Thanks to free basil seeds handed out by a kindly group of Network Rail staff, I grew three seedlings. (I’m not sure what the connection was between a safety campaign of ‘Don’t trespass on the tracks’ and a goody bag of basil seeds among other freebies, but I never asked and was certainly very grateful for the basil seeds). Two of my seedlings were too weak but I was pleased with how my last one was progressing (see above photo).
One morning, I decided it was time to test out the basil. Now, who will volunteer to be my ‘guinea pigs ‘ in this experiment? Aha, Tom and Tim, eager volunteers who would give me an honest review.
Well, that was a quick experiment. Anyway, a thumbs up by Tom and Tim and a polite request for more homegrown local produce.
Thankfully I have more basil seeds…
(Note on photos: Tom and Tim don’t really have red eyes, it’s just my not-particularly high-tech camera!)
Why is the buddleia also called the butterfly bush? Answer? Well, see the above photo of a buddleia in my garden – butterflies love it! I have four of these, two in my back garden, one in my side (the chickens’ territory) and the fourth in my driveway.
This summer, the same as every year, butterflies were drawn to every buddleia I have. If you want to attract these beautiful insects to your garden, this hardy shrub is a must-have.
The type I have is the fragrant and popular buddleia davidii which can have white, mauve or purple flowers. It can grow to 8ft or more if not pruned and ‘bears tiny honey-scented flowers in cone-shaped spikes’ (Dr D G Hessayon, The Tree and Shrub Expert). It flowers between July to September so a very welcome flowering hotspot for butterflies during summer. According to Dr Hessayon, buddleias prefer sunny locations and well-drained soil. Not sure how well-drained my soil is but none of the four shrubs seem to mind and flower each year.
Other varieties include buddleia alternifolia and buddleia globosa.
The buddleia is actually originally from China (and named after an English botanist called Rev Adam Buddle). It’s often found in the wild in Britain, on derelict sites and along railway lines. It could be classed as ‘invasive’ which usually has negative connotations for nature but in this case it looks like the benefits outweigh the drawbacks to this useful and beautiful plant.
The butterflies certainly seem to appreciate it anyway.
I have written previously about my goal to be able to recognise and name trees. So I thought I would start close to home, from my driveway to be precise. My driveway was once a barren spot, fit only to park a car, but over the last few years it has become a mini wild area. And one of the residents of my ‘wild driveway’ is a rowan tree. Back in 2014 or thereabouts, I joined the Woodland Trust for the first time. I kept seeing their sign whenever I walked in one of their woods and I realised that it was thanks to The Woodland Trust that there were so many beautiful and accessible woodlands near me (and possibly near you too if you live in Britain).
And yes, the thought of a free gift also enticed me. This free gift was a rowan tree sapling. Rowan trees, also know as the mountain ash, are slender, with silver-brown bark. They’re excellent for wildlife as they have white spring flowers and red berries in autumn. So win-win for insects and birds alike. They are deciduous so lost their leaves in winter.
The Woodland Trust says the rowan tree – which can grow to an average height of 8 to 15 metres – can live for 200 years so hopefully my tree will long outlast me, providing pollen and nectar for pollinating insects (including bees) and berry food for birds such as song thrushes and waxwings. Of course, like all trees, my rowan also absorbs carbon and purifies the air. So even my tiny driveway is doing its bit for climate change too.
And as an added extra, it looks great too!
In the wild the rowan grows higher (1,000m) than any other tree hence its other name, the mountain ash. There’s a lot of folklore connected to the rowan – it was seen as a magical protector and planted outside houses to keep witches away.
This spring the chickens have had several day trips to Buttercup Meadow, aka my back garden.
Buttercup Meadow’s main arena is fenced off to avoid escapes but that didn’t deter Dottie who kept insisting she wanted to dig for worms outside. The fact that I may not have wanted holes in that part of the lawn didn’t enter her head.
Mabel somehow managed to sneak out, the grass being greener on the other side, being her motto. In particular the goldenrod she spotted en route …
And Little Ava, a former teacher’s pet, usually so quiet and meek, was surprisingly the worst for squeezing through the hole of the fence. She didn’t like Buttercup Meadow. Oh yes, she loved the delicious food it offered, but not the confines. She was, she said, happier to be on the outside, mooching about the flower beds, nibbling away at the grass. She wouldn’t go far, she promised. And Ava being a good girl, I believed her.
Jemima was often the last one to leave despite being leader. It must have irked her to see her usually good flock doing their own thing and not following her, as always, excellent example.
Once they sampled the delights of Buttercup Meadow on lazy hot summer days, they presumed they would be able to enter this chickens’ theme park at any time of their choosing. They would make their way confidently from their garden, through their gate, towards Buttercup Meadow.
“But ladies,” I would explain, “the grass is wet, it’s been raining, you’ll be covered with mud…”
“It’s alright, we will keep ourselves as clean as we can,” Mabel would cluck distractedly as she would veer away from Buttercup Meadow towards Goldenrod Corner, the tall plants beckoning her over each and every time.
My title was going to be Snapshots of my June Garden – then I realised it was actually July. How quickly time flies! I bought a lot of plants earlier this year, planted them, then forgot about them. Until they decided to remind me with their presence…
I was looking back at this 2017 post, one of my first ones. The plants in the above picture are no more. My dream of a plant-filled chicken garden hasn’t come to fruition because plants and hens don’t go well together! Although I have managed to plant a few fruit trees which are still uneaten! Mabel and Little Ava have joined the group but Florence (my favourite but don’t tell the others) sadly passed away last year in 2020. And I do still want to rescue ex-battery hens one day.
I wanted to be a heroine and save three lives from certain death, and a previous hellish existence.
Imagine being locked up in tiny A4-size cages with no natural light, no pecking order companions (not unless you count fellow prisoners crammed next to you), no kindliness, no space, not even to flap your cramped wings. You are, essentially, treated and seen as a machine.
Writing the above, makes me feel a sense of guilt, even now.
You see, I didn’t adopt three ex-battery hens.
Instead, I selected three posh bantams – Jemima (white), Dottie (speckled) and Florence (brown barred).
I dithered for two years, unable to choose between hybrids, bantams and ex-bats. Hybrids were given short shrift as, although I heard they were perfect for beginners, I deemed them too large for my garden. If I was going to have full-size chickens, I would adopt three or four, maybe five, former battery hens.
My heart would plead for me to sign up for one of the various rehoming programmes that would occur on a regular basis. Charities such as The British Hen Welfare Trust would advertise, and I would be thinking, I’m sure the coop would be ready in a month’s time. Yes, I could sign up today for the rehoming date next month…
But my head would impatiently nudge my heart aside and urge me to look at the facts. Despite my rural smallholding fantasies, I had a small garden in the suburbs. The coop outside area was large enough for two or three full-size hens, just about, but the interior – the bedding quarters, nest boxes, perch – may be a tight squeeze for three.
Although they would probably class it as luxury compared to their previous miserable cell.
Perhaps most importantly, my head sternly reminded me I had zero experience of chickens. What if one was ill or died? It was more likely to happen with girls who had a traumatic beginning in life than youngsters who were born and brought up in the best circumstances. So I went for the ‘easier’ option.
I don’t regret getting the genteel pekin ladies, with their flamboyant bustles, flares and bootees.
But I have not turned my back on the battery girls. Some time in the future, three or four will find a home at Cosy Cottage.
In the meantime, sponsoring a hen for £4 a month is always the next best thing… 🐔🐔🐔
Facts of the Day
1. Do you have a home for ex-battery hens? Call the British Hen Welfare Trust on 01884 860084 or visit http://www.bhwt.org.uk for information.
2. JB of boyband JLS fame has three ex-bats on his farm and the 600,000th rescue hen has found a home at Kensington Gardens no less!
3. If you can’t rehome, why not sponsor a hen for £4 a month? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Once upon a time there were five seeds who each had the potential to grow up to become tall and handsome sunflowers. This was during a pandemic and a time when an entire nation was locked down; its population was getting weary and worried. But these five sunflower seeds had power. They had the golden opportunity to grow … And grow smiles on admirers’ faces.
So beginneth the tale of the Littlest Sunflower.
Back in April 2020, my friend Emma held a sunflower competition via a WhatsApp group called Battle of the Plants. We were all sent five sunflower seeds (I received mine on May 1) and a recording form and we took it from there.
There were ‘spot’ awards throughout the growing period and prizes for the tallest plants. Photographic evidence and vital statistics were needed. There was no entrance fee but a donation to our chosen charity. I met Emma while volunteering at The Monkey Sanctuary in Cornwall – a charity which would be desperately needing funds at this time – so I donated to them.
Contestants came from all over, Lancashire, Somerset, Devon, Wales, Portsmouth, near Heathrow. Romania was the furthest. There was humorous banter about the judges. Unfortunately Mr Titchmarsh declined the opportunity to join the judging panel but Charlie Dimmock’s brother Charles, along with Monica Don and Tom Attorney, joined the judging panel! 😉😂
One contestant started her sunflower’s life in a yogurt pot. Another had a M&S egg carton for hers. Then there was a milk carton, cut in half. I lovingly sowed mine in five colourful pots, trying to make sure I used proper compost so there would be no intruding weeds.
The first prize was for a seedling at least four inches tall. Some contestants’ seeds were doing well, with most sprouting. Others were still waiting for their first seedling. Like me.
Tips were given to fellow members such as: “I think mine were a bit dry and cold, have given them extra water and warmth and it seems to have done the trick.”
Some contestants got quite technical – and it paid off. The first spot prize went to “the lady who is using ‘aquaphonics and channelling the power of the super moon”.
There were disasters and near-disasters. Fellow contestant Linda told us: “I had to repot ours as we had a cat disaster. I carry them in from the conservatory at night when it’s chilly and put them on the kitchen window sill. Agatha our cat knocked them all down (on purpose I think). There were shoots everywhere and mud. I managed to find nine shoots from the carnage and repotted”.
And one day, lo and behold, I got seedlings! I happily sent a photo but was told that, alas, those pesky weeds had sneaked in after all and were busy posing as sunflowers. But these imposters were found out – their stems were too weedy to be sunflowers.
It was disappointing but I learnt a tip and that was to move the seeds further up, nearer to the top, so they wouldn’t drown.
But there was one seed which had promise, for this one had become a true sunflower albeit a tiny, feeble one.
All my hopes were on this guy now.
Other contestants boasted of great heights, already! Their seedlings were already growing up and getting moved out into the garden. Mine was a mere baby, still needing to be mollycoddled and even then ….
And even then a major disaster in June – my one hope, my only hope had snapped, breaking in two.
That was me out then. But kind Emma gave me another chance and I received five more sunflower seeds. Will these do any better?
While my five seeds started to sprout and grow, there was drama aplenty with the other flowers.
Some were murdered by slugs (Mr Dimmock recommends broken egg shells, cut hair or coffee grounds), others pelted by rain or blown by the wind. Mine were still indoors, carefully propped up in their pots with mini stakes.
My tallest was now 14cm. Then, like its predecessor, it snapped but its nearest sibling was now at 13cm. The smallest withered away but one continued to grow…
And then one day in the middle of October the little sunflower, the last one remaining of his siblings, woke up and started to flower.
A late bloomer indeed! Not long after, I received a certificate to celebrate my little sunflower!
Last autumn, Simon dug a pond in the newly cleared decking area of the garden.
The old pond, a large black container which was placed in the hens’ garden, had been dug out a few months prior. It was too deep, in an area which was sheltered with overhanging trees, hard to access or even see because of surrounding shrubs, and, perhaps worse of all, the chickens kept insisting on drinking from it!
The water had turned stagnant and smelt dreadful and I do not know what happened to the pond plants I had put in there a few years ago. The cobbles I had once delicately placed around had gradually slipped in over the last two years and there were no life forms living in or around this hostile environment.
So we took the large tub out, dug compost over the hole and relocated the pond – this time using a small (albeit heavy) sink. Duckweed and water plantain were planted in the pond and cobbles decorated the edges. It was all set and ready for wildlife to visit. In fact, a mere five minutes or so after completion, a little robin arrived and perched at the side of the pond as if giving his approval.
1. Wildlife loves ponds, whether it’s as a habitat or watering hole. In fact, I’ve heard that one of the best things you can do for wildlife in your garden is to dig a pond. For example, frogs are dependent on garden ponds as they need water to breed.
2. My first pond was in an awkward place, not helped by overhanging trees. Christine and Michael Lavelle suggest trying ‘to avoid a site that is shared by trees because they will not only cut out light, but their leaves will drop into the water, enriching it with mineral nutrients.’ This attracts algae in the warmer months.
3. There are three types of plants for ponds – oxygenator (for oxygen), deep-water aquatics (shades water from too much sunlight), and marginal/emergent plants (offers shade and cover for animals at the edge of pond. They are also used by dragonflies and nymphs to ‘crawl out’ and pupate).
Information taken from The Illustrated Practical Guide to Wildlife Gardening by Christine and Michael Lavelle.
Just over three years on from her arrival at Cosy Cottage, Florence crossed over the Rainbow Bridge following a period of ill health.
Florence’s life and death left a bigger impact on me than I thought possible with a hen. It was Florence who really showed me how complex and lovable chickens really were. And what an impact such tiny creatures can have on their human guardians.
She made me smile and worry and feel protective.
She made me laugh, like the time she was brooding and stubbornly insisted on sitting on a plant pot after I closed the coop door.
She taught me to be more patient and caring during her illness.
And to be less screamish about mealworms!
Flo first arrived with her two sisters Jemima and Dottie in 2017, they were slightly older than her by a couple of weeks. The difference in Florence and her siblings was apparent straight away. While Jemima was quiet and reserved and Dottie was chatty, they were both confident in themselves and about humans. No, they did not want to be picked up, thank you very much, but this was only because it was their personal preference. They were not scared of humans on arrival. Merely tolerated them.
Florence, on the other hand, was terrified. When she saw a human, she flapped her wings and made a big fuss.
“Murder! I’m being murdered!”
It’s hard to believe now but this state of fear was really the case for the first few weeks of Flo’s life here.
She was a real little scaredy chicken.
Was the sky going to fall in? It was, it was!!!
Oh dear, poor Flo.
Dottie would then helpfully peck her on the top of her head to put her back in her place.
Florence changed from a frightened Cinders into a confident and charismatic Cinderella.
She became popular with all. When my godchildren came to visit, she proved a big hit with Noah, five at the time. As she was the only hen laying, she was the most amenable for being picked up. Which she was. A lot. But Flo’s patience shone through.
Dad admitted she was his favourite and Mum described her as the “best hen”.
I think it was because of her personality, but the eggs would have helped too.
Of all the chickens, she was the best layer. During spring and summer (except when brooding), she laid eggs nearly every second day. This year there was no brooding so she broke all records for her egg laying.
No mean feat for a little Pekin bantam.
And the eggs were absolutely delicious.
She knew it too. How Flo boasted about her eggs after she laid them! Her egg song proclaimed her eggs were the best of all the world! Not just the world, the universe!
But she also had her broody moments, where she proved very stubborn indeed. She was going to have chicks and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Flo was very independent, often seen doing her own thing, digging away for worms. Worms was her favourite food. Whenever I held a bag of mealworms, she would be jumping, trying to grab them from my hand. When I started digging, she would be first there, eagerly anticipating tasty creepy crawlies.
She was also demanding. Especially first thing in the morning when she would insist that it was time to be let out of the coop.
Did I say she was popular with everyone?
Hmm, maybe not the neighbours.
There’s a reason why the girls have longer lie-ins these days.
I used to have to run to let them out during the early mornings before a squawking Florence would fly and jump angrily at the coop door.
“Let me out! For **** sake, I’ll be missing the worms!” I could imagine her screeching.
Florence had her ups and downs with her friends. She never had any ‘besties’ and was often on her own, digging away. Although when it was brooding time, she was often seen cuddling up to Jemima, her fellow brooder.
Dottie always seemed to patronise her, pecking her in a “I’m bigger and older than you” sort of way. But it was Mabel who she had a real feud with. A feud that started a year ago when Florence was brooding – in what Mabel perceived as her nesting space.
This summer, Florence had a welcome break from Mabel when her enemy was stuck indoors.
‘Staying at Home’ like a good girl during lockdown? No, she was brooding, waiting for imaginary eggs to hatch. Sometimes – the irony – she would be in what Flo would think was her nesting space and Flo would fuss and grumble until I took Mabel out and left Flo to do her hard work in peace. Eventually Flo realised that there were other levels and other corners in the coop, which could also be used to lay eggs in.
But when Flo was out enjoying herself and saw her broody foe come out of the coop, she would give a loud screech.
And sometimes she would ‘swear’ for no known reason.
Flo always came across as a sweet girl so her reaction to the new kids on the block, Mabel and Ava, was very surprising. The pair came to Cosy Cottage a year after Flo, Dottie and Jemima. Of course, I had heard that chickens could be hostile to newbies to the pecking order but somehow I expected more of Florence.
But no, instead of acting like a good neighbour, when she saw the new ladies, she flew at their coop in a fit of anger.
Towards the end, when I looked after Flo in my house, she proved to be a determined girl as she battled illness. A scratch on her eye developed into an infection. She went to the vet on two occasions, receiving antibiotics, an injection and painkiller. But despite a brief recovery, she took a downturn and never recovered.
On her last day, I thought she had gone but then she half opened her eye … as if to say “goodbye”.
Goodbye Flo, a golden girl in colour and personality, the garden and coop feel a lot quieter without you.
* For those who don’t know, Rainbow Bridge is a poetic term for the afterlife for animals.
The decking in my garden served as a patio, container garden and convenient place to keep the guinea pig hutch and other miscellenia. It was already there when I moved in nine years ago and I was fond of it.
It was, however, also the home and hiding nest of a family of rats who would often come out and steal food from the chickens and wild birds. Now, I could tolerate a small number of rats if I had a massive garden, and lived far from neighbours, out in the countryside. But rats don’t know how to use birth control and my garden is tiny and far too near neighbours. If there were complaints, would the hens get the blame?
It was time for eviction.
Oh, and just in case you think removing the decking is a drastic way to get rid of rats, the decking, which has been there for at least 10 years, probably much longer, was rotting and far from looking its best. It needed a complete revamp, with new planks installed, or a total removal.
So Simon made the first move in removing the planks with the help of a crowbar. A much harder job than expected as the planks were so firmly stuck down. Eventually, by the end of the first day, he had removed the side and floor posts.
It was a mess, but it needed to be done.
Then the remaining posts were loosened and taken away by Dad.
Slowly, over the week, Dad worked on the decking, a little at a time. Digging out remaining stumps and donning gloves and cleaning up ‘what lies beneath’ (including a rat’s nest).
We thought a path continuing from the rest of the garden to the back door was essential, as was a path to the chickens in the side garden. Perhaps a little patio, just right for a table and chairs on the right, and a vegetable/herb patch to the left.
A membrane went down where the path would be and golden flint stone placed on top. Moonstone had been the option for the previous path but no longer seemed to be stocked by the nearest JTF, the nearest store.
The plan was to finish this part of the garden during my week off, but after a glorious spell of sun and heat, the rain decided to come back. Good for the plants, not so much for working outside. Thanks rain.
But there is always tomorrow and every time I look out at where the decking used to be, instead of seeing a mucky mess, I’m thinking: ‘Things are starting to look interesting….’