Winter brings death but hope springs with green shoots

This week, back to what this column is supposed to be all about. Smallholding. Or my attempts at it.

Thursday, 28th January 2016, 6:28 am
Looking good: the broad bean seedlings are growing well.

Subjects recently have been as diverse as women’s rugby (yay!), ukuleles, and the late David Bowie. But this week I feel it is my duty, as a wannabe smallholder, to return to the subject at hand. Two things of note along agricultural lines have happened lately. The first is the (partial) success of my winter sowings.

My regular readers (or the Faithful Five, as I like to call them. A mild-mannered antidote to Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, I like to think. And whilst I digress, how good does the poster for that movie look? I have added it to my list of Gritty, Snow-spattered, Twisted Western-style Movies I Must Watch - which admittedly only includes two films so far, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant) may recall, back in autumn I sowed three trays of seed.

The lettuce is up and looking a bit weedy so we’ll see how that goes. The spinach is up and has just been transplanted into pots, two seedlings per pot. The big success story is the broad beans, which I’ve just transplanted into pots. They are strong, healthy seedlings about 12cm tall. Just as I was ready to put them into pots, the weather changed and we had the cold snap, so like a mum fearing for her wee ones, I left them be until a milder day came.

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The greenhouse is more or less south facing, but it is unheated, so having been lucky enough for them to a) germinate, and b) actually grow, I felt I might be pushing my luck if I transplanted them on a freezing cold day. I took my chance the other day when the rain stopped and the wind came back - a mild, breezy day. So far, so good. If all goes to plan, the next move will be planting them out in a couple of months.

So, a fair amount of success on the veggie front. On the chook front, not so good. The endless wet weather with freezing rain and the chicken equivalent ground-wise of the Somme to deal with, has taken its toll. Some of the older ladies were muddling through, but then the cold snap proved just too much for them. Had it been cold most of the winter I think, sadly, they might have away over rainbow bridge before now.

Sadly, one of our favourites - the so-called Jean’s Chicken, named after the lovely lady we got her from - was one of the victims. She was crossed with a Dorking, which we knew because she had five toes, a weird feature of Dorkings. She was also the best chicken mum we’ve ever had. She would go broody every spring without fail and sit on as many eggs as you’d care to put under her and raise a brood of chicks.

Such a favourite was she that I haven’t had the guts to break the news to the YMs. I am waiting for them to notice, which I know they will, at which point I will be prepared for the hows, wheres and whys that will inevitably come. And in the Young Mistress’s case, the inevitable tears.

However, the blow will be softened somewhat by the also inevitable trip to re-stock at the much-loved Longtown Poultry Sale. Oh, how we love Longtown. All poultry life is there, and bargains are to be had. You might not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every breed of chook, but as long as you know what a healthy hen looks like, you’ll be OK. For the YMs, it’s the thrill of bidding, setting your limit and (hopefully) hearing the hammer fall before your maximum’s reached. And the cafe is fab. In fact, for the YMs it’s one of the highlights. As the sale starts in the morning, the trip necessitates an early-ish start, which means by 10am we are in dire need of a breakfast roll. And because it finishes early afternoon, it means we have to have Lunch Out, which is one of the YMs’ favourite things ever. Yummy home-made steak pie and chips, jumbo sausages, or macaroni cheese.

The Young Mistress is desperate to buy her own first hen at the sales, just like her brother did a few years ago. Which might just help her over the recent deaths. Saturday, March 21, is now ringed on the calendar. Mine’s a bacon butty and a mug of tea, if I see you in the cafe.