Friday 31 August 2012

A cold chill

Yesterday was cold. I had to dress in warm clothes when I went down to the allotment. The bees were very quiet, staying in the hive rather than venturing out to forage. I was concerned about the new hive we set up as a result of an unexpected swarm at the start of this month. It would not have had time to build up a store of honey and if the bees weren't getting out to collect nectar, there was a serious chance the colony could starve. We had fed it a bucket of sugar syrup when we set up the hive three weeks ago but the chances were that the bees would have drained it. So I prepared a new bucket of syrup and we took it down to Apiary 2. Sure enough, the bees had finished the first bucket of syrup. My guess is that they will get through the new one in just a few days. The weather forecast for Sunday is looking better so we will do a full hive inspection then.

We didn't need official government agencies to tell us that the summer, which for statistical purposes ends today, was the wettest for one hundred years. Nevertheless, we were told the news yesterday that we already knew. The rotten weather has sent a cold chill through food production. We have felt it first hand. No honey crop so far and my hopes of getting even a small one within the next few weeks are fading fast. No apple crop. No sloes. Root crops are poor. Bizarrely the runner beans are doing very well.

The blackberries are late this year. Yesterday I went on a blackberry forage, hoping to gather enough to make some blackberry jam. I managed to pick enough to make a pie. The jam is on hold until more blackberries have ripened.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

And then there were 10

eggs August 2012

Yesterday was another record breaker for us - 10 eggs from our hens. They came in a range of sizes and colours. We are entering 4 eggs in the Bowes Agricultural Show in September and will possibly use some of the olive green eggs laid by our columbines.

Sunday 26 August 2012

Half dozen olive green eggs

eggs olive coloured Aug 12

Another of my columbines started laying today. I noticed her behaving in a slightly agitated way, clucking loudly and exploring nooks and crannies on the allotment. I tried to keep her in the chicken run in the hope she would go into one of the henhouses and lay in a nest box. However, she wasn't going to make my life easy and made a bit of a fuss, running up and down the chicken run wanting to be let out. So I re-opened the gate. She headed to the side of the allotment where the fence is low. She hopped over into the undergrowth on the short embankment that leads down to someone's garden. In that undergrowth she laid an olive green coloured egg and promptly returned to the allotment. I clambered over the fence and retrieved the egg. So we have two columbines laying now. Two more to go. We now have enough eggs to fill an egg box.

Saturday 25 August 2012

9 eggs

A milestone on our road to self-sufficiency was reached today. For the first time we had 9 eggs laid by our hens. The previous record was 7. We have 17 hens now though 9 were bought only last month and we think only three of them have so far started laying. Eggs continue to be traded for other produce. Talking of which, I got to the allotment this evening and found someone had kindly left me a load of rhubarb. And Johnnie, on the neighbouring allotment, gave me a rather nice celery. We tried to grow celery last year and got nowhere with it. We didn't even bother this year. I suspect we will make it into soup. The rhubarb will probably go into a pie. I have been threatening to make egg custard for a while so a pie to accompany it won't go amiss.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

The apple crop has failed

My worst fears about the apple crop are about to come true. There are a number of wild apple and crab apple trees growing near our village. I checked them this afternoon. Normally they would be sagging under the weight of fruit in August. This year, not an apple in sight. The blossom must have been wrecked by the heavy rain in April and May. And if it wasn't wrecked by the rain, the bees were stuck in the hives because of the rain, unable to get out to pollinate the blossom. This will cause big problems with our food supply. We use apples extensively in making preserves and chutneys. And of course, it is the main fruit we eat ourselves. This is bad news we could do without.

Sunday 19 August 2012

A few things we have made recently

I've been in the kitchen as well as on the allotment recently so I thought I'd bring you a few photos of some of what I've made recently.

Mint sauce

 mint sauce Aug 12

A corner of Dad's allotment is overrun with mint (you should plant it in pots, not into the ground as it is very invasive and once you have it, you're stuck with it). I picked some recently to make mint sauce.

Summer fruit jam

 summer fruit jam Aug 12

Contains raspberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants.

Wild raspberry jam

 wild raspberry jam Aug 12

We have now finished picking wild raspberries (see photo below). The crop is finished. It was also later than usual. I spotted after making this jam that it comes out darker and browner than jam I make from the raspberries we grow ourselves.

 wild raspberries Aug 12

Tomato soup

 tomato soup Aug 12

Alas, this was made from tomatoes given to me by one of our neighbouring allotment holders. Our tomatoes are late thsi year and I'm not convinced we will get much of a crop at all.

Radish leaf soup

 radish leaf soup AUg 12

Another soup, this time made from radishes grown in our polytunnel (though we have now taken off the cover.

Raspberry vinegar

 raspberry vinegar Aug 12

I'll be making pancakes soon to test out this raspberry vinegar as a sauce.

Our first green egg

green egg Aug 12

Just picked this egg up from our new hen house. Our first green egg. Last month we got four columbines and it now appears one has started laying - they lay olive green or blue eggs. Hopefully the other three will start laying soon.

How to make raspberry vinegar

I have been wanting to make flavoured vinegars and fruit sauces for some time so I've started off with raspberry vinegar. What came out at the end of the process was a gorgeous, syrup style sweet vinegar which will make a good salad dressing or can go into sauces. It can even be used as a sauce in its own right on pancakes. The raspberries I used were ones I picked wild near our house. Some were used to make jam. The rest were used to make the vinegar. However, the pulp left over from making the vinegar has not been wasted.

I picked more wild raspberries last night (effectively the end of the crop) which will be added to the pulp and made into raspberry chutney. I made some before but never got to consume it myself as it was traded for other produce. This time I hope to have enough to use myself!

How you can help the bees

Privet flowering Aug 12

The privet in this photo is close to my first apiary and it is, as you can see, flowering. The flowers are small, in bunches and are a creamy white colour. Nectar-foraging insects seem to love them. The privet has, for the last few days, been heaving with insects, including bumble and honey bees.

Privet is very common in people's gardens. It is unusual however to see it in flower as privet hedges are cut regularly to restrain their growth. This is a pity as privet in flower looks very attractive. It also is a good nectar and pollen source for bees and other pollinating insects. So, if you have a privet in your garden, think about letting it grow and flower. There are benefits to your garden as well as more foraging insects will be attracted. And the benefits to the insect population will be great as well. So help give something back to nature and let your privet grow.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Checking the hives

We did another check of the hives over the weekend. All 8 were examined. All the colonies are strong, including the newly established hive created from the swarm we had at the start of August. In the older hives however there is still no honey crop. Three of the hives however we of particular interest to us. Each was a new colony that had been fed with fondant by us when we put them in their hives. Looking back, that was a mistake. To feed the fondant we had to add a super to the hives. That created a large space which the bees, in their wisdom, filled with wild comb. They were barely using the brood boxes. This was making the hives unmanagable and gathering a honey crop from them next year would be virtually impossible in that state.

What we should have done was feed them sugar syrup. This is given to them in a bucket with a small, fine nesh gauze over a hole in the middle of the lid. This is placed over the small hole in the centre of the crown board and a super then goes over it. The bees have access to the syrup but not the space. Therefore they build their comb in the frames in the brood box. We will not be making the same mistake again. In future, if we feed fondant in the warmer months when the bees are active and building lots of comb for brood and to store honey, we will put a thick blanket over it to prevent the bees getting access into the super.

Correcting the problem was going to be very difficult on hive 2 because we had not put a crown board on when the hive was established a couple of months ago. It was a time when we were not expecting a large number of swarms and so we had less spare kit. Hive 2 had built its comb from the inside of the roof instead. It meant that when we lifted off the roof from the hive, virtually the entire colony - bees, comb, brood and honey - came with it. Our solution was to move the super to the base of the hive. We then cut the comb from the roof and put it on the floor of the hive inside the super. This meant some brood was lost. It was a messy process but when we finished cutting the comb, we put the brood box with frames on top of the super. We expect the bees to repair the mess by moving everything up into the brood frames where it should be. We'll check again soon to see how they are getting on.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Self-sufficient in Suburbia - spring edition

This is the latest edition of Self-Sufficient in Suburbia, covering spring: dry winter and wet May and June. We start by merging beehives, and end with swarms on our hands. One hen fell ill, eggs were laid without shells and rhubarb was turned into jam. Spring foraging got underway with nettles and wild garlic picked. Yet, despite our best efforts, the weather was not kind to us.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Checking out the local woodland

Lotties Wood was planted by the Woodland Trust 20 years ago on the edge of Sunniside, our village. There is a wide variety of trees and shrubs and it's a great place to go foraging. After the extreme weather of recent month, we decided to take a walk around to see what is doing well, and what's doing badly.

We'll start with the good news. It looks as though there will be an abundant hazel crop. It will be a few weeks yet before the nuts are ready for picking but we should not go short. Hazel is very important to us. They are packed full of essential oils, nutrients and protein. It's one of our primary autumn wild crops.

Rowan was reasonable. Some will be ready for picking within a week or so. We'll use it for making jelly. I'm keen to have a go at beer making and I'm on the outlook for recipes for rowan beer.

Haws were looking poor in parts but then I saw other hedgerows that looked reasonable. Again, I think we will get a modest crop.

Raspberries were also okay but nothing staggering. We'll get enough to make some jams but this ain't a bumper crop.

Rosehips looked okay. Watch out for my forthcoming attempts to make rosehip syrup.

Blackberries are late. In recent years I've been picking them before the end of July. It looks like another month will go by before we can harvest them and they don't look as if they will be in their normal abundance.

And now for the bad news.

Cherries have been a disaster. Some kind of bug seems to be killing the leaves. Cherry crop has been non-existent.

Sloes - these are equally a disaster. There won't be any sloe gin this year. Fortunately I have some left from last year. It means less to go into the hedgerow jelly as well.

And finally, the oak trees look well but there were no acorns. I need to have a look at mature oak trees to see how they are getting on but I am not very confident.

I suspect trees and shrubs that flowered in May got a hammering. Sloes for example normally plaster hedgerows white with flowers in the mid spring. It barely stopped raining in May. The last time we had a very wet spring was 2007. We had no sloes then either. March was dry and sunny this year. Hazel catkins are normally out before the buds are bursting on the trees. They had been pollinated (by wind) before the heavy rains. Their job was done before the rains fell. I suspect that's why the hazel crop is good but others are not in such a good shape.

Sunday 5 August 2012

How to make tomato soup

Our tomatoes are well behind where they should be at this time of year. We have lots of plants in the greenhouse with lots of flowers but very few tomatoes. So we swapped jam for another allotment holder's tomatoes and used them to make tomato soup.

Chop a medium onion, a red pepper and a stick of celery and lightly fry them for five minutes in a small amount of oil. Then add one kilo of chopped tomatoes, a litre of stock, two crushed cloves of garlic, 4 bay leaves and some dried herbs. Bring back to the boil and simmer for 20-25 minutes. Remove the bay leaves and then blend.

What happens when we let our hens go free range

I don't cover the risks from predators in this video but it does cover three problems you will encounter if you let your hens go free range: eggs being laid in hidden corners of the garden, damage to plants and dust baths in the middle of vegetable patches.

Another bee swarm

Bees should not be swarming in August. Spring is when bees should swarm to create new colonies. They need the late spring and early summer to establish a colony and use the flowers that should be in abundance then as a source of nectar to build up stores for the winter. Nevertheless, one of our hives produced a swarm through the week. I captured it and it is now in a new hive in our second apiary. This was no small swarm either. It was big and when I picked it up in the bee box, it was quite a weight. Talking of bee boxes, I used the one we bought recently to transfer the swarm to its new home. It's not the first time I have used it but it is the first time I have been in a position to film its use (see below).

I do hope this is the last swarm of the year. If the 8 hives we now have swarm next year to the extend they have this year, we are going to face a problem of what to do with them.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Moulting hens

My hens have now recovered from their moult but whilst they were losing feathers, I filmed this video. Some of the older hens are yet to moult so we await that event.

A visit to Gateshead Summer Flower Show

Last weekend we took some time off from the allotment and, in between checking beehives, we headed to the Gateshead Summer Flower Show. We were keen to see how others had coped with the spring weather in their vegetable patches. We have lost lots of crops to the rain and cold so we were cheered up by the sight of huge leeks, supersized onions and amazingly long parsnips. And a trip to the show tent with the jams, preserves and fruit licquers gave me a few ideas to try myself.

Thursday 2 August 2012

Building the hen house

When we expanded the number of hens we had last month, we also had to get another hen house. This is how we put it together.

Raspberry and rhubarb jam

The raspberries are ripening on the allotment so the first batch I picked was combined with rhubarb to make a rather tasty jam. Equal quantities of raspberries and rhubarb were used and lemon juice provided the pectin. Boil them up together until they have pulped and then add sugar (same weight as overall raspberries and rhubarb) and bring to setting point.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Making elderflower cordial

The bad weather has delayed the elderflower this year. Normally I am rushing to pick it in mid June. This year we have been picking it in late July. I've made the champagne I produce every year but this time in addition we have made elderflower cordial.

Heat up 1.5 litres of water and add in 2kg of sugar. Whilst waiting for it to boil, put a bagful of elderflowers and the zest and juice of 3 lemons into a bowl. Once the sugar syrup has boiled, pour it over the elderflowers and lemon. This will kill off the yeast in the flowers (or otherwise it will ferment!) Add 50g of citris acid crystals.

Leave to stand for a day or so then strain and bottle. To use, dilute to taste. elderflower Jul 12

Potato and lovage soup

We have grown lovage in our herb garden for 3 years but never really made use of it. Well, that's now changed. We have steamed the stalks to use them as a vegetable, added the leaves to stews and, in this video, used the leaves in a soup. lovage and potato soup Jul 12