26 May 2007

The soft fruit has started to ripen

Our favourite small fruits are wood strawberries - they really are a very "strawberry" strawberry.

It takes patience to gather them because they're tiny but once in a while we come across a patch which could have been pollinated by neighbours' commercial strawberry fields and they are much bigger than normal wild strawberries. We live near Vergt, the "Strawberry Capital of France".

We're really lucky to have big patches of wild strawberries in the woods at the back of the house. I give them a helping hand by mulching a bit and feeding them with rotted goat compost in early spring.

Over time, the chickens scratch the mulch up and clean the patch looking for bugs. Fortunately, it's always after the strawberries are past their best and we've picked most of them. The chickens clear the ground of dead and diseased matter and any strawberry plants or little runners healthy enough to have a really good root system grow again next year.

Our raspberries are up at the top of the garden right next to the compost heap and we've blackcurrants and redcurrants in the main plot but most of our fruit comes from the woods, the neighbours' cherry trees, or the giant compost heaps we made when we cleared the garden. (Now strictly controlled bramble patches where a few snakes and thousands of other creatures live.)

The snakes still make me scream sometimes when they surprise me slithering back to their home for safety, but I throw weeds and other compost material into the middle of the heap, and when there's enough to make a cushion they stay up on their platforms basking in the sun.

21 May 2007

The Spring Chanterelles (Girolles) are out.

The Girolles (Cantharellus cibarius) or Spring Chanterelles have started to appear with a vengence. We've already collected 15 kilos in three early morning forages from very specific "Girolle" areas on our land, mostly where there a bit of chalk, a few nearby Pines and under Chestnut and Oak trees.

Foraging basket full of Chanterelles or GirollesSome people advise that mushrooms should only be harvested by cutting the stems, but we always pluck them gently from the soil. Fabrice's family has been harvesting them from the same woods like this for generations and my understanding is that cutting can lead to bacteria entering the damaged area and destroy the mycellium. There's certainly no shortage of fungi on our land and we always find enough to be able to eat them all year round. Chanterelles are best fresh, but they can be kept for a few months covered in oil, or for years sterilised in Kilner jars. I've never managed to dry them successfully.

Chanterelles are really delicious and are a treat in a simple omelette or in a casserole, or even fried in butter and served as an appéro with chives and sprinkled with a few Borage flowers.

They are easy to identify but they can be confused with two other mushrooms. One is the edible (but boring) false Chanterelle Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca and the other one is the Jack O'Lantern, Omphalotus illudens. (Previously called olivascens) That one is poisonous and although it won't kill you will make you wish you were dead! (As they say!) This site will give you some more information on Dangerous Chanterelle look-alikes

Jack O'Lantern is really interesting because the gills glow in the dark. Tom Volk's Fungus amazing site has more information on this species.

If you want to see them glowing then as soon as they're gathered, wrap the stems in a damp cloth or wet paper towel, then look in complete darkness for a while to let your eyes get used to the blackness. Then look slowly at the mushrooms. You can see the glowing a greenish-yellowy colour, some are brighter than others.

For some strange reason I've always had an affinity with mushrooms. I love their taste and I love gathering them silently in the woods. The pleasure I get from bringing them home is like no other. I reckon I was a "hunter-gatherer" in another life.

20 May 2007

The chicks are on their way - all our hens have started sitting

When a hen's sitting she doesn't like being disturbed and this hen has that typical "Don't you dare touch me." look. I got as close as I could without her pecking my camera - or me!

These eggs are all huge big brown ones and I'm looking forward to seeing how the chicks from our new Brahma cock turn out crossed with this Marans x huge red cock we had a few years ago. We haven't had a cockerel all winter because we change ours every so often to avoid having deformed and sickly chicks - many malformations are caused by consanguinity.

It's also fun choosing a new cock and seeing how his progeny do. The girls' timing is perfect, the cockerel came a few weeks a go and if they'd started sitting sooner, the eggs may not have been fertile.
Broody hen sitting on eggs
I'm also pleased that they've all decided to sit now, because they do less damage to the garden when they're sitting, they just come out of the nest to feed and defacate then rush back in to keep the eggs nice and warm. That means I can plant out my summer veg with just a few sticks for protection rather than having to cage things. The other problem is that when we have a lot of hens and chicks, I use the vegetable cages for keeping them in for the first week, and I haven't had time to make any this year.

Once we're sure a hen is sitting, we transfer her complete with eggs in her container (We used empty gunpowder barrels) to a seperate 6m² cage inside the hen house.

This stops the other hens laying in the nest, which causes fighting and broken eggs and of course late eggs don't get sat on for the full three weeks, except by our most stubborn mothers. So either the chicks from the original clutch of eggs have all hatched and don't get a chance to go out with the hen because she's still sitting, or the hen leaves the unhatched eggs and the chicks get cold and die inside the egg.

The mother hens stay in the cage with everything they need, (Including a dustbath, which they really appreciates after three weeks of inactivity.) until about a week after the chicks have hatched to "bond" with them and because we've got a lot of Magpies here who they take the chicks when they're little.

I wouldn't mind if the Magpies ate the ones they take, but before we had this system we used to find a lot of injured chicks who'd been dropped from a great height by a Magpie who's eye was bigger than his beak...

I've kept chickens for a long time, but I'm still tickled pink when I have a hen with chicks.

18 May 2007

Fitting a solar panel to a shed roof for an electric fence unit.

Yesterday evening after dark, we watched in disbelief as Peggy, our 250 kilo sow wandered along the back terrace, grunting and snuffling around the edges of the walls - right next to all my seedlings and plants!

She was looking for snails, her favourite delicacy. So we picked up a dozen or so really juicy ones, and with them and a few cobs of corn, tempted her to return to her quarters. We then had a look around her park to see how she got out. It seems that the battery for the electric fence has been working overtime and had become discharged because there's lots of grass and weeds touching the wire. She'd simply pushed the wire up, dug under and lifted the fence - complete with fenceposts - an easy job for a huge sow in this very wet weather.

We normally charge the battery regularly with the house solar panels, but we've been busy and I've been lazy about making sure the battery is charged. So, we decided to fit a solar panel to charge the battery in situ. You can buy complete electric fencing units complete with a solar panel, but they're expensive and this was urgent, so we used a panel which we use for demonstrating them to visitors. It's 40watts, and a bit too powerful for charging a 45ah battery but it will save me humphing batteries and later, I can either buy a smaller panel and re-connect that, or use the excess power to charge another battery for lights and music in our little caravan.
Equipment for fitting a solar panel
We strimmed under the wire in the three parks and I started preparing the equipment for putting a solar panel on the roof of the chicken shed to charge the electric fence battery.

Fabrice did the fitting on the roof, screwing in the bolts with me holding the nuts in place below, then he left me to get on with the wiring. Fabrice drilling holes for the solar panels

Wiring up the solar controllerFortunately, we had a small controller which we used for our first windgenerator which limits the charge to the battery and stops it being completely discharged so that it lasts much longer.

Wiring the controller up is a simple job as long as all the terminals are marked, and as the one I used has been lying in a box for about 12 years, all I can say is that I'm very pleased I tabbed and marked all the wires because the wiring system is a bit like a car radio and the black, orange, blue and red wires can all become very confusing !
Connecting the solar controller to the battery I then connected the controller to the battery (which was reading 9.5 volts before and 12.8 with help from the panel) then connected the energiser from the fence unit to the battery, then the earth from the energiser to a metal pole stuck deeply into the ground in a handy damp spot under the roof where the rain falls (To ensure a good earth for the pole), then connected the positive wire to the existing fence wires. Everything done, I tested the fencing and it's working.

So despite the overcast sky, the solar panel is powering the electric fencing and charging the battery, and Miss Peggy is contained and can't go off wandering into the night.

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13 May 2007

Doing the beams for the extension

We've been spending a long time in the woods, finding and marking straightish Oak and Chestnut trees to use as beams.

Both of us hate cutting down trees, so we're trying to choose trees which are too close together or badly placed and we don't always agree, so we move on to another area in the wood and start again, tying coloured wool on to those which we think are suitable.

Finally, after a lot of looking, discussing and feeling sorry about cutting live tress, all the beams we need have been cut and stacked next to the house. One by one we strip them of their bark, then plane them down to clean them and once they've been cut into the main beam we level them out to provide us with a flat surface for the floor.

We've cut all the wood for the extension from our land, a third of the main roof beams are now in place.

All this takes ages and people keep asking us why it's taking so long. It would be so much easier to just go out and spend 6,000€ on buying the wood...

7 May 2007

Artificial insemination and our sow Peggy

The weather's been warm for the past few days and Peggy our sow has been enjoying her mud wallow which helps keep her external parasites under control, and which I'm sure is just really nice to do in the warmth of the late Spring sunshine.

Sow in her wallow, BourrouFabrice brought everything we need to inseminate Peggy. He's kept the sperm (in it's plastic bag) warm in his pocket for about twenty minutes. Peggy knows there's something going on, we keep checking up on her to make sure she's absolutely ready. The box with everything we need in it to do the deed arrived from COBIPORC this morning - just in time. (We hope!)

Preparation for artificial insemination

I learned how to do this from instruction written by Simon Longe who runs a website called Pigs in France You can read Simon's article HERE

What 'appens next is private. (As Ian Dury used to say...)

We'll let you know how things are going and hope that in 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days we'll have some good news.

6 May 2007

Simon from Downsizer left me this book...

We've been very busy with more building , AI'd Peggy, Elections (Fabrice is deputy Mayor so has civic duties...) sorted out a few things, lots of chicken stuff, clipping goat feet, moving goats again, sheep stuff, family things, I've taken loads of loads of photographs, the garden is amazing at the moment and then I got my head into this book that Simon left and couldn't put it down...

You'd think it would be easy just to find the odd half hour to blog a bit...but...

Tomorrow, is another day.

4 May 2007

Graphosoma italicum, Scutellère rayée or shield bug in the UK or Punaise in France

1 May 2007

Foxglove and Aquilegia are springing up everywhere

Something I alway try to do whenever I can, is sprinkle seeds. Flowers always make thousands of them. So at the end of their season in my garden or in anyone else's, I take whatever I can and just go around in my garden or in the woods, in the kind of places I want things to grow, and sprinkle them around. (Fabrice usually helps because the mood's joyful and it's a lovely thing to do.)

The year after, or even the year after that, there are usually some surprises. Like these two lovely plants (in the photograph above) just in front of the step of our tiny caravan. I almost dug them out because they were in the way, but everyone (even the dogs) have managed to step round them, thanks to two well-placed sticks.

The nice thing about spreading seeds around is that once the seeds have grown into established plants they set their own seed you get even more surprises !