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BALLYMACROWN HOMESTEAD BLOG

A journal of our progress towards our homesteading ideals.

February 2015 - Valentines Day

It's nearly Valentines Day and it looks like someone's getting ready. It must be my Prince Charming!

 

 

June 2014 - Pirate Festival Baltimore West Cork

Once again the Pirate Festival in Baltimore was a great success with families coming from far and near to take part. There were entertainers dressed as Pirates and even descendants of the 108 settlers snatched by Algerian Pirates on 20th June 1631 destined to become slaves and never return. With fun on the water and land it was a jolly day for all. Here the Baltimore Bluebirds Choir performs to the crowds. />

 

 

May 2014 - Superpod of dolphins off Baltimore Harbour, West Cork

Baltimore is fast becoming known as the Capital of whale and dolphin sightings in Ireland. This year we had a real treat when a super-pod of hundreds of dolphins visited us. They were spy-hoppping (looking out of the water). Its thought they congregate just off the coast due to the abundance of fish in our waters. />

 

 

February 2014 - Graduation Day

Well the sun shone down us and we shared our special day with family and friends. The 1st graduates of the MSc Organic Horticulture Course in Europe! It was a great day full of hopes, expectations and dreams of the future, but sad too knowing the Class of Sep 2012 would now disperse back to their homes across Ireland.

Research Project Joan de Lacey

January 2014 - More Storms

This winter has been one storm after another. Our cottage looks out to sea facing South West and wind and rain come in waves across the roofs of the cottages. Snug in the cottage with the wood burner on we're often unaware of the storm brewing outside. Its only when we venture out that the full extent of its power is felt. Loch Hyne normally so sheltered by Knockomagh Wood and only connected to the sea by the Rapids has been flooded in several places leaving sea weed strewn on its banks. I walk here most mornings and recently I found a baby seal washed up. It was still alive and looked at me with its enormous black eyes. A vet was called and a seal rescue centre but unfortunately it couldn't be saved as the poor little creature had a gun shot wound in its tail. Probably due to fishermen illegally protecting their catch. You would think that walking by a Loch would be serene but uneventful. More often than not something occurs to make my walk memorable like the day I ran to rescue a dog that a driver alerted me to. She thought the dog was drowning because of the way it was gasping out in the middle of the Loch. I ran to the jetty with my life jacket in hand. Goodness knows what I was going to do, fortunately just before I jumped I met the owner who said that her dog always swam as though it was drowning and not to worry. Other mornings in the winter when the sun shines I have been delighted by an otter it presence given away by a ring of bright water. Then up to the surface it comes and relaxes on its back preening itself in the winter sun. What always amazes me are the women that come to Loch Hyne to swim in all weathers. Some mornings I've stopped to chat. Me in a coat, couple of jumpers, hat and gloves and they stood there in their swimming costumes - now that's hardy!

September 2013 - Organic Horticulture Course

I have spent the last year studying for a MSc in Organic Horticulture. It was a great experience but it took over my life and my blog has been seriously neglected. The course literally dropped from the sky on to my doorstep - it was held on the Liss Ard Estate in Skibbereen and run by University College Cork. The first its kind in Europe. I made such great friends and learnt so much and it wasn't just listening to lectures we visited organic farms and horticulture businesses across West Cork, all so welcoming and keen to pass on their knowledge. Many thanks to all the lecturers Prof. Peter Jones, Klaus Laitenberger and Eoin Lettice who were so generous with their time.

January 2013 - Hard decisions

What a wet winter. The poor pigs found it hard to cope with all the mud and so did I as my welly boot’s sunk ever deeper. The books never tell you the important things like not setting up pig pens on a slope, or that two pigs need about an acre of land to keep them in grass. You only learn through experience. Within a month in their new pen the pigs had removed all the vegetation and with heavy rain the soil slipped down the slope resulting in knee deep mud! Watching my soil wash away was very distressing. Most of my land barely has an inch of soil with shale beneath, but in the orchard it is deep and rich. In the end I decided it wasn’t fair on the poor pigs to keep them in cold, wet mud all winter and with the weather that followed, it was the right decision. The day came for the farmer to collect them. It was so sad, but I consoled myself with the fact that they had had a good summer and had enjoyed the autumn feasting on apples in the orchard. Now huge their time had come. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience these wonderful animals, but although the farmer offered me two piglets for the spring, I won’t be taking them on.  

September 2012 - Pigs in clover

Sep has been a wonderful month, the sun shone and finally I built the pigs’

new pen. They say ‘nothing as happy as pigs in mud’, but that just wasn’t true for my two. In fact on rainy days Blackberry stayed snuggled up in the pigs sty. Now it’s as though they have had a new lease of life, running about, digging up brambles, but mostly lazing in the September sunshine. Bertie enjoyed the good weather too and with it came the butterflies – great sport for Bertie; fortunately he was never quick enough to catch any!

August 2012 - Fattening the pigs

The pigs are now enormous. When the farmer gave them to me he said, ‘They just eat a hand-full of barley a day.’ Now 3 months later they’re going through a 25kg bag of pig pellets and the same of barley a week. And it shows, they are huge and so strong. I’ve had to use breeze blocks to hold down the stock wire to prevent them tunnelling underneath and every day they have fun moving the blocks, the strength of their snouts is astounding. Although they have grown into solid muscle they still remain the sweet natured little pigs that came to me in the spring. They are always pleased to see me, never show any signs of aggression, although Daisy’s squeals at tea-time can alarm visitors. They are so kind to each other, Daisy was washing Blackberry’s face yesterday and every morning when I go to feed them at 8am I find them cuddled up together in their pigs sty. Daisy is always up first, whilst Blackberry likes to wait until the  food appears. Next week I need to build them a new pen down the far end of the orchard where it is drier and more sheltered. Their summer residence is now too shaded  and its getting quite water logged. I’ve just got to sum up the energy to do it!

July 2012 – Training our Collie Puppy

We’ve been thinking about getting a dog for a while, but our needs were quite specific. It had to be good with cats, pigs, and chickens and not too noisy. I decided on a collie, as I have fond memories of my welsh collie that I had as a child. My first thought was to contact the local animal sanctuary, but they didn’t have any farm dogs available. Then my guests, kindly mentioned to me that they had seen a sign in a village nearby saying ‘Collie pups to a good home’. I was straight on the phone and a couple of weeks later ‘Bertie’ arrived. He’s a white Collie crossed with a Border Collie, and has a Border Collie face and black spots on his legs like a Dalmatian. 

Phantom, our old cat, who is 19 years old, immediately set about training him that cats are in charge. It’s not easy for her, because Bertie comes from cattle dogs, which instinctively nip the cows’ heels to control them and he trys it out on her! I had to get the nipping under control, so I contacted a dog trainer, Liz (www.animalsolutions.ie) who worked wonders on him. In just one morning she had trained him to sit and wait until his food was put down and to take treats ‘nicely’ rather than nearly eating my fingers as well. Really it was owner training. I got in trouble for giving him old boots to play with, as it’s impossible for a dog to distinguish between boots that can be played with and those that can’t. I was good for a couple of weeks, but I’m afraid I’ve weakened. Bertie gets so much more pleasure from his collection of brushes, boots and old flowerpots that I’ve relented and all the forbidden things have reappeared. I tried giving him Bonios to gnaw on, but he just buries them. Oh dear what would Liz say!   

June 2012 – The pigs have arrived.

The vet has been and we passed! The pigs have arrived. They’re so cute. We got them from a neighbour who breeds rare breed Saddleback pigs and he happened to mention that he had two pigs that had never grown – the runts of the litter. They are 7 months old, but only look like 10 week old weaners. Daisy is black and white and looks like a saddleback, and Blackberry is all black with pink feet. With names like that you’ve probably guessed we’re hardly going to be eating them. It’s just their manure that we’ll be making use of. They’re real characters. Daisy is quite shy, where as Blackberry is a complete extrovert unashamedly rolling over to have her belly rubbed. Blackberry has the biggest appetite and now there is quite a difference in their sizes. They are really quite clean animals and don’t soil their bedding and they seem to enjoy the shower I give them in the mornings, when filling their water. However, their beautiful little shady copse originally fully of long grass and overgrown veg, has within the month been reduced to something not unlike the Battle of the Somme. They’re even digging trenches! I hadn’t realised what fantastic rotavators they were. In the autumn, I’ll move their pen to the other end of the orchard and they can clean the ground of brambles for me.   

  

May 2012 - Preparing for Pigs

With the veg beds moved, now we’ve been able to sort out the pig pen. Stock wire and stout posts were hammered in and two new gates reinforced with galvanised wire. We couldn’t get a pig arc locally so the nearest thing we could find was a calf arc, which looks much the same just a bit bigger. The outside water tap had to be moved to ensure we had a supply nearer to the pigs’ pen and an old butler sink was brought back into service as a trough. Now at the end of the month, we are waiting to hear from the district vet who has to come and do an inspection, so we can get a herd number. Fingers crossed our two little pigs may be in residence next month.

  

Apr 2012 - Slug Attack

I long for the day when my garden reaches a state of equilibrium and all I will need to do is to maintain it. Every year I think, ‘Next year, I’ll be there’. It must be something to do with the spring and the urge to renew and create. This year it was the offer of two little pigs, which caused me to rearrange the garden, once again. The site of our terraced vegetable garden seemed the ideal place for the pigs, as it is half shaded by a huge sycamore and protected from winds by thick hedges, but this meant moving the raised vegetable beds. Their destination was to be behind our cottage in an area previously laid to lawn. The raised beds were moved and then the onerous task of filling them with compost and manure. In all four compost bins were emptied and a huge heap of manure. I was really pleased with the compost this year. In the winter I covered the open compost bins with old duvets and it always amazes me how you can turn weeds and old veg into beautiful soil.

In the meantime the young seedlings were queuing up in the greenhouse ready to be planted out. Purple cauliflower, broccoli, peas and broad beans went in first. It was with satisfaction that I looked on my neatly planted beds, but that didn’t last long. First the hens ate all the brassicas, then undeterred by gorse strewn over the bed, they ate a second planting. Serious measures were needed so a new gate was put up to keep the chickens permanently out of the new veg beds and a third planting made. Fortunately I had a good supply of seedlings. Then after a spell of wet weather, the slugs arrived. Only having chickens this year and no ducks, the population of slugs has exploded. The fox took our ducks last year and I had hesitated in getting more as they are harder to keep in a pen than chickens. The chickens have survived the fox so far this year, as I only let them out when I’m in the garden.  However, I hadn’t realised how significant an impact the ducks made on the slug population, picking over the veg beds as I was digging. A duck and a drake are next on my list to patrol my beds!

Mar 2012 - Espalier Fruit Trees

Trees are my one indulgence and this month once again I’ve been seduced by fruit trees. There’s the blossom in the spring, canopy of leaves in summer and in autumn a glorious harvest. We planted our main orchard 5 years ago and within that short space of time the trees have matured and provide us with copious amounts of apples. Every year I add to my collection of fruit trees, last year a quince, the year before a mulberry tree. This year I’m obsessed with the espalier style of growing fruit – training the branches horizontally to form a lattice. 

When we first moved to West Cork we brought with us the miniature fruit trees that had sat in pots on the patio of our old house, where I used to dream of a life in the country. I planted them behind a hazel fence, on our southern boundary, in very poor rocky ground. The hazel panels had a predicted lifespan of 10 years but within a couple of years they had begun to rot, so I pegged down the branches of the little trees to promote bud break and to replace the fence I planted a native hedge. This month as I was clearing the grass around the trees I saw that at last the branches between them were knitting together to provide a boundary to the garden. Inspired by this and the fast approaching life span of our picket fences, I set about replacing the fences behind the cottages, with espalier trained fruit trees – two varieties of apple, pears and a row of Brambly apples. National Tree week was the perfect time to start with offers on at our local nursery. The effect was immediate with the trees and posts forming a pretty trellis. The post and wire between them also seem to support the trees far better than a single post. Beneath them I have planted a holly hedge for the outer boundary and wild rose and lavender to encourage bees to pollinate the blossom. 

Hugh Fernley Whittingstall of River Cottage fame once said, when bemoaning the onset of his 40th birthday, ‘Delayed gratification has never been my thing. But now I have a reason to yearn for, rather than fear the hastening of age. Because the older I am, the more productive my orchard will be.’   

Feb 2012 – The first day of Spring in West Cork

The winter in Europe this year has been extreme with temperatures as low as -20 degrees C in Northern Italy and the Danube freezing over. And after our short experience of snow last year, it is unimaginable what people must be going through trying to keep their homes warm. It makes me feel guilty for moaning about the winter mists here in West Cork.

The plants have loved the mild weather, all the delicate perennials have survived the winter and the grass hasn’t stopped growing, but by the first week of Feb I began to panic. They say that 'Life isn't about waiting for the storm to end, its about learning to dance in the rain', but you can't garden in the rain, you just get wet! The hedges needed trimming, lawns to cut, veg beds to dig, cottages to paint the list was went on and on and then on Sunday morning we woke to a cow mooing loudly in the field opposite our home, announcing the birth of a new baby calf. Standing on shaky legs with the mother cow washing its face, it looked stunned staring at two other new calves, just days older, but now strong and confident grazing the grass beside their mother. The sun was coming up it was going to be a good day. I’ve never mowed grass or cut hedges with such enthusiasm before, it felt like the first day of spring and it probably was. The tête à tête daffodils and grape hyacinths were unfolding in the borders along the drive, wild tulips pushing up their leaves, shaped like rabbits ears, in the wild flower meadow and even the birds seemed to be rejoicing. The dry weather continues and at last I’m ticking things off my list. It’s just in time too; Valentine’s Day is when I like to start sowing seeds.

We had another beautiful sunset last night and a night so clear, with a million stars like a star map from an astronomy book on the winter sky. I always look for Orion to find my way round the night sky and Orion’s nebula was clearly visible last night. Hopefully the dry spell will continue. As the old weather folk law says ‘Red sky at night shepherd’s delight’ and it hasn’t let me down yet.

  

January 2012 - New Year Walk at Lough Hyne

On New Year’s Day, after relaxing by the fire all week, too many chocolates and lots of tasty treats, we decided that we would start the year as we meant to go on and walk to the top of Lough Hyne Forest. The weather was a bit grey as we started off, but I had high hopes of clear skies coming from the west and sunshine to greet us at the top.

  

Up through the woods we trudged and as predicted the higher we went the clearer the skies. Spurred on by the improvement in the weather and hopes of a clear view of the peninsula from the top we pushed on upwards. The path is clearly signposted and we counted off the numbers on our way to the summit. Then a final push through a particularly muddy patch and we were there. The sun was peeping through the clouds and I captured the panoramic view on my camera.

  

In the distance through a yellow haze I could see sheets of rain. “There’s no time to pour the hot chocolate”, I said, but my family were oblivious to the approaching storm. Suddenly the gentle breeze turned into a strong gust, the heavens opened and we were pelted with hail stones. At that moment being at the highest point for miles didn’t seem like such a great idea with the threat of a thunderstorm. We fled to the shelter of the trees and fell about laughing, half spilt hot chocolate in our hands and faces pink from the stinging hail stones. We took a different path down the hill, along the north face of the wood to visit the holy well, a spring where people have left ribbons tied to trees and pennies. We duly hung our ribbon and covered in mud we returned home with happy hearts, a great start to the New Year.

  

Christmas Eve 2011

Christmas Eve is my favourite day over the Christmas hols. The family have just arrived home. The fridge is packed with all the festive fare. There are mince pies to make, the Christmas cake to decorate and vegetables to dig up from the garden – parsnips, celeriac and brussel sprouts this year. The goose is defrosting on the side; salmon poaching on the stove for the fish terrine tomorrow; and Michael Buble is singing ‘All I want for Christmas is you’. Then out in to the storm for the Christmas dash around the neighbours with cards and gifts.  I think I’ve made it, everything done, just in time, but oh dear the fairy lights have gone out and the milk bought the day before is off. Looks like it’s going to be Bailey’s in the coffee this Christmas! 

November 2011 - Willow planting and wreathes

I try to plant fifty trees a year, helped by giving guests a young sapling to take home and at the end of the summer any trees I’m left with I plant around our boundary. This year I’ve really beat my target. On an impulse I bought 100 willow rods to make a living fence at the edge of the outcrop beside the Gallery. It sounds extravagant, but bare root willow at 60c a rod makes a cheap alternative to a wooden fence or stone wall. Planting them on the thin rocky soil was a challenge but I was rewarded when I reached the top of the outcrop by deep, soft soil. Instant gratification when a spade sinks easily into the soil. I’ll be rewarded in the spring too, by catkins and the bright green leaves unfurling. In summer the willow will be lush with delicate leaves and in the winter the bare purple stems will give structure to the garden.

 Three years ago I planted some yellow willows at the entrance to the drive. They are in the wrong place, shading the raspberry patch, so a couple of times a year I cut them back quite hard. In the autumn I use the bright yellow stems to make wreathes for Christmas. Each wreath is different, depending on the leaves chosen and the suppleness and thickness of each length of willow. My favourite shape to make is a heart, an oval works well particularly covered in herbs or a Christmas star. I have to be careful not to allow my creative ambitions go too far. My ‘dove’ bore more resemblance to a fish, quite a good fish, but not very Christmassy. Having made wreathes for the school Christmas sale, I’ve finally got round to decorating my own front door. This year its winter roses and gypsophilia in amongst the holly and golden sprayed seed heads. Surprisingly the roses woven into the wreath seem to be surviving and in the mornings with the dew on them they look quite beautiful.

 

October 2011 - Nature's Palette

Nature’s masterpiece through my window delights me every season. In autumn there is a simplicity about it, with the trees stripped bare by the storms, standing erect, silhouetted against the golden autumn sky. Sometimes I wish I could paint, but to do justice to the scene would be a challenge indeed.

 

An Autumn Sunset

LEAGUERED in fire
The wild black promontories of the coast extend
Their savage silhouettes;
The sun in universal carnage sets,
And, halting higher,
The motionless storm-clouds mass their sullen threats,
Like an advancing mob in sword-points penned,
That, balked, yet stands at bay…

Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937)

 

September 2011 - Preparing for Winter

As we enter September suddenly there is a chill in the air, reminding us that soon the long summer days will be over and we will be constrained by the shortened hours of daylight. The swallows are gathering and there are signs the winter will be a hard one once again. The hawthorn hedges are thick with berries; the fox returns building his winter larder; and the swallows are swarming. Like the animals I too feel the need to prepare for the winter, particularly as we were caught out the last two years having previously grown accustomed to the mild winters of West Cork. Now at the end of the month, I feel confident knowing the winter logs are piled high; the apples have been gathered and made into copious amounts of pickle and stewed apple; and the freezer is groaning with frozen berries from the summer and roasted vine tomatoes. These delights conceal the laborious hours of peeling and cooking, but it will all be worthwhile. Nothing has been wasted not even the purple grapes full of pips. These have been stewed gently and reduced until they formed a thick sweet syrup to be served with roast duck this Christmas. 

August 2011 - Summer Evenings

This summer when the work was done we headed off to the beach. We are creatures of habit and our favourite evening haunt was Rosscarbery.  It was the allure of fish and chips from Rocs, sand and all that won us over. Then to burn off the excess, races and kite flying along the white sands. As the evening draws in and the day trippers pack their bags and head home there is a lull when we virtually have the beach to ourselves. Then others arrive almost like shift workers – fishermen setting up their rods; horses being put through their paces; and lone joggers. The sound of the crashing waves and breathing the sea air is so therapeutic. I’m fortunate to have lived near the sea all my life and could not imagine being far from it. It brings a sense of peace and calm, of living in the now, but like all good things it comes to an end and it is time to head home, well almost ice-cream at Leap is calling us, just one more treat.

 

July 2011 - Cunning Mr Fox

They say don’t count you chicks until they are hatched and that’s certainly true this month. A fox has come and taken several of our ducks. In one way he did us a favour as he took the three drakes that were bullying the girl ducks and left us with Lenny and the two ducks who had been sitting on eggs. Unfortunately he spooked the girls and they have abandoned the nest and haven’t laid any eggs since. It was hard to know how to protect the remaining animals. The cockerels can’t bear to be locked in their pen and would have paced up and down all day and the ducks are not used to being confined either. Instead I tried to trace where the fox was getting in and found a path through the hay field behind our cottage up to our back wall to a small area where some brambles had been mulched. The brambles must normally act as an impenetrable barrier. Knowing the fox was gaining access at the back of the cottage where the ducks liked to sit, I decided to move them to the front lawn and put up extra fencing to stop the fox. It seems to have worked and we haven’t lost any further ducks. The two girl ducks that are left are completely enamoured with Lenny, as he’s really gentle with them and their feathers, the bullying drakes had pulled out, have all grown back. Lenny and the girls now like to share a duck house and as soon as the cockerels saw that the other duck house was free they moved in - as it’s much larger than theirs! Although on windy nights they can still be found snuggled up in their little chicken house, much cosier.

  

 
The cockerals have taken to hiding in flowerpots to outwit the fox and Lily thinks its a good idea too!

June 2011 - We’re expecting ducklings!

Two of our Khaki Campbell ducks are sitting on eggs. To begin with it was just one but then another one joined in. At first we thought they would never keep it up, as ducks are notoriously bad at sitting on eggs, but to our surprise they have hardly left the nest which grows bigger each day. Luckily they made their nest in the ‘girls’ duck house, they choose to sleep separately from the drakes. It takes about a month for duck eggs to hatch so their due date is mid July and its time we started making preparations for the ducklings. We’ve looked after ducklings before but not tiny ones and not with fully grown ducks around. The mother ducks are so protective of the eggs and make a great fuss when our other two female ducks go in at night. One of them, a magpie/runner duck, is feeling broody too, she made a nest in a hole where I had been digging in the potato bed and laid some eggs alongside some green potatoes, but she doesn’t sit on it and the magpies keep taking the eggs. She’s in love with Lenny our other magpie/runner duck. Lenny is quite gentle with the girl ducks but the other three drakes are dreadful bullies. If anyone wants to give a home to three Khaki Campbell drakes just let me know. These three are all good friends and surprisingly drakes keep their duck house much cleaner than the girl ducks. They are pretty too and would look lovely as ornamental ducks on the lawn, but I’m sorry they won’t lay any eggs!

 

May 2011 - The wild flower garden

Apparently April was one of the driest aprils on record and despite the lack of rain it has, as the poem says, brought May flowers. So much so that I decided to do a survey of the wild flowers in our garden. One flower I found that I had never noticed before looked like a miniature sweet pea. I found it at opposite ends of the garden, in the yard a yellow and purple variety (Bush Vetch), whilst at the front gate a beautiful deep pink (Common Vetch), relics of former cultivation of our land for fodder.

Continuing on the wild flower theme – I’ve made some changes to the circular cut flower beds in the orchard that I planted last year. These were heavy on maintenance - firstly, because I tried several methods of protecting the bulbs from the chickens and ducks which were drawn to the bare soil; secondly, the lilies and gladioli needed supporting and thirdly, Oh the weeding and watering! Nature has now lent a hand.   

Over the winter I never got round to mulching the bare soil and now the beds are filled with wildflowers alongside my lilies and irises. The chickens and ducks are no longer interested, as there is no bare soil, the cut flowers are held upright by the surrounding wild plants and thank you Nature – no more weeding or watering. She even managed to colour co-ordinate the beds, with yellow buttercups and pink foxgloves forming the perfect backdrop to my yellow irises. On sunny days there is the contented hum of insects, perfect for pollinating the orchard.

What a coincidence - I’ve just watched the Chelsea Flower Show on the BBC and apparently this style of wild gardening mixing wild and cultivated flowers was designed by an Irish man ‘William Robinson’ and was championed by the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement. I’d like to say that my flower beds were by design, but in my case it was just by chance!

 

April 2011 - Easter walk to Barlogue Pier, Lough Hyne

This Easter we had family to stay in the cottages and the sun shone and shone. We had lots of day trips: Bantry House; the English Market in Cork City; and Schull harbour. But the best day of all was spent walking the coastal road that leads to Barlogue Pier at the entrance to Lough Hyne. The road runs high up on the hill in front of our homestead and at the summit there’s a group of rocks where we stopped to admire the 360 degree view of the peninsula and enjoyed much needed refreshment - coffee and Easter eggs!

The second half of the walk is all downhill along the cliff edge overlooking the Atlantic and then down country lanes with the hedgerows full of wildflowers and orange tip butterflies. At the fork in the road at the top of Lough Hyne we decided to head down to Barlogue Pier, where we clambered over the rocks to a hidden cove. Here we spent the afternoon skimming stones on the water.  I’m afraid to say we were very lazy and poor, kind David walked home to fetch the car. We returned home, tired and warm from the afternoon sun with our treasured collection of shells, stones, crab shells and wild flowers (we were careful not to pick too many) and good old Nanny de Lacey, who on the day after her 86th birthday had scaled the cliffs of West Cork! 

March 2011 - Inspiration & Preparation

I’m looking for inspiration in the vegetable garden. Last year I dug up the grass paths between the beds, but it was hard to keep them neat in the summer, so we have decided on raised beds. The first seeds of the year have been sown and the important preparation work has been started. All four compost heaps have been emptied and moved to a new area ‘The Yard’, where we now store wood, compost and the manure heaps. The gravel drive has been weeded and topped up and two new stone wall beds built.

In search of inspiration I trawled through gardens on the internet and decided on a day trip to Ballymalloe, just beyond Cork. The trip was a great success, we were truly impressed by their herb and veg gardens, even though the beds were denude of plants the geometric designs in box hedging formed an intricate tapestry, providing structure and pattern. Darina Allen was busy teaching in her cookery school, but took time to chat to David about her chickens – I’m beginning to think that David is turning into a chicken fancier. He was most impressed by her Pekins, which produced tiny blue eggs.                                                                                               (Photo - Ballymalloe Gardens)

February 2011 - St Brigid's Day

1st of February marks the first day of spring in Ireland and throughout the nation's primary schools the children are singing to St. Brigid.

After the hard winter the first signs of life in the garden are most welcome. The bulbs in the new borders are pushing up their heads – blue grape hyacinths and tete-a-tete daffodils. In the greenhouse the cuttings taken in the autumn of perennials and herbs are shooting up, but the frosts continue, so they will have to wait until March to be planted out. In hindsight the greenhouses should have been the first thing we built when we started creating a garden from a field, as one plant can be turned in to many by taking cuttings. And there’s nothing better on a crisp, cold, sunny morning than planting seeds in the greenhouse and planning the year ahead in the garden.

  

  

St. Brigid's Day Song

“We sing a song to Brigid,

Brigid brings the spring,

Awakens all the fields and the flowers

and calls the birds to sing.”

 

January 2011 – Out with the old and in with the new

I love the New Year there’s something wonderful about being able to start afresh again and planning the year ahead. Last year I failed miserably in planting my vegetables at regular intervals and we had times of famine and feast! This will be our third year of homesteading and I am determined that we will achieve all our aims this year – opps was that my New Year’s resolution last year too? There will be no room for excuses this time, as we have invested in another greenhouse. It will be built on the site of the old barn. I feel sad to lose the barn. We looked at different options of patching it up, re-roofing etc, but the old frame made of tree trunks was turning to dust through dry rot at the base, so sadly we decided that if we didn’t take it down it would probably fall down in the next big storm. Our neighbours kindly helped us demolish it and we hope to reuse what we can - the decent metal sheets a neighbour is going to make pig arcs out of; the wood we will chop and store for the fires; the rocks from the foundations will be used to line the drive; and we need to find something to do with the old tree trunks, I don’t want to burn them, it doesn’t seem respectful somehow, as they held up the barn for so long – perhaps we will stack them in the orchard to provide a home for wildlife. Behind the barn we found traces of our predecessors  lives – bits of old farm implements; a plough and at a very opportune moment an anvil to split rocks; fishing nets with wooden borbels; and lobster pots with broken wicker work.

Knocking down the old barn has opened up a stunning view of the distant purple mountains and brought a feeling of light and space to the side of our cottage. Usually when we make changes we are putting things back to how they were long ago, in this case we are starting a new making our mark on the landscape.

New Year, new challenges and hope for the future – here’s to 2011.

 

Dec 2010 - Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

This is beginning to be a habit – snow at Christmas. The once mild winter climate of West Cork has been transformed into a winter wonderland. Unfortunately, even having had snow last year, we were completely unprepared for it and how suddenly it can impact on our lives. Just a few days before Christmas, on what had started out as a fine sunny day with barely a frost in the morning, David headed off to Skibbereen, within 10 mins of him leaving a blizzard started with snow covering the countryside at a startling rate. Within the hour David phoned to say he was on his way home, but the Baltimore road was blocked and he was taking a detour across tracks to reach Lough Hyne, where he then abandoned the car and walked through the snow up the steep zig-zag to Ballymacrown. It was with relief that he reached home half an hour later, cold, tired and shocked from his Antarctic experience.  This sort of weather is virtually unheard of for Baltimore, but it won’t catch us out next year, we’ll be prepared and I expect West Cork will not see snow again for years to come!

The memories of the trouble the snow caused will no doubt fade and we will be left with the memory of the joy experienced by the children of the village on their make shift sleighs down the hills, snow ball fights and jolly snowmen.

  

Oh the weather outside is frightful, 
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we've no place to go,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

It doesn't show signs of stopping,
And I've bought some corn for popping,
The lights are turned way down low,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

When we finally kiss goodnight,
How I'll hate going out in the storm!
But if you'll really hold me tight,
All the way home I'll be warm.

The fire is slowly dying,
And, my dear, we're still good-bying,
But as long as you love me so,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
 

  

The song ‘Let it Snow’ created by lyricist Sammy Cahn in 1945 will always remind me of Christmas 2010. 

November 2010 - Homemade Treats

I’m feeling inspired by ‘Kirstie’s Homemade Christmas’ a Channel 4 TV series. In these times of austerity a homemade Christmas makes sense and is great fun. So far I have the Chutneys made, along with a relish to go with the turkey, similar to cranberry sauce, but made from Chilian Quava berries (Ugni Molinae), which are a bit like blueberries, but pink and slightly perfumed. I discovered them in my local nursery and have taken loads of cuttings for the greenhouse, so maybe next year I will have the beginnings of an Ugni hedge!

We’ve used Kirstie’s recipe for salt dough decorations:

  • 1/2 cup of salt
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1 cup of flour
  • Mix the ingredients into a dough and cut with cutters
  • Dry the shapes in a low oven. 

These are now all painted and covered in glitter ready for the Christmas tree.  We also made some to go on the shelf above the Stanley saying ‘PEACE’, it should have said ‘HAPPY CHRISTMAS’ but we ran out of dough.  Next I have the Christmas wreaths for the doors of the cottages to make using the willow from the top of the drive. I made these for the first time last year, but having watched Kirstie make them I now have some extra tips to improve on them this year. The pampas grass is in bloom and I’d like to incorporate that. I’m pleased to say that one of our Christmas trees we bought last year with roots, has survived and it has beautiful, fresh green soft needles. A couple of weeks before Christmas I’ll dig it up and pot it. I would also like to have a go at making homemade Christmas cards using lino cuts. I tried using potatoes instead of lino, but it wasn’t too good, so I’m going to invest in the proper tools and lino tiles, which are surprisingly cheaper than I’d expected and stocked by our local bookshop. Still on my list is mincemeat, paper chains, decorations for the table, homemade crackers and finally chocolates. One of our guests, Ulrike, gave me a great traditional German recipe for Quince Christmas Sweets and kindly sent some on to us to try. The quince tree fruits in October so it’s an ideal time to make them. They are sweet and almost jelly like – delicious.

  

Ulrike’s Quince Christmas Sweets Recipe

Wash the quinces and cut them into pieces. You needn't pare them or remove the core. Put the pieces into a big pot and add water so that they are covered with water. Cook the quinces till they are soft. Although they are very hard, it takes only a few minutes. Then you have to sieve the cooked pieces the same way you do when you make apple puree. Now you can mix it with sugar (for 1 kg puree 1/2 kg sugar) and heat it again and fill it into glasses. That's quince jam. Or add 1 kg sugar to 1 kg puree and spread it on big plates (about 1 or 1 1/2 cm thick) and wait for about a week till the surface feels dry. Then turn the mass round and leave it for another few days. Now you can cut it into different shapes. It's also possible to spread melted chocolate over the quince sweets and to cut them afterwards. I let the small sweets dry on a grate so that every surface is dry. Then I put them into a metal box with aluminium foil between. The sweets will be good for at least three months if you keep them cool (for example in the cellar).

  

 The rest of the festive food I’ll leave to David, although I have insisted on turkey - he usually favours duck, but I’m craving turkey and all the trimmings.

The weather is turning much colder and we’ve had frost every morning this week. The weather man’s predicting snow across the country and there’s already snow on the distant Glengariff mountains. Santas on his way! 

 
*WILD LIFE NEWS FLASH *– You can imagine how surprised we were this week when we spotted an otter in the river that runs along-side Field’s Supermarket car park in Skibbereen. He seemed quite at ease with the attention, floating along on his back then diving under the water. I looked him up on google and sure enough he’d been filmed in September, so he must be a regular visitor to the town.

October 2010 - Golden Sunsets

During the summer months the sun sets on the northern side of the valley behind the Gallery, but during a single week it moves across to the southern side, setting for a short period on the sea, marking the beginning of winter. Some years if the weather is poor we miss the transition of the sun, but this year we were treated to glorious golden sunsets and fiery red autumn skies.   

The farmers took advantage of the dry weather and set the land ablaze. Apparently burning heather uplands helps to release nutrients in to the soil to help grass grow. But without adequate fire breaks it can spread out of control through the flammable gorse. The fires burned day and night covering acres of land from Barlogue to Spain. Now the land is scorched and barren, but in the spring new shoots will sprout from the base of the black gorse and the heathers and ferns will return.

September 2010 - Love is in the air!

Lenny the Lonesome duck now has three female companions. I call them ‘Lenny and his Ladies’. The three Khaki Campbell drakes that didn’t get on with Lenny also now have a girl friend each, although with their loud quakes they’re more like ladettes. The lads aren’t too impressed and spend most of their time running away from them!

I’ve spent this month stewing apples, making chutney and picking blackberries, as well as planting trees. I visited a local nursery to buy some bare root trees and came away with 16 huge trees that had been reduced in price because they were pot bound. I couldn’t bear to see those majestic trees in tiny pots and just had to rescue them. Now they are all planted I can’t wait for next year for them all to come into leaf. Some of them are very unusual and come from China, Australia and the USA, not quite the native trees that I normally stick to but they should help to give our little acre a bit more shelter.

August 2010 - Beach bags, packed lunches, ferry rides and Sherkin

Each year as August rolls on there’s a day when

I suddenly realise that summer is almost at an end and from that day onwards we take every opportunity to head off to the beach - Tralispeen if we only have a couple of hours free or even better a day trip to Sherkin Island. The ferry makes it feel like a proper expedition. As the ferry lands the holiday makers disperse as there are several beaches to choose from -  Trabawn, Cow Strand, Horseshoe Bay, Silver Strand  with white sands and clear turquoise seas.  I’m not sure what our favourite beach is called we just head straight past the ruined abbey and walk down lovely country lanes with views out to sea until we reach an overgrown path that leads down to our cove!

 

July 2010 - Fruity Compote

They say the sign of a good gardener is that there is neither famine nor feast in a garden. This is something I can’t quite master, all the produce in the veg garden and orchard seems to have ripened at once and I’ve spent most of the month digging and picking fruit and veg. At one point there were so many blackcurrants that I gave up trying to pick them individually and instead combined pruning and picking in one job and carried swathes of branches into the cottage which proved much easier. I know this is frowned upon by the self-sufficiency ‘bible’ (Self-sufficiency by John Seymour ). I’ll see next year if it affects the blackcurrant harvest. At the end of the day I had 10lbs of blackcurrants, then to the task of processing them. I dry froze 2lbs to add to apple crumbles in the winter and the remaining 8lbs I first stewed and strained the juice to make homemade Ribena and the rest I made into blackcurrant compote. Hours of work produced 4 half lb pots of jam, rich and delicious, but paltry compared to the amount of effort that went into producing them.

Rhubarb has proved to be my mainstay for preserves.  I’ve been using it in most of my compotes since April and it’s still growing strongly. I don’t really make jam as I object to the amount of sugar the recipes call for – you also lose the taste of the fruit. Instead I make weekly pots of compote which only use a fraction of the amount of sugar and only take a few minutes to make.  This is my tried and tested recipe that can be used for any fruit.

  • Chop 1lb / 500g of fruit, place in a wide bottomed pan and just cover with water or apple juice
  • Gently stew

You don’t have to watch the pan at this stage it usually takes about 10 to 20 mins depending on the hardness of the fruit used.

  • Sterilise the jars either in a warm oven 100 degrees C or by boiling for 5 mins.  I use a baby bottle steriliser.
  • When the fruit is soft take the pan off the stove and mash the fruit

Berries don’t need to be mashed as it’s nice to have them whole in the compote

  •  Add approx 6oz / 200g of sugar, stirring to ensure all the sugar is dissolved
  • Taste and add extra sugar if the fruit is very sour

Strawberries shouldn’t need extra sugar but sour fruits like gooseberries will

  • Return the pan to the heat and boil on the second highest setting for no more than 5 mins, stirring all the time.
  • If any froth forms at the edges remove it with a spoon
  • Leave to cool slightly then bottle
  • There’s no need to test for a setting point as it is a compote and will be runnier than jam
  • Store in the fridge.

Compote is great not just on bread but also as a topping for pancakes, ice-cream or yoghurt.

I’m currently making mixed berry compote with wild strawberries, blueberries, ripe gooseberries and rhubarb. The rhubarb is great for thickening the compote.  Incidentally, Jamie Oliver makes a similar compote, with strawberries, on his Jamie At Home Summer Recipe DVD, it’s a great series but he boils the fruit first. If you did this for plums they would just go hard. Simmer first Jamie!!

Now at the end of July the vegetable patch is desolate. The potatoes developed blight again and all had to be dug up. I’m definitely investing in blight resident varieties next year. We couldn’t pick the peas quick enough. I’ve frozen a few but again after hours of poding peas I only managed to fill one tuberware box – it will be Captain Birdseye this winter! I’ll save the home grown ones for a special occasion maybe Christmas. The onions and garlic are now dried and stored for the winter. There are leeks and broccoli to plant next week and lots of tomatoes to pick in the greenhouse. Sometimes it frustrating and tiring trying to keep up with a vegetable patch but there’s great satisfaction to be had in producing a home-cooked meal straight from the garden.

  

 

June 2010 - Killer Whales

This really is one of the driest years I can remember – the duck pond has dried up, we are having to water the garden most nights and have the blinds permanently drawn in the greenhouse to prevent the young plants being scorched. The good weather has also brought unexpected visitors to our shores. I know Ireland’s coastline is rich in whales and dolphins, but I was quite surprised when a couple staying with us said they had seen killer whales from the Beacon in Baltimore. I have to admit I was a bit sceptical, so I looked up Nic’s site www.whalewatchwestcork.com as I knew that he would have the latest info. Sure enough Killer whales had been reported by the Cape Clear Ferry. So it’s off to the Beacon to see if we can spot them too! The Beacon was built in the 19th Century as a signal tower and marks the entrance to Baltimore Harbour. To reach it you have to clamber up cliffs. There are no barriers, so it’s not very ‘health and safety’, but it’s worth it for the view, as from here you can see across the harbour to the ruined abbey on Sherkin Island.

To sit and watch the sailing boats; the ferry busy to and fro to the Islands; scanning the waves for the fins of dolphins or the amusement when, goodness knows how, a group of cows manage to wander up the cliffs to cool off on a hot day under the Beacon – a special place.  

  

May 2010 - Seedlings

My success rate in germinating the seeds that I planted in April was actually quite poor in our new unheated greenhouse and this was very disappointing, especially as we made such a big investment in it - it was a choice between a greenhouse or a wind turbine. In the past I had used a warm window sill, but this was a bit ‘hit and miss’ too. On visiting a friend’s house I was even more exasperated to see all her trays of seedlings, fortunately she shared the secret to her success – a propagator! A propagator is basically a warm pad that the seed trays sit on. For a moment I did consider using an electric blanket, but on second thoughts electricity and water, not a good idea! Then I thought of using the top of our Stanley, which heats to about body temperature. I sowed six varieties of seeds on a seed tray covered them with a damp tea towel and within 2 days, success, the first seedlings appeared and by the end of the week even the pepper seeds had germinated. The success rate was phenomenal, I had more seedlings than flower pots. Now the greenhouse is full of plants. The tomatoes and courgettes are romping away and there are peppers, chillies, basil, butternut squash, sugar-snap peas, pumpkins and the first of the summer flowers, sunflowers and sweet peas.

The veg garden is almost full. Eight of the ten beds are planted with potatoes, onions, peas, carrots, parsnips, broccoli and calabrise. I’m also trying some unusual vegetables from the Eden Project in Cornwall – tomatillos, plum tomatoes and asparagus peas (apparently they are peas that taste like asparagus). The last two beds are resting, waiting for the pumpkins and butternut squash to grow bigger in the greenhouse. I also need to dig in some more compost from last year’s compost bins.

At this time of year there’s loads to do in the garden, next on the list is weeding the new cut flower beds and I also need to plant the long borders either side of the drive, which is long overdue. I haven’t decided what to plant yet as they will have to be drought tolerant to survive in the poor thin soil. I’m considering lavender or maybe Mediterranean herbs like fennel and thyme. The other dilemma I’ve had to solve recently is how to reconcile free range chickens and a vegetable patch. There’s a wild rose hedge around some of the veg garden and this has now thickened nicely, but on one side is a hedge made of ash whips bent into a lattice. In a few months this will be lush with greenery and will discourage the chickens, but at the moment the chickens are squeezing through. White fleece solved the problem, the chickens watched me plant the seeds ready to move in, but as soon as I put the fleece down they backed away and have left the beds undisturbed. My friend says it because the chickens think its snow and having experienced snow in the winter they have imprinted that it’s not nice to walk on, I think she’s right!

Talking of chickens we had what was very nearly a disastrous incident the other day, but the cockerels saved the day or saved the ducks in fact. We were having coffee in the kitchen when suddenly Greg the dominant one of the two cockerels appeared at the back door screaming at the top of his voice not his usual cock-a-doodle-doo more like help, help! We knew immediately there was something wrong and ran outside to see a large dog chasing the ducks in the orchard. The dog soon ran away on seeing us. Once we had recovered from the shock, we fell about laughing, it was like something out of a Disney movie!    

April 2010 - April showers

  

On Easter Sunday there certainly were April showers, but between the showers the sun shone and we decided to pack a picnic and head off to Clonakilty, first to Lisselan Gardens for an Easter egg hunt and then on to Inchydoney beach, where horse and traps were being put through their paces on the beach – perfect!

The drive back to Baltimore following the setting sun is always special. There’s something about travelling west as the sun sets. The clouds always dissipate and as the car almost keeps pace with the setting sun, time seems to stand still. The shortest route home from Skibbereen is via Lough Hyne (Loch Ine) and as the road bends and zig-zags the great hill of Knockomagh wood looms ahead of us dark and menacing. Then as we turn the corner into the light, before us is Lough Hyne (Loch Ine), peaceful and serene as always, sheltered by the surroundings hills like a great amphitheatre. Then up the zigzag on the other side of the hill to Ballymacrown – Home Sweet Home!

  

The poem by Michael Fitzjames O'Brian (1828 - 1862) beautifully puts in to words the atmosphere of Lough Hyne (Ine), describing the ruined Cloghan Castle on Castle Island in the middle of the Lough, once a strong hold of the O'Driscoll Clan, where according to the childrens' Irish folk tale King Labhra Loinseach, who had asses ears, once lived.

  

Lough Hyne

I know a lake where the cool waves break,
And softly fall on the silver sand;
And no steps intrude on that solitude,
And no voice, save mine, disturbs the strand.
 
And a mountain bold, like a giant of old,
Turned to stone by some magic spell,
Uprears in might his misty height,
And his craggy sides are wooded well.
 
In the midst doth smile a little isle,
And its verdure shames the emerald’s green;
On its grassy side, in ruined pride,
A castle of old is darkling seen.
 
On its lofty crest the wild birds nest,
In its halls the sheep good shelter find;
And the ivy shades where a hundred blades
Were hung when the owner in sleep reclined.
 
That chieftain of old, could he now behold
His lordly tower a shepherd’s pen,
His corpse, long dead, from its narrow bed
With shame and anger would rise again.
 
‘Tis sweet to gaze when the suns bright rays
Are cooling themselves in the trembling wave,
But ‘tis sweeter far when the evening star
Shines like a tear at friendships grave.
 
There the hollow shells, through their wreathed cells,
Make music on the lonely shore,
As the summer breeze, through the distant trees,
Murmurs in fragrant breathings o’er.
 
If it were my lot in that fairy spot
To live forever and dream twere mine,
Courts might woo and kings pursue,
Ere I would leave thee, loved Lough Ine.
 
Michael Fitzjames O’Brian (descendent of Fineen the Rover) 1828 – 1862.
 

March 2010 - Best laid plans

March is traditionally the month for planning the vegetable garden, but as they say ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft astray’ and I hadn’t taken into account the consequences of having free-range chickens and ducks. At the beginning of the month I drew out the plan for the garden allowing for crop rotation, additional fruit bushes for the orchard and new flower beds by the greenhouse – a sheltered spot where I planned to grow cut flowers including lilies, gladioli, irises plus annual flowers like sunflowers and larkspur. The flowers were to be grouped by colour into three circular beds of pink, yellow/orange and white/blue. First the bordering fuchsia hedge had to be trimmed. Removing the turfs took days of hard labour. Then the beds were dressed with the peaty soil left over from digging the greenhouse foundations. Finally a whole afternoon was spent planting bulbs  and sowing seeds, all the time being watched by the curious chickens and ducks  – as soon as my back was turned in they all trooped, digging up bulbs and scattering the seeds, even the kittens joined in! Nets haven’t stopped them, but tomorrow I’m going to try using chopped up gorse, an old method for deterring mice, but it might just work!

It will be so lovely if the flowers manage to survive, as they will border the side of the greenhouse, which has apple trees on two sides and their branches almost touch forming a little glade. In the centre we have built a stone walled barbeque pit this month. We haven’t tried it properly yet, although I have boiled a kettle on it. It is reminiscent of camping holidays and it makes me dream of summer evenings gathered around the fire with friends, the smell of charcoaled sausages, fish cooking on fennel sticks and watching the sun set.  

Oh I nearly forgot to mention what happened to Rocky our enormous duck that was bullying all the other drakes. He’s in heaven, not literally. He’s been adopted by our neighbour and he now lives with 20 female ducks!

February 2010 - Animal Antics

This is the first winter that we have been self-sufficient in wood. The trees we planted last year will be many years before they can be harvested, but in the mean time the old ash on the north side of the barn and the surrounding fuchsia hedges have provided us with the perfect size logs for our little wood burning stove, although we have bought in bigger logs for the open fire in the Croft. We debated about putting in a wood burner in the Croft too, but the open fire is so lovely, even though it doesn’t make eco-sense, we have left it for now. Instead we have had a wood burner fitted in the Gallery. Here it has proved really successful as the tall chimney heats the air in the high ceiling very effectively and there’s also a hot plate to boil a kettle.

February has been a very industrious month getting the garden ready for the coming year. Once again we are extending our vegetable patch. Originally we had thought of spilling over into the orchard, but then I had the great idea of getting rid of the grass paths between the terraced beds, which really are a nuisance to keep cut and we have virtually doubled the size of the vegetable garden. It was hard work lifting the turfs, but the soil is so rich and deep on this south-west facing slope, that it’s a shame to waste any of it. The turfs upturned were used along with the soil from the excavations for the greenhouse to create a long border either side of the drive. There are still a few veg beds to attend to, but whilst they are still providing us with leeks, broccoli and brussel sprouts, even though they look ragged from the frosts, I am loathed to dig them up.

The chickens and ducks enjoyed all the activity in the garden, following us as we dug, feasting on the vast numbers of worms in the rotted horse manure. That’s the great advantage of living in the country – no shortage of manure! At one point as I was digging I looked up to find myself surrounded by the 5 ducks, 2 chickens and 2 kittens. The chickens have proved to be wonderful characters. There’s a cockerel who can’t hit the last note on Cock-a-doddle-doo and a pretty blond hen with yellow legs. They have a routine and are often found sitting on the top of a bench in the mornings, followed by a trip down to the greenhouse if it’s cold and visits to the duck’s pen to steal the duck’s food, which causes a great fuss amongst the ducks, who quack about it, but do nothing. Then the chickens end the day by knocking on the back door for their evening meal. If they don’t get a reply sometimes they try the doors of the other cottages. It’s very amusing especially as we have stable doors and we’ve been caught out a few times thinking there’s someone  at the door, opening the top half and finding there’s no one there, then looking down to see its the chickens!

The ducks aren’t happy at the moment, once again we got it wrong and the ducklings we bought in Bantry market last June have all turned out to be boys. Rocky the leader is enormous he looks like a cross between a goose and a duck and unlike our previous ducks he has turned out to be a bit of a bully. We haven’t decided what to do about it yet, maybe we’ll separate them and keep the three smaller Khaki Campbell drakes at the back of the cottages and Rocky and his second in command a Runner duck called Lenny in the front garden. It’s a shame because up until Christmas they had all got along so well. It's probably lack of female company that’s the problem!

At times its tiring work preparing the garden, but with the antics of our animals to amuse us and those wonderful moments when we pause for a second and watch nature happening around us, it makes everything worthwhile. Sitting against the old stone wall behind the Croft, feeling the sun on our face and watching great flocks of crows quarrel with even bigger flocks of starlings for the roosts at the top of the bare trees - the whooshing of their wings as the starlings sweep overhead, like a black cloud constantly changing direction and form. It’s those moments that make us thankful that we have the time to ‘stand and stare’.

 

'Leisure' by William Henry Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
 

  

January 2010 - The Big Freeze

The frosts continued into the New Year, but once again we avoided the heavy snow experienced by the East coast of Ireland and throughout the UK. We did have one day at the end of the ‘Big Freeze’ when it snowed all day – great excitement – enough to make a snowman, but the next morning all that was left was his scarf and hat! Throughout the period the weather, although freezing at night, was beautiful in the day encouraging us to pack a flask and biscuits and enjoy the sunshine walking the coastal road to Barloge Pier and our favourite, the road to Spain a deserted village on the cliff edge. The Barloge walk heads up on high ground and about half way we always pause for refreshment looking down on the peninsula. Ballymacrown Homestead is easily spotted, a bird’s eye view of our home!

December 2009 - Christmas is coming

Christmas is creeping up on me, it does this every year! We always buy our Christmas trees late, so they look good on Christmas day and haven’t been reduced to twigs. And for us there’s nothing like a real tree, as the smell of the pine with a peat fire, captures the aroma of the season. That’s a guilty secret – we don’t use peat anymore. This year we have opted for living trees, so hopefully with a bit of tender, loving care, we will be able to keep them alive over the holiday period and plant them out in the spring.

 December has been picture postcard perfect - no rain, blue skies and surprisingly for West Cork – frosts! Now the garden is defined by the sharp lines between the boundaries and the skeletons of the trees and shrubs, which the frost contrasts starkly each morning, particularly in the maze. Joy of joy, no more sloshing through the mud, as the ground is now frozen hard.

We’ve gone all eco with the lawn mower and bought an old fashioned push mower, so it’s out with the ‘toys for boys’ (which cost a small fortune to run and maintain each year and spend more time out of action being fixed) and it’s in with the muscle power. In fact it’s a much lighter mower, so it doesn’t take any longer to cut the lawn and the result is just as effective.

It’s the Sunday before Christmas – the trees are decorated, the stockings hung by the fire, cards and letters sent abroad – oops just the Christmas Cake still to make, but that’s OK as I have a recipe for a last minute one. Then there’s the festive fare to plan. We’re having Stargazy pie for Christmas Eve, a modern take on an old Cornish recipe. I just love the story behind it of the fisherman returning home to the quay lit by candles, after he braved the stormy seas with his cat to bring his catch home to the people of his village on a Christmas Eve.

'Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night'

November 2009 - Floods

November is usually spent trimming the hedges, turning out the compost heap and preparing the veg beds for the following year. But this year it rained and rained, not just the odd day, it seemed to rain for the whole month, culminating in the worst floods seen in Ireland for hundreds of years. We were fortunate as we are 200ft above sea-level, but for a week or more towns and roads throughout the region were seriously affected. We moaned about the rain, but when we heard the experiences on the radio of families who had fought to stem the flow of the rising water and lost the battle and had their homes and businesses destroyed our hearts and prayers went out to them. Their fighting spirit is to be admired – just a few days after the water had subsided I ventured into Skibbereen. Most of the shops had reopened, but the scares of the flood remained with tiles and carpets taken up. One shop even managed to see the humour in the situation with a big sign in the window saying ‘Sale - Clothes at washed out prices’.

October 2009 - Seed Harvest

The fine weather continued through the first half of October, in fact the weather was so fine that buds formed on the fruit bushes and the fuchsia hedges were speckled with flowers. We took advantage of the good weather and off we went to the beach at Toe Head to gather seaweed to fertilise the garden. The day was so warm that the local children had gone for an impromptu swim! The dry weather also made it ideal for harvesting the seeds from the fennel, nasturtium and camomile flowers. The fennel and camomile make a great herbal tea, whilst the nasturtiums pickled are very similar to capers – great on homemade pizza. The hedge along the drive was covered in plump red rosehips, which we gathered and made into rosehip syrup, before the hedge was trimmed for the winter and mulched with straw. 

But the big news this month was that we finally had the foundations laid for the greenhouse. We’ve never had a greenhouse before, so it’s a great adventure for us and hopefully we will be able to grow all the Mediterranean vegetables that up until now we have had to rely on the supermarket for.

Now at the end of the month the weather has turned and unfortunately the green house had to be put up in a terrible storm. I think we will have a long wait until it dries out so that we can weather proof it properly. As I write this on Halloween with the clocks gone back and the nights drawing in, the vegetable garden has treated us to two huge pumpkins 10 and 8 lbs in weight, which have been duly carved in to scary faces and the off cuts made into pumpkin soup to enjoy, after trick and treating, on a Halloween night by the fire.

September 2009 - Swallows 

The late summer burst of fine weather made blackberry picking a must and several apple and blackberry crumbles ensued, following walks to Spain (a deserted village on the cliffs, where it is said that a spanish galleon once sank). The wild flower meadow this year has been dominated by wild thistles, each year a different species takes control. Last year it was the feathery grasses that made the meadow look like lavender fields. This year the purple seed heads of the thistles attracted flocks of goldfinches, with their pretty red faces and yellow markings on their wings, as well as beautiful butterflies.

  

But this September will be remembered for the swallows. Great flocks of over 50 birds congregated on roofs, trees and power lines each afternoon for a couple of weeks. Suddenly they would take off and swoop and glide up into the blue skies, then dive down at low level through the meadow feasting on small insects. I’ve never experienced such sight or sounds before. The baby swallows that hatched this month were obvious in the flock with their yellow beaks and frantic flapping of wings, every now again they would land on a windowsill to be fed by one of the parents.

As I write this at the end of September and with the departure of the swallows, the homestead has a completely different atmosphere. The fine weather has continued, but there is stillness in the air as though the land is getting ready to snuggle down for the winter. The trees have lost most of their leaves. The birds which visit our homestead now will stay with us throughout the winter. Tree Sparrows and cheeky robins come to watch as we dig the soil hoping for a worm or two.

The seasons are wonderful. Having enjoyed the summer months there is still nothing better than lighting our first fire of the autumn in the stove and with the growth slowing in the garden, there is more time to contemplate our plans for the homestead for next year.

 

August 2009 - Menu Planning

August saw me reviewing my homesteading. I’ve tried to design a two week summer menu that meets the criteria of using only natural produce (i.e. not processed); fresh veg from the garden, using least amount of cooking pots ( I hate washing up); using herbs from the garden; and allows us to cook two meals at a time (one for the freezer). In the winter it was easy as it usually involved a weekly roast and if it was chicken the carcass made excellent soup. The sort of soup that felt like it was doing you good. Or fish pie, the recipe copied from Dinty’s bar in Union Hall - haddock (from the fish shop in Union Hall) in a cheese and leek sauce served with garlic potatoes..yum.

To expand our menu I treated myself to a couple of second-hand books on Amazon – "The Thrift Book” by India Knight and “How to feed your family a healthy, balanced diet with very little money” by Gill Holcombe. It was against my better judgement that I bought the “Thrift” book, as thrift is a word I’ve never liked the sound of. I don’t think it describes what homesteading is about – homesteading is about eating only the best – just making it go a little further! On second thoughts maybe that does describe thrift. Anyway this book is as far away from thrift as is possible. It’s really only suitable if you are downsizing from having food flown in from Fortnum and Masons! On the positive side it did contain lists of some very useful websites. The other book "How to feed your family...", was a great improvement, the recipes were easy to follow and there were plenty that I was inspired to try. At the end of the book there were menu suggestions, which was the reason I bought the book and they were costed for the UK supermarkets coming in at less than £30 per week. Just one recipe horrified me “Fish finger pie”!  

Sad news this month one of our cats “Clive”, passed away. He was 16 and had lost his sight, so in a way it was a release. Phantom his sister really seemed down and missing him – apparently cats do grieve for a lost companion. So we searched on the internet for kittens in West Cork and surprisingly found that one of neighbours at Loch Ine had some kittens that needed a home. We chose a little black one, the image of Clive, who we named Trixie and a black and white kitten we called Lilly that looks just like Phantom. Phantom was not amused especially when the kittens very cheekily pushed her head out of her food bowl. She’s gradually getting used to them and in time I think she will enjoy their company. I often see her watching the kittens as they play. 

I think cats often get a bad press when it comes to birds, but our cats have rarely caught birds and when the ducklings were tiny they seemed to know that they were part of our family. Talking of birds the swallows have laid a second clutch of eggs, which is a really good sign that its going to be a good September, as they must be planning to stay on. One year the swallows left on the last day of August and sure enough in came the sea mists.

  

July 2009 - Baby Swallows

  

July brought our first proper harvest of the year, although it was very nearly a disaster – the sudden warm weather with bouts of heavy rain at night were perfect conditions for potato blight. The earlies were due to be harvested, so that didn’t cause a problem and the potatoes – Charlotte, were excellent but I had to cut down the vegetation from the maincrop potatoes well before they were ready. The new rhubarb planted this spring also had a burst of growth and provided us with several rhubarb crumbles. I’ve tried not to take too many stalks, as the plants are still young. The fruit bushes have treated us to fruit throughout most of June and July. The gooseberries were the most successful as the birds were more reluctant to take these because of their prickly spines, whereas the raspberries and blackcurrants were stripped by the bullfinches and the tree sparrows. Best of all the berries were the wild strawberries and the more we picked the more grew. These combined with the gooseberries made great fruity compote.  

The swallows did decide to stay and two families were reared in the barn. Usually when they fledge the nest the mother bird lines the babies up along the rafters of the barn to practise flying, but this year they took to the washing line. For the whole day the parents were flying backwards and forwards feeding the babies. Then every now and again they would all take off, often leaving one poor nervous swallow swinging on the line waiting for his siblings to return. They were quick learners and the next day they were all swooping in the water meadow like miniature jet planes. It is amazing to think that soon they will be flying all the way to Africa.                      

          

We had two surprise visitors this month, firstly the lady who used to live in our cottage before us and she kindly sent us photos of the farmstead when she originally bought it, showing the Croft and an old stone outbuilding where the Gallery is now. We had guessed that there might have been a building there before, so it was interesting to have that confirmed. Then an American visitor stopped at the top of the drive to ask where Mary Sheehan’s cottage was. We were so thrilled to find out that his great grandmother, a Minihan, had lived in the Croft before emigrating to America. One of her descendants then built our cottage in about 1900. This explained where the enormous leather trunk that is in our bedroom had come from. It has been a mystery to us how it had got upstairs as it is too big to go up the stair well or through the windows – it must have been put up their when the house was being built in 1900. It was really special to have a descendant of the person who built our cottage visit Ballymacrown Homestead. It feels like we have completed a jigsaw, we knew bits and pieces about the history of the cottages from neighbours and the deeds and finally we have filled in the missing pieces.

  

June 2009 - Hedgerow Harvest

The first Friday in June was the Bantry farmers market, so off we went to buy some ducklings. We also purchased 10m of strong chicken wire and made a fully enclosed duck pen, so that the ducklings would be safe from the foxes. As they grow we will extend it and use the small enclosure when we are going out for the day. We considered buying one, but the price was 300 Euro for a tiny pen and instead we managed to construct one for a fraction of the cost.

 The ducklings are so cute. We think we have 2 males and 3 females, a slightly better ratio than last time 3 males and one female! They have veracious appetites and David is busy cooking them barley porridge, which they are fed 4 times a day, along with cooked vegetables. They are growing before our eyes. They have a little basin to swim in with a shallow end for the little ones and a deep end for the larger more adventurous ducklings. Rocky (shown opposite) has established himself as the leader and where ever he goes the others follow. They have settled in very well and are not at all shy. We bought them from a young boy and I think they must have been handled a lot.  

In the vegetable garden the potatoes and onions are really coming on. The peas are beginning to gain some height, but the beans are looking very sorry for themselves. Where we are 200 ft above sea level and quite exposed, it is a learning experience as to which varieties will grow or not. Broccoli is our biggest success. It grows all year and even when the plants finally go to flower the tender young leaves provide an excellent green vegetable.  

The hedgerows are lush with greenery now and we have had such fine weather recently that we have left the work and gone to the beach. There is a secluded bay about 3 miles from us that only locals know about. It is sheltered, with soft sand and shallow water, so inviting that David has had his first swim of the year and I lay like a beached whale basking in the sunshine!   

We have had our first harvest of the year this week – Elderflowers. I was determined to make full use of it this year, as in previous years it has been and gone with only a couple of bottles of elderflower cordial to show for it. The smell of the elderflower blooms is intoxicating. So it was out with the ladder on a barmy early summer day to reach the best blooms, which are always at the top of the trees. I then spent a day sterilising bottles and making ½ dozen bottles of elderflower cordial, a dozen bottles of elderflower champagne and elderflower sorbet. We will have to wait two weeks to try the champagne, although the longer we leave it the better. It’s already starting to bubble, so that’s promising. It should make a light fragrant drink for summer evenings and I will leave the rest of the flowers to produce berries for the autumn when we can make elderberry wine for the winter months to warm us. The gooseberry crop is looking good too; it’s the perfect companion for elderflowers. I’m off to look for some recipes – gooseberry relish would be nice for summer picnics!

May 2009 - Nature's Balance

The swallows arrived as expected on 26th April, chattering excitedly with their characteristic call. They inspected the barn flying at great speed through a slit at the top of the door and built a nest in the rafters. I’m hoping we haven’t disturbed them with our daily comings and goings, we will have to wait see if they decide to stay. The fuchsia hedges are alive with the sound of the birds and the blossom on the apple trees is attracting bumblebees, which is nice to see as their numbers are reducing. The hawthorn bushes dotted about the fuchsia are in bloom too and there is ozone freshness in the air that comes from living on a peninsula, surrounded by sea on three sides. The green finch is our newest arrival at the bird feeders, which are now wired to the trees, to prevent the hooded crows from pulling them down. Originally they were tied on with string, but I was astonished to find the Crows could undo knots!  

We have finally planted the stone circle at the entrance to the drive. We settled on blueberry bushes and wild strawberries - as plants are so expensive I like to plant useful ones. Blueberries are great because they have pretty white bell like flowers and then the delicious berries to follow. Wild strawberries are tiny but full of flavour. In the centre of the bed we planted a wild cherry tree, that our guests left for us. In order to increase the number of trees we plant each year we are giving our guests a young tree in a pot to take home with them. For visitors from abroad that are unable to take the sapling with them we plant the trees here at Ballymacrown. The trees include wild cherry, hawthorn, crab apple and silver birch, which were chosen for their beauty and the range of birds and insects they support.

On a spring walk down to Loch Ine recently, I spotted a seal. Sometimes they can be seen surfing in through the narrow entrance from the sea to the Loch known as the Rapids. At high tide water enters the Loch. If you time it right its amazing to see the direction of the flow stall and then suddenly turn, with water flowing out of the Loch to sea like a plug pulled from the bath. It always feels special to see a seal in Loch Ine, up close they look at you like a Labrador would and I’ve even had a seal wave back to me.  

Our very sad news is that we lost our ducks to foxes this month. May is when the fox cubs are born and they much less cautious, even taking a duck during the day when we were in. The ducks had had a whole year of freedom, wandering about our acre as they pleased. At dusk they put themselves to bed in their duck house and we locked them in each night. Within 4 days we had lost all our ducks, despite our best efforts to round them up earlier in the day. Still it is nature’s way. Keeping animals is always a balance between giving them enough freedom to have a full life and them being safe. I know our ducks had a wonderful life and a year is much longer than a farmed duck would ever have lived. We miss them terribly; each one had their own character. Ducks are such lovely natured animals. They are sociable and apart from occasional squabbles don’t seem to have the pecking order that chickens exhibit. We will keep ducks again, but we will try to get the balance between freedom and safety right next time.

 

Apr 2009 - Easter Blessings

At last the garden is springing into life. The grass has had its first cut and the fuchsia hedge, which runs around our boundary, is no longer brown twigs, but flushed with vibrant green growth. It seemed to happen overnight. We’ve had lovely weather in fact, it’s been so dry that the pond as dried up, much to the ducks distain. Feathers (the female duck), has been laying an egg every day. They are about the size of chicken’s eggs, but blue and much heavier, with a richer yolk – great for cakes. We tried to hatch some in the Stanley, but it wasn’t successful. Now we are trying plan B, we’ve put them under Clive our old black cat who spends about 22 hours a day in his basket. He’s a real softy and wouldn’t hurt a fly. We’ll test them next week with a torch to see if any are developing. It’s a shame Feathers won’t sit on her eggs, but her and the three drakes are always out and about in the garden.   

We saw our first hare of the year today on Easter Sunday, very appropriate! Last year a huge hare sat on top of the outcrop behind the Gallery. We are just waiting for the arrival of the swallows. It is usually about the last week of April. Some years they nest in the old barn and their flying acrobatics is a sight to behold – gliding at speed through the opening in the top of the barn. Once they arrive it really heralds the summer.  

Vegetable wise we’re under attack by slugs. They’ve eaten all the asparagus and I’m not sure if it is them or the ducks that have had a go at the swiss chard in front of the Croft. Every now and again the ducks go on raids. I’ve tried seaweed to discourage the slugs as well as ash from the fire and gravel, but to no avail.  

The cottages have been busy for Easter and we have been blessed with beautiful sunshine. A neighbour told me that the fishermen on Heir Island are predicting a dry summer and if you can’t believe a fisherman, who can you believe!

Mar 2009 - Painting the Cottages

March has been a busy month spent painting the cottages. We’ve always loved the colours used in Portmeirion in Wales and the vibrant traditional country cottages here in Ireland, so we decided on pink for the Croft, pale primrose for the Gallery and kiwi green for our cottage. The yellow we tried first, called Magella, turned out orange and after two coats we decided we really couldn’t live with it, so we re-painted in pale primrose. We were so pleased to finish it felt like we had spent the whole month darting in and out between the showers to add another coat. We also painted the garden furniture and the rose arch around the Croft in white. I always think white looks beautiful in a garden. The local painter kindly painted the chimneys for us. He walked along the ridge of the roof between the chimneys like a high wire act. He explained that he had painted the Fastnet lighthouse, so our cottage was hardly a challenge.   

The carpenter was also in, refitting the kitchen in the Croft for us. He built the original kitchen and although it was finished beautifully in a traditional style it never really functioned properly with modern appliances. The new design works much better and we were able to reuse much of the old kitchen in our cottage as a room divider. It looks as though it has always been there. Sometimes I get a spooky feeling that our cottage is making us put it back to how it was years ago.  

My biggest homesteading achievement this month has been to give up the tumble drier. Its not been as hard as I thought it would be. I’ve just had to be a bit more aware of the weather and plan – in fact my washing has never been so organised. I really have no excuse for not using the washing line, as the back of the cottage faces southwest where all the weather comes from. So if its fine at Mizen Head, 50km away I know its time to put the washing out.  

Garden wise David spent a week sclarating the lawn in preparation for the wild flower meadow, accompanied by his four willing helpers!. The vegetable patch has been neglected this month, although I did plant the potatoes during St. Patrick’s Day week – my annual deadline. The beginning of this month saw us fulfilling our aim to plant nut trees. We had a huge pile of rocks that we had dug up from beside our driveway. One of our neighbours said that the rocks had come from an old stone outhouse that was demolished many years ago. So we did a bit of dry stone walling and built a stone circle at the entrance to the drive. We’ve mulched the centre, but we haven’t decided what to plant inside it yet, maybe lavender to attract the bees. Anyway around it we’ve planted six hazel nut trees about 5 ft tall, which should provide us with hazel nuts in about 6 years. Behind these we’ve planted 2 ft high bare root wild hazel to use for coppicing in the future.   

The old folk law says that if March comes in like a lion it will go out like a lamb and it certainly did this year!  

  

Feb 2009 - Tree Planting

Brrr! Its been cold, but we shouldn't complain - our little peninsula in West Cork missed out on the worst of the snow, thanks to the Gulf Stream. Just one beautiful snow laden morning greeted us, by lunchtime it had melted away, leaving just the snowy tops of the Caha mountains in the distance . We might have avoided the snow, but Jack Frost was definitely down our way, making the zig-zag road down Loch Ine almost in-passable.  Still during the blizzards in the rest of Ireland we experienced several fresh, clear days of blue skies and warm sunshine - a hint of the Spring to come. So it was on with the wellies and out in the mud to plant 30 Ash trees around our boundary. We are trying to phase out the use of coal and peat in the cottages and eventually want to be self-sufficient in wood. We have tried just burning wood alone, but the pine logs sold locally in Skibbereen burn slowly and produce no real heat compared to coal. Having trimmed the Ash trees on our boundary we found that they burnt much hotter than pine and glowed like peat. It also does not need to be seasoned like most woods and can be burnt green – so Ash is definitely the solution. Just one problem – it has to be chopped up and this takes hours with a handsaw – perhaps we need to try an axe!

Our other aim for this month was to expand our vegetable beds. Up until now we have had a pretty ornamental vegetable garden behind the Croft and although this has supplied us with a variety of herbs and vegetables through out the year it wasn’t enough to cut out the shop bought vegetables completely. We decided on an area of our orchard that had previously been the site of two huge compost heaps, the duck pen and an overgrown fuchsia hedge. We started by clearing the old stone wall which divides the property from the water meadow behind and then set about dividing the compost heap between the fruit trees and roses.  A new compost area was set up with enclosed composters for kitchen waste and wooden crates to hold the straw bedding from the ducks. This makes fantastic mulch and so doesn’t stay in compost bin long!

It’s a great feeling to have finished the new raised beds. Now we just need to plan the planting regime - the fun bit. The birds - cheeky robins, bullfinches and wagtails, joined us each day as we dug and our ducks waited patiently for us to finish so they could pick over the beds looking for slugs. I just hope they leave the worms alone and aren't too upset when I plant a hedge of prickly gooseberry bushes to keep them out of this area once the vegetables get underway. We grow plants that are particularly prone to slug attack on the gravel out side the cottages e.g. courgettes, lettuces, swiss chard and up until today the ducks left them alone, but I caught them eating the winter lettuces this morning - so we might have to confine them to the orchard, which would be a shame as they have been grazing on the wild flower meadow, which should help to maintain it.

January is an ideal time to plant bare root fruit trees and bushes, so we’ve added another row of cherry trees along our gravel drive and four plum trees to the orchard. We also replanted the raised beds in the orchard with berry bushes. These beds had originally been planted with onions in the autumn, but it turns out that our ducks, love onions and uprooted most of them, although they did leave the garlic alone. Still we are now looking forward to blackberries, red currents, and gooseberries in the summer and the delicious jams to follow.

  

Jan 2009- New Year Resolutions

What a start to the year, such doom and gloom here in Ireland with banks going under, job losses and the prospect of increased taxes. This makes us even more determined to fulfil our homesteading philosophy. Its New Year the time of resolutions, new beginnings and time for change. By the end of the year we hope to be self-sufficient in vegetables, followed our homesteading ideals, reduced our energy consumption and have a larder well stocked with the fruits of our labour from the garden to see us through the winter. 

  

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