A Basket of Adorables – the chicks have hatched!

It’s surprising how long three weeks can seem, when you’re waiting for eggs to hatch! But by day 18, it definitely feels like you’re getting there. It’s time to go into ‘lockdown’, switch off any automatic turning devices, and increase the humidity in the incubator for hatching. Then, you just have to wait for the longest three days you can imagine.

As it happens, a couple of our chicks seemed in a bit of a hurry to get hatched, and we had our first external pip – the crack in the eggshell the chick makes to help it breathe before the real hatching effort takes place – on the morning of day 20.

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You can imagine, I was checking the eggs every five or ten minutes! The excitement and anticipation was better than a childhood Christmas. The first cheeping sound from an as-yet unhatched egg was a magical noise. It suddenly seems plausible that, inside an egg which three weeks ago would have made a perfectly good omelette, there might be a tiny, perfect little creature. The hatching process from external pip to the chick finally emerging from the egg will commonly take 12-18 hours. An eternity! But by that evening, the very first chick – a Light Sussex – had hatched. We were on our way!

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It is advised to leave newly hatched chicks in the incubator – which after all is perfectly warm and comfortable for them – for around 24 hours after hatching. This allows them to get all nice and dry and fluffed up, from their rather bedraggled initial state. They don’t immediately require food and water, as their internal egg sac continues to supply their needs for around 48 hours after hatching. The less often you open the incubator during hatching, the higher the humidity stays, which is important because if the egg membranes dry out during hatching they become stiff and crispy and can effectively ‘shrink wrap’ the chick and prevent it hatching, a tragic fate so late in the process.

Somehow, despite the excitement and anticipation, we managed to get some sleep that night. By the next morning, we had a second egg hatched, and a third making real progress. Day 21 – ‘hatch day’ – had begun.

We had 21 eggs in the incubator at ‘lockdown’, from the 24 we had started incubating – three eggs appeared infertile when we candled them at 10 days, so these were removed at that stage. By mid-morning on day 21, things had really got going.

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At various points I was rather confused about how many chicks were hatched or actively hatching, and eventually the incubator became so full of chicks that it was impossible to keep track. A quick dive into the incubator to remove the first batch of fluffy chicks made a bit of space – and revealed a problem. One egg, which I had noticed pipping on the evening of day 20, over 18 hours ago, wasn’t making progress. I could see the chick moving inside, but there was only quite a small hole rather than the progressive line of chipped open shell that develops during an active hatch, and the membranes I could see appeared worryingly dry.

I had a decision to make. Most of the advice on hatching chicks will tell you not to intervene, and for good reason. Fiddling about with the incubator reduces the humidity and will increase the risk of hatching problems. Not only that, but hatching chicks are very fragile little creatures and the risk of causing catastrophic injury by interference is significant. Assisting a chick which isn’t quite ready to hatch is likely to lead to potentially life threatening bleeding from an umbilicus and from the blood vessels lining the shell which have not properly shut down yet, something that happens in the final hours before hatching. These are all extremely good reasons to leave well alone.

Another reason is also often given – that chicks which are not hatching correctly are probably ‘wrong’ in some way, and are as a result better left to die. This reason, I’m not buying. Animals of all sort can struggle to be born normally for all sorts of reasons, but many of those reasons are just plain bad luck – they find themselves positioned wrong (in the case of chicks, they fail to wriggle themselves around in the egg so that they can get their beak into the air cell, and start to breathe before hatching), or get tangled up somehow (with littler-mates, cords, or membranes). After speedy but considered soul-searching, I decided that this little chick needed my help, and that I was willing to go against the advice and try to assist the hatching.

Very gently, using my fingertips and a cotton bud damped with warm water, I enlarged the little hole the chick had made, until the cap – the bit of the shell overlying the air cell – was completely removed. I could see the little chick – a russety-coloured Rhode Island Red – tangled up tight in a rigid dried egg membrane, which had stuck to its downy feathers. Let me tell you, I was terrified of hurting the poor little thing and even tearing its skin as I eased the membrane away with my wet cotton bud. But very slowly, I was able to tease the membrane away without any damage to the little chick, releasing it from its entanglement. Having seen what was going on inside the egg, I have no regrets about helping – I can’t see how the chick could have got out on its own, it was well and truly welded to the membranes, had no way to rotate around to remove enough egg shell to complete its hatching, and would rapidly have been running out of the energy it needed to keep struggling. But I can also see quite how delicate, and risky, the process could be – and I might have been wrong, and taken those risks unnecessarily.

The rescued chick was popped back into the incubator. Meanwhile, we transferred the first batch of hatched chicks to the brooder cage which was set up in the corner of the living room.

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The brooder set-up is a bit ‘make do and mend’. I had bought a second hand Brinsea Eco-glow ‘electric hen’ style brooder, rather than use the more traditional hanging heat lamp, both because it has far lower energy consumption than a lamp, and because it seemed to me a more natural thing from a behavioural point of view – chicks would likely feel more comfortable and reassured by a dark warm place to snuggle under than a mysterious warm light in the sky. The brooder cage is Dave the dog’s old puppy crate, wrapped around with cling film to prevent drafts at chick height, with cardboard baffles around the edges, and bedded with newspaper and a thin layer of clean dust extracted wood shavings.

Hatching continued at great pace. By bedtime on day 21, we had 15 hatched, with six eggs still in the incubator showing no sign of activity. While I was delighted by the little fluffy bundles, if I’m honest I was feeling a little disappointed with these numbers – which would have given us a total hatch percentage only just over 62% from the starting 24.

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Patience is a virtue, and I was planning to give the eggs at least 48hrs after ‘due’ just to make sure no one was running behind. The following day (day 22) two more eggs had pipped, one hatched but the second failed to progress. We noticed that the water reservoir had run dry, which made me worry that perhaps it was another ‘shrink wrapped’ chick. After watching for a while, it looked like we were getting nowhere. I decided to intervene again, and carefully peeled this final chick out of the shell. The membranes were a bit dry but not quite as crispy as the little Rhode Island. This little chick had a visible umbilicus which seems to be some sort of a congenital abnormality. Maybe it isn’t quite ‘right’, but we’re giving it the benefit of the doubt for now.

With a total of 17 eggs hatched, there was no further activity in the final four, despite leaving them another couple of days. I candled the remaining eggs and three had clearly stopped developing at some point in the last week or so. The final one seemed to be absolutely packed full of chick, as you’d expect from a fully developed egg. But there was no sign of a little beak pushing into the air sac, and no sound from within the egg. Perhaps this was the unlucky one – positioned wrong and not able to get a breath to start the hatching process.

Our final statistics, by breed, for those of you who are curious about the nerdy details –

Our eggs originated from two batches, a dozen Buff Orpington eggs from one source, and dozen mixed breeds (RIR, Light Sussex, Vorwerk and Barnevelder) from a second. Both sets of eggs arrived in the post, he mixed breed eggs came about four days earlier than the Orpingtons and had probably been stored longer.

Breed – Initial (Removed – infertile) Hatched – %

  • Buff Orpington – 12 (0) 10 – 83%
  • RIR – 3 (1) 1 – 33%
  • Light Sussex – 4 (1) 3 – 75%
  • Vorwerk – 4 (1) 2 – 50%
  • Barnevelder – 1 (0) 1 – 100%
  • Mixed breed overall – 12 (3) 7 – 58%

Considering both batches of eggs went through the post, the significant difference between the two batches goes to show the value of obtaining the freshest possible eggs for incubation.

Two days after hatching, the little treasures look like this.

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And they’re developing at a remarkable pace. After three days it’s quit clear you couldn’t cram them back into the egg, no matter how hard you tried. Wing feathers started to become visible within a couple of days, and the chicken behaviours are all coming along, eating and drinking, pecking and scratching, preening, dust bathing, and even bickering for pecking order.

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Ten days after hatching, all 17 chicks continue to do well, including the weaker little final chick. Fingers crossed!

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Don’t Count your Chickens – incubation, day 10

On January 5th, I put my first ever batch of eggs into my incubator, after each one was weighed, numbered, and recorded. The instructions I’ve read all recommended candling after 7 days to check for evidence of development, which would have been this past Thursday.

Unfortunately, at short notice, I had to go away for a few days on Wednesday morning. Not knowing quite when I’d be back, I couldn’t resist sneaking a quick peek with the candling lamp on Tuesday night, at only 5 days incubation. I quickly picked four eggs at random from the 24 in the incubator and was delighted to see clear evidence of developing blood vessels in every one of them. Now, four was a small sample of the total, but it was a reassuring result!

I asked my husband to check all the eggs on Thursday, and let me know his findings. He emailed me his list, with ‘question marks’ over six eggs and definitely nothing in two. For a batch of eggs that had been through the post, these weren’t too bad, amounting to a failure to develop of 1/3rd of the total batch. But it was his first time candling and he wasn’t that confident, so we decided to leave all the eggs in the incubator, and I would double-check when I got back, whenever that happened to be.

A word or two about egg candling – this is a really simple technique which quite literally allows you to see inside the egg, by shining a very bright light through the shell while sitting in a darkened room. I’m afraid I haven’t got any photos from my candling session – I was far more concerned about getting it done carefully and quickly than about documenting the process – but there are plenty of good guides online, and any book about the hatching process should also be a good resource.

Fertile egg during candling [Creative Commons licensed image by Graibeard]

This photo gives an idea of what the developing embryo looks like within the egg at around 7 days. You can see the developing blood vessels inside the shell, the dark shadow of the embryo, and the bright air cell at the pointy end of the egg. Unfertilised eggs just look bright, with a bit of a shadow from the yolk. Darker-shelled eggs are harder to see detail in.

When I got home yesterday, I couldn’t wait to double check the eggs. To my delight, while I agreed with Hubby on his two ‘definite’ infertile eggs, only one of his six ‘question mark’ eggs appeared not to be developing. That means that, as of yesterday, I have 21 of my original 24 eggs still in play.

While I had them out for candling, I also weighed all my eggs. Tracking the weight loss of the eggs through incubation is really important because eggs need to loose around 14% of their total weight by evaporation during incubation. That way, the air cell is the right size at hatching so the chick is able to breathe without drowning during the hatch process. If the incubator has been too humid, there will be too little evaporation; if it has been too dry, then too much moisture can be lost, resulting in weak, undersized chicks. There are reported ‘target’ humidity ranges for hatching eggs of different species, but only really expensive incubators directly control and monitor humidity. What’s more, cheap electronic humidity meters (hygrometers – not the same thing as a hydrometer, which measures the density of a fluid) are notoriously unreliable, particularly outside normal room temperature ranges.

Egg recording spreadsheet 2

In most cases, then, we’re making a best guess at the humidity levels in the incubator. My incubator has two water channels in the base, and the instructions recommend filling one of them during incubation. (The second is filled later, at the 18 day mark, when we want to ramp the humidity of the incubator right up to help with hatching.) But the resulting humidity in the incubator has as much to do with the ambient, climatic temperature and humidity levels. The colder the outside air, the less moisture it can hold within it, resulting in lower humidity levels inside the warmed incubator. So how do we know we’re getting it right? Well, if we can compare the weight loss from the eggs with the target of 14% over 21days, by graphing, we can get a good idea if we’re in the right area.

This is what my weight loss data looks like.

Egg hatching weight loss graph

The long lines are the upper, middle, and lower bound of my expected weighs and weight losses. The shorter lines each represent one of the eggs in my incubator. As you can see, they aren’t quite all neatly parallel but all of them are within a reasonable variation of the target weight loss. One or two are more steeply angled down than the target. When I looked to see which eggs these were, they tended to be the ones located more centrally in the incubator. This makes a certain sense, as my incubator is a ‘forced air’ style incubator with a fan which circulates the air around. The fan is in the centre of the incubator lid, so while all the eggs in the incubator should be broadly at the same temperature, the ones in the centre are getting more of a draft, and that air movement will increase the evaporation from those eggs.

Bearing this in mind, I have ‘reshuffled’ the eggs in the incubator today to bring the eggs from the corners and sides in to the middle, and from the middle out to the edges, making sure to keep them pointy-end down at all times. This should hopefully equalise the water loss from the eggs during the second half of the incubation process.

At 10 days, now, we’re approximately half way there. A lot of things can still go wrong, and I’m certainly not counting my chickens just yet! But the excitement is definitely increasing…

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Ready, Set, Go – incubation has begun!

Last Thursday, I set 24 eggs in my incubator. We ran the incubator for 24 hours to check and stabilise the temperature before-hand. I think we have it all set up right – fingers crossed!

Eggs loaded into incubator

The eggs are made up of 12 Buff Orpingtons (I’ve been wanting a little breeding group of Orps for some time), sent to me by a very kind friend, along with a little ‘lucky dip’ selection including Rhode Island Reds, Light Sussex, and Vorwerk. All of the eggs have been through the post, which is reported to reduce their hatchability. So I have no idea at all how many little fluffy chicks we might actually be expecting at the end of the process!

Before being put into the incubator, I numbered and weighed each egg and dipped them in warm egg disinfectant, which is meant to reduce the risk of contamination causing infection which would kill the developing embryo. I have a spreadsheet (which will come as no surprise to those of you who know me) where I will be tracking the weight loss of the eggs and recording fertility and candling outcomes.

Egg recording spreadsheet

Our first idea how things are going comes after 7 days, when we should be able to candle the eggs – shining a bright light inside them to see if anything inside is casting shadows –  to find out which eggs are fertile and developing, and which are not.

So, here goes. Wish us luck!

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Beginnings and Endings – hopes of new life for a new year

The time around New Year is always a rather liminal time. A time of real and imaginary ends and beginnings. This year has been a particularly difficult one for me – and for a lot of people, I think. So, for the end of the year, I thought I would tell you a story. It’s a perfectly true story, as far as stories remembered from deep childhood ever can be. It’s a small story, really. But like many long-remembered stories, you can still hear its echoes, its resonance, if you listen.

In this story, I’m a small girl of six or seven. We’re on our first long-haul overseas holiday. It’s the first time we have left Europe, and we’re visiting California. We’ve ridden the teacups and the runaway mining cart at Disney World, and acquired a family portrait in pioneer dress, leaning on the rail of a wagon, which is still in the family album today. We’ve petted the bottle nose dolphins at Sea World, and marvelled at the flying Orca (this is long before Free Willy, and a more sensitive approach to these things). And on this particular day, we are at the San Diego Zoo.

Now, San Diego Zoo is an amazing place. Even in the mid 1980s, when our story takes place, it was a bastion of conservation zoology, blazing the trail with wide open, naturalistic, enriched enclosures. But I can’t honestly tell you that I remember any of that. Actually, that’s not quite true – I do remember the goat in the petting farm who stole a billfold from the back pocket of a man’s trousers, and then ate it. But apart from the goat with a taste for greenbacks, what I remember is the chicks.

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You see, there was an exhibit of hatching eggs. In my memory, it’s been set up in the middle of some sort of amphitheatre get-up, round or hexagonal maybe, with benching around, and a roof over. But who knows. Anyway, in the middle, is a large tray of hatching eggs in a big glass box. Fifty or sixty eggs. A few little chicks are standing around looking a bit dazed, some all fluffed up, some still rather damp and dishevelled. But this one egg, just here, is hatching. By family story, I refused to be moved for the more than two hours it took the chick to finally emerge from its shell. In my recollection, there’s no sense of time; just complete fascination and rapture.

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I can trace to that moment my focused fascination with animals, with biology and zoology. It must go some way to explain my later decision to study veterinary medicine, and so account, at least in part, for my current life as a working veterinary surgeon, and developing smallholder.

Earlier this year, I was thinking about the chicks for some reason – I can’t remember why, now – and I was struck with a thought that had somehow eluded me for the best part of three decades. San Diego Zoo, I realised, is not noted for its poultry collection. It is, however, recognised as holding one of the finest reptile collections anywhere in the world.

Now, I’m not overly sentimental, by and large. But the realisation, years later, that my little chick probably became snake food shook me. Looking back now, it was a very 2016 moment.

*

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve been thinking about chicks quite a lot, the past few days. And this is why.

img_3107On Christmas morning, I unwrapped an incubator. It’s a Brinsea Octagon Eco 20, with an automatic turning cradle, and I can think of few occasions, going right back to six year old me – perhaps with the exception of the year I received the My Little Pony Castle – when I have been so excited to unwrap a gift and get to work on the contents.

So, watch this space! I plan to load the incubator with a “pick ‘n mix” selection of fertile eggs next week, to hatch into a clutch of little fluffy chicks – with a lot of good luck, given it’s my first ever hatching attempt – around the end of January.

After what has been a pretty dreadful 2016, I could not be more ‘eggcited’ for 2017!

P.S. On the subject of bird ‘flu (H5N8 avian influenza), and the current restrictions in the UK – because someone is bound to ask – we’re lucky to have outbuildings here where we can keep our birds completely indoors if that becomes necessary. So while I’m hoping that restrictions will have been lifted by the time our little chickies are ready to go outdoors – once they have feathers rather than fluff, around the start of March – we’re in a really good position hopefully to take care of them while this awkwardness continues.

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Like a Rocket – summer glut-busting: wild rocket pesto

Summer days are here at last, and for those of us who grow our own fruit and vegetables, that means the summer gluts are starting, too. Wild rocket is really very easy to grow, which is great, as the sad little plastic salad bags at the supermarket cost a small fortune! Even if you only have space for a window box or a pot on a sunny doorstep, you’re quite likely to be able to grow more of this really punchy, peppery salad leaf than you can bear to eat in salad. Even better, wild rocket is perennial, which means that you only have to plant it once and it will come back, year after year. In the garden of our last house, we ended up with a big clump of wild rocket growing at the edge of the lawn which served us for many years.

A few weeks ago, I transplanted three rather sad looking overwintered plants from an exhausted grow-bag into one of the raised beds in my poly-tunnel. And look what happened!

Wild rocket

There you go, straight away – more rocket than I can possibly eat! And then, I thought – I wonder if I can make pesto with this stuff? It’s punchy, peppery, and in many respects quite like basil, so I was hopeful. A quick search around the internet confirmed my suspicions that it should be possible, so I got picking.

For my batch of pesto, which filled an average-sized jam jar with a little to spare, I used –

  • 120g of freshly picked wild rocket leaves. To give you a rough idea of how much rocket that is, the supermarket packs of rocket leaves are usually between 50g and 70g.
  • Washed & dried rocket3 large cloves of garlic
  • 50g pine kernels, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan
  • 50g good quality parmesan cheese
  • Plenty of good extra virgin olive oil
  • One lemon
  • A pinch of salt

Wash your rocket, removing tougher stems and any flower stalks, and dry it in a salad spinner (or give it a really good shake in a colander with a plate over the top).

You can make this pesto in a pestle and mortar (in fact, it’s my favourite way of making small batches of basil pesto, as you keep closer control over the texture and you’re much less likely to over process) but given the quantities I used my food processor for this batch. First, blitz the garlic cloves with a pinch of salt until they’re finely chopped down. Then add the parmesan, and reduce to crumbs, before adding the pine kernels. Aim to retain some texture in the pine kernels, you’re not trying to purée them!

Once that’s done, add the rocket, a handful at a time, adding some olive oil as you go if the mix gets a bit dry. Aim to retain a little texture in the mix.

Rocket pesto after processing

Once it looks like this, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, mix well, and add oil until it reaches the texture you prefer. Taste – you’ll find it punchy, peppery, and pungent – and add more lemon juice if you feel it’s needed. You won’t need to add pepper – trust me on this! – but you may want to add a little more salt at this stage, too.

The pesto will store for a few days in a screw-top jar in the refrigerator. Keep the surface covered with a layer of olive oil to prevent oxidation. If you want to store your pesto for longer, you can freeze it in an ice cube tray, and take it out in single-serve portions. How clever is that?

Pesto in jar

Use your rocket pesto any way you would use the basil kind. It’s wonderful stirred through pasta or, particularly, gnocchi. Add a few little dabs to the top of your pizza before baking. Or spread it on burger buns as a punchy, peppery relish.

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Blocking Up – experimenting with peat-free soil blocks

I can’t quite remember where I first came across the idea of soil blocks for seed sowing, but they’re a rather neat idea. Compacted cubes of growing medium are used instead of pots or modules, freestanding seed trays with narrow air gaps between the blocks.

Big claims are made about the benefits of soil blocks for raising young plants in terms of reduced root disturbance and how ‘air-pruning’ of the roots prevents root binding of seedlings, all of which may well be true – I haven’t really got the horticultural background to say! But actually the thing that really attracted me to soil blocks was practicality.

Sowing seeds into soil blocks

I really don’t like module trays – they’re a pain to wash and re-use, if nothing else, they tend to degrade badly and crack up so that they only last two or three seasons, and are expensive and enormously wasteful if you’re using them only once. While it makes sense  to start certain seeds directly into 3″ pots, that takes up an awful lot of window sill space – something that’s definitely at a premium in my house at this time of year. And as we’re aiming to be completely peat free in the new garden, those little peat jiffy pots are right out (and the cost adds up quickly). A useful compromise has been home-made newspaper pots, but there’s quite a lot of effort involved in making these and I don’t always have time (also, my paper potter tool seems to have gone astray in the house move)! I’d more or less settled to using plain seed trays and pricking out seedlings at a small size, but that’s quite a lot of work and it can be rather traumatising for the seedlings, and has to be done at just the right time when inevitably I have too much else to do. So, no perfect solution.

Half trays of soil blocks in heated propagatorSoil blocks combine the convenience of the plain seed tray with the ‘modularisation’ provided by plastic module trays or individual paper pots – so could they be the best of both worlds?

Despite a real lack of cash just now, I decided to dig deep and find the twenty pounds for a four-block two inch cube soil block maker, which I bought from GreenGardener.co.uk. Only after diving in feet first with the purchase did I stop to consider the peat free problem; almost everything I read suggested that a peat-based seed compost was essential for making functional soil blocks. So had I just wasted my money?

Unwilling to compromise on our principles, I set about mining websites and gardening forums in search of a peat free recipe for soil blocks. None was quite right but some themes kept recurring. A base of peat free compost (fine textured seed compost ideally), something to help drainage (sand, perlite and vermiculite were variously mentioned) and loam or topsoil to help bind the mixture.

I’ve mentioned that money is a bit tight; going shopping for extra growing media is not on the cards, but I have a reasonable supply of New Horizon peat free organic multi-purpose compost and a rather soggy old bag of vermiculite (I generally use the New Horizon compost mixed 3:1 with vermiculite as my seed mix). We also have an almost inexhaustible supply of molehills, as the efforts of Mr Mole to create a ‘des-res’ for Mrs Mole are in full swing on our paddock!

So with a ‘make-do and mend’ attitude I did a few experiments and have come up with the following mix that seems, so far, to be working well for me. It will be the basis of my soil blocks for this season, while I get a handle on how things go germination-wise, and consists of –

  • Dry soil block mixture4 parts peat free multipurpose compost (you could sieve this to take out the biggest bits – but I’m fundamentally lazy and don’t own a garden sieve)
  • 1 part vermiculite, and
  • 1 part molehill (you should ideally sterilise this to get rid of weed seeds, I suppose, though it seems like faff) or substitute with bought topsoil (being careful it’s not been mixed with peat compost, as it often is!)

Wetted soil block mixMix the components thoroughly and then add water, a little at a time, until you reach a consistency that holds well together when you take a handful and give it a good squeeze. I find this is at the stage that you can just squeeze a tiny bit of water back out of the mix. Any wetter and the blocks slide straight out of the block maker – drier and the blocks tend to crumble. If you find you’ve over-wet the mix just add a bit more compost to dry it out again. A little trial and experimentation and you should get a good idea what you’re aiming for.

Filling the soil block makerTo make the blocks, level the wet compost mix about two and a half inches deep and as even as possible. Push the block maker down firmly into the compost until it hits the bottom, then push down on the handle without moving the press, to squeeze down on the blocks. You may squeeze a out a little water (if you’re seeing a lot, your mix is too wet). Then, release the handle and carefully pick up the block maker, tilting it on it’s side to reduce the risk of blocks falling out.

Making up soil blocks in seed trayPosition it where you want your blocks to go, and then press down on the handle again pulling the block maker up at the same time. If it’s all worked perfectly, you will have four even, neat little cubes each with a dimple in the middle. I find I can fit three rows of four blocks (12 blocks in total) into a half sized seed tray or seven rows of blocks (28 in all) in a full sized tray.

Half seed trays of soil blocksNow you’re ready to sow your seeds. Pop one seed into each dimple (or more than one if they’re small seeds and you plan to thin any extra seedlings) and cover loosely with a pinch of dry compost or vermiculite – or leave the seed uncovered if light is required for good germination. Then place the seed tray in your desired spot. I currently have two half trays of soil blocks in my heated propagator with tomato seeds in, and two full trays of salad leaves and brassicas in the unheated greenhouse.

Completed tray of soil blocksThe soil blocks are supposed to contain enough water to allow the seeds to germinate without further watering being required, but this depends on preventing excessive evaporation.

Covered seed trays in greenhouseI wrap the seed trays in the greenhouse with cling film (wetting the edge of the seed tray like a pie dish gives a good seal) and those in the heated propagator are under a closed lid. But if they do get a bit dry, don’t panic – mine held together fine when I watered them with a normal watering can and medium rose, just be gentle! Obviously you can’t use normal plant markers easily if you’re using cling film, so I label my trays using masking tape stuck to the seed tray. Keep your eyes open for signs of germination and remove the cling film before the seedlings reach it.

I’m waiting to see how things germinate in them now, and how they grow on, with no small degree of excitement!

Are you experimenting with soil blocks this year? How are you getting along?

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Something’s Rotten in the Garden Centre

Something has been happening in our garden centres. This blog post, I’m afraid, is a bit of a rant.

Recently, I had the most depressing experience. We were out and about, and with seed sowing season upon us, we needed to pick up a few bags of peat free compost for the garden. As it happened, we knew there was a garden centre just up the road – the glossy signage at the roadside bragged of it having won awards, and the car park, on a sunny February Saturday, was crowded.

Garden CentreThe bad omens started at the entrance. ‘No dogs’, said the sign. This was a nuisance because Dave dog was with us, of course. So he would have to wait outside with Hubby while I popped in to pick up the compost. And maybe one or two other bits and bobs. Even better, I had some National Garden vouchers in my wallet, so it was the best sort of shopping, the kind that doesn’t feel like it involves spending ‘real’ money.

The ‘information’ desk at the entrance (‘This is Not a Till’) was a bit odd, but the man in a suit standing behind it was able to confirm that they would indeed accept my vouchers. Oh goodie! I looked around. A few BBQs. A chimnea or three. A garden swing. Nothing really unexpected, and surely the good stuff would be just through there…

The sight that greeted me through the door, instead, was rather startling. A large hangar of a space, it was filled from side to side with tat. Not so much as a houseplant, as far as the eye could see. Instead, nick-nacks piled up on tables like some sort of demented car boot sale. I’ll admit, it took me a few moments to take it all in. A second adjoining cavernous space seemed to be filled with even more of the same. But where on earth were the plants?

Garden centre tat

In the distance I spied a door that seemed to lead outside. Perhaps, this was where I might find what I needed? After weaving through tables piled with clocks, picture frames, porcelain rabbits, and oversized tea sets, I stepped out into the sunshine. Here, finally, I found the plants, set out on staging. I could have danced. And there, against the fence, half-hidden by heaps of discarded wooden pallets, were piles of promising looking plastic sacks. At least I’d be able to pick up the compost I needed, and escape from this very perplexing place.

Compost SacksI couldn’t spot the peat free compost we normally buy, so I walked along the row looking to see what they had instead. It dawned on me, slowly, that the answer was ‘nothing’. Not a single bag of peat-free compost. I walked back along the row, slightly disbelieving, and checked all the labels carefully. But apart from the topsoil, wood chip, and the farmyard manure, all the potting mixes contained old-school peat.

Now, I’m not a peat free zealot. I understand that some gardeners, familiar and comfortable with its properties, find it hard to give it up. A bit like fossil fuels and global warming, it can be hard to link the bag of compost in your shed to the destruction of rare and fragile wetland habitat. I’ve made the personal decision to finally make the break, and our new garden will be peat free as far as it possibly can be – but I understand that not everyone is ready or able to make that jump just yet. It is surely a remarkable moral failure, though, to be denying your customers even the possibility of making the right choice.

Rather shocked, I turned around and tried to find the exit. On my way out, I spied the seed racks – the ultimate impulse buy for any keen gardener, and my personal retail kryptonite – hidden so far out of the way that I wasn’t even tempted to browse, let alone buy. A tiny range of cheap plastic propagating trays was piled haphazardly nearby, almost hidden behind a giant selection of multi-coloured welly boots.

I left, gift vouchers resolutely still in my pocket.

What has gone wrong when a garden centre can’t part a keen gardener with a pocket full of gift vouchers from even a penny their cash?  The failure to stock even one peat free multipurpose compost is beyond disappointing – actually I think it’s unconscionable; presumably it result from some bean-counter’s profitability analysis but surely it’s the bean growers’ needs that should matter?

Discussing this with friends on Twitter, I’ve been asked to name and shame, but that’s not my style. And depressingly, I don’t really need to – wherever you live in the country, unless you’re very very lucky, it’s likely your local garden centre, be it a chain or an independent, is somewhere rather like this. Some make a better job of pretending to care about the gardener than others, but a cursory look at the square footage is enough to make clear that the cafe, food court, interior decor, ‘giftware’, crafting supplies, pet shop, outdoor clothing (and indoor clothing for that matter), garden buildings, children’s soft play areas, and fishing tackle are more important than seeds, plants, and essential garden provisions.

This sad state of affairs appears to result from a nasty loophole in planning law which allows horticultural businesses – which real plantsman (and woman) nurseries absolutely are, but these garden centres are not – to be developed on agricultural land where permission would never be given for an out of town shopping centre. It’s the worst of both worlds, then – over-development of inappropriate sites, and the horticultural purpose, sadly, long forgotten. Instead, we get this rambling, low-rent, mixed-retail mess. And a mess which, to add insult to injury, now often fails even to fulfil its original purpose, of offering plants and horticultural supplies for gardeners.

So what are we to do? Well, you could do as we did, and visit the good guys.

Nursery PolytunnelIndependent local plant nurseries are the gardener’s friend and still hang on in most places despite competition from the big boys of the garden centre and DIY warehouse worlds. They probably don’t sell BBQs  – they may not have a cafe – but what they know, and excel in, is plants, and the knowledge and gear that you need to grow them successfully.

Fresh from our disappointing experience at the garden centre, we went along to Bodmin Plant and Herb Nursery. We immediately found the compost we needed, along with a very nice selection of pots, right outside the entrance. In the small inside space (into which Dave dog was welcomed), a good selection of seeds, seed potatoes, pea and bean seeds sold loose by weight, little bunches of snowdrops ‘in the green’ ready for transplanting, and a good selection of tools, along with tree ties, rabbit guards, and so on. Second-hand module trays, too, saved from landfill and a bargain addition to our potting bench. And not a nasty nick-nack in sight.

Plant selectionOutside, even in very early spring, a great range of fruit trees and bushes, and a really good selection of shrubs and bedding plants. I can’t wait to go back in a month or two when I expect a riot of colour and fresh growth. The staff don’t wear suits; they were helpful, knowledgeable and clearly cared about the quality of their plants and the needs of their customers.

I went home with my peat free compost, and a couple of other little bits that caught my eye (yes, there might have been a seed packet of two…) and left a nice bundle of gift vouchers behind me. In fact, the only slight cause of sadness was the relative emptiness of the car park, with only a handful of vehicles parked when we arrived.

Honourable mention also goes to Burncoose Nurseries near Redruth, which we visited last week on the way back from an outing to the Lizard. A great ‘pure’ plant nursery with a fabulous selection of specimen plants and shrubs, where I finally found the Tasmanian Snow Gum I’ve been looking for for about a decade. Don’t expect to find tools or supplies here, but for plant selection it’s one of the best I’ve seen.

So, even if you’re not ready to go peat free, why not reject the tat-merchants and DIY barns and make it your resolution to go garden-centre free this growing season, and instead, give your support – and your hard-earned cash –  to your local independent nurseries?

[The photos used in this post are Creative Commons licensed images sourced from Flickr (see image pages for details) – they are for illustrative purposes and do not represent the products, nurseries or garden centres discussed in this blog post.]

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New Year, New Home – our plans for the garden

Crikey, we’re half way through January 2015 already – how did that happen?? It seems like only last week we arrived here, but it’s been over six months now since we moved, in the height of summer.

The house

It’s going to be an exciting year for us, and hopefully plenty of opportunities to showcase new skills and techniques here on the blog, too! Those of you who read here regularly will know that we were forced by the HS2 rail project to move from our lovely little cottage near Banbury. We decided to bite the bullet and make a big move – the move to the South West that Hubby and I had always told ourselves we would make ‘one day’, when the right opportunity arose. I have to say I’d always suspected the ‘right time’ might well have ended up being be 20 or 30 years from now, when we were thinking about retirement, so while it was a scary move, and stretches us financially, I’m delighted that we find ourselves here in Cornwall now, while we’re still young (well, relatively, hah!) and fit and able to work and build a life here and contribute to our local community. Even if it means we’re skint working-age folk rather than comparatively well-off retirees!

After an initial 6 months doing temporary contract work to keep our heads above water, I’ve started a new, permanent job for the new year, closer to home and with saner hours (occasional days off!) which will hopefully allow me to draw breath from time to time and spend a little more time making, doing and writing too!

So, as today is one such day, I thought I’d share a little about the projects we have coming up here at our beautiful new home in the course of the next year.

In the garden –

We’re amazingly lucky to have five acres of land with our new home, and in due course we hope to slowly build it up into a productive smallholding. For the time being we’re renting the pasture land to our neighbours for their sheep to graze, while we concentrate our time, effort, and resources around the house and gardens.

Dave dog on the paddock

Yes – gardens. I never thought I’d have gardens in the plural (well, if you ignore a scrap of front driveway!) but we have two, three if you count the old sheep fold where we’ve planted the orchard trees that we dug up and brought with us from our last home.

South gardenTo the south of the house, sloping away gently, we have a triangular garden with Cornish hedges on both sides which is going to be our ‘pretty’ garden. It has gorgeous views over Bodmin Moor and will be perfect for relaxing in on summer evenings if we ever get any time to rest!

The fish pondHubby has dug a pond here for our fish, who are settling in nicely, but otherwise this patch of land is likely to have to take a back seat for a while while we concentrate on more productive projects! With a bit of time and attention (ten years or so should do it!) I have high hopes for it being an even more beautiful place to be.

To the west side, we have an almost square, level garden with the house to one side and Cornish hedges to the other three sides, which essentially makes it a walled garden and the most protected growing space we have. This is an important factor as we’re nearly 900ft up on the edge of Bodmin Moor, and the winter weather and winds here can be a bit ferocious!

First raised bedsThis is going to be our kitchen garden, and as you can see the work has already started, the hens are settling in nicely, and the first three raised beds are planted with winter veggies.

We’re going to build a shed and a small seedling greenhouse here and add some more growing space as we go along. The soil is quite stony as we’re on granite and slate bedrock, but seems good and fertile so with a bit of luck and lots of patience and stone picking this should make for a lovely productive working garden. As long as we can keep the rabbits & mice at bay…

We plan to build a polytunnel outside the gardens to the side of the pasture paddock, to allow us to grow more tender plants like chillies, tomatoes, peppers and maybe even melons, and take even greater advantage of Cornwall’s lovely mild climate (well, by and large – it’s blummin’ chilly today!) and long growing season. The hens might even enjoy hanging out there in future winters, in the dry and out of the wind.

The hens nicely settledThe hens are doing OK now, after a disaster back in November when a stoat broke into the run and slaughtered three of the five girls we’d brought with us from Banbury. Of course, it killed my favourite, Midge, and I was completely heartbroken over the whole thing. We managed to find four new pullets to make up the numbers and all of them seem to be getting on really well now.

We’ve had far less trouble than on any previous hen introductions so we’re obviously getting the hang of this process. The new girls all have their own characters and temperaments and seem very chilled out around Dave dog, which is lovely.

There’s so much to do, but it’s so exciting! I’ve got some chillies in the heated window sill propagator (and rapidly realising I need a much bigger one!) and the first have germinated during the past few days. It won’t be long before every window sill in the house is full to bursting with seedlings – at least they’re nice thick walls, over two feet of solid granite for the most part, so I have plenty of ledge space.

Green shoots!

We missed out completely on last year’s growing season, which was torture. So even though we really should probably be focusing our time and efforts in other places, I refuse to let another whole growing year go by the wayside – it’s so very exciting to have seeds in compost again and to be seeing the very first green shoots of what should hopefully be our first great productive Cornish growing season!

Recycled cold frameIt’s a very conscious decision to concentrate our time and expenditure on the productive aspects of the gardens first – after all, the kitchen garden will go some way to feeding us. Landscaping and decorative planting, no matter how attractive, doesn’t help keep the larder stocked or reduce our food bills. We’re very much doing this on a budget, too – our rather lovely pair of cold frames are made from the glass out of the shower cubicle we had to replace when we got here.

Over the next few blog posts I’ll share with you some of our plans for the house – especially the kitchen – and for our outbuildings. Buckle up – it’s going to be a busy year!

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Merry Christmas from the Country Skills Blog!

It’s been an incredible year (and one where this blog, I’m afraid, has felt rather neglected at times!). Here’s wishing all my lovely readers a very Merry Christmas – may your day be full of peace, joy, and laughter, good food and good company, and home-made goodies of course!

Merry Christmas 2014!

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We’re here! Just starting to get settled into our new life in Cornwall.

Thank you all for your patience in the recent blogging hiatus! We’ve moved (actually, we’ve been here four weeks now, I just feel I’ve barely had a chance to pause to draw breath since then!) and are starting to settle into this beautiful spot – and really start to realise all the work that is to come…

From the garden

This really does feel like a special little part of the world. We’re well off the beaten track, without mains water or drainage (mains gas is a wild and distant fantasy!) but with the amazing quiet and stunning scenery that comes from being just that extra little bit out of the way. The broadband is serviceable – good by very rural standards, actually – but any need for a Netflix subscription is a long way off… We’re lucky to have found ourselves with lovely neighbours, who we hope will become very good friends in time, and have been made wonderfully welcome and introduced to everyone in our great local pub. So far, no one seems to mind that we’re incomers, but are pleased that we’ve come to make a life long-term in their community, which is heartwarming.

 Sunset  At dusk  Meadow sunshine

I’ve been taking a few photos from the garden (because it’s just so pretty I can’t stop looking at it!) – that’s Bodmin moor, in the background of those photos. Our nearest village, Altarnun, which is mostly famous for having been the parish of the dodgy vicar in Dapnhe Du Maurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn’, has a gorgeous church, a little river running under an ancient stone packhorse bridge, and is exactly as full of whitewashed slate and granite cottages with flowers out in front as you might imagine.

The move itself was more than a little more ‘interesting’ than it might have been – one of our lorries was involved in a road traffic accident en route, and was held up for nearly a week while a new lorry was found and the contents transferred – the driver was blessedly uninjured, thank goodness – unfortunately for us the lorry contained all our plants and trees, which got to spend a week locked in the back of a lorry in a freight yard in full sun. We asked for them to be watered and I think that must have happened as they turned up in far better shape than we had feared – a few broken branches but not dried up husks. Otherwise, we’ve suffered the usual small number of breakages – thankfully though, nothing irreplaceable.

All of that somehow pales into insignificance now that we’re here. The insect and bird-life that we’ve seen just in the last few weeks is amazing – we have house martins nesting in the barn, and flycatchers and bullfinches join the more common sparrows, dunnocks, wrens, robins, blackbirds, thrushes, a variety of tits and some pretty serious birds of prey – buzzards definitely, but quite possibly kites, too – that we see in the garden, on the bird feeder, and out and about. At night, the swifts and house martins give way to lots and lots of bats.

I’m completely in love with the Cornish hedges – which are no such thing, of course, they’re mounds of granite packed with soil, as many an unwary motorist has discovered to their cost over the years. These are to all intents and purposes vertical wildflower meadows stretching for mile after mile, full of clovers and vetches, foxgloves, meadowsweet, cranesbills, honeysuckle, ferns of all shapes and sizes, and wild strawberries, so very lovely and unusual to see up at head height or above, walking between cornish hedges is a bit like lying face-down in a meadow, without the inconvenience and grass stains! I’m sure the hedges – and the grazing that they surround – are the reason we have so many wonderful butterflies, bees and other insects, and the amazing bird life in turn.

The houseThe house itself is beautiful, with bags of character, thick granite walls, slate floors and open fires, but it’s over 200 years old and was always likely to be troublesome – its first ‘surprise’ for us came in the form of a curtain of water running down the dining room wall when Hubby was having a shower a couple of weeks ago. The long and the short of it is we need to completely re-fit the shower and the bathroom tiles, something that we were planning to do in due course but wasn’t a priority for our currently rather strained finances. Ah well…

Apart from taming the overgrown grass, we haven’t even started on the garden yet… but the ideas, at least, are starting to come together.

Last weekend I started making the curtains and blinds for the living room from the gorgeous floral tapestry-like fabric we found for a bargain price on the Goldhawk Road market last time we were down in London. It’s not the easiest fabric to work with, but I think you’ll agree the results are quite rewarding? (There will be a blog post on how to make roman blinds coming up – the executive summary though? Very efficient on fabric yardage, but a lot more trouble than curtains in terms of time, effort, and required accuracy!)

Working on the blinds  Finished blind

I’ve discovered, meanwhile, that some beautiful fabric I had bought to make bedroom curtains for our old cottage – and never got around to because it soon became clear we would be moving before long – is *just* long enough to make two pairs of curtains for the new bedroom, even accounting for the inconveniently long 62cm pattern repeat. This discovery has made me implausibly happy.

Bookshelves!Just today we’ve managed to empty a load of book boxes onto the shelves. It’s amazing how much more lived-in – and less echoey – full bookshelves make a room seem! The cookbook collection finally has some space to spread out, a whole bookcase to itself! Of course I’m weeks behind with Cooking the Books now – who knows if I’ll ever manage to get caught up??

And of course, when we’re not trying to sort out the house, and I’m not at work (which feels like all the time at the moment!) there’s the wonderful Cornish coast and countryside to enjoy. Dave dog is absolutely delighted with his at-least-weekly visits to the seaside, something that could only be a very occasional treat when we were in the Midlands. We were even greeted by a swim-by of a pod of dolphins at Trebarwith Strand, Dave dog’s favourite beach.

What it's all about!

The weather has been absolutely gorgeous since we got here, which is both a joy and a torment, when I’m stuck at work sweltering staring at a beautiful sunny Westcountry summer’s day out of the window. Too warm, sometimes, for doing the things that we need to do around the house and garden – the pond remains un-dug and the trees are not yet planted – but at least the paint dries quickly!

I’ll stop rambling now as it’s a gorgeous sunny evening and while I’m sat in here typing, I’m not out there enjoying it! Hopefully the blog will feel a little less neglected over the next few weeks, though as I seem to be working all the hours, I’m not making any promises… All the stress and upset of the compulsory purchase of our lovely old cottage does seem to be fading into memory, and though I’m not a fatalist, something about how I feel about this place makes me wonder if we were meant to end up here all along..?

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