Bonsai – What a grower should do in winter

bonsai 2

I know the true GIYers out there will roll their eyes at this post, and argue that there is plenty to be doing outside, even in winter. They would say that people should be out pruning bushes, mending fences and building compost bins, and that there are even some vegetables that do best if they are left over winter. But for me it’s just too bloody cold and wet. Yes, you get those rare bright sunny days in November or December, but they are still freezing cold, and once dismal dank wet January rolls in, well you can just forget it, I’m battening down the hatches until March.

So, what to do instead? My solution plant a forest. A bonsai forest.

Bonsai trees are very expensive to buy, because they take many years to grow into strong plants, and take attention to cultivate a beautiful form, however the seeds are incredibly cheap, and as I’m not really doing anything else for the next thirty years, I thought why not give it a shot and grow a little forest.

The first thing to know about bonsai is that it is a way of growing plants, rather than being a strain of plant, so you can grow bonsais from any tree seeds. As I intended to keep these trees indoors, although in an unheated porch, I thought I would look for trees that like a warmer climate. I like the idea of bright colours so I chose the Japanese Red Maple, which has a light bark but a bright red leaf.

Standard advice states that the best time to plant these seeds is in autumn, because this way you follow nature’s time schedule and the young seedling will have a full summer to grow after germinating in early spring. However, I felt this advice was for people growing trees outside, and as I had my handy porch, I decided to ignore that advice and plant the seeds I had anyway. I planted in December.

The process at this stage is much the same as the germination process for any seedling. I got seedling compost, put it in a pot with drainage holes, put the seeds in 2 inches deep and covered. Then the waiting game starts. Will they sprout? Did I buy dud seeds? Have I over watered them? Have I under watered them?

Eventually, what felt like an age later, I started to see little stems poking green shoots out of dark moist soil. I got very few to propagate, in comparison to my usual ratio of dead seed : seedling. I think this is because I left them in the porch. My reasoning for doing so was that this is a bright, well-ventilated area that is also sheltered from frost. However, in reality the temperature here fluctuates wildly in the winter, in a way it does not in spring or summer, or even autumn. The glass means that on those bright, sunny winter days the porch gets very warm, but then at night the temperature plummets, not to freezing, but really not much higher than the outside temperature. And although there is no frost or worse snow, this fluctuation in temperature is not good for propagation.

So I am going to try it again. And I think I will again ignore the standard advice (probably to my peril). My instincts tell me that the best time to plant seeds, given my set up, is spring, because then the porch works well as a little incubator: the temperature is a little warmer than outside, but the fluctuations are not as great. I am also going to try with more locally sourced seeds or native trees, to see if I have any more success with climate appropriate trees. I am also fascinated to see if I can get these trees to go through the process of shedding their leaves and re-growing them in spring, so I am going to get some deciduous trees, maybe an oak or an ash.

I also do realise that this is an ancient art-form, that has been much studied and documented, and that there are even courses that I can go on to learn how to do this properly (The Bonsai Shop, Powerscourt ), but I like the trial and error and discovering what works for myself in my situation. Besides what’s a few months spent tinkering when compared to the next thirty years of growth required?

As always, I will keep you posted on my progress.

The Lesser Spotted Stealth Hen

cathy chicken

When I was new to haggling (the act of keeping hens for eggs, for those down the back), I was continuously amazed by how thick hens really are, and how they managed to lose each other in such a small 2mx1m space, so quickly and so completely. I seriously think that, as well as the miraculous ability to lay eggs, some of them might come with the ability to procure parts for a personalised cloaking device. We had two in particular, Foghorn and Leghorn, whose antics reached notoriety in our small neighbourhood.

Without fail every morning Foghorn would wake up early, shout to be let out of the coop, fall down the ramp backwards and run straight for the feed – mind on the job; focused like a ninja. Leghorn slept on. Because it was 5.30am. Then panic set in for poor Foghorn – Leghorn was not beside her. The calling and the squawking would start, much to the neighbours’ delight, as its now about 6am. Foghorn (aptly named as it turns out) would run up and down that 6ft run desperately trying to find Leghorn.  Leghorn, I swear, sat up in the coop out of spite, watching that stupid bird run up and down below it, plotting the revenge the rest of us so desperately wanted. Eventually when it actually sounded like Foghorn was going to have a stroke with the panic, Leghorn would saunter down the ramp and present herself, at which point Foghorn would promptly forget she was ever missing. They reminded us a little of Pinky and the Brain and Foghorn was certainly not the Brain.

Every so often when the events of the day were dull, Leghorn would wait until mid-afternoon (when anybody with small kids would be putting them down for a nap), and as soon as Foghorns back was turned for a moment, Leghorn would disappear as if by magic. It may seem difficult to do this in a 6ft coop composed solely of a run downstairs, a ramp and an empty roosting box on top, but just like in the Shawshank Redemption, that hen would disappear into thin air.  And then the siren that was Foghorn would go off;

“Leghorn.” “Where are you, Leghorn?” Leghorn?” “LEGhorn.” “ LEGGGHHOOOORRNNN.”

Hearing the distress, as a show of companionship and solidarity, most days all the dogs in the neighbourhood would join in, barking and howling and calling and squawking and generally creating a total rumpus (much to the delight of our ever tolerant neighbours, the Neighbourhood Watch Committee and the Residents Association) until one of us went out to look for Leghorn. After a little more searching than should be necessary in such a small space, we would locate Leghorn and the two would be reunited side by side, calm returning.

Although never proven, the deep suspicion was that Leghorn had a secret workshop somewhere in that coop, that she hid in and used to prefect the stealth generating field that hid her each morning.

Foghorn, now happy that everyone in the Big Coop was where they should be, would wander into the nest box to lay an egg (it has to be said she laid really big, nice yoke-filled eggs – yum!). And you just know what is coming next, yes, Leghorn would wait until Foghorn was about half way through her business and then pull her own bizzerker attack. Usually this would only last a minute or two, just to make the point, upset Foghorn and put her off the work at hand. That hen was positively Machiavellian.

That went on all summer. We talked of putting Foghorn in the pot, or returning her to the farm from whenst she came, but somehow we couldn’t seem to separate them. Then one morning I woke up at 7am, my alarm clock going off. I hadn’t heard that sound in 4 months and knew it was not a good sign. Sure enough, we went down stairs and opened the coop; Foghorn was dead. Of what appeared to be natural causes (although with Leghorns advanced scientific qualifications I guess the true causes could remain obscured).

A week or two later we got Leghorn two new buddies. We toyed with the idea of getting just one new hen and calling her Foghorn, the way soaps just get a new actor, but instead decided to get two and call them Maude and Hildegard, names which were not interdependent – allowing any disruptive newbie to be removed. Zero Tolerance, that was the way forward.

Actually though, they settled into a peaceful and markedly quieter existence (so much so that the Residents Association even invited us to the Christmas social). While life is better with those extra two hours sleep in the morning, every so often I catch Leghorn peeking out from the coop upstairs, glaring as the other two hens wander around the garden, clearly annoyed that nobody noticed she was missing for hours or caring that she finally perfected her cloaking device. It’s like watching Q without James Bond.

Turkeys for Christmas

turkey dinner

There is no denying that times are definitely hard when you are planning to put two of your pets in the oven for Christmas dinner. The recession changed many things about me, but when those two handfed lovelies hopped out of the boot of my car, trusting in me implicitly as their provider not to lead them astray, and followed me to the shed where they would be slaughtered, my heart hardened a little in a way that can never be undone. But let me back track a little and explain how we got to this point.

It was October, the allotment was on the wind down, the chickens were settled in and I was ripe for a new challenge. We were also tightening our belts and looking for ways to save a few shillings, when I was hit with a brainwave; what about raising turkeys for Christmas? We could buy two and give one to each of our parental homes as Christmas presents, the cost of turkeys as chicks being a fraction of the value of a fully grown hand-reared organic turkey.

John said No; it was coming into the winter months, when nobody wants to be out doors; turkeys die really easy and as he was in charge of all things deceased in our home, he was not opening the door to two more potentially dead things. No.

I decided to ignore him and arranged with my favourite organic farmer to come down and pick out two poults (I had googled the word for turkey chicks so as not to sound like a total novice).

Now I have to admit to you, in October, I was late to the rodeo. Most people get their poults in July to fed up for December, but in actual fact it was to our advantage that we got the birds older as they were much more robust than they would have been as very young chicks, and therefore their survival rate was much higher.

When I got to the farm the first thing I noticed was that these young turkeys were not small, at about seven weeks old these things were already about the size of a fat domesticated cat, and they were already bigger than our hens at home. However they did not know the power of their size and were some of the most timid farmyard animals.

Two were selected (the easiest to be caught), money changed hands (e8 a pop – total mates rates as they were half reared) and they were put in a box in the boot of my car, with a strict reminder to feed them organic feed. Sorted.

Meep. Meep. The cutest noise I heard every time the noise of the car engine subsided.

I got home, backed up the car boot to the side gate, took out the box (meep. meep. meep.) and put it in the backyard inside the chicken hut. It was already dark by the time I got home so I decided to leave them there until the morning.

The next morning awoken by squawking chickens, I went out to get the feed sorted, only to discover two baby turkeys huddling in the corner of the chicken hut while one pushy chicken (its mate was asleep upstairs) strutting in front of them clearly giving a detailed lecture about who was in charge and who was very much not. It was like watching fresh meat in a jail house.

I put down some chicken feed and took the turkeys out of the chicken hutch. I had always intended them to be fed separately; the chickens staying on their organic layers pellets and the turkeys getting some nice fattening organic turkey meal bought in Ballinahown, Offaly (we bought it as we were passing; it is certainly not the closest place to Dublin in which it is stocked). Turns out however that turkey meal must be nicer than layers pellets because that chicken went berserk at the idea that the fresh meat was getting better treatment, and got her mate out of bed to help with the protest. I gave them a little to shut them up – I know, soft touch – but it actually resulted in slightly yellower yokes, so silver lining.

The next thing to come was the sleeping arrangements. In my innocence I assumed, as the cold October nights were creeping in, that two chickens in a roost built for 6 would welcome the extra body heat two young turkeys would bring. Well not on your life. Those two aule boots sat on the roosting bar at the top of the ramp and pecked any turkey that tried to go up. Bii-atches.

My little darlings shivered at the end of the ramp, seven weeks old not knowing what to do (can you already see the dangerous level of attachment to this source-of-future-dinner creeping in?). So I put them in the shed for the night to keep warm. And gave them a tomato each as a treat, assuring them tomorrow would be better.

The next day I went down to Woodies to look for something that would improvise as a turkey roost – not wanting to invest in anything too substantial or expensive for three months – and came up with a small dog kennel. Not perfect, more expensive than I wanted it to be, but would suffice. In hindsight I actually think that dog kennel was one of our best investments. We locked the front door and access was through the removable roof. Each night John rounded up the turkeys (they quickly became too heavy for poor little me to lift, particularly when it was raining, because I am just a delicate l’ickle girl – poor John) and put them into their nice, safe and warm kennel, meaning they were not wasting that much energy heating themselves, which translated into more energy for growing.

Over the next couple of days another problem presented itself; what would we do if one died and the other lived – whose family would we give it to? Or what happened if one was substantially bigger than the other? Not willing to play favourites we got two leg rings; one red and one blue. The Clarkes were getting the red and the Gibboni (plural of Gibbons) the blue – no changes, no swops.

The next seven or eight weeks proceeded with a certain rhythm; the turkeys had free rein of the back garden (yes, they are dirty and poop everywhere they go, but it was winter, so it’s not like we were using the garden for anything anyway) while the mean chickens stayed confined to the chicken-hut. The turkeys soon found and roosted on the old motorbike parked up for the winter in a position it turns out was perfect to catch the mid-day sun. They happily sat together on that for hours like latter day Easy Riders. They grew and grew (while still making that incredibly cute meep noise, a little like roadrunner) until they were too heavy and big to be lifted into the kennel at night.

Then it came. The first week in December. A call from my favourite farmer, to see when I would be bringing them down for slaughter. Two weeks’ time I said, guiltily trying to put it off for as long as I could. I was really enjoying owning Butch and Sundance (that was not their names, they didn’t have names, because that would make them too hard to kill, you are told clearly not to name them, so the names we did not give them were Butch and Sundance. I know – soft touch.)

Some notes about slaughtering;

1. There are all sorts of how-to guides on the internet, there are all sorts of people who trot out nonsense like “just break the neck” “my granny showed me how to do it, I’ll teach you” etc etc. To be honest I find the whole idea really repulsive. It’s one thing to raise animals for meat, that is a fact of the life, but I firmly believe if you are going to do so, it is your duty to ensure not only does that animal have the best possible life, but also that the death is as quick, painless and humane as it is possible to make it. In my opinion the only way to achieve this is getting a professional to do the job. This is no time for rookie mistakes that inflict agony on a poor bird.

2. In addition to specialised training, the government state that you need an abattoir licence to lawfully kill animals on your land. Even Enda doesn’t think this is an area for DIY.

3. It is not ok to wuse-out of killing the turkeys once December arrives. Having fattened them since birth, they will soon become too heavy for their legs to bear their weight (think of horribly obese humans unable to leave their apartments without calling the fire brigade) and this becomes another form of cruelty. Before getting the birds, you need to have considered by whom and when they will be slaughtered (as this is what they are being raised for), you commit to an action plan at the start and so at d-day you man-up and follow through.

4. In addition to slaughtering the animal, I also asked for the innards to be removed, the bird be plucked and made oven ready as it’s a specialised skill, which at the moment, I was not ready to learn.. I am open-minded about a rookie getting involved in this point of the proceedings, as the bird is already dead, but I personally declined, mainly because I thought this bit would be really gross and I am still a city-girl at heart.

So there I sat in the farmer’s kitchen, chatting to the family, eating yummy homemade cake, having a great ole time, while outside two souls I had nurtured were ushered to the next world (guilt laying on my shoulders as a heavy burden). After really a short period of time the farmer returned with two things that more resembled dinner (thank god for mental compartmentalisation or I would have starved that Christmas), and the rare but so-satisfying nod of a job well done. I had a 16 and an 18 pounder – quite the result for a first timer. Feeling very pleased with myself I dropped them off to their new homes (aka kitchens) to be prepared for Christmas.

After Christmas we did a cost analysis on the whole project (showing we still had our leaving-cert accounting skills). The tangible cost (because no real value can be put on the darkening of my soul) was a total of about e40 for both; e16 for the turkeys, e20 for the feed, and a nominal cost of e4 for the use of the kennel which we were sure to use for other projects in the future.  The value of shop bought organic turkeys of equal weight; e160-200. Result: a total success that we would definitely repeat in the future. I may even learn to pluck.

Define Self-Sufficiency

define self-sufficiency

We were recently followed by a blog called the Self-Sufficient Snail, and it got me thinking about self-sufficiency and what it means to me.

Like DeValera I consider self-sufficiency to be an admiral goal and something everyone should strive for. Now please do not misinterpret this statement. I am a happy and active member of the twenty-first century. I do not have survivalist tendencies; there is not a steel press in my kitchen ready for Armageddon with canned foods and long life expiry dates, I am not hoarding shot-guns to stave off a zombie attack and I am not secretly building a bunker that can withstand a nuclear attack. I more mean that I identify myself as a fiercely independent person, who relies on their own means and abilities and feels very controlled when others try to do for me what I am capable of doing for myself.

I think it is partly to do with the way I was raised. On the rare occasion that my Grandma or her sisters would read us a bedtime story, the plot usually developed an unusual subtext.

and the fairy princess met her prince, who was equal to her in every way; just as pretty and clever and ambitious. And after an appropriate amount of time dating, the two moved into a beautiful castle, which both their names were on the deeds of because no marriage vows were to be taken until they were sure they could live happily together (divorce not being an option in those days). And although the prince was fabulously wealthy and happy to provide for the princess, the fairy princess kept up her little job and had her own bank account and contributed equally to the household. Then one day the prince asked her to marry him and be his queen and having already established equality in the relationship she agreed and they lived happily ever after.

Most of it floated over the heads of me and my sisters as we drifted off to sleep thinking of all the pretty dresses the fairy princess must have, but these were not intended as fairy stories but cautionary tales from hard working women of the inner city who, although for the most part had very happy relationships themselves, had witnessed up close the devastating effect poisonous and abusive relationships could have on women who had no means to escape. They were not going to fall into the trap, and they were determined to do all they could to ensure the future generations of their line did not either.

Although much of their dating advice was largely ignored until we became teenagers, it instilled in us a determination to provide for ourselves, which was backed up by an expectation from our family that we would provide for ourselves. Although that is not to say we were cast adrift at 18. We were told when we got to college that we better get a job or else we wouldn’t have any money for new clothes or going out, and so we all got part time jobs. But in actual fact, I know I was bought coats and boots and jeans and slipped the odd £20 for a special night out, I was certainly not out there on my own as generations before me would have been at that age, but the principle remained strong; if I wanted something I went and got it myself.

It is that principle which I hope I still bring to my life today. Life is expensive and I have discovered I have costly tastes and aspirations, which I have to be creative to obtain. My wedding invitations are an example: is making the invitations yourself the cheapest way? No, sending out a Facebook invite or email from somewhere with free Wi-Fi is the cheapest way because it doesn’t cost you a penny, but I was certainly able to make much higher quality invites than I would have been able to purchase. So it’s not that I saved money, it’s that I brought my skills to the table and was therefore able to spend my money much more wisely.

The same stands for organic food, am I able to totter down to the supermarket and fill my basket to the brim with organic food? Well, yes, maybe, but I won’t be able to pay for them at the checkout. I am however able to get organic hens and feed them organically, I am able to plant seeds and wait for my crops to grow, and then I am able to take the money I save in these areas and buy better quality meats.

This for me is a form of self-sufficiency. Am I self-sufficient the way DeValera would have liked? No. If war came tomorrow could we survive on what food we make in the house? Absolutely not. But does that mean that I am not self-sufficient in the current context, in the environment of our present? I don’t believe that self-sufficiency necessarily means I must follow an isolationist policy. I know what I want, and I know how and where to get it. Yes, I strive to stand on my own two feet, but I also take advantage of all the tools at my disposal. It is not possible for me to interact with society in a normal and happy way if I try and run a farm in the middle of a suburban housing estate, but by doing the little bits that I can do (GIY, crafts and earning money) and taking advantage of all the tools at my disposal (a huge supermarket, quality butchers and craft suppliers), I can achieve roughly the same as what would have been the output of that farm, except I also get happy neighbours, less trouble with animal welfare and branded Kimberly biscuits, a reward in anyone’s book.

So GIYers and Home Crafters – what are your thoughts on self-sufficiency? Are you striving to grow and make all the food and clothing required by your family from your home as the Pioneer Women would have done before us? Or are do you feel your achievements are not compromised by nipping down to Tesco’s during the hungry patch?

Planting Seeds (Not Planting Your Seed, that’s different)

C37. Planting SeedsSpring is here. I don’t know whether it is the stretch in the evenings or the rise in temperature that gets my green fingers itching, but either which way, no sooner is Paddy’s day over then I have an over whelming desire to get back to my garden and get growing.

The first step for this is having something to grow – and for that I need some seedlings. You can buy seedlings in any garden shop, but it is much cheaper (and more rewarding) to buy a packet of seeds and start them off yourself. Particularly if you are starting early in March. Planting seeds is incredibly easy and it is completed indoors where you can look out on the bright sunny day, without having to be out in it and realise that it is actually still cold.

C37. Named Seeds

You will require

  • Seed trays
  • Sheets of newspaper to absorb water below
  • Seed compost (this is a fine grainy compost that is easy for delicate seedlings to grow through)
  • Seeds

There is as much an environmental debate over plastic seed trays as there is over plastic Christmas trees. If I am honest I have been too busy gardening to research the debate fully. In my opinion plastic seed trays are useful as you can invest in them once and, if you look after them use them, for the next five or ten years. They also use less compost to germinate the seeds. There are two types; a tray without segments which are great for starting off crops that grow in drills (example, watercress) or segmented trays which are perfect for crops which require each seed to have some space (example, cucumber).
On the flip side newspaper pots are free (if you obtained the newspaper for free), but they use more compost because they are bigger, although the round examples use less than the square. These are ideal for plants which don’t like their roots pinched or disturbed (example, melon). There are some great tutorials on YouTube on how to make these round or square. Important things to remember if you are using paper pots is that they are not watered from above, instead they sit in a plastic container that the bottom part is filled with water, and, when planted out, it is important that all the newspaper is covered with soil or else it provides a funnel through which water is evaporated away from the plants.

C37. 4ET. Named Seeds

How to

  1. Half fill each segment of the seed tray loosely with the compost (or if a flat non-segmented seed tray, half fill entire tray).
  2. Pour water over the top to wet, but do not flood. Lift trays to allow excess water drain away.
  3. Place trays on newspaper, this will absorb any extra water.
  4. Place one or two seeds (depending on size and type) in each segment. Seed packets give all sorts of instructions regarding the depth at which to plant the seed, but if I am honest, I normally plant them all about half way down and hope for the best. I am praying my plants will be alive not perfect.
  5. Fill remainder of segment loosely with compost.
  6. Label seed tray with what seeds are in it. This will be very important when you are transplanting, as different plants require different spaces between them, and not all plants should be placed side by side. Even after a number of years, I still find it very difficult to tell what a plant is just by looking at the seedling.
  7. Leave seeds for several weeks, remembering to water about twice a week, ensuring that excess water runs through and the segments are not flooded (just remember everyone likes a drink, but nobody likes cold wet feet).

C37. 4DT. Named Seeds

Which seeds to pick
For their size, seeds are relatively expensive, ranging from €3-€5 a packet, and for that reason it is important to be choosy about which you purchase. For the most part I like to grow only vegetables that

  1. I like to eat,
  2. That are not readily or cheaply available in the supermarkets at a comparable standard to that which I can grow at home,
  3. I am interested in seeing in their natural state.

Cucumber is a good example of this. I love cucumbers, but until I grew it at home, I had no idea that in their natural state cucumbers are spiky on the outside, and that home grown versions have a much stronger flavour than those in the supermarkets.
Potatoes are an example of something I generally don’t bother with as I am limited with space. There is a large variety available in most supermarkets at competitive prices, and I do not feel that the quality of potato that I get at home is any superior to that in the supermarkets.

C37. 4CuT. Named Seeds

When to sow
I have to admit I do not adhere strictly to the growing guidelines on the back of packages. In general, I find the end of March a good time of year to start sowing, and because if gives me strong seedlings for April/May. I also try not to sow in a glut; I try to have two or three sowing sessions, two or three weeks apart. This gives me a steady flow of vegetables in the garden, with some plants being ready to harvest before others.

What I planted today in March
As well as a few new seed packets, very controversially (or foolishly) I will be growing out of date seeds. This was not intentional, but while doing a spring clean of my seed bin, I noticed a lot of my seeds actually expired in 2012. Whoops! Rather than throwing them out I have decided to sow them, in the hopes that maybe not all of them are dead, you never know. Plus the worst that can happen is that I waste two weeks on dead seeds, and then afterwards recycle the seed compost and try again on fresh seeds. I am hoping a few survived, because I seem to remember using these seeds last year in 2013 and there being no issues, but maybe another year is a year too far?

Today I planted tomatoes (full and cherry), sweet peppers (red and yellow), cucumber, broccoli, asparagus, beetroot, celery, radish, brussel sprouts, climbing beans, parsnip, pumpkin, lemon balm, rocket, turnip and watercress.

The seeds I planted today should have seedlings appear over the next week or so. Not all seeds sown will propagate (especially those from 2012!), which is why I place two or three seeds per segment. Although on the flip side, some segments will now have two or three seedlings. If you notice things getting a little crowded in any segment, just carefully knock out segment, and very gently pull apart the seedlings and replant in a new segment.

The Gardeners Perfect Project

garden party

Have you ever wished for a project which relied on the human tendency to get carried away with enthusiasm at the start but then rapidly lose interest? A project which takes a small bit of work to set up put pays huge dividends? A project which saves you money week-to-week, but then has an additional large saving at the end? Then I have the perfect project for you – start a compost bin (and there you were beginning to worry that I was about to pitch you a sub-prime loan investments with guaranteed rates of return).

Now bear with me, I know compost bins don’t sound glamorous but if you are going to look after your garden over a long period of time they are a real necessity – they provide a place to ditch all the green cut-offs and mowed grass, all your organic house hold waste (both of which mean you don’t need to add these to your domestic waste bins which saves money week to week) and after about 2 years (the length of time in which you will have lost interest and then returned to it) it provides  nutrient-rich compost which you no longer need to buy at e8 a 50l bag. Plus it has the added bonus of being good to the environment.

Now there are a few myths about compost bins I would like to dispel from the start:

  • 1. Compost bins smell – they don’t. If you use the right mix of ingredients there is no noticeable odour
  • 2. Compost bins attract rats – wrong again. Rats don’t eat vegetation and as there is no meat waste in these compost bins there is nothing to attract any type of creature.
  • 3. Compost bins are big and ugly – not the way I do them!

To start you need to decide how much commitment you are going to give this bin. Early on I decided very little, so little in fact that I didn’t bother to build it (which you can do very easily with some 4x4s or some old pallets) instead I went down to B&Q during a sale and picked one up. I choose a basic plastic model that was little more than 4 sides and a lid that set me back about e40-e50. (The actual one I choose is no longer available – but this is very similar except circular http://www.woodiesdiy.com/Product/ProPlus-Large-Compost-Bin-220-Litre/18407/4.4.6. I chose plastic over timber because the timber one was about e200).

You can get complicated two-bay or three-bay models which allows the different bays to be at different stages of readiness, and there is advice about accelerants and turning with a pitch fork – but to be honest, as a novice this all sounded a bit too much like hard work so I thought I’d master one-bay, let nature take its course and move up from there.

Next step is to pick a good spot in your garden. To work compost bins have to sit on soil – they rely on worms coming up through the ground to eat the rotting waste (lovely image). Once you have chosen a spot, it is a huge amount of work to move it (I say this from experience) so don’t rush and choose wisely – preferably a place that is not in the direct line of sight from a window, or right beside a seating area, but easy to reach from the back door (you will be making frequent trips with rubbish).

Next step, make pretty! Ok, so this step is not required but it is preferable if you can get the bin to blend into the scenery of the garden to stop it being an eye sore. Pop it under an arch with some hanging baskets, plant a few little trees or bushes around it (these can also be a good litmus test on how nutrient rich your compost is – if they flourish it is strong, but if they wilt there is something wrong), or like everything else that comes into my house – paint it! I did ours a colourful yellow on red with ‘Cathy Loves John’ on one side, and ‘John Loves Icecream’ on the other side.

Next step start filling it. I started ours off with the cuttings of the mowed grass and some soil from plant pots that I was empting and some tree leaves I raked up – a good mix to encourage the little wormies.

There is a very elaborate science around the composition of good compost. Some compost makers are like 5 star chefs – they use only the best ingredients, follow a strict process and could sell the stuff to the highest bidder. My compost is more like something you would make in Home Eco class – the ingredients were whatever you could find in the house that morning, the process is something you follow as often as you can remember the guidelines while chatting to mates, and the result is something you could only share with family and close friends.  There are experts that will roll their eyes at the rules below, but this is what I do, and it works ok for me.

  • Rule One: You need a mix. It can’t be all green cuttings, or all leaves, or all household waste – you need a mix to keep the pH balanced. Add layers of soil if possible, so pots that you are empting at the end of the growing season, any beds that you are clearing. This helps to speed up the rotting process.
  • Rule Two: Most but not all household waste can go in. As a general rule – no meat cooked or raw, no table scraps with sauces left on them (I scrape everything into the sink, give it a rinse, what’s left goes in the compost), no dog waste or cat litter. Apart from that everything else that will rot can be fired in – ripped up cardboard, paper, hair, etc. If in doubt I always chuck it in – the very worst thing that happens is that it does not rot and you pick it out of your compost in two years’ time and throw it in the recycling bin then – no problem.
  • Controversial Rule Three: Weeds. I throw them in because I am lazy. To some people this would be a death sentence for your compost because these particularly strong plants can survive almost anything and will poison your compost, spreading their seeds wherever you use it. I see their point, but to be honest, something rotting for two years would want to be very strong to survive, and there are weeds in my garden anyway, an extra few won’t hurt it. I might be more sensitive to avoiding adding weeds if I were using the compost in an area that had very few weeds, and I never use this when germinating seeds, but I have used my compost in pots and noticed no weeds growing there, so I think it’s alright to chuck them in.

That’s it – project completed. Continue to fill the bin for the next two years, building it in to your household routine if possible. I bought a small bin for my kitchen that people usually use for bathrooms, because you don’t want this waste building up in your home, and when we wash the dishes the last thing to be done is to bring the little compost bin out to the big compost bin and give the little bin a rinse with water (but no detergents) to keep clean. Once the habit is established, like smoking, it will be hard to quit.

Then comes payday – some early summer or late spring day when you are doing a spot of planting, you go over to your compost bin, open the little door and there is some lovely free rich compost. That is unfortunately quite compacted. And will probably take a shovel to dig out, which is probably too big for the little door, so you end up losing your temper tipping the whole compost bin back a bit to make room for the shovelling, which then takes three grown adults to but back in place. But after that, the feeling is sweet.

compost bin

Profit/Loss of the Project

Initial Input (€ 50)
e50 for 600l compost bin
Costs (€ 50)
Savings over 2 years
Brown Bin Collection € 234
 – €4.50 per collection bi-weekly for two years
Compost Purchasing Not taking place € 32
 – Average two bags per season @ €8 per 50l
Savings € 266
Value of Compost Created € 600
An average of all multi-purpose composts available shows that compost is roughly €1 per litre, and we have the potential to make 600l
Potential Profits € 816

Getting and Owning Hens

Cathy with Maud & Hildegard

When the Celtic Tiger first fled and the recession began to take hold, one of the only actually useful pieces of advice to be bandied about was to get hens. It might seem counter-intuitive to add to your household when you really should be downsizing, but hens have many qualities beyond providing a regular good source of protein; they mean that there is always food in the house (the eggs, not the birds, this is a family show), you do not need a lot of space to keep them, they are very inexpensive to purchase and feed, and they can be a good source of regular routine and mild entertainment.

The house and territory

I stumbled across a great company at Bloom one year that made timber hen houses (or arks as they prefer) and would deliver anywhere in Ireland; CJ Sherran in Co. Laois. We bought an ark for 5-6 birds (about e400 at the time) but actually only ever kept 2 or 3 in it at a time. The reason I liked these arks was because they were very sturdy (no dog or fox could burrow in), they were fully enclosed meaning the bird run was protected at all times, and with pre-treated heavy timber they would be durable even in wet Irish weather. Friends of mine have made their own arks, which is an admirable endeavour, but to be honest they don’t look as well in the back garden and they are difficult to make sturdy enough to withstand a determined fox (they have had some fatalities).

One downside I will note against the ark (aside from the cost) is that the enclosed run is not big enough for even 2 or 3 birds long term. It takes two chickens only about a week to scratch up all the grass in that 2m x 1m area. Adding some grit and straw helped initially, but as the mud patch spread we thought we better do something. Initially we moved the ark to a new spot every week or so, but very quickly ran out of grass. Our solution was to release the birds. Thinking I could contain the madness, I enclosed a 5m x 4m area with a 3ft post and chicken wire fence, but soon learned that determined chickens can jump that (a pity, because it took me hours to build!). However, our back garden is enclosed by large 7ft walls on all sides, and our home is in the middle of a housing estate surrounded by countryside. We took a chance and figured it would be a very lost fox that would bother coming that far into suburbia for two chickens.  In the four years we have had the hens, we have had no untimely deaths. That said, chickens poop *everywhere* they wander, so while it was fine for us, a childless couple with no particular affection towards our backyard, I could imagine that parents of small children or gardeners proud of their growing creations would rather keep the beasts confined to a set space. I think a higher fence would have achieved this.

Getting the birds

Once we had the ark, the next thing we needed were birds. Just like dogs there are many breeds of hens and each have their qualities and quirks. We opted for a Rhode Island Red mix as they are reputed to be steady layers. We got ours from a local organic farmer, who was kind enough to sell us hens that were already laying. It is possible to buy chicks, and some people prefer this, but not all hens lay and as we only wanted hens for the eggs (as opposed to eating them), so it suited us to ensure they were laying already. Also it is normal for hens to be sold in couples, because as they are not happy without a flock, even if it is a flock of two. Our chickens cost us about e7 each.

Doing the paper work

Once we had the chickens, we had to notify the council that we had domesticated birds, and after one quick email assuring them that we had no intention of selling the eggs or using them in food which we would then sell, we were allotted a flock number.

Feeding them

Having purchased organic chickens I felt it would be a waste to feed them anything less than organic layers pellets. This can be sourced in a range of places, and outside of the usual farm-supply shops, places that supply specialised equestrian feeds are your next best stop. In Dublin, the closest place that I found was Coleman’s of Sandyford where a bag ranged between e15-20 depending on the mood of the owners and their stock levels that month.

Outside of their actual feed I found chickens will eat just about everything else in the garden (except something useful like weeds) and will KILL for tomatoes. Don’t know what it is about them, but like heroin to a junkie, they just cannot get enough of them.

Your return

Hens will lay about 5 eggs in 7 days, some more, some less. Their laying life in my experience is about 2 years, again some more, some less. Our hens also always laid throughout the winter, I have read that this is unusual with some hens laying only in the warmer months. We did nothing to deliberately encourage this, other than keeping them warm (by ensuring we closed up the coop each night) and keeping them well-fed.

One other downside

Another thing that people don’t tell you about hens is that every group has a squawker. This is the hen that announces day break to the universe (I thought it was just roosters that did this, but no) and won’t shut up no matter what you fling at it from an upstairs bedroom window (we received a collection of items from surrounding neighbours’ homes). Honestly though, the squawking is no louder than a dog barking, and after a few weeks people acclimatised to it and the death threats stop. I think this would be less noticeable in louder neighbourhoods, or the countryside.