Friday, 20 August 2010

Happy as a pig in …

It’s a summer’s evening, I’m strolling down the Strand, heading for No. 1 Aldwych where I will perch elegantly on a bar stool and take ladylike sips on a violet martini.

Whoopsy, I forgot myself for a moment. That was me circa 2008. Back to present day … it’s a summer’s evening, I’m trudging through the turned earth of the pig pen, heading for poo corner where I will stand with wellied feet planted firmly in 3 inches of muck and shovel up pig s**t.

Bizarrely I did this out of choice. No one was making me shovel poo. It was my idea. Pig manure is high in phosphorus, a key nutrient needed in the veg plot. It would be silly to let a free source of plant food go to waste. The pigs make it easy by always “eliminating” in the same places, namely the corners of their run. Contrary to popular opinion, pigs are not dirty creatures by nature. They never soil their house. The straw in there is so clean that should the snoring in my own house get too bad, I could probably curl up with the girls in their house and get a good night’s sleep. They choose to poo in the corners of their run as these are furthest from their house, and they only use 3 of the corners as the fourth corner is by their water trough and wallow, and no one wants to drink and play in pooey water. So the expression “happy as a pig in s**t” is actually factually incorrect. Our girls go out of their way to keep out of the stuff!

In order to shovel up the poo I first had to distract the girls as otherwise their greed driven curiosity would bring them my way, and I didn’t fancy shovelling in the midst of eight pairs of trotters and four sets of nibbling teeth. I threw them an armful of slugged chard leaves and rushed to corner one. My, what a lot of poo! Solids old and new, sloppies old and new. A delightful sweet smelling medley. No really, it wasn’t that bad, and I’m sure that the puppy poo to come will be a damn sight (or rather smell) worse! 


The chard leaves didn’t last long so before I could tackle poo corner two a further food based distraction was required. Fortunately, by now it was pig tea time. The pigs knew this too and spotted me tracking the run perimeter heading for the feed bin. Hungry pigs can fly. They use their flapping ears like wings. How else do they cover the length of the run in 3 seconds flat. Unfortunately for me, the bin was empty and I had to open a new bag of feed. This delay gave the pigs ample time within which to whip themselves up into a frenzy of squealing, climbing on each other’s backs to get a better view of the feed, chewing on the fencing as though it had been weeks rather than minutes since their last snack. All this activity takes place in poo corner three, where said poo was soon reduced to liquid form under those eight pairs of trotters. The first poo splatter hit me on the shoulder. I ducked behind the feed bin lid to avoid the second poo splatter. I didn’t hang around long enough to risk a third poo splatter.

With a trough full of food to concentrate on, the pigs left me alone to shovel in poo corner two. I made the mistake of over filling the barrow. Leaning over the barrow as I heaved it back up the field through the long grass, I had a vision of hell as I realised there was a very real risk of me slipping head first into the barrow. Dave was following behind me, it would only take a small shove in the back….

Thankfully the precious cargo of poo made it safely to the compost bins without any major incidents en route. 


All I need to do now is add some chicken poo, high in nitrogen, and some Bertha poo (wood ash), high in potassium, and hey presto I have a nutritious mix for use in autumn 2011. Patience is a virtue every gardener needs. I’m working on that.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Say hello to Teri!

There are some big decisions to be made in life. To be a lawyer or to be an engineer. To move to Wales or to stick with the rat race. To order the cheese plate or to go for dessert. Deciding whether to get a dog or not is right up there with the life changing moments.

Some serious deliberation has taken place but today we finally admitted to ourselves that a farm is not a farm without a dog. And more importantly, a truck is not a truck if there isn’t a dog hanging out the window, tongue lolling, ears blowing in the wind.

So ….. meet Teri (she’s the cute fluffy one not the gurning dork in the glasses).

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Teri will be 6 weeks old this weekend and will be joining the Pickworth family a week later. That means we have a week’s worth of cat pre-counselling to get through. Maybe I should drag my Spit the Dog puppet out of the loft for use as a counselling tool. As a child I fooled the security guards at a London gallery into thinking Spit was real, so surely I can convince The Three Amigos.

Dave’s secret hideaway

So the barn owls have fledged which means we can now start to tidy up the wood shed. I have become a bit of a hoarder in the last couple of years. After all the building work I had accumulated a plethora of left over bits of wood, funny shaped bolts, bits of piping etc, but was loathe to throw them away, especially when I had a shiny big shed to chuck them all in. I must admit I have found all kinds of uses for these bits and bobs, but I now had a plan to turn a load of old wood, a barn door and some kitchen work surface into the centre piece of any self respecting DIY enthusiast's hideaway……..a work bench with vice!

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To the casual observer it may not look like much, but she’s a sturdy girl, and I was pleased with my lower shelf addition. Not only did it provide additional valuable storage space, it also acted as a stabiliser for the three fence post legs. Next is to continue the tidying, bring some power to the shed, and I could use the chiminea in the winter to toast my toes when I get the urge to ‘make’ something during the colder months.

The Clay Oven –Part 3

I had a two day window of glorious weather to progress with the clay sculpture. I continued to dig clay from the stream bed, and the next stage was to mix this with wood shavings to apply a second coat of clay to the dome which will act as the insulation layer. At this point Philippa surprisingly went 'AWOL'. I don’t think her hands fully recovered from assisting me with the first layer. I also built the brick front with chimney which I was particularly proud of. Even though I was only using clay, amazingly the archway stayed up!


The last job is to dry it out and apply a final coat of a clay/sand mix, which should be just as autumn is descending so the window of opportunity for using the oven will be getting very tiny indeed!

Friday, 13 August 2010

New Project 1: The Clay Oven – Part 2

It’s a giant hat. No, it’s a mini volcano. Wait a minute, I think it’s an elephant’s knee.

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In fact, it’s clay oven part 2, and as I feared those “we” references did include me. Clay mud packs may be good for the face, but stony, gritty, dug out the bottom of a pit, clay mud does nothing for the hands. My poor hands. Sucked dry of all moisture. This calls for L’Oreal intensive care hand cream. Because I’m worth it. I sincerely hope that the oven baked pizzas to come are worth it!


We had some consistency issues with the first half of layer one. You can always add more water, but you can’t take it away. Nevermind, if sloppy clay is what we’ve got then sloppy clay is what we’ll work with. As each layer was slapped on, the layer below slumped under the weight until we had what resembled a flabby midriff all around the base. It certainly sounded and wobbled like one when slapped! Undeterred by gathering rain clouds, we persevered with the slip, slap, slop, until we have a big grey cow pat of a dome. Fingers crossed that gravity doesn’t do its worst and that come the next day we don’t have a big grey mess on the floor!


Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Welcome home, Trinny!

After major surgery and several weeks in intensive care Trinny was released from tractor hospital. She’s still not fully fit, with little leaks here and there, but Doctor John says she’s good to go. And go she did, with Dave putting her to work straight away. No period of convalescence for poor old Trinny – the foot high grass needed seeing to!

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But Dave is not a cruel man, so Trinny was rewarded with a good wash, probably her first in 30 years. Now Dave can see through the windscreen maybe the grass will be cut in straight lines.

Note to self, tomatoes respond to chastisement. After my whispered words we’ve had a mass ripening. Sweet, red and juicy ….


… and that’s just the tomatoes!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

New Project 1: The Clay Oven

When does a job become a project? From my experience so far I would guess that the determining factors include complexity, duration, quantity and sophistication of required equipment and materials, and perhaps most important of all, potential for the end product to enhance daily life for the person asked to complete the task. Based on such factors, putting new shelves in the cabinet in the kitchen to increase display space for favourite items of crockery and glassware was classified as a “job”, whereas constructing an outside clay oven was accepted as a “project”. Dave likes projects not jobs. My job is to find jobs, persuade Dave that those jobs are really projects, in the hope of ultimately starting work on the one project he doesn’t want to do, namely decorating our house.

Flicking through the pages of a River Cottage Handbook always sends me off on flights of fancy as I lose myself in the idyll of sustainable country living where every field yields a bounty of delectable mushrooms just waiting to be tossed in butter, hedgerows are full of juicy berries dying to be pressed, pureed or preserved, and every batch of dough rises without effort and bakes like a dream. After one such flight of fancy, I decided that my world would not be complete without a clay oven within which to bake the perfect loaf and crisp the perfect pizza. This was clearly a project, not a job, so Dave was happy to take on this new challenge. Soon I would have my very own one of these……


Step 1 – The base. The book suggested bricks. Dave opted for logs and planks. As the clay oven has been deemed a “non-essential” item, the project must be completed with minimum investment. Fair enough. Afterall, we must always be thinking “reduce, re-use, recycle”, and logs and planks we had, bricks we didn’t, so rustic clay oven we will have.  So far so good.

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Then the weather turned bad and interest in the clay oven project waned. Guests were puzzled by the curious log cage outside the house. Could it be a chicken isolation pen? Or for naughty young guests? Or maybe a low budget hot tub?

It turns out that not only does a job have to be a project, but it also has to be a project with a deadline. As soon as I announced that I’d promised pizzas from our clay oven for our dinner guests on 21st August than Dave leapt into action. Within 2 days the entire base was complete and the sand mould for the clay dome was patted into shape.

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Phase 3 is the really messy stage involving lots of clay dredged from the neighbour’s mudfest of a site, all of which has to be de-stoned first. I’ve heard talk of “we” and “us” for phase 3, so I fear that I may be expected to get my hands dirty. I never liked hand painting as a child and my school pottery efforts were never going to win any awards, so I hope Dave’s not expecting too much input from me. In the mean time, as far as Charlie’s concerned Dave has just built a handy viewing platform (with en-suite toilet) from where he can watch the world go by.


Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Tomato Whisperer

Prince Charles talks to his plants (allegedly). I’ve started chatting with the tomatoes. It’s a one way conversation, and I’m not sure if chastising counts as the kind of talking that Prince Charles had in mind, but the tomatoes are being very naughty and I felt that a stern talking to was in order. Sunlight hours are few and far between and the tomatoes should be making the most of this precious time to ripen their existing fruit and should not putting out new shoots left right and centre. The urge to grow is greater than the urge to fruit. Snip off a shoot, turn your back for a moment and 10 new baby shoots sprout in its place. So I’ve told the tomatoes to reassess their priorities and concentrate efforts on chameleon like changes cascading down the vine from green, to yellow, through orange to a sweet tasting red. Throw in a handful of ripening blueberries and I’ve got an edible rainbow!


All I have to do now is perfect my sun dancing techniques and maybe this year we’ll have pots of roasted tomato sauce in the freezer instead of jars of green tomato chutney in the pantry.

In contrast, the aubergines need tlc not scolding, just a few gentle words of encouragement whispered into the folds of their pale purple petals. Please, pretty please, develop into deep purple blobs of aubergine loveliness. I refused to be defeated by last year’s attack of blossom end rot. I know it’s possible to grow aubergines in the UK as I’ve seen the fruits of someone else’s labours on sale in the Co-op supermarket. Much to my annoyance each aubergine was individually wrapped in its own plastic cocoon, so buying one was not an option. No aubergine, no sun, means no bbq’d aubergine slices. But there’s hope yet for my Black Beauty’s. A Christmas bbq perhaps?


Strange how a polytunnel in Wales struggles to recreate the Mediterranean climate for an aubergine and yet appears to provide the perfect environment in which to grow the alien babies of my prolific butternut squash.


If the squash grows much more there’ll be a localised total eclipse occurring in West Wales. Polytunnel in May…


… polytunnel in July……               IMG_4810

Spot the difference! That serious amount of leaf in the middle is a single butternut squash plant. Maybe I accidentally purchased a packet of giant mutant ninja squash.

Meanwhile, back in the house, there’s a chilli jungle growing in the porch.

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Every jungle has its spiders and ours is no exception. We have Sammy the Spider, who must be at least 3 inches across, probably 6 inches if you pulled him by opposing legs and flattened him out. As Sammy keeps the fly population at bay and protects the chillies from other crawly pests we’ve decided to grant him a stay of execution, although given his size I’m not sure that even the super-charged sucking machine that is our new hoover could handle him. Besides, neither one of us is brave enough to get up close and personal with Sammy. If he reaches Shelob sized proportions and develops a taste for chilli with his flies, we’ll have to send in Nessa and Stevie, have Charlie in reserve if reinforcements are needed, with us huddled at the rear like cowardly hobbits!