February in the Garden Smallholding

The beginning of the month was a bit hairy with gale force winds battering most of the UK for almost a week, the chickens were not impressed and retreated to the safety of the coops, only leaving to eat. Despite this daily egg laying has increased this month to 4 out of 6 hens laying – plenty of eggs for our needs. Red mite in the chicken coop could be a potential problem anytime from now as the temperature begins to rise, I highly recommend dusting the inside of your coop with Diatom powder as a precaution, used regularly you shouldn’t have a problem.

I have been sowing seeds this month, tomatoes, broad beans and hardy outdoor cucumber along with an early sowing of radish outdoors undercover. Lupin and foxglove are doing well, some of the lupin seedlings already have their first set of true leaves. The last parsnips have been lifted this month and the rhubarb patch is looking great, in just a matter of weeks I will probably be harvesting the first sticks of  Timperley Early. Garlic is looking good too despite being under a blanket of snow for weeks, plenty of healthy green top growth. I planted garlic cloves in October and December and the December bulbs are almost catching up.  I planted Jerusalem artichokes outside yesterday near the patch of rhubarb, I’m hoping the height of the plants will cast some shade during the warmer months which I’m sure the rhubarb will appreciate as it tends to sulk during prolonged hot weather and requires a lot of watering.

Daffodils, ornamental allium and chives are pushing their blade-like leaves through the soil, fresh leaf growth is appearing on the blackcurrant bush and blackberry canes and the pear tree will be in blossom very soon. Ladybirds are starting to come out of hibernation now and wild birds are looking for suitable nesting sites….the eaves of our house seems to be popular again! What have you been doing this month?

Giving Brussels Sprouts Another Go

A couple of years ago I grew sprouts for the first time,  it went OK  but I made mistakes. I didn’t pick the buttons quick enough and they all ‘blew’. This was not due to having too many plants to harvest all at once but more a case of  being a bit too relaxed about it. Aim to pick sprouts while they are small and firm, start from the bottom and work your way up the plant – you can use a sharp knife or simply snap them off with a downwards motion. Downy mildew proved to be a bit of a problem later on, I thought I had allocated enough space between each plant, obviously not enough. Remove leaves that have started to yellow (usually from the bottom first) to reduce the risk of disease.

I have decided to give sprouts another go this year and have chosen Bosworth F1 with good resistance to downy mildew. Seeing as I am the only one who likes sprouts I don’t have to grow many plants - just enough for me. Yay!

Chicken Health – Red Mite

 

Occasionally I look at my site stats to see which search terms are finding my blog. I tend to see a lot of chicken/poultry related queries and questions, so I thought I would write about one of the biggest problems poultry keepers sometimes face –  the dreaded red mite.

Carried by wild birds, red mite are tiny grey mites (red when fully engorged with blood) that can be a dangerous health problem for chickens. Usually hiding away during the day in small cracks/crevices of the coop, ends of perches or under felt roofs they come out of hiding just after dusk to feed on your hens whilst they sleep. This makes identifying a problem difficult. Depending on the severity of red mite infestation, a flock will eventually become very unwell, death could well occur. Red mite seem to be more of a problem during the warmer temperatures of summer, but can strike any time of the year. They are super tiny and hard to spot, particularly during the day.

Symptoms / signs of red mite infestation:

  • Pale combs and wattles
  • Decreased appetite
  • Egg laying slows down or completely ceases
  • Chickens reluctant to perch (note: ex battery hens don’t always perch due to weak legs / no experience of a perch so this is not always a helpful sign)
  • Chickens reluctant to return to the coop at dusk, preferring to hang close to the coop in the dark.

I highly recommend checking for red mite as part of your regular hygiene routine. This is how I check for red mite:

  • Using a piece of white kitchen paper or cloth, wipe underneath the length of the perch – blood smears indicates red mite are present
  • Check the inside of the coop with a torch just after dark, quietly and carefully shine the torch on the walls, roof space and perches. If you have red mite you might be able to see small dot like creatures (grey or red when fully fed on your hens blood) moving around.
  • If you can, check the hens legs and feathers using the torch for signs of red mite
  • Very early in the morning is probably the best time to see red mite with the naked eye due to them being fully engorged

Prevention is key. Spray your empty coop with Poultry Shield solution and allow to dry before replacing  fresh bedding. Sprinkle Diatom powder along the perches and on the perch ends, in the nest box, and in any small gaps etc. Use a Diatom puffer bottle to puff the powder into the roof space where red mite could hide, ie wood joints. Of course, there are other red mite products available, I have named the ones I use and trust. If you think you have a red mite problem I highly recommend using the products I have named, following the instructions carefully. I also recommend using Diatom and Poultry Shield as a REGULAR preventative from day one of keeping chickens,  hopefully you shouldn’t have a problem with red mite.

My Wish List

I always have a list of fruit and veg that I would like to grow, it’s constantly being added to so I have to be realistic and try a few new things at a time – I think it’s fun to set myself a little goal and go from there. As long as I don’t completely under-estimate growing space going spare I usually get stuck in and get my hands dirty. This is my list of new things that I’m going to try to grow this year:

  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Asparagus (from seed)
  • Purple sprouting broccoli
  • Borlotti beans

Do you have a list of new things to grow this year?

Uses for Nettles

How often have you spotted nettles growing happily in your garden? Once again you find yourself grabbing them by the stems with gloved fingers, giving them a damn good throttling.

STOP! They’re not so bad! Read on…..

Now I realise how invasive nettles are, but if you can spare a patch for them in your garden they can be used to make really scrummy things like refreshing tea, wine, beer or soup and used the same way as spinach. Mixed with water, nettles make a nitrogen-rich feed for other plants. They are also the number one plant for certain species of butterfly and ladybirds to lay eggs, ladybirds and larvae are ferocious predators that munch on pests which of course is great news for gardeners. Nettles are fussy about where they grow, a healthy patch of nettles growing in your garden is an indicator of rich fertile soil. Nettles also make a useful addition to the compost heap by speeding up the decomposition process (but don’t use the roots) for the compost bin. Certain species of butterfly depend on nettles to reproduce, they are the primary food source for their caterpillars. Health remedies are made from nettles too. If you’re interested in finding out more about uses for nettles, you might be interested in the book 101 Uses  for Stinging Nettles by Piers Warren http://www.wildeye.co.uk/stinging-nettles/index.html

The following image is the main reason why I will always leave a patch of nettles growing wild….

 

Peacock butterfly caterpillars munching on nettles in my garden, nettles are their food plant and lets face it, butterflies need all the help they can get right now.

Keeping Chickens in the Garden

 

Keeping chickens in the garden is fun, rewarding and educational too if you have young children. The fun aspect has got to be collecting fresh eggs as well as watching them scratch around for worms and listening to their gentle clucks. I have spent many an hour watching my hens go about their daily business, they are incredible time wasters. If you are interested in keeping chickens in your garden it is a good idea to check with your landlord first if you’re renting , homeowners should check their title deeds to make sure poultry is permitted on the property. Once you have made all the necessary preparations you can choose from the many breeds, hybrids and colours available, or like me rehome some ex battery hens instead. Regardless of colour or type you will soon be hooked on chicken keeping forever and wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

Hens do not need a cockerel to produce eggs, it’s entirely up to you if you would like to keep a cockerel just keep in mind they can be noisy at unsociable hours so it’s probably best to mention it to your immediate neighbours before getting one. Chickens need a secure coop or converted shed and a large run or aviary to keep them safe from predators, this is particularly useful when you’re not available to keep an eye on them whilst they free range. Contrary to popular belief, a fox will attack a flock of hens during the day if the opportunity arises and can carry out an attack swiftly with devastating results.

Day-to-day care is pretty simple. You will need to let your chickens out of their secure coop early in the morning, make sure food and fresh drinking water are available. Clear away any overnight droppings from the coop, check the nest box for eggs. Hens will use the coop to lay an egg around morning time, the rest of the day will be spent scratching around, feeding, preening and dustbathing  which can be quite amusing to watch -  a pile of chickens rolling around and flicking soil everywhere! Chickens will retreat to their coop at dusk by themselves (ex battery hens can take a little longer to do this but they soon catch on) so all you need to do is shut them in well before it’s dark, clear away food to avoid attracting rats and remove droppings/dirty bedding from the run floor. Chickens eat layers pellets or mash, offer some mixed corn in the afternoon during colder weather. You can feed them the occasional afternoon treat such as cooked pasta, dried mealworms or vegetable scraps.

Once a week the coop should be cleaned and fresh bedding added, use dust free wood shavings and place straw in the nest box. Don’t forget to compost all the dirty straw and droppings, your soil and veggies will love you for it! Check your flock each morning to make sure they are all healthy by watching each one, pick her up and check her feathers for signs of lice, crops should have emptied overnight and they should have clean bottoms, bright eyes and good colour combs. This should only take a few minutes of your time and makes it easier for you to detect any problems early on. If your chicken(s) ever need treatment I highly recommend registering with an avian vet.

This is all pretty basic information but it gives an insight into what is required to keep chickens happy in a garden setting. I have been keeping chickens for a number of years and still as enthusiastic about them as I was in the very beginning. You can find me chatting away about chickens over at my ex battery hens forum, with over 2,500 members and still growing every day it’s a mine of information and support for those that would like more information about rehoming and caring for ex battery hens. Many of our members keep mixed flocks so there is something for everyone. It’s free to join, come along and check it out.

 Ex Battery Hens Forum http://exbatteryhens.com

Planting and Pruning my Blackcurrant Bush

Last summer I purchased my very first blackcurrant bush, a variety called Big Ben. As the name suggests the berries are huge! Big Ben is a good blackcurrant for eating fresh from the bush and it’s resistant to powdery mildew and leaf spot. It was fruiting at the time of purchase, producing lots of strigs but I wasn’t entirely sure where it was going to be planted so I decided to leave the bush in the pot for the remainder of summer, keeping it well watered during dry spells.

Eventually I planted it out in late autumn, roughly 2 inches deeper than it was in the pot to encourage the bush to send up lots of fresh shoots for the following year. Once planted I cut all growth back to a few inches above soil level, it felt a bit harsh but this should encourage a stronger root system, sturdy new growth and bumper crops. Apart from an annual mulch I can leave the blackcurrant to get on with it for the next 2 years, then prune to encourage new growth by removing 1 in 3 old stems to ground level, removing damaged or crossing stems and light trimming to keep the centre fairly open during winter while it’s dormant.

There is just about enough time to prune your older bushes if you have not done so already. Enjoy those juicy berries this summer!

Snug as a Bug Box

Beneficial wildlife such as ladybirds, lacewings, bees and hoverflies are a very welcome sight here at the garden smallholding. I put a great deal of thought and care into attracting these wonderful little pollinators and pest munchers, it made perfect sense to include a safe haven for them to hibernate during winter or just escape a sudden heavy downpour.

 

Ideally the bug box should have been put in place during autumn just before the onset of winter, bit late I know but it’s already being occupied! Putting a bug box in the garden was on my to do list that I never actually got around to doing, I bought this lovely pre-made box to get a head start. I fully intend on making some boxes of my own, I have the raw materials to hand and some ideas from books and the internet to keep our bug friends safe and snug this autumn. Bugtastic!

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