ravelry for interesting looking patterns and playing with small double pointed needles.

Since battling with dpn's for the sleeves of my cardigan I've found myself using them more and more, I've still not quite got the hang of a smooth transfer from one needle to the next, but relaxing rather than trying to force the tension to be correct seems to be helping. I now seem to knit in the round more often than I do flat.

What are you knitting/making at the moment?
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Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Paperwhite Experiment Part 2: The Waiting Game

Back in November I planted some paperwhites that I had attempted to force into blooming for Christmas. I was a little late in getting them planted but I think it is about time for an update:

Paperwhite watch day 73. Still no sign of a flower bud.

Unless something changes I think this experiment will have to go to the archives of the journal of negative results. The bulbs have given us some extra greenery over the festive period but no flowers! I won't throw them in the compost just yet - who knows what they might do.

P.s. As some of you may have noticed we have not done any Photo Fridays this month. We have decided to take a brief sojourn from these until the weather and daylight improves enough for us to get reasonable photos. Being in the office dawn until dusk limits the times we can be out with a camera! Sorry for compounding any winter blues, we will be back to normal soon.
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Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Drip, Drip, Drip

The new year has brought us a lovely little present. We came home after a weekend with family to that dreaded noise; drip, drip, drip. Yes, the bay window has sprung a leak. After hanging out of the bedroom window with a torch to examine the flat roof we realised there was very little to be done in the dark and wet. Joe pricked the wet points in the ceiling to relieve any water pressure, popped a bucket under it and we went to bed.

The next morning only a mugs worth of water had been collected - it certainly could have been a lot worse. The best news (as leaks go) was yet to come though - it seems it only drips when the wind is coming from a certain direction. It continued to rain heavily over the next few days but no more water came through.

Saturday dawned dry and sunny so we got the ladder out to have a closer look. The roof felt all seemed to be securely in place, which didn't surprise us. If the problem had been water puddling then it would have been a much more consistent leak. The only thing we could see was a slight unevenness in the leading and its sealant. Joe tapped it back against the wall and we decided to leave it at that.

All that remains is to see whether the problem returns next time the right conditions hit us.

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Sunday, 12 January 2014

Life's a Game: 1. Shave a Sheep

One aspect of our life that, up till now, we've not mentioned on this blog is a love of board games. In particular we enjoy hunting down older games from charity shops. While this has a tendency to be hit and miss (we've certainly bought a couple of duds) it has also produced some gems which we'd like to share with you.

Therefore, in 2014, we're going to feature a board game of the month, working our way through the highlights of our collection. Some will be old, some new and some will not be ours but belong to friends.

January's game is Shave a Sheep.

This is the most recent acquisition in our charity shop collection and kept the family very amused over Christmas. It's a simple enough game: first you make yourself a sheep from the Lego provided. Then you roll a dice to try and collect wool for your sheep - but beware, if your sheep looks too good someone might try and swap their sheep for yours, or even set the wolf on you! Fortunately the wolf seems to eat wool not sheep, so all is redeemable.

The best bit of this game in our opinion is the Lego sheep. While you might start the game with a sheep that looks like the one on the box it seems impossible to keep it that way. As other players take their turns you often find yourself fiddling with your little sheep; first you make it longer, then maybe shorter, perhaps switch the eyes and the nose, start checking the box for spare parts... a yellow eye? Thank you very much.

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Wednesday, 8 January 2014

December's unseen crafts

While we were absent we tried not to be idle. Christmas for us was a wonderful mix of busy family moments, and quiet corners in which to sit and craft. Joe found time to get his spinning wheel out for the first time in several months.

This wool was bought at Christmas last year as pre-dyed tops. Joe has been slowly blending and spinning it in occasional free moments all year. He doesn't yet know what project this is destined for, but is pleased with how is has turned out. 

Meanwhile I've finally made a hat out of the alpaca wool I excitedly brought back from Scotland earlier in the year.

I decided to follow this simple pattern, which gives a good texture to the hat, while being quick (and not too dull) to knit.

 Finally, last month I was keeping quiet about the Christmas present I was making for my sister. This is Hoot, from Jane Hissey's Old Bear stories. The yarn was incredibly soft so when it came to it this one was rather hard to give away!

What did you get upto over Christmas?

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Sunday, 5 January 2014

Kitchen Gadget 4. Hand Blender

Happy New Year! I hope you all had fun, relaxing Christmases and ate lots of good food. I know we certainly did. We also put our heads together over the break to come up with a few challenges and series for the blog this year, but we'll be sharing those with you as we go along. For now we're diving straight into 2014 with the next in our series of Kitchen Gadgets.

This month we're taking a little look at our hand blender. This is a gadget that has survived since Joe's days as a student. You'd think that by now we'd have bigger better gadgets for any jobs this might do, but the truth is that it's small, nimble and easy to wash up and that means that it still gets regular use.

It's useful for blending soups without taking them out of the pan they're cooking in and blitzing stale bread into breadcrumbs, but mostly we use it for whizzing up a batter. Be it for pancakes or Yorkshire Puddings this little stick is just really handy!

Toad "in" the Hole
Serves 2 hungry people.

A twist on a classic, we prefer our yorkshires crispy so tend to cook the Toad and the Hole separately. We make no claims that we're the expert on this, but the Yorkshire Puddings seem to come out consistently well risen so we thought we'd share our recipe, which has been cobbled together over the years from a few different places.

For the Yorkshires:
110g plain flour
200ml milk
2 eggs
Pinch salt
Mixed herbs

Sausages for two.
Vegetables of your choice. We roasted some potatoes, sweet potato and carrots to go with our Toad.

Preheat the oven to 220C.

1. Measure out all the ingredients for the Yorkshire Puddings into a pot and blend until well combined. Leave to sit for a few minutes.

2. Put a few ml of cooking oil into each dimple of a deep muffin tin, this should be just enough to cover the bottom of each dimple.

3. Put the sausages and the oiled tray into the preheated oven.

4. After 5 mins the oil should be hot enough for the batter. The trick to Yorkshire Puddings is to get the batter into hot fat and the whole lot back into the oven quickly.

Pull the tray out of the oven and sit it on the open oven door to try and retain the heat. Pour the batter into each dimple until it is 2/3 full. This mixture makes 9-10 puddings in our tin. You'll know this is going well when you hear a hot sizzling sound as the batter hits the oil.

5. Quickly return the tray to the hot oven. Bake the sausages and the Yorkshire Puddings for about 20 mins or until the Yorkshires are well risen and golden brown. Try to resist the urge to open the oven to check on them for at least the first 10 mins!

6. Once cooked serve with gravy and your vegetable of choice. Enjoy.

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