Friday, 28 August 2009

Honey Harvest 2009

Ten days ago we finally managed to harvest our honey. I had promised my friend Alex (who raises Alpacas) that if we could time it right she could come and help us. Tuesday suited all of us and Tuesday it was.

The day was perfect. You need fine weather when you take the honey from the bees and we certainly had that. Perhaps a little too hot for comfort but that is better than wet and windy!

The whole process took about four hours. We started by removing the supers from the hives.

This hive was one of our best - both these supers had nearly totally full frames (the supers are the smaller "boxes" on top of the bigger green box).

The other excellent hive was the one we have dubbed the wild hive. Again we had nearly two complete supers although we were unable to take some of the frames from the lower super as it was attached to the main log!

Most of this year's harvest came from these two hives although all of the hives produced something.

Before we put the supers into the trailer we had to brush as many bees as possible off the frames. Not always easy as the bees aren't too keen on being deprived of their honey!

Last year we used the wheelbarrow to take our honey harvest back to the house - but that was last year and since then we've actually had rather a lot of sunshine and the bees have been able to collect just a bit more honey! So this year we hitched up our trailer and took it into the field.

This photo was taken right at the start when Max was lighting the smoker. Each time we put a super into the trailer we covered it as much as possible with the sheet which you can see at the front of the trailer. This didn't really fool the bees as the smell of honey was so strong but it did stop them from getting back onto the frames. The trailer was double stacked with supers and we were VERY excited!

Back at the house the fun started. Max put the air compressor outside the kitchen and reduced the pressure to a minimum. Using this he and Ralph were able to blow the remaining bees off the frames. By this time we had closed all the doors and windows into the kitchen as we had heard stories of clouds of bees arriving during the extraction! Ralph bought the supers in and Alex and I started the extracting.

A word here for first time honey extractors - put newspaper down on the floor as much as possible. If not you have honey dribbling onto the floor which is tedious although not the end of the world. What is a bore though is when it is walked in and then carried all around the house. I also found it useful to change into flipflop style shoes as they could be washed easily when I did inevitably walk in honey.

In the pictures above Ralph and I are scraping the wax off the first frame. The bees close the cells once it is filled with honey and the water content has been sufficiently reduced (water content is a subject I am not qualified to explain but if the cell is closed the job has been done). From this point on the job is a sticky one!

We all took a turn with the extractor. There are two types of extractor: radial and tangential. The difference is in the placement of the frames: in the radial extractor, frames are placed so that they have an edge to the edge of the extractor; in the tangential the frames are placed with a side to the edge of the extractor. I haven't explained this well but you can google for images of both. In practical terms it means that with the tangential extractor you extract one side of the frame and then turn the frames around before extracting the second side. One day we will be able to upgrade to a radial I hope but in the meantime our small three frame tangential does just fine and it wasn't long before the liquid gold was running out of the tap into the storage buckets.

This is what we do it for! As the honey comes out of the extractor it passes through a fine nylon gauze which catches the worst of the bits and pieces - bits of bees, wax cappings, general debris. This bucket takes 25 kilos of honey and we filled two of them. We then filled two more smaller, 3 kilo, buckets and a couple of pots straight from the extractor for Alex, us and a couple of other friends. Plus the four honey combs we took a short time ago, each weighing nearly 500 grams. In all then, we probably had about 60 kilos of honey. Oh joy!

We left the honey in the storage buckets for a week to allow it to settle and for the air to come to the top and then Max and Guy potted it up while I was in London. This is what I saw when I walked into the kitchen last night:

The lady who gave us all those seedlings earlier in the year also gave us well over 100 honey pots, with lids. Glass honey pots don't come cheap and she has saved us about 40 euros - you know who you are and once again, thank you!

My job today is to order some labels so that we can sell some of the honey to friends who have been asking for it. In the meantime we will store it somewhere cool and dark.

Saturday, 8 August 2009


One of the disadvantages of growing your own vegetables and raising your own meat is that it's easy to become the most dreadful snob about food. Usually this is good - I very rarely buy out of season vegetables now and when I do they are French grown, local if possible; the result is that we eat a much wider variety of vegetables. I am very particular about what meat I buy now. I don't often buy chicken as we eat our own but when I do I only buy "Label Rouge" standard (I think this may be equivalent to the Red Tractor label in the UK but I'm not sure; suffice to say it comes with certain guarantees about living conditions and feed quality). Burgers - well, let's not even go there! I buy the beef and mince my own. Don't get me wrong, in other people's houses I eat what I'm given and it's always delicious. I am only talking about my own personal shopping preferences.

However, one thing I simply don't like/won't eat is shop bought mayonnaise. I'm sure that some makes are better than others but they simply don't compare with homemade. Fortunately I can usually pass on the mayonnaise without causing offence and it's only a subject of conversation if I am at home making it. The reaction is always the same, "I know it's much nicer but I just don't have the time to make mayonnaise and shop bought is just as good." (Yes, there is a contradiction in that sentence but that is the reaction!)

The fact is that mayonnaise is very quick to make and the ingredients are usually in the kitchen already: egg, mustard, sunflower oil (or other oil of your choice), salt/pepper and a teaspoon of curry powder if you want it. I don't use olive oil as I find the taste is too strong - unpleasant even - but other people do and another option would be half and half. For the hardware, a balloon whisk is easier than a fork but either will do the job and a Kenwood mixer is even better although I only use mine for large quantities. The most time consuming part of home made mayonnaise is washing up the bowl and whisk. My 15 year old son makes mayonnaise for me if I don't have the time or if I've forgotten to do it - it really is that easy!

If you've never made mayonnaise before, please give it a go. I may not be able to convince you that it's better but it's got to be worth a try.


1 egg yolk
1 generous teaspoon mustard (I use French Dijon mustard, not the grainy one)
200mls sunflower oil (or other - see above) - add more or less oil according to the quantity required
Salt/Pepper to taste
1 teaspoon curry powder if you want it

Put the egg yolk and the mustard into a bowl and whisk together. Add the oil very slowly, a dribble at a time, whisking all the time. Keep dribbling in the oil and keep whisking until you have the quantity you require, by which time the mayonnaise with be quite thick. Add salt and pepper to taste and the curry powder if you want it.

CURDLING: Personally, I have never had this problem. I don't think this is a reflection of my brilliance in the kitchen; rather I think it's a reflection of how easy mayonnaise is to make. If you are worried about curdling though check out the internet first because there are remedies for curdled mayonnaise involving a second egg yolk and a bit of patience.

Final note: Personally I don't keep mayonnaise overnight. I believe you can keep it in an airtight jar in the fridge but bearing in mind the presence of raw egg I prefer not to do this.

Tomato Ketchup and Friends

I recently had a request from my friend Polly in Ireland for my recipe for Tomato Ketchup. I say friend but needless to say this is a very modern usage as Polly is someone who I have never met apart from "on-line". My children find it extraordinary that I have "on-line friends". They warn me of the dangers of such things although surely they must realise that I am not an obvious candidate to be taken in and duped into running away with someone I've met on a blog about gardening or knitting. Anyway, as far as Polly is concerned I have thought hard about my childrens' warnings and simply can't see anything suspicious about someone who also has a garden requesting a recipe for Tomato Ketchup so here it is:

I am a great fan of Hugh F-W and the following is basically his recipe but I can't always get the spices he suggests so I put in what I have in the cupboard. This year it is as follows:

3kgs of ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
4 large onions, sliced
1 red pepper, pips removed and then chopped
200mls cider vinegar
100gms brown sugar

Spice bag: 1 star anis, cloves, chopped up chilly pepper (I put in three this morning - I'll let you know if that was a mistake - see below), 1 cinnamon stick, peppercorms,

Put the tomatoes, onions and pepper into a large pan and simmer until really soft. Liquidize and then rub through a sieve. Put the result back in the large pan and add the vinegar, sugar and spice bag. Bring to the boil and then simmer for as long as it takes to reduce to a pulpy mix. Put into warmed sterile pots and store. You can use bottles but be aware that the ketchup thickens as it cools and what pours in might then refuse to come out again!

If you are using homegrown tomatoes you might like to plan a larger tomato area for next year. 3kgs is a huge amount and in our case represents about a week's worth of tomatoes. Luckily this year is a good one for tomatoes (unlike the past two years) and also I planted many more than usual so we can still have a tomato salad for lunch - anyway the cucumbers need eating at the moment!

I think it's safe to say that 3 chilli peppers were too many! It is delicious but VERY hot!

Friday, 24 July 2009

The swarm revisited

This morning was lovely and sunny so Max and I went out and dealt with the swarm I had collected with Ralph on Wednesday evening. By dealt with I simply mean fix the comb they had made in the box onto a frame.

Unfortunately (sic) in the wild bees don't make their comb in frame size pieces; it tends to be sort of oval shaped with curved edges. So attaching it to a frame is rather like trying to put a jigsaw together with pieces from different puzzles. In the past I've leant the comb against the central wires and then tied string around it (other people use elastic bands but I never have any big enough). This works up to a point but any rough handling means the loose pieces of comb just drop down.

I read on the BBKA Forum about someone's father who used to use chicken wire. We have plenty of odd bits so I decided to give it a go. Using a wired up frame Max fixed a piece of chicken wire to one side and so created a sort of envelope.

You can just see in this rather bad photo the central wires underneath the chicken wire.

Up at the hive we then slipped the comb in between the two sets of wire, pressing gently so that some of the wax would be attached to the chicken wire. We closed the envelope with three pieces of string - not easy tying knots in rubber gloves!

You can see very clearly in the brood in this "wild" comb. I don't know if we were quick enough to save it - the bees cover the brood to keep it at the correct temperature - but failing all else they will rearrange this frame as they want, filling in the holes with more wax. There is one potential problem: will the bees be able to leave a gap between this frame and the neighbouring ones or will they become stuck together? Time will tell and I am quite certain the bees will work out what's best.

In the meantime the swarm was happily sitting on the three frames I'd put in the box on Wednesday evening. We didn't take these out to check but I hope very much the queen is doing her bit and laying lots of eggs! The photo below is looking down into the hive. Not a huge swarm but satisfactory nonetheless!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

It's started...

The season of plentywhen every day brings a fresh tomato or two, an enormous lettuce, a courgette or six and of course cucumbers. Remember last year? Well, I fear this year might surpass that quantity.

I don't mind as next week also sees the start of the visitor season starting with 17 over the weekend. I am on cooking duty for the first three days (these guests are well trained and understand rotas!) and hope that most of the food will come from the garden. I just hope they like cucumbers and potatoes!

But in addition to the vegetables we have a bonus this year for some of our favoured visitors. After harvesting the honey from the Oil Seed Rape we put four small honeycomb frames into one of the hives. On Tuesday Max and I did our usual check of the hives and to our total surprise these small frames were full. We exchanged the frame for an empty one and now have four of these wonderful honeycombs waiting to be devoured.

Our generosity definitely does know its boundaries though. One of the honeycombs is in the fridge but the whereabouts of the other three is a VERY well guarded secret!

Swarm Collection

Yesterday evening at exactly 8pm the telephone rang. I know it was 8pm because I listen to a radio programme every evening at 8.02pm and I was wondering which member of the family had decided to deprive me of that possibility.

But I was wrong; it was in fact a lady about 20kms away who had found my details on the internet where I am listed as "willing" to collect swarms of bees. She sounded a little stressed to say the least and on closer questionning it appeared her friend had been stung twice that afternoon when they'd discovered a colony of bees living under a wooden box that they use as a garden seat. The box had moved slightly and life heated up a bit.

At the time Max was busy trying to persuade a light switch that at only 8 years old it really should carry on functionning so instead I took our son Ralph. Early evening is a good time to collect swarms as the workers have come in and you have a good chance of collecting up most of the bees. We packed up the car with the usual equipment: bee suits, gloves, boots, hive tool and brush, swarm box, smoker and fuel, matches, sharp knife, basket and sheet, camera. As it turned out the only thing we omitted was a garden spade and I have to admit it never occurred to me it might come in useful!

When we arrived the two ladies came running out of the house and were indeed stressed and very worried. Ralph and I gathered up everything and got changed by the car then went down to the bottom of this wonderful garden which they had created out of a farm field. When I remarked on the green grass (ours turned brown some weeks ago) she told me there was a number of small streams running underneath the land down to the river; the farmer next door never had to water his crop of maize for the same reason.

The swarm collection was straightforward. You can see in the pictures where the swarm was situated.

The bees had obviously been there for a while because there was quite a lot of comb and sealed brood in the nest. Ralph cut the comb off the bottom of the box and having gathered that we brushed as many bees as possible in there too.

The spade, in case you are wondering, was used to scoop up a number of bees sitting on the ground. A couple of shovels and they were in the box. The rest we left to march up the sheet which I always consider one of the marvels of swarm collection - and also reassuring as it confirms the presence of the queen in the box.

The march can take a while and when the two ladies saw us sitting on the grass waiting, they came over with handfuls of fruit which 30 seconds earlier had been on their trees. Apricots and juicy, tasty plums which were delicious.

Back home Ralph put the hive in our field and opened the entrance hole at the front. Now all that remains is to fix the comb onto a frame. Unfortunately it's raining this morning but perhaps this evening or tomorrow we'll be able to do that. It's important to do it as soon as possible otherwise the bees just carry on building, starting with the roof!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

A year of fruit

We have now lived here for 11 years and I can only remember one other year like this one for fruit.

There were so many cherries on the trees that even the birds couldn't eat them all, leaving more than enough for us.

Strawberries were the next delight and although we didn't exactly struggle to eat them all we came very close to striking strawberries from the luxury fruit to be savoured list. We only had a few raspberries but then we only planted them a few short months ago so they are forgiven.

For the past two weeks we have been gathering mirabelles - small yellow prunes with enough flavour to eat raw but not enough, in my opinion, to bother cooking with. We had so many that this year we squeezed a lot and now have about three litres of juice in the freezer ready for sauce on the ice cream. The pigs love mirabelles and we gather about half a bucket for them each day. (They also loved the strawberries!)

Our peach tree, which has struggled to provide more than one edible fruit per year, has this year gone mad and there must be at least 30 peaches which, if I don't pick them today, will be devoured by the wasps - I just hope they will finish ripening off the tree.

The pear trees are in danger of breaking their branches despite the fact that I thinned them vigorously.

And finally the fig trees are promising HUGE amounts of fruit.

Our real worry are the six new trees we planted in the autumn - four apples and two plums. They are showing severe signs of thirst despite having masses of water during the winter and regular watering by Max and I now. If we can get them through to the winter I think they'll survive - but there's August to deal with first.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Water priorities

We've not had any rain for a while now and the heat is currently over 30 degrees. The lawn has turned brown and the garden is suffering. So what should we water as a priority?

First of all, forget about the lawn. So it's brown; so what? That means it doesn't need mowing and as soon as there's a decent fall of rain the green will come back.

Brown lawns don't matter but the pear trees are kept well watered and the plants in the beds benefit.

Priority should be given to fruit trees, the vegetable patch and the greenhouse (if there's anything still in it). When you water do it properly. It's best to water in the evening so that it doesn't evaporate so much and the plants will have a chance to use it. They also won't suffer from leaf scorch if their leaves are splashed.

A lot of my vegetables are planted through a plastic fibre and I put the hosepipe underneath this so that, again, the water goes into the soil and doesn't have a chance to evaporate. If evening watering is impossible then this can be done during the day although it's not ideal.

Holding the hosepipe over the plant (be it vegetable or flower) for a couple of seconds is not going to do much good. Think about it: if you are thirsty you drink an entire glass of water - or two even; a plant is the same. The soil around it needs to be well soaked, not splashed. (Bear in mind too that if the soil is dry it takes longer to soak in.)

Lavender thrives in dry weather.

We tend to give the fruit trees a dustbin of water each once or twice a week. The roots are further down and they suffer less - but don't be fooled; if they don't get water they will start to show signs of stress, not this year but next year or the year after.

Flower beds - well, this is a matter of personal opinion. Personally I only water these if absolutely necessary as I give priority to food and if the moat dries up again then these will have to take their chances. However, flower beds represent an investment of both time and money and also provide food for insects as well as hideaways for birds; it would be a pity to lose them. Again, if you water your flower beds do it thoroughly and either early in the morning or in the evening. We use a spray system and each bed gets approximately half an hour once a week. They all get thoroughly mulched each autumn and this helps to maintain moisture during the summer. We also have a lot of plants that flower in May and June so by July they don't need much watering. Again, if they die back now it doesn't matter.

This flower bed is watered twice a week for 30 minutes. The grass benefits too!

The most important thing is to think about your watering and make sure that every drop counts. The rivers around us have dropped very low again and I get infuriated when I see the farmers watering throughout the day - at least 30 per cent of the water evaporates and with a bit of forethought and, yes, extra effort they could set the system to water during the night. Once again the level of the moat has dropped dramatically in the past week and although I don't think it will dry out again this year it does make us think a bit.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Bees and borage

Bees love borage - two years ago I sowed some in the vegetable patch and of course now it's there to stay - and spreading all over the garden. As the bees love it so much and it gives, I believe, a lot of nectar, I will leave it there until the flowers are finished and then clear it out. I love the blue and it sort of helps take the eye away from the weeds!

Generous friends

My husband came back the other day with boxes full of seedlings. He works sometimes for an English lady not far from here and she is an amazing gardener. This year she has a surplus of seedlings and instead of throwing them out she threw them, metaphorically at least, into his car. But not only that - she took the time to write instructions for each lot. And better still, clearly knowing how instructions tend to go missing (the washing machine does wonders for instructions in back pockets!) she wrote them on the boxes! Tomatoes, celery, brassicas, chard (which I'd forgotten to sow this year) - not to mention a huge bunch of beetroot and some rocket.

I potted on some of the tomatoes and they are very happy in the greenhouse until they are big enough to go in the garden - we also need to clear a space for them but that's in hand. The rest of the seedlings are waiting outside the kitchen next to the hosepipe so they get a decent water quota in this hot weather. They will be planted out when they've grown a little bigger. I've also asked Max to build some sort of frame over which I can put cabbage white proof netting - I am DETERMINED not to eat any more caterpillars this year! A huge thank you for your generosity.

I'm excited about the tomatoes (Gardener's Delight). For the past two years we've had a pretty measly crop of tomatoes and with the wet weather just about gave up. Hopefully this year the weather will give us a couple of dry days at least and with all the tomato plants in the garden we should get a decent crop. Quite apart from using tomatoes in salads I love having too many as they get cooked up and frozen for future tomatoe sauces. I also try to make a few pots of tomato ketchup - you will never buy ketchup again once you've tasted home made...even my children say so!
You can see a couple of melons growing next to the tomatoes in the greenhouse - we bought four at the local market and as an experiment I planted two in the greenhouse and two outside. No prizes for guessing which ones already has little tiny fruits on them.

My family and other vegetables

Only my husband could send his 15 year old son into a sex shop without realising what he was doing. They were in Angers collecting some upholstery supplies for me and Ralph got bored (there's only one person working in the shop and it can take a VERY long time). So he told Ralph to go and check out the toy shop 50 metres away. It didn't occur to him to wonder why there would be a toy shop in such an out of the way place - he of all people (he used to be in the toy business) knows that there are few enough left in the town centres; and of course Ralph didn't think - he is after all 15. Off he went and in he went. The French don't like using anglo words very much so the very fact that this was called a Toy Shop should have been a clue in itself but of course Max hadn't really done the thinking and the name of the shop had been partially hidden behind another sign so he'd missed the rest of the sign, "Votre Espace Coquine", altogether.

Which brings me to the potatoes. We've started digging the Charlottes. A little early but with every plant there are at least six enormous orange slugs. At the end of the line we turned around and there was an army of them marching off in disgust. However, this afternoon I dug the ones out of the flower bed and there wasn't a slug to be seen. Why the flower bed? Well, the soil is very poor and it just seemed a good way to break up the soil and get lots of lovely manure in there all at once. I'll plant it out again in the autumn so it looks nice next year. We still have about eight more slug lines of Charlottes to go. These are in the new veg patch and quite a way from the moat so perhaps the frogs haven't come up this far. Also, the chickens don't go in there because of the electric fence - next year we'll plant potatoes outside of the fence.

Anyway, they all need storing so I was back in the workshop afterwards making my potato sacks. They are about 45cms x 60cms and after filling them we store them in a cool and very dark shed. I bring them into the kitchen as I need them and store them in the big vegetable rack covered over with a large feed bag - again cutting all light. This last is considered eccentric by the family but on the whole it prevents them from going green.

I've also been dealing with some of the garlic. Max rigged up a rack in the barn (see below) where we've put most of it but I suspect that some won't store for too long (they'd started bolting) so I've taken the smaller ones and any others that looked a bit ropey or had bolted and roasted them. I then put them into jars in olive oil. Oh, yes, delicious! Well, ok, they won't store for long either but at least we will have enjoyed them!

Friday, 19 June 2009

Onions - how to store surplus

Last year I had too few. This year I probably still have too few but they are beginning to bolt - produce seed heads - which means they won't store very well. Even this family can't get through enough onions to avoid mould so what to do?

I have been leant a couple of books recently and completely by chance I found a little note saying that you can chop up onions and freeze them in plastic bags. Just like that! So we pulled the first lot and my wonderful husband and equally wonderful 15 year old peeled and chopped and then bagged. I did help - I put them in the freezer; but actually I was weeding at the time so I'm forgiven!

As I've only just put the onions into the freezer I don't know how well this works but when I use them I'll let you know if there's a problem. Can't think that there will be though.

Just to be clear - according to the book (sorry - can't remember which one but it could have been "Preserved") you don't need to blanch them; simply chop or slice them and then freeze as they are. When required cook from frozen.

Obviously it would be sensible to freeze them in small bags as a half kilo of chopped onion goes a VERY long way...

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Broad Beans

One of the great things about growing your own veg is that your "fussy" children start eating vegetables they otherwise turn their noses up.

One of the disadvantages of growing your own veg is that your "fussy" children suddenly discover the delights of vegetables they didn't previously like.

Both statements are true! I love broad beans but my children didn't. Notice the past tense! Now they go as soon as they are cooked. The ones in the shops tend to be not fresh and also much bigger in the pod. I pick mine quite young and tender. There is no comparison.

The biggest problem with broad beans is black fly but actually I tend to ignore it. It comes, it devours and it finally goes away leaving horrible rubbish on the pods. But let's face it: we're not eating the pods and the beans inside are not affected. I do rinse them under the tap but then they are boiled - and as far as I'm concerned a little bit of dirt just adds to the flavour (I hope!).

So this picture is the third lot I've picked in two weeks and finally I managed to get some into the freezer for future enjoyment. The picture shows the pods in all their black fly glory. Just's what's on the inside that counts!

I've included the honeysuckle because it smells fantastic. We brush past it as we go from the car to the kitchen, disturbing the bees but absolutely loving the smell.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Freezing potatoes

Last year I experimented freezing potatoes and I've been meaning to post the results. I tried two different systems and both have worked well:

1) Mash potato: I cooked and mashed as normal and then bagged cold mash potatoe, about 500gms per bag. To reheat I thaw and then heat the mash gently in a saucepan allowing the water to evaporate. If it then gets too dry I add either water or milk (I know, a bit silly allowing it to evaporate first but that seems to be the only way). The important thing is to mix it really well.

2) Roasting potatoes: Couldn't be easier. Peel the potatoes and parboil them. Then put them into bags and freeze. Roast them from frozen. The only thing you have to deal with is the fact that in the freezer they will stick together and so you have to separate them as soon as possible once they've started cooking. Also remember that the water on the outside of the frozen potatoes will make the hot (really hot) fat spit more so be careful.

I will be repeating this again this year - honestly, you can't tell the mash potato has been frozen and the roast potatoes are crunchier.

More Pigs

Last year we kept pigs for the first time. It was a great success and hugely enjoyable. Whilst dispatching them bought a lump to our throats we had always treated them as a practical exercise - we looked after and fed them and in due course they would return the favour.

The meat is excellent. I now know that I had forgotten what flavour in meat was. When we were getting low on sausages (they went quickly!) I bought some from the supermarket and mixed them in with our own without telling anyone. Ralph guessed with the first mouthful what I had done and I was duly reprimanded; but the fact remains, there is no comparison.

We still have plenty of pork in the freezer but it is going down fast. As we don't go away in the summer it works best for us to collect the young piglets in the spring and raise them through the summer. They are then slaughtered in the autumn which is also better as it is cooler by then. So at the end of last year I contacted a breeder and ordered two more piglets - this time they are Gloucester Old Spot/British Lop and again they are lovely.

They are very different in character to the Berkshires - less gentle and more demanding when they see us in the veggie plot which is just next to their field, especially if we are picking strawberries which they love. They dig much more too - we couldn't believe that in just two weeks they had turned most of the field. Every few weeks we extend their pen so that they have a new patch of grass and they love it. They run up and down the grass, they roll in it and occasionally they stop to eat it. The next day it will look as though someone's been over it with a lawn mower. By day four it's a muddy patch with perhaps just a thistle showing.

Our friends no longer look astonished and tell us we are mad when they see the pigs for the first time. They are too busy enjoying the rewards.

The new veggie plot

The new vegetable plot is now as stuffed full of promising things as is possible in a first year. There are plenty of weeds too but we left reasonably wide strips between the veg beds so on really calm days we can put round up over the worst of these. The strawberries, tomatoes, courgettes and cucumbers are growing through plastic sheeting which will obviously help with the weeds and the potatoes have such a wonderful amount of leaf that the weeds are more or less in the dark. The raspberries for some reason seem to be weed free for the moment. The peas on the other hand, well, let's just say it's hard to tell where the weeds finish and the peas begin!

I didn't realise until we started work on this new piece of land just how well cultivated the first plot is. For a start the soil just looks better in the old plot. It seems to be much more crumbly and easier to dig. It's also much easier to put tomatoe spirals into as I discovered this morning when I tried to put three more into the new plot. They went down about 8 inches after a lot of prodding around and putting my full weight on the spiral. I then did the same in the old plot and nearly buried the entire spiral as it just went in so easily!

Of course the old plot has had masses and masses of farmyard manure worked into it over the past ten years. I do wonder if that means that the new plot won't give such a good yield of veg and fruit but so far we've had a fabulous crop of early strawberries and there are already small fruits on the tomatoes. And the spuds will be ready soon - I had a poke around this morning and there are plenty of little ones just under the soil.

It's a lot of work starting a new vegetable plot from scratch and I know that I took a lot of shortcuts so I will suffer more weeds than I should but on the whole I think I am well pleased. Previously this piece of land had been a pasture for sheep and cattle; I suppose now it's the same, but for us.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Aren't they sweet!

We hatched some chicks on 1 April and they are beginning to become quite adventurous. Here they are at three weeks old, enjoying the sunshine. They were all sitting on the ledge cuddled up together. Four golden and one black who's been named Obama - well, what else!

Hiving a swarm of bees

We were quite busy last week catching swarms. This is the first swarm which very conveniently came to rest in a low branch of a pear tree in the garden. Our son spotted it - or rather he heard it as buzzing around before it settled it made a fantastic noise! Subsequent swarms involved ladders and straw baskets but we forgot the camera. Suffice to say that we now have an additional three colonies and are waiting to see which of these are strong enough to continue on their own and which need to be united with another colony.

The swarm settles in the tree

Contemplation! Unfortunately we didn't get a shot of Max cutting the branch and lowering it into the box. I think our cameraman was preparing to do a runner!

Oh boy, did they buzz around!

All is calm -the first bees have found the queen in the hive and are fanning, indicating to the others where to go. It's amazing watching the swarm just march up the stand (well all right, the plastic box!) and straight into the hive.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Problem solved

I had a couple of hours last week - between rainstorms that is - and weeded the new potato patch. This is going to be an arduous exercise through the coming months as we didn't really clear the area of weeds very well and then we put the rotavator over it. Still, potatoes are a good veg to start with as all the earthing up helps with the weed clearing - sort of.

I got into a rhythm of weeding a line and earthing up as I went along. All was going well, Radio 4 was keeping me company and the rain held off. Then the chickens arrived just as I finished. Previously I've not minded. They clear the grubs and leave manure at the same time. But as I watched I realised they were getting their richest pickings by unearthing all my hard work. This was not good! I gave chase and they went elsewhere. I redid the job and went in just as the rain started.

The following morning I went out and once again a whole line of potato plants had been uncovered and some stems broken. The chickens were still locked up; this time it was rabbits! That was it. The electric fence which had been in our minds as a job to be done was bought to the front of the queue. The conversation was along the lines of:

"OK, I'll do it next week."

"No, today. Else I'm not planting another single vegetable and you can say goodbye to the French beans."

That was sufficient! We had a lovely afternoon which we thought of as "family time" and the two boys concerned thought of as "another chore". There were also a lot of laughs about not needing to fence the vegetables. "Why on earth are you fencing the vegetables Mum? They can't get out you know." But I was determined.

We now have two strands at tripping up height going all the way around the new veg patch and so far it's worked. Not a rabbit in sight and although the cockerel did get in, he didn't try a second time! Result!

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Broad beans, onions and chard

I sowed the first of the broad beans just a few weeks ago and already they are coming up. I was worried that the intervening frosts would upset them but I shouldn't have been so concerned! I have now sown two more rows - I really do love broad beans straight from the garden. The rest of the family think they aren't worth the effort - all those pods to remove - but it doesn't stop them eating them in great quantities!

Broad bean seedlings

Onions, garlic and shallots are also coming along nicely. The garlic and half the shallots went in during the autumn then I put in two more beds of shallots and onions in the early spring. All are doing well. Last year I didn't really have enough so this year I have tripled the quantity!

Garlic and shallots

To my delight the chard has overwintered with very little help from a plastic tunnel and is now in great leaf. Given the three weeks of sub zero temperatures at the beginning of the year, I wasn't really expecting it to survive. However, over Easter we will be eating one of our favourite chard recipes: ricotta and chard filo parcels. It's a great standby for vegetarians too.

Chard - it looks a bit pathetic in the photo but it's doing well!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

First crop is in the kitchen

Every year my mother-in-law comes to stay in late May for a week or two. The advantages of May are great - especially for an octogenarian who cannot see. The weather is warmer (believe me, in our house that matters!), the frogs are singing, the flowers are beginning to smell and we can often eat lunch outside. Unfortunately, though, late May misses the asparagus and this always upsets her, especially as it is the way with asparagus that there is always plenty more after the six week picking period but you have to leave it to feed the plant!

So perhaps the asparagus is the real reason she has come to stay for Easter! Yesterday I picked the third bunch of the year and we all enjoyed it at lunch. There is nothing like freshly picked asparagus: for us it's usually the first crop from the garden so it heralds the beginning of the vegetable patch year; when we are kind enough (sic!) to share it our friends are always amazed that we grow it thus giving us a feeling of both brilliance and largesse - although we don't often share it so the largesse is false; and actually it's not difficult to grow so the brilliance isn't exactly genuine either...oh well!

It won't be long before we start eating the lettuce from the greenhouse - oh I do love spring!

Monday, 30 March 2009

Bees - vocabulary problem!

A quick update and correction on the wild bees we have housed.

First off it has been pointed out to me that these are not a swarm but an established colony and of course I was a fool to describe them as a swarm. We were asked by a friend to collect a swarm and once in my head it stuck. But a colony it is. So Polly is right - even in this lovely climate (let's forget the last two summers!) the bees do not swarm in March. OK, my head is hung in shame. On with the update.

I have changed the super for a make-do brood box. We put a brood box on but of course it has openings and was no good. Instead we have put brood frames into two supers, one sitting on top of the other to give the height of a broodbox. If these bees do come up then we will be able to transfer the frames to a proper broodbox and go on from there.

Now, on to the second subject...

I have been criticised by someone here in France on another forum (this was the person who pointed out my vocab was way off). He doesn't explain very well but his comments are as follows:

"What can I say apart from it was not a swarm if it had taken up residence in a tree it was an established colony. It certainly was not from this year and why should it swarm from the tree in April? Had you had someone of experience and qualifications, not necessarily a keeper of bees long term, but a beekeeper with you it would have been easy to remove it and prevent it returning to the log. It is no different to a summer swarm in, say, a wall easy if you know what you are doing. If the bees are still in the green hive I wish you the best of luck in trying to manage it this year. I thought the bees used the suns position above them to build their comb in a true vertical plane. I always enjoy your postings as there is so little to bring cheer these days. I wish you well in your endeavours. I rest my case."

I have enormous faith in bees and less faith in my ability as a beekeeper but I do try and do my best. In an ideal world I would far rather be working alongside another beekeeper but unfortunately this isn't possible. I am always open to helpful suggestions (which seem to be lacking in the words above) - indeed I welcome them. Thank you to those of you who have taken the time to comment, both on the post and by email. Like I said constructive criticism is welcome and even more so is advice.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Donald the goose...

Remember this?

My, hasn't he grown!

He now has his very own pen in an outhouse for nightime (too many foxes around) and during the day he has a great time walking around "his" patch (he's not penned but seems to have adopted an area) and of course, swims very happily on the moat!

Bees again!

I had yesterday all planned out. Basically, to work all day and really get ahead with a chair that is promised for Tuesday next week. Things didn't work out that way...

On Monday Max took a call from a friend of ours saying that there was a lot of trees being cut down in a wood near her and there was a swarm of bees - could we collect it? Well, yes please and for several reasons. Firstly we've never taken a swarm before and getting some experience with a swarm at ground level is always better than one twenty feet up in the air! Secondly, I really want to increase our number of hives this year and swarms, if you can get them, are free. Thirdly, well, the chair is well on the road to being finished and I could work a bit this weekend...

So off we went. A-L wasn't there but a retired neighbour had been asked to look out for us and he solemnly took us to this swarm...which had flown away. A little disappointed we removed what remained of the honey comb and decided that wild honey made the trip worthwhile.

However, it turned out that Roger knew of a second swarm, this one inside the trunk of a tree which had been felled and, if we didn't take it the forestry company would simply gas the bees. (And I thought killing bees was illegal...) We went to have a look and realised very quickly that there was no way we were going to be able to get our hands through a hole the size of a tennis ball and remove a swarm of bees who had most likely been in residence for many years! Yes, they seemed quite docile but we were 100% certain that any enforced eviction order would soon change that!

Disappointed, but still looking forward to the wild honey, we went away swarmless. Roger rang us in the evening. He'd spoken to the forestry people and they were quite happy for us to chainsaw the trunk and take away the log with the swarm inside. The fact that the trunk is about a metre in diametre and we were talking about a log approximately 1.5 metres long didn't seem to worry Roger one bit. His 70+ years are not for nothing and he'd worked out a system to get it into the back of our (small) van.

Max went along this morning early (before the bees were awake was, I think, the theory!) and the operation was carried out after plugging the entrance with a piece of wood. Of course, Max and Roger could only estimate how much space the bees had created for themselves on the inside; they didn't want to cut right through the middle of the swarm and nest. Roger tackled the trunk with his chainsaw and was clever enough to notice that the sawdust changed indicating the proximity of the bees. So he moved up a bit and tried again. In this way they managed to cut the log leaving the nest inside completely intact.

There was, however, a hole at both ends where the wood had rotted so bees started to get a little interested in the proceedings - still very calmly though. Max put a cotton sheet at each end. That was the easy part of the operation; now for Roger's cunning system to get this trunk into the back of the car. It turned out to be a tractor with a grab.

The log rolled out of the car and lifted upright in the field. The top hole is cleary visible, as is the bees side entrance

When Max came back we then managed to roll it out into the field near the other hives and lift it upright; we put a lid temporarily on the top hole to stop any heat from coming out (the bottom hole I'm not worried about - all our hives have open mesh floors which are presumably the same thing) and then took the wood out of the entrance hole. A wedge under the front will prevent it from toppling over. So far so good.

The bees natural entrance

However, the top lid was not ideal as it had plenty of gaps between it and the trunk and I was worried that all that precious heat would be lost out the top; the nights are still cold at the moment, something had to be done.

We hummed and haahed and finally came up with a solution that "will either work or it won't". Max cut a piece of wood to fit over the trunk and cut a medium size hole in the middle. We then screwed this to the trunk. On top of this wood we put a super (which is where hived bees store surplus honey, ie. ours) with frames and then the crown board and finally the lid.

Max standing next to the final des res with adjoining larder.

We hope we have created an ideal home with attached delux larder for these wild bees. There is no guarantee they will stay of course; in fact they will almost certainly swarm in April and as far as I know we will have no way of preventing it as we can't get into the nest. If they go we will at least have the most amazing tree trunk to keep us warm in the winter - after extracting any remaining honey of course! I'll keep you posted on how this "hive" continues.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

I have an ETSY shop

Just in case you are interested in my working life I now have an ETSY shop: L'Atelier du Grand Gennetay. I've put a link in the side bar or you can look at it here. Please don't hesitate to let me have your comments - I need all the help I can get! If you are interested in reading about my working life (it's actually pretty dull!) you can go to The English Armchair Abroad

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Bee Season

We finally opened up the hives this afternoon. Last year I lost a hive, leaving me with just one after the winter. But we restocked and finished with four hives. Then the original hive lost its queen - I suspect that the bees had replaced the old queen and the new queen was very possibly eaten by a bird on her mating flight. This hive was in serious trouble and it was getting late in the season for the bees to raise a new queen so I decided to buy a queen that had already been mated and introduced her successfully - so successfully that this hive, the weakest of the four in September, is now the strongest!

Today's inspection was the first of the season and an opportunity of looking for trouble and hopefully averting it. During February we had a dreadful storm that took the lid off one of the hives and I was worried about this one. However, there was brood in all four hives which means that there is a queen laying in each one. First box ticked.

Another thing to look for is adequate food. I still have sugar candy on all the hives and we replaced the almost empty ones. There is also plenty of honey and pollen in all of the hives so I am reassured. I believe though that a lot of hives are lost at this time of year because winter stores are low and there are not many nectar giving plants around. At the moment, though, we are ok. Second box ticked.

The third box I can't yet tick because I don't yet know. This is the dreaded varroa box. This horrible parasite lives off the bees and weakens them making the colony weak and eventually unable to survive. I put anti varroa tabs in each hive during the autumn for six weeks and then I did a follow up Oxalic Acid treatment in December. At the next inspection I will put in test floors - these slide in underneath the open mesh permanent floor and after a week you count how many varroa have fallen through. A small number is "ok" - it's believed that all colonies have some varroa - but a large number requires treatment.

The next inspection will be in approximately nine days, depending on the weather. Not cold, not too windy and no rain.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Feeling virtuous

For years now, five at least, I've been talking the talk and carefully avoiding the hard work.

We have four flower borders on the lawn which I created about 10 years ago. My parents were selling their house and I was taking some plant cuttings from the beautiful garden. I did a trip to England and came back with about 80 cuttings all potted up. Most of the cuttings came from the borders in the picture on the left but I've included the picture on the right as it is the pond I fell into when I was about four and my brother insisted on taking his brand new watch off before he pulled me out - the watch had been a Christmas present so the water was COLD!

Nearly all took and many have seeded and developed. Anyway, I dug the flower beds in a hurry and although I was pretty good about clearing the roots I was working in a field that had recently been cow pasture. So very fertile but full of perenial weeds.

The borders in June showing many of the imported plants.

I realised very quickly that the only solution would be to start again but as the beds developed it seemed a real shame to empty them out. I also didn't fancy more back breaking digging and no-one else wanted to do it! Clearly a rotation was required and today we cleared, more or less, the first bed. More or less means that as there are two pear trees, one at each end, we've cleared between them. We solemnly dug up old friends and split them up and replanted elsewhere. We took out as many weed roots as possible and we have covered it in wonderful manure from the farm next door (same cows!).

Finally, so that we won't be tempted to put plants and flowers back in before the autumn, I've put in some seed potatoes. This is my cunning plan for improving the soil and it also uses up a few more of the seed potatoes. I'm hopeless at mounding up potatoes and instead I put "stuff" directly all over the potato beds. "Stuff" includes, in no particular order, garden compost, manure, leaf mould, straw. Usually about three doses is enough to keep the tubers covered and prevent them going green and the result is that once all the potatoes have been removed from the bed the soil is absolutely wonderful.

Once this first bed is replanted we can clear the second bed - more potatoes if my plan works! - and so on until all four are done. I just hope it isn't like painting the Skye Bridge!