Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Garden Hentertainment

'What's this then?' asks Mrs Pumphrey, eyeing the cabbage that's hanging from a string from the remains of the shrub in the back garden.
'It's a cabbage,' says Mrs Miggins. 'You know, the thing that's usually served up on the ground. Or shredded, if it's a pressie from Denise's mum.'
'Right,' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'Cabbage doesn't usually give me headache.'
'Then stop head butting it, you numpty,' says Mrs Poo. 'You need to launch your beak into it. Like this,' and she gives an admirable demonstration, like a spike going into a balloon.

It only takes Mrs Miggins ten minutes to unstick her.

'Why's it hanging up?' asks Mrs Slocombe. 'It's like a pinata. Give me a stick so I can whack it and release the sweets inside.'
'There are no sweets inside,' says Poo, 'and it's all your fault we're having to exercise for our cabbage now, you and your 'I'm-so-bored-I-need-to-eat-all-my-feathers malarkey.'
'Yes,' says Miggins. 'It's supposed to be more entertaining for us. Keep us occupied and distract us from anti-social habits. I told you this would happen if we didn't keep up the knitting circle and bridge club.'

By now, the cabbage is swinging wildly on its string and there is much clonking together of chicken heads.

'And what's this shiny thing?' asks Mrs Pumphrey, who, being the tallest, is having more luck with cabbage catching.
'It's a DVD,' says Mrs Poo. 'Again, dangling there for our entertainment, like we're some kind of demented budgerigars attracted to shiny surfaces.'
'It is rather pretty,' says Mrs Pumphrey, primping her top feathers in the mirrored surface.
'What's it a DVD of?' asks Miggins.
'Cranford,' says Mrs Poo. 'Or possible 'Westlife's Greatest Hits, I can't read upside-down.'
'Oooh, I like a good costume drama,' says Mrs Slocombe who belongs to the 'Costume Drama Re-enactment Society,' and likes to watch 'Pride and Prejudice' and the like dressed in a sprigged cotton empire line gown and matching bonnet and gloves.
'Well, as soon as I can get the DVD player working we can watch it,' says Mrs Miggins.

I cast a fond glance at the hens as they play in their new play area with their dangling cabbage and DVD. I am in the greenhouse planting on the seedlings that are outgrowing their seed trays. Cabbage (red and white), cauliflower, lupins, basil and tomatoes, mostly. And I discover that there aren't 72 tomato plants. There are 74!!!!! Good grief. Needless to say, there is very little space left in the greenhouse now. Careful tip-toeing is very much the order of the day. The hollyhocks are looking good and the broccoli has made an appearance. The runner beans have also sprung to life, just as I was beginning to think I'd got a dud packet. Nothing as yet from the parsley or chives.

And against all the odds, there are things happening in the raised bed! Despite Mrs Miggins getting in there and having a kick-about, there are green shoots popping their heads above the surface hither and thither and definitely not in the nice neat rows they were planted in. I think it's the radish. But then it takes a lot to keep a radish down.

So Spring gathers pace chez nous. I am very dutiful, checking the crops every day, sprinkling a bit of water here and there, coo-ing encouragement to the seedlings just appearing, giving a tomato plant leaf an occasional gentle tweak between my fingers because already some of them are smelling like the promise of the tomatoes to come.

I see the hens have managed to wrench the cabbage from the string and are now kicking it around the garden in a revival of the winning goal of the '66 World Cup Final. I must go and hang it back up, I think. And in a few weeks time, I'll be able to give them home-grown cabbage.

Lucky chickens!

Monday, 30 March 2009

Ground Force Part 2

We make a good team, Andy and I! Yesterday morning, the back garden/ chicken run plan took a great leap forward. Enthusiasm, compromise and no tea and cake until the first part of the fence was up were the order of the day.

This is how 'Team ANDYNISE' worked: (note my cunning wordplay in combining our names and making us sound like a brand of drain cleaner)

1) I took Andy a cup of tea in bed and shoved my artfully drawn plan for the back garden under his nose. He grunted approval (or is he catching a cold?) and made one or two suggestions which I agreed/ disagreed with but (and here is the trick ladies) I didn't tell him which was which!

2) we had breakfast and decided where to make our purchases. B & Q was out because there is never any sense of briskness at the tills and we were keen to get on (well, I was, and Andy got SWEPT up in my enthusiasm!), Homebase was out because I get easily distracted by their fluffy cushions and wallpaper with big flowers on it, so we went to Wickes because you can go in, get what you want and get out quick no probs.

3) In Wickes, Andy blatantly disregarded the sign that said 'PULL THE TROLLEYS, DON'T PUSH THEM OR THEY'LL GO ALL WIBBLY-WOBBLY' and did some wild, wibbly-wobbly pushing. I said 'It says to pull the trolleys' and he gave me a bit of look that said 'Back down,' so I did. We walked past the display which was selling bark chippings on a 'buy 3 for less' offer. Andy saw the look in my eye that suggested I might load his trolley immediately with many large and heavy bags of bark chippings and he said 'We'll get those on the way out.' I tried not to look too crestfallen.

4) We looked at various styles of fencing and wire mesh and posts and spiky post holders. We shared ideas about what we should buy which basically meant that I put random stuff on the trolley and Andy took it off and put on the stuff we REALLY needed. We ended up with 3 willow trellises, one fence post, one spiky fence post holder and six bags of bark chippings.

5) we discovered that not all our purchases would go in the car in one hit. Andy took the bark chippings, post and spikey post holder home and left me to guard the three willow trellises in the carpark. I while away the 20 minutes he is gone by glaring at people who park in the disabled bays with my best 'You-are-clearly-not-disabled' look. Andy returns, we put the trellises in the car and travel home with the trellises banging me in the back of the head.

6) we are on a roll now! Out come hammers and nails, digging implements and chickens. I dig the whole side of the garden that will be the long part of the chicken run, the chickens diving for worms as I go. I remove the remains of old shrub roots because I will not be beaten by lumps of bark. Andy nails the three willow trellises together and digs a hole to start off the process of banging in the spiky fence post holder/ fence post combo. I even see him using a tape measure rather than his usual 'Oh, it'll go there, that looks about right,' method. (Which can sometimes be around 6 man inches out).

7) Andy proceeds to bang the fence post into the ground using a rubber mallet. This is ineffectual and our neighbour agrees because he leans over the fence to offer the use of his huge metal sledgehammer. Gggggrrrrrhhh!!!!!! Proper man stuff!! Far more effective and even more so when Andy climbs onto a garden chair so he is above the six foot pole and can really give it a good whack!

8) Andy opens the bags of bark chippings and we cover the apex of the garden with them. Instant neat garden! We are a bit concerned as the bark chippings smell peculiar, sort of creosotey. Andy checks the packaging. 'It says they are safe for children's play areas,' he says. 'Who cares about kids?' I say. 'These are our chickens we're talking about.' We spread the chippings and pray for 4 live chickens in the morning. And now the hens have a big scratchy, barky ,behind-some-lovely- willow- trellis play area!! We stand back and admire our handiwork. Andy builds the hens a little roosting bench in the sunshine. The one shrub I can't get out of the ground will be handy for hanging cabbages and CD's on for chicken entertainment. We decide to abandon our plans to build the rest of the run from posts and galvanised green steel netting. We like the willow trellis so we're going to use more of that instead. It will be aesthetically pleasing.

We spend the rest of the day pausing periodically to admire our labours and say how lovely the garden is starting to look and aren't we dynamic? (whilst at the same time trying not to sound too smug). We are a good team, Andy and I.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Ground Force

Here's the plan:

1) the back garden is a MESS! It needs SORTING and it need sorting NOW! This I have decided after a sleepless night worrying about the back garden

2)the top triangle bit of garden and a 5 foot width strip running the full length of the garden on the side with the new, invincible fence shall be cordoned off with a range of fencing (willow being the current favourite). This shall be known as 'The Chicken Run' and is where the chickens can run, roost, scuff up the ground, dust bath, play poker, do aerobics and mud wrestle. The Chicken Run shall contain a dust bath, roosting perches, a bark chipping play area and cabbages swinging from the eucalyptus tree for the entertainment of the chickens

3) the fence currently separating the drive from the greenhouse will be moved DOWN the driveway thus creating a seating area for the garden table, two chairs and two benches. Denise shall then pressure clean the chicken poo from the aforesaid garden furniture, buff, polish and re-stain it to its former pre-chicken poo glory and place it in the new seating area which shall be then surrounded with some of the many beautiful plants that are growing in the greenhouse. Denise shall fill tubs and baskets and drape a wisteria over a pergola to create a lovely area for summer evening relaxation. This area shall also have the advantage of being away from the area where the next-door neighbours sit and chain smoke all summer and we shall avoid breathing in their stinky tobacco habit ourselves

4) the patio currently crowded with the garden furniture shall then be free to become 'Growing Facility Number 6' and house some of the 72 tomato plants that have managed to germinate. The patio may even be re-laid so it doesn't look quite so lumpy bumpy (but this will depend on the financial considerations)

5) the non-chicken run side of the garden will be covered with a variety of shapes and sizes of raised beds for growing vegetables and salads which can be gardened in peace and safety from chicken interference. The chickens may look whistfully at the raised beds from their side of the garden and rattle tin mugs along their fencing if they so wish but it will make no difference to the hard-hearted prison warder until she releases chickens in late autumn to clear the used beds for her and turn them over before winter.

6) the hops (which are now 7 inches high and looking v. lush) will be released from their chicken protection and trailed artfully over the swing bench which itself shall be raised on some nice paving slabs. The swing bench will become like a sleepy bower where Andy can rest his Bottom and Denise can prance around in a diaphanous gown like a Tit(ania).

7) the paths between the raised beds shall be sprinkled with gravel, unless the local cats decide to use it as their toilet facility in which case the paths shall be re-sprinkled with holly sprigs and sharp twigs

8) the garden will then look more like a nice cottage garden and less like the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme and Denise's mother will no longer have to bite her tongue over the state of it

9) we might even get the barbecue out again. And install a beehive.

10) Denise shall have no more sleepless nights worrying about the state of the back garden

That's the plan.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Big Day Out

It didn't bode well, the start of our Big Day Out. A Big Day Out requires sunshine and warmth so you can feel all smiley and happy and go 'tra-la-la-la, here we go on our Big Day Out'. We woke to freezing rain with the threat of more freezing rain. Actually, I woke to a clear blue sky but then that was at 5.20 a.m when I got up to let the chickens out. Between then and 7 when Andy and I had breakfast, the clouds had gathered and the temperature plummeted.

'Don't worry,' I say enthusiastically, 'the sun'll come out later!! It'll be great!!!' (Note, please, my excessive use of !!!!! in order to convey my enthusiasm!!!!!!)
'You reckon?' says Andy, who I can tell really wants to stay home and watch old episodes of Doctor Who and The Sky at Night.
'Yes!!! Come on!! Let's GO!!!!!,' I say. So we do.

Luckily, the journey to the Yalding Organic Gardens is not too long because it would have been incredibly miserable to travel for miles in order to troop round a garden in the freezing rain when we could have stayed home and got cold and wet in the comfort of our own garden (also organic.) The gardens themselves are lovely and it is reassuring to know that we, in our own little back garden/allotment/ bee garden/ chicken keeping/ compost heaping way are doing things how they should be done. We get a few ideas of how we can make our back garden look less like a mud flat. We have hot chocolate in the tea-shop and buy some local honey and gi-normous Montezuma chocolate buttons. We sit in the car and eat the gi-normous chocolate buttons until I begin to feel a bit icky.

'What now?' says Andy, as the morning is still young (and cold and wet).
'I'd quite like to go to that hop place over near Sevenoaks,' I say. I discovered this hop place during my search for hop bines (which are growing very well, and avoiding being eaten by chickens.)
'Okay,' says Andy. 'Can you remember where in Sevenoaks this place is?'
'No,' I say. 'But I don't think it's actually in Sevenoaks. It's somewhere in some village just outside.'
'Which is called?'
'I can't remember,' I confess.
'Can you remember the name of 'the hop place?' says Andy.
I have a considered think. 'No,' I say.

Andy is VERY patient.

'Or we could go to Sissinghurst for lunch,' I say. So we do. It is still cold and raining. My feet are wet and just as we are leaving, a big rain drop plops in my ear.

At Sissinghurst, we queue in the cold and rain for the restaurant. I look around. There are a lot of middle-aged, grey and droopy couples queueing with us. It's a bit of a sobering moment. Here I am, on a 'Big Day Out,' visiting organic gardens and getting excited about composting and crop rotation. Here I am, letting my hair go grey and sloshing around in jeans and big jumpers without a scrap of make-up on. Here I am keeping chickens, growing vegetables, writing bizarre 'stuff' in the vain hope it may get published (hopefully before I'm dead) and making cakes and biscuits for people, whilst worrying if the nutritional value of Brazil nuts outweighs their relatively high calorific value.

What am I thinking???? Is this right? Is this proper? Is this the start of a mid-life crisis???

Or is it that it is still wet and cold and a big blob of rain plopped in my ear?

Friday, 27 March 2009

Andy and Gym

Andy has joined the gym. He has been twice this week, both times after work which, given he has been late finishing almost every evening, is pretty impressive. He went last night.

'I nearly died!' he announces cheerfully, returning an hour later. 'I did running uphill but stopped just before I felt like I was going to collapse.'
'Good,' I say. I wonder if I ought to sneak along with him, just to keep an eye on proceedings and administer artificial respiration if needed. Should I make him have half an aspirin before he goes? Did he take his blood pressure pills this morning? It's a bit of a worry. Especially when he's so blase in his near-death proclamations.

I can't bear gyms. That's why I go swimming and walking and do gardening and dance around the kitchen when no-ones watching. I've had gym membership twice in my life and the longest I managed to survive was eight months. It's the pain, you see. You go along with your stretchy pants and oversize T-shirt and your trainers that make your toes go numb. You start on something gentle like the exercise bike. You pedal away for ten minutes, building up a sweaty glow and then a stick-thin gym trainer appears and says 'That's your warm up done. Now do another twenty minutes. And don't forget to warm down for ten minutes at the end.'

Another twenty minutes?? Then warm down??? How does one 'warm down?' Call me old-fashioned, but I used to 'cool down' which involved getting down , or rather falling off the exercise bike and lying very still on the floor until I'd stopped hyperventilating and felt less hot.

And then you're expected to do more! So you attach yourself to the rowing machine and slip and slide around on a seat that has been worn dangerously shiny from the thousand other bottoms that have slid up and down on it before yours. I confess I didn't mind the rowing machine, especially if it had a little electronic consul that showed you rowing across a lake or up a river past ducks and stuff. I didn't mind the step-machine either except for moments when the gym trainer would come along and change the speed and incline without so much as a bye-your-leave and you'd suddenly find yourself climbing Mount Kilamanjaro at fifty miles an hour rather than a gently hilly slope at three.

The cross trainer was invented as an instrument of torture during the Spanish Inquisition. It was outlawed almost immediately on grounds of extreme cruelty even then, and has only been reintroduced in the guise of a piece of gym equipment because someone found one in a cupboard one day and turfed it out because they needed the space for their doughnut stash.

And then the gym trainer starts suggesting you do a few muscle toning exercises which is basically where they make you lie on a rubber mat that smells of old shoes and stale Lynx aftershave and do abdominal crunches until you projectile vomit. They try and make it sound all cosy and fluffy bunny by calling them 'tummy crunches' but don't be fooled. They burn like hell. And that is your body's way of telling you NOT TO DO THEM!

After you've finished, the gym trainer says 'Well done (fatso), don't forget your warm-down stretches.' And you go, 'Are you mad??? I'm off for a shower and a mug of hot chocolate and probably a good half packet of biscuits. And if I still feel like poop-on-a-stick, I'll have a piece of cheese on toast too.'

So I'll stick to my swimming and walking and gardening and dancing, thank you. They cause me no pain and they let me think about writing whilst I do them rather than worrying if I'm going to be sick or break my legs.

Tomorrow we are going, courtesy of our free 'Kent's Big Day Out' tickets, to the Yalding Organic Gardens. I am very excited.
'Are you excited, Andy?' I ask.
'What? Oh, er...yes,' says Andy.
I would be more convinced if he wasn't stifling a yawn at the time. But perhaps he's tired from this week's gym exertions.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Book Two

Since starting to write my latest novel - 'Indigo Antfarm, Violet and Blue' - I've had a slight niggle at the back of my mind about what I'm going to do once it's finished. Of course, I'll send it on the round of publishers and agents as I have done with 'Ginnungagaps' and 'Nearly King Jimbo' but it's the covering letter that goes with the three sample chapters and synopsis that bothers me. You're supposed to mention things like 'I have another book of a similar ilk in the pipe-line' to show your potential agent/publisher that you are not a one-trick pony and you are continuing doggedly in your chosen genre regardless of whether your latest offering will be accepted. If you can offer more of the same, you are more attractive to the publishing world.

The problem is, that I don't have a follow on for this latest project.

'Ginnungagaps' has a follow-up planned called 'The Valentine Child. ' 'Nearly King Jimbo' has many follow-ups charting the various adventures of my alternative hero and his best friend Alice- a whole library-full in fact, along with a periodical magazine and Christmas Annual Special. But 'Indigo Antfarm, Violet and Blue'? Nothing. Not a bean.

'So, Denise, what are you planning as a follow up for this strangely dark yet fascinating family saga?'
'Err, dunno. Nothing. This is it. It's all I've got. Unless you want to have a look at my two previous books.'
'Oh yes?What are they about then?'
'One's about a boy called Geronimo Jackson and his pet hampire and the other is about a Prince who loses out his kingship to a coat-stand.'
'Riiiiiiiight. Bye then.'

I think my problem stems from the fact I've never written anything like this before. It is a completely alien style to me. I was editing the first 10,000 words today and even though I had written it and knew what was going to happen next, I was thinking, this is really weird, this book. And then I wrote another 3,000 words, letting the narrative go where it would and I was thinking, perhaps I should book myself into therapy now because there is something very strange occurring with my thought processes.

Yet the feedback I've had from readers so far has been very positive and so I'll carry on. They tend to cry, which I am assured is a good thing, but still the question of a follow-up bothers me.

Until today when I was walking home from Sainsbugs, laden with two heavy shopping bags, cursing my stupidity in buying things like 3lb bags of flour, whole chickens and hefty hands of bananas when I don't have the luxury of a car to tote them home in. I glanced across the park as I began my ascent of the slight incline homeward and there was the second title. BAM! The book that will follow 'Indigo Antfarm, Violet and Blue' will be called 'White Violet.' I don't know what it will be about but that doesn't matter. I needed a title and a title I got.

And now I feel happier to continue writing as long and as fast as I can because I know there is something to carry on with after I've finished this one. I won't sit waiting for the next wave of rejection letters to drop through the letterbox because I shall already be moving forward with the next project. By receiving this title -'White Violet' -I've been told by the powers-that-be to carry on and carry one and never mind the ever-expanding rejection letter file.

I suppose this is where writing is like gardening. As soon as one thing is in and growing, there's something else waiting in the wings to carry the baton, to keep you moving forward in life, constantly planning and doing, enjoying the process and reaping the rewards for hard work (in the gardening, anyway! Ah, if only publishing contracts appeared like courgettes!!)

Writing and gardening, gardening and writing. I love it! It's a very good way to be indeed.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

You say 'Tomatoes- yuk!' and I say 'TOMATOES! YUM!' And you say 'Do we really need that many?'

The polytunnel has been ordered! It is on its way! Hurrah, because the greenhouse, 'conservatory' and Heather's bedroom window are starting to get a bit full as the seedlings grow and need potting on and take up more and more space.

I have started planning what to do with the new polytunnel. We've ordered a 12' x 10' size, this being the biggest one we can fit in the space available at the allotment. We actually measured the space properly on Sunday with a tape measure, instead of relying on our previous 'arms outstretched' method.' Where once our allotment seemed a HUGE space (especially when the weeds scored a minor victory late last summer), it now seems to be shrinking.

The polytunnel will be home to the tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. I'm going to turn the greenhouse at home over to the cucumbers so I can keep a very close eye on them this year as they have proven to be tricksy little beggars the last two years and I want to do better with them this season. You see how much my life has changed since I gave up teaching? The targets I was set in my last staff appraisal with my line manager at school were things like 'Achieve a 68% GCSE A*-C pass rate' and 'Identify underachieving boys (esp. those on the C/D border) and implement personal achievement plans for each student in order for them to reach their full potential'. And this year, my targets from my line manager meeting with myself are things like 'Grow a longer cucumber' and 'Give Jerusalem artichokes a go, they might taste better than they look.'

Of course, if my cucumbers do underachieve this year, I shall be bottom of the 'Cucumber Growing' league tables and am likely to have to go into a 'Special Measures' regime which will mean I shall be visited by a pompous cucumber consultant who will give me loads of old twaddle about how to maximise the potential of a cucumber even when they've never tried growing one themselves. Only this time, unlike teaching, I shall be able to tell the cucumber consultant to eff off and stick his advice where the sun doesn't shine!

So, here I am planning the polytunnel growing space. I think, 'I'd better check how many tomato/ peppers/ aubergine seedlings I am going to have to accommodate in our new gardening toy, bearing in mind I'll need to allocate space for a couple of deckchairs and a little table for the cucumber sandwiches and Pimms.'

Ooops!

Chilli peppers - 11 (don't listen to anyone who says 'You'll have trouble getting those to germinate'. They are WRONG!)
Sweet peppers - 7
Aubergines - 6
Tomatoes - 72

72!!!???!!! How did that happen?

'Do we really need that many tomatoes?' asks Andy. 'Especially as it's only you that likes them.'

Okay, so I may have gone a bit overboard with the tomato plants. I kind of chucked in a few extra seeds here and there just in case some of them didn't germinate. I planted 4 varieties - Moneymaker (because it was a variety favoured by my grand-dad), Tigerella (which I think are the scrummiest tomatoes EVER!), Garden Pearl ( a cherry tomato because a gardener should always eat cherry tomatoes straight from the vine) and Roma (a plum tomato so I can make passatta to store for winter and beat Sainsbugs at their tinned tomato game).

The trouble is, now I have planted, nutured and grown these little tomato seedlings, I am loathe to cull any of them. I'll find a home for each and every one of those plants even if it means taking the roof off the house, covering it with a gi-normous piece of plastic and turning the attic into 'Growing Facility Number 5.'

'Oi!' says Andy. 'Steady on there, you tomato maniac!'

And now, I'm afraid I shall have to go. I made a nice chicken 'n' sausage 'n' rice casserole thing for dinner last night which included a tin of kidney beans. And today I am having 'bloating issues'.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Late night raid and invisible ants

Before I start, I have to mention that I'm having trouble with my 'p' key at the moment, so if any 'p's' render themselves absent from today's blog, that's the reason why. I'm giving the key a good whallop as I ass it by but sometimes, when a writer is caught up in the art and insiration of the moment, it can be too easy to let one's fingers dance over the keyboard as whalloing disturbs the fine balance a creative mind needs in order to erform to their best.

To this end I shall be avoiding the mention of eas, sweet eas, ants (the ones you wear, not the ones who live in anthills) chilli eers (think about it), antomimes or omegranates as much as ossible during this blog. In fact I shall never mention omegranates in any blog on account of the fact the thought of them induces severe feelings of nausea in me. (This stems from an incident when I was ten years old involving a omegranate whilst watching an episode of 'The Duchess of Duke Street'. The carpet was never the same.)

Last night, Andy and I conducted a moonlight raid on the Eglu. During the day my attempts to capture Mrs Umhrey, I mean, Pumphrey, failed and the exertion on both our parts (mine in pursuit, hers in escape) resulted merely in making her bottom and my face even pinker than usual. I tried the usual tricks. I pretended to be a garden gnome so, when curiosity got the better of her and she came to investigate the 'new and interesting garden ornament' I could grab her with my fishing net and shove her inside my gi-normous gnome hat, but that didn't work when she saw straight through my novelty beard. I tried enticing her in for Earl Grey and Jammie Dodgers, but she said she was off all jam-related products since eating a doughnut last week and almost suffocating when she got her beak stuck in the centre. I even offered to make a new dress for her. She is due to bring out a second range of cosmetics, following the phenomenal success of her perfume, 'Poulet by Pumphrey'. She is already thinking about the advertising campaign.
'I thought, having gone down the chiffon route for the erfume, I mean perfume,' she said, 'I might try something a bit more raunchy for this product.'
'What's it called?' I asked.
'Fat Crop,' said Pumphrey. 'It's a range of facial fillers for the older chicken.'
I suggested maybe a nice twin-set and pearls would be more appropriate (my 'p' finger is going numb) to advertise a product for 'the older chicken', rather than the latex and leather catsuit Mrs P had in mind. As we spoke, I got within a finger's width of grabbing her but she took off in an artistic huff so I gave up for the day my mission to spray Mrs Pumhrey's bottom.

Andy arrived home and, after dinner, when the hens had been in bed for a couple of hours and all was quiet and dark, we crept into the garden, opened the pod and slid a dozing Mrs P from her place between Mrs Slocombe and Mrs Miggins, smuggling her indoors with barely more than a squeak or a ruffle. Quickly and quietly, we sprayed her bottom and then nipped her back outside, re-inserting her between Miggo and Slocombe before she'd barely woken.

Easy, easy (insert 'p' where applicable)!

'Ere' said Mrs Poo. 'What's that smell?'
'What smell?' said Mrs Slocombe, who was spoiling for a cold and couldn't smell a thing unless it was chips.
'It's Mrs Pumphrey,' said Mrs Miggins. 'She was here smelling like a chicken, then she disappeared for a few seconds and now she's back smelling like Johnson's Anti-Peck Spray.'
'I disappeared?' said Pumphrey, blinking sleepily.
'Yes. Not for long though. It wasn't martians,' said Miggins.
'Oh,' said Mrs Pumphrey, who thought the idea of martian kidnap rather glamorous.
'I think Denise and Andy finally caught you and gave your bare pink bottie a spray,' said Miggo. She adjusted her pale lilac sleeping mask - the elastic was pinching the feathers at the back of her neck.
'I thought my nethers felt a tad chilly,' said Pumphrey.
'Do they feel damp, too?' asked Mrs Poo.
'They do,' said Pumphrey. 'How do you know?'
'You're sitting on my foot,' said Poo. 'I wish you'd wear ants.'
'I would wear ants,' said Mrs Pumphrey. 'Only I think they'd move about too much and bite.'
'I meant pants, not ants,' said Mrs Poo, wishing Denise would get her keyboard sorted out.
'I thought wearing ants was an odd thing for even you to suggest,' said Mrs Pumphrey.

Mrs Poo wiped her damp foot on the duvet. 'Shut up and go to sleep,' she said.

Monday, 23 March 2009

A series of unfortunate events...

I don't know quite what Andy and I have done to upset the powers-that-be but a series of unfortunate events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday meant our weekend was not the calm and stress-free event it should have been. This morning, as we zombied our way around the kitchen trying to get Monday started, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd walked onto the set of 'The Haggard and Raddled Show.' (I'll let you decide who is who but I'm going to need some serious help from the old under-eye anti-wrinkle cream if I'm to go out in public and not frighten small children. And I'm fully expecting Andy to arrive home from work this evening with a dog stapled to his hand - this does happen sometimes when he is tired.)

None of the events were anyone's faults particularly, except the one involving a friendship issue in which my daughter was on the receiving end of what I can only describe a vicious, unfair and unsocial hours diatribe from her next-door neighbour. As I sat on the landing in the wee small hours (what is it with me and traumas on the landing at the moment?) trying to placate my child (who was having trouble breathing) and say the right things, all I really wanted to do was to get in the car and go and 'sort it aht' a la Eastenders style i.e yell in this woman's face and ask her how she liked it (and then probably punch her for good measure and blame it on PMT), but after I'd relayed the problem to Andy and he'd hidden the car keys, he said I'd done the right thing by staying calm and in control and this 'person' was probably only jealous of Heather's forthcoming trip to Scarborough as, and I quote, 'Scarborough is the Mecca for those who come from Yorkshire.' And Andy should know, coming from 'oop t'north' himself.

Other things happened that I shan't go into detail over but involved a sick dog, a sick cat, a sick me, a magazine subscription, a lorry that keeps parking across our driveway, an insurance policy, some rhubarb, more book rejections, contretemps at Andy's workplace and a minor fracas over the situation of a compost bin. Coupled with the fact there was bog all on the telly to distract us, it was a pretty pants weekend all around.

In fact, the only good things were the sausage sandwiches we had for tea last night and that Chris remembered Mother's Day without prompting.

So what will this week bring? I dread to think. The weather is being weird (sun, wind, hot, cold, overcast, frost, plague of frogs) and I've got to catch Mrs Pumphrey at some point today as her pink pants are slowly expanding and both she and Mrs Slocombe need spraying with anti-peck spray before the new look in short feathers goes a step too far beyond what can be deemed fashionable in this season's chicken wear. Mrs Pumhrey, for all her calm demeanour when she's roosting and dozing on the back of the garden bench, can be remarkable flighty and is the most difficult of the girls to catch hold of. I may need to buy a net. Or a copy of 'Hello' magazine. She likes a trite read with her capuccino and Hobnob.

And in a crazy moment last week I said I'd help the daughter of a friend of mine with her A level Shakespeare essay on Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra. She's got to compare and contrast the two female lead characters, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, powerful women both but with huge psychological flaws (i.e they were both nuts) which ultimately governed their Fate. Perhaps they'd had bad weekends too. And PMT. Nice hair, though, Cleo.

At least I didn't incite anyone to murder. But I'd better keep an eye on my poison asp, just in case.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Garden organics

This week, Andy bought the latest in the River Cottage publications entitled 'Veg Plot.' I like this book on many levels -1) it has a nice 'new book' smell (reminiscent of fire lighters, which, as my family knows, I've had a penchant for sniffing for many years now) 2) it feels nice to hold 3) it has pretty pictures 4) it is easy to read/ understand and 5) it looks nice sitting next to the previous 3 books we've already got in the series on making bread, jam and preserving and mushroom hunting. It is a book I wish I'd had access to when we first took over our allotment. I suspect it will become my 'veg growing bible.'

I zipped through the book in a couple of evenings and immediately on its advice, set out to buy some more seeds - borlotti beans, broccoli and chives, and companion plants for each veg group bed, namely tagetes and nasturtiums. And because of the companion planting idea i.e inter-planting flowers and/ or herbs with your crops in order to deter or distract harmful pests and bugs away from the plants you want to remain bug-free, I've started delving deeper into the aspect of organic pest control.

Of course, we have already the ultimate in bug destruction units in the forms of Missus Miggins, Slocombe, Pumphrey and Poo. Unfortunately, they also double up as the ultimate seedling destruction units. So I have started to gather together a more trustworthy armoury against the likes of slugs, snails, caterpillars and aphids. These include a squirty spray bottle for filling with soapy water (aphid annihilation), netting for the exclusion of everything from butterflies to birds and a torch, bucket and rubber gloves for twilight slug picking.

It's the slugs that bother me the most. As I gaze fondly at the seedling activity in the greenhouse, at the tiny new plants reaching up, full of hope and promise, into the warm spring air I feel sick at the thought that within a couple of hours of them being exposed to the elephants, I mean elements, to be hardened off for planting outside, they will be chewed back to pathetic stumps by slimy, characterless, prolific slugs. I made the mistake last year of picking up a slug with my bare hands and it took three hours to wash the slime off. Okay, three hours might be exaggerating the point but take my advice and NEVER, NEVER pick up a slug without protective hand gear. YUK! YUKKITY YUK YUK YUK!! Even the thought of naked slug handling makes me feel nauseous. ('It makes us feel nauseous as well,' say the slugs, 'especially after your post-shower escapade on the landing earlier this week.')

So I did intensive research into other methods of organic slug control. Copper barriers seems too expensive for a large area, beer traps seem too indulgent. Salt seems too cruel, as does chopping them in half with a pair of scissors. I settle eventually on two plans of action. Firstly, I am happy to conduct a twilight slug patrol every other day with a bucket. I will take any slugs I find home and the chickens will have a fine breakfast in the morning. I also like the idea of gritty barriers. Slugs don't like crawling over anything gritty. I expect it's because they don't wear pants. We've already got one side of the allotment protected by the gritty barrier of the gravel drive that runs alongside our plot. So all I need to do is scatter a layer of grit around my tender plants as soon as they go in the ground.

Which explains what I was doing yesterday afternoon.

Go on. Guess. Guess what I was doing. Free jar of homemade marmalade if you get it right.

I was peeling the membranes from the inside of the used eggshells I've been saving for a fortnight, placing the eggs shells on a baking tray in the sun, drying them out and then crushing them to grit-like proportions in order to create my own slug barrier medium. It was time-consuming, it was fiddly, it was quite slimey on occasion and I know EXACTLY what you are thinking. You are thinking, 'What a time-consuming, fiddly and slimey way to spend time. She needs to find a job, that Denise.'

And I would say you are right. BUT this is what I achieved from the exercise. I recycled the shells, I will feed the soil with calcium, I have got a free slug barrier and most of all, it was very pleasant to stand still for an hour or so performing a rhythmic task that didn't require any brain power. It was very therapeutic.

Will it work? I don't know. But I'm going to give it a try.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Dining Out

It's two weeks since the Executive Wormery arrived. The worms have finally given in to their Fate and are no longer trying to escape. Because Andy is convinced there are actually no worms in the Executive Wormery, I had a bit of a poke around yesterday. And there ARE worms in there! Long ones, short ones and ones as big as SNAKES!! Most impressive, I thought. Even Mrs Pumphrey would have trouble getting one of those down her throat in a single slurp. (I have to mention at this point that the hens have laid an egg each for the last 9 DAYS - that's a very impressive 3 dozen eggs in a week and two days! Top marks girls and no, you can't have a holiday in Brighton as a prize).

So today is the day the worms can start on their diet of 'proper food.'
'Thank heavens for that,' says Tiger. 'I've had about all I can take of coir and shredded newspaper.'
'I know,' says Fred, who is already sitting at the dining table, bib tucked in and knife and fork at the ready. 'There's only so much fibre a worm can cope with. I wonder what our first proper meal will be.'
'Well, the Lady of Much Malarkey Manor is very into seasonal eating,' says Tiger. Tiger has gone one step further than Fred and has hired a dinner jacket and violinist for this special occasion.
'So what's in season at the mo,' says Fred, hoping it isn't anything too fibrous or newspaper-like.
'Asparagus!' says Tiger. 'And rhubarb. And spring greens and watercress.'
'Oh,' says Fred, who was really keen for it to be chips, or corned beef hash. With maybe a jam roly-poly for pudding.
'Asparagus is lovely,' says Tiger. 'A real delicacy.'
'Doesn't it make your wee smell funny?' says Fred.
Tiger laughs. 'I hardly think so,' he says. 'Asparagus is posh food. Posh food wouldn't cause anything like that to happen.
'My aunt Penelope had some beetroot once and it turned her wee pink,' says Fred. 'Perhaps we could send out for a takeaway.'
'Certainly not!' says Tiger. 'We are here to do a job and a job we shall do. It'll be healthy kitchen scraps for us. None of that takeaway rubbish.'
'I quite like a bit of rhubarb,' says Fred. 'Especially in a crumble. And I know a good recipe for a rhubarb tray bake. You can have it either as a hot pudding or cold in your lunchbox.'
'I don't have a lunchbox,' says Tiger.
'The Lord of Much Malarkey Manor has many lunchboxes,' says Fred. 'I expect he could lend you one.
Tiger ponders his need for a lunchbox, carefully.
'Do you think he's got one shaped like a TARDIS?' he says.
'Probably,' says Fred.

Meanwhile, I am in the kitchen preparing a worm banquet. Not too much though. You have to start slowly with a small handful every other day. Is my hand a small hand, I think. I take size medium in rubber gloves. I look at the list of 'Things to Feed Your Worms.' It includes fruit, veg, coffee, teabags, bread, rice, pasta, flowers, cereals, crushed egg shells, cake, cardboard, paper and pet/human hair. I can provide ALL of these things. Except the cake. I ate the last scone in the tin for elevenses and to be honest, the worms are NEVER going to get a look-in as far as cake is concerned at Much Malarkey Manor. So I gather together a tea-bag, a bit of banana skin, an apple core, a few bread crumbs, a bit of crushed egg shell, a clump of Phoebe fur and a daffodil and give it all a good chop 'n' mix.

'Why my fur?' says Phoebe, rubbing the base of her tail.
'Because you can't run as fast as Tybalt,' I say.

I decide to leave paper and cardboard out of my concoction. I reckon they'll be fed up with paper-based products.

I present the food to the worms.
'What's this?' says Tiger.
'It's an omelette surprise,' I say.
'And the surprise is...?' asks Fred.
'That it's nothing like an omelette,' I say.
'Any asparagus?' asks Tiger, hopefully.
'You must be joking,' I say. 'It's a delicacy. I'm not going to be feeding asparagus to worms. It's bad enough that the hens get grapes.' I disappear to make myself some lunch.

'I hope her wee turns green,' says Fred.
'Me too,' says Tiger.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Cats, stoats (or possibly weasels) and a birthday newt

I shall start today's blog with a joke that amused my Auntie Pollie enormously when I told it to her yesterday...

Ahem...

'How do you tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel? A weasel is weasily spotted but a stoat is stoatally different!'

This was in response to Auntie P's revelation that she had seen a stoat, or possibly a weasel, in her garden, she wasn't sure which. I hope the joke has proved useful for identification purposes.

'I knew a weevil once,' says Tybalt. He is sitting on the chair next to me and staring really hard.
'A weevil?' I say. 'I was talking about weasels.'
'Were you? I do apologise,' says Tybalt. 'I think my hearing must be going, what with me being older and all that.'

Tybalt has been behaving very oddly this week. There has been an excess amount of door banging occuring. He has taken to sitting perilously close to the seedlings in Growing Facility Number Two (the 'conservatory'). He's been eyeing up my tray of baby basil plants as though it would make a very good cat toilet. (This thought was causing me so much angst in the middle of the night that I got up and moved the basil to the greenhouse in case Tybalt did decide to poop on my seedlings whilst I was blissfully asleep upstairs.) He's also taken to dribbling on my head in the evenings when he sits behind me on the back of the sofa.

'It's because I'm thinking of cake,' he explains. 'Thinking of cake always makes me dribble.'
'Okaaay,' I say.
There is a silence.
'You're being incredibly thick today,' says Tybalt. He jumps off the chair and stalks off, banging the cupboard-under-the-stairs door as he passes. I check my biorhythms.
'Ha!' I call after him. 'You are WRONG, Mr Smartypants! Intellectually, I'm above par today. But I am a physical and emotional wreck,' I say, only not quite so loudly.

What is bugging that cat, I think. I drift into the garden to water the plants in the greenhouse. Some runner beans are showing their shoots and the leeks are also starting to emerge. And, to my surprise, so are the sweet peas, which I was expecting to come up ages ago. I was getting to the point of thinking they were a dud packet.

And then I suddenly realise. I forgot Tybalt's birthday! It was on Saturday, the same day as Chris's. In fact, it was a deliberate move to give Tybalt the same birthday as Chris so I wouldn't forget it.

'Oh cripes!' I say.
'What?' says Mrs Miggins, who has been standing with her beak pressed up against the glass because she is desperate to get inside the greenhouse and demolish every plant she can.
I explain the situation.
'Oh,' says Miggins. 'Door banging?'
I nod.
'Threatening to knock your seed pots over?'
I nod again.
'Tut, tut, tut,' says Miggins. 'Still, never mind. He's only a cat.'
'You wouldn't like it if I forgot your birthday,' I say.
'True,' says Miggins. 'But I'm a chicken. '
As if that makes all the difference.

What do I do, I think. I have to make amends. I'll make him a cake of course. His favourite - banana and catnip with cheese and pilchard icing. I look frantically around the garden for a potential birthday gift. A jalapeno pepper seedling? A hanging basket planted with strawberry plants? An egg? Two eggs? Mrs Miggins reappears. She is holding something wriggly in her beak.
'Here,' she says, spitting the wriggly thing into my hand, 'give the cat this. He'll like it. Trust me.'
I look at the contents of my hand.
'Are you sure?' I say.
'As sure as eggs is eggs.'
'Are eggs,' I correct.
'Whatever,' says Miggins.

Inside the house, I apologise profusely to Tybalt for forgetting his birthday. I promise him a cake by lunchtime, a pool table for his bachelor pad under the stairs by the weekend and then I hand over the wriggly thing in my hand.

Tybalt looks at it. His eyes mist over. He pats it with a gentle paw.
'It's a newt,' he says. He and the newt gaze at each other. It is love at first sight. Tybalt's first pet.
'I thought you were old enough to be responsible for a pet,' I say. 'Now you are six. Or whatever that is in human years.'

Tybalt looks at me and smiles. 'I shall call him Tiny,' he says. 'Because he's my newt.'

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Advice and how to ignore it

Yesterday I went to the allotment and started digging at 8 a.m. At 10 a.m after soaking their roots, I planted the two cheapo grape vines, carefully as per instructions, which involved banging two scaffold poles a foot deep into the ground. Then I did some more digging. At 11.30 I got another blister to add to the two I got over the weekend and my digging down foot started to hurt a bit so I stopped digging and paced out the plot, marking out my three main planting areas with a mottley collection of canes and scraps of wood. (It's all precision and technicalities at Plot 87). Then I did some more digging.

At 12.15, the old geezer from the plot across the way from ours arrived and we had a blokey conversation about soft fruit and rhubarb, onions and potatoes. And the lack of toilet facilities at the allotment (although Old Geezer said he'd got a 'toilet arrangement' in his shed which ran underground into his plot, and really after that I thought there was way too much information, fascinating though it was). I mentioned that I'd ordered 3 new crowns of rhubarb from a well-known seed company and, 4 weeks on, they STILL hadn't arrived. At 1 p.m the old geezer reappeared with a crown of rhubarb from his second plot at the top end of the allotment.
'Ere you are!' he said, waving the crown at me. 'Plant that. Don't know if it'll survive. It might. It might not.'

I agreed with his gardening philosophy, thanked him for his kind donation and planted Rhubarb Two next to Rhubarb One. I sorted out my maincrop raspberry bed and made a note in my gardening diary to get some more canes to replace those that hadn't taken the previous year. (Yes, okay, I admit I have a gardening diary. Problem????) Then I checked the compost bin for dead rats and horses head but all I found was a slow-worm which was nice.

At 1.30, my body was screeching 'Go home! Now!' So I walked the mile and half home wearing my red fleece and carrying the last of the leeks. It was a very warm walk. Once home, I thought, shower first, then a spot of lunch. So I had a shower and as I was getting out, the phone rang.

Now, I knew exactly who it was on the end of that phone call. I just knew.
'Hello!' trilled Vera, from France.
'Would you like to know EXACTLY what I'm doing at this precise moment in time?' I said
'What?' said Vera.
'I am crouching, commando-style, on the landing, dripping wet with no clothes on because I've just got out of the shower,' I said. 'I can't stand up because the phone is by the landing window and I don't want to give the neighbours an eyeful.'

Vera laughed. Extensively. I don't know why, because from where I was crouching in my damp puddle on the carpet, the situation wasn't very amusing at all. I didn't like to mention that the cats were both staring at me as if to say 'When you've quite finished larking about, we need feeding...NOW!'

'I'll call back,' she said. Which she did.

After chatting to Vera about various issues to do with the technicalities of growing veg, I went to write my blog. And then, I don't know why, I had the urge to go outside because I felt SOMETHING HAD HAPPENED. And there, in the middle of the very raised bed I had just been blogging about, was Mrs Miggins.

'How did you get in there?' I said, because I couldn't see any gaps in the netting or evidence of scissors, pliers or digging equipment.
'I have no idea,' said Miggins, 'but I've had a good dig about in your freshly planted rows of seeds and I'd quite like to get out now please.'

And what I'd like to say, Vera, is that you can read all the books and magazines and listen to all the advice in the world about planting and growing seeds, but at the end of the day none of them take into account random acts of God (or in my case, chickens) and you might just as well fling things in regardless and hope for the best. That's what the Old Geezer does. And it seems to work for him.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

How to plant a raised bed...or not, as the case may be...

Here are the instructions on how to plant a new raised bed. You will need:
1) seeds appropriate for the time of year (in this case carrots, radish and lettuce
2) a digging fork
3) a trowel
4) a seed labels and a pencil
5) a bucket load of determination
6) another bucket load of patience

You WILL NOT need:
1) four hens

...but they will help anyway...

METHOD:
1) Remove one side of netting from cover on raised bed, remembering to memorise the configuration of rocks and tent pegs initiated by husband so they can be reinstated after planting in exactly the same position
2) Stand back as hens barge past you under the netting and onto the raised bed
3) Standing outside raised bed, use digging fork to agitate soil into some semblance of 'fine tilth' ready to receive seed - take care not to impale hens on fork tines as they wrestle for upturned worms and other assorted bugs
4)Remove hens from beneath netting
5) Repeat step 4. Several times.
6) Kneel down, arms akimbo, to shield entrance to raised bed from further chicken attack. Discover you've knelt in dollop of chicken poo.
7) Climb inside raised bed and close net curtain
8)Remove chicken that has crept in behind you without you noticing
9) Say 'Aha!' in loud and triumphant voice that the chickens are now outside the raised bed net and you are under the raised bed net.
10) Say 'Oh,' when you realise all your seeds for planting are also outside the raised bed net with the chickens
11) Retrieve seeds quickly.
12) Remove chicken from under netting. (This is usually the quickest, most persistent one. 'That'll be me!' says Mrs Miggins.)
13) Go into house and find apple as distraction for chickens. Cut apple into quarters. Try to put wellies back on feet using only one hand whilst holding four quarters of apple without dropping them
14) FLING apple as far away from raised bed as possible. Chickens will be unable to resist and race after the apple. You now have a very short time in which to get those seeds in the ground
15) Dash back under netting cover, make shallow seed drills, wrestle seed from packets, think 'Oh bother,' because your plant labels and pencil are still in the greenhouse, but no time to go and get them so you just grab bits of stray stick and pebbles, anything, to mark the ends of the rows you are planting
16) Remove chicken from raised bed, the one who crept in without you noticing and is now eating your radish seed straight from the packet. ('That'll be me again! says Miggins. 'Well, I just hope you don't start growing radish in your oviduct,' I say, 'because then we'll be in trouble.')
17) Cover over seed, doesn't matter how, because now you are really past caring
18) Back out of raised bed trying not to kneel in more chicken poo and replace net cover, remembering where those carefully positioned rocks and tent pegs go
19) Open up net cover to retrieve chicken trapped inside before they dig up your carefully (!) sown seed
20) Go indoors and have a cup of tea and flapjack

It's easy, really.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Crop rotation

Our crop rotation at the allotment for the last 2 years has been a bit 'random' to say the least so this year I intend to make a proper plan on paper and stick to it, especially now we have accumulated certain 'permanent features' such as the compost bins and the raspberries, gooseberries, blackberries and rhubarb. Whilst I've made sure we haven't planted the same veg in the same place for two years running, members of the 3 main groups - roots, brassicas and legumes- have found themselves flung at wide locations on the plot rather than grouped together as they should be. Andy pointed out that a lot of our problem is the amount of potatoes that we plant making the 'root' area bigger than the two areas assigned to brassicas and legumes which means we then have to lever things like cabbages and beans in wherever we can find a suitably large gap.

I agree. I also think some of it is Andy having trouble engaging with which vegetable belongs to which group and then planting stuff wherever he likes, generally when my back is turned. I could, at this point, raise the scandal of 'Cabbagegate' from last year, but as the sun is shining and Andy is great, I shan't. Plus, Andy is also eating the vegetables we grow, now I've convinced him they aren't poison, so at least he is engaging with them from that point of view.

The gardening books don't help either. Take an onion. Any onion. Look at it, put it back in the pack and shuffle it. Which group does an onion belong to? Well, you might say, it grows underground so it's a root. And yes, I fully agree with you. So plant it with the roots, you say. Pop it in with the carrots, parsnips and beetroot.

No! Apparently, onions can go in with the legumes. Well, not this year they ain't. I've already got them growing in lines next to the potatoes. But at least I can relieve the pressure of space in the root area next year by moving the onions.

Now, what about swede? Root, legume, brassica? Brassica, legume, root? 'ROOT!' you shout, 'because it grows underground and when Hugh F-W says he's going to make a hearty stew with winter vegetables, sure as eggs is eggs, he'll put swede in the pot.' (But not eggs).

WRONG! Botanically, a swede is a brassica. Ha! B****y Charles Darwin has got a lot to answer for. I reckon his pen must have slipped when he was classifying that little nugget of evolution. I bet he knew he'd mucked it up too, just couldn't be bothered to amend it. 'Oh, darn, I've misclassified the swede as a brassica instead of a root. Ah well, it'll keep the gardeners on their toes when they do their crop rotations. And Denise will never manage to grow them beyond the size of a tennis ball anyway so they don't really count unless someone invents nouvelle cuisine.'

And then you have things like lettuce, tomatoes, aubergines, squashes, courgettes, spinach and sweetcorn. You can bung them in with any group. 'Intercropping' it's called. And then SOME gardeners treat potatoes and onions as their own separate rotational elephants, I mean, elements. My plan is starting to look incredibly complicated.

But I have allocated spaces now and nothing but NOTHING is going to encroach on anything else's area. No beans creeping in with the cauliflowers, no carrots flirting with broccoli, no Andy thinking 'Those beetroot will look nice there amongst the peas.'

I bought another cheapo grapevine this morning from Wilkos. I've decided to start a line of them running along the border of the allotment we share with string girl in order to form a grape hedge. Just to complete the enclosure once and for all. Oh yes, news on string girl. According to her father, who appeared yesterday to do some half-hearted hoeing, she has gone abroad to teach privileged children in a private school. So my prediction that she wouldn't last a whole veg growing year was right! Ha!

And that is all I have to say on the subject, in case I sour my grapes.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Pirates and potatoes

Making the most of the positively Caribbean weather in Kent today, we were at the allotment by 8 this morning and coats off by ten past. Andy set to, digging trenches to plant the first early potatoes that had reached Triffid-like proportions whilst chitting in Heather's bedroom, and I disappeared up the other end of the plot to tackle ONCE AGAIN the huge mass of grape hyacinths that seem to want to take over the site every March. For the last 2 years I've been trying to get rid of the darn things but still they come back, dividing and spreading like bizarre little onions.

At one point early in the proceedings, Andy appeared up my end (oo-er missus!) to put some stuff in our newly located compost bins.

'Yeek!' Andy squealed, which I always find an odd reaction from him considering he spends a lot of his working life in situations involving poo, wee, pus, blood, guts and other unsavoury substances. Thus, I reason, the contents of a compost bin should be child's play for him.
'What's up?' I ask, pausing in my grape hyacinth onslaught.
'There's a dead rat in the compost bin,' he said and sure enough there is, on its side, very big and very dead.
'Shall we take it home and have it for lunch with a side serving of the many snails that are hibernating on the side of the compost bin?' I ask. (Hugh F-W cooked garden snails in his programme 'A Cook on the Wild Side.' The addition of rat was my idea.)
'Don't be disgusting,' says Andy.

As I ponder the dead rat and listen to Andy saying how nice it was that the rat could go somewhere warm, clean and quiet to breathe its last moments, I notice that next door's allotment, (belonging to 'plant-trees-in-an-inconsiderate-manner-string-girl. Remember?) has acquired a small flag pole on which is flying a Jolly Roger skull and crossbones. An icy chill runs through my bones.

'It's a warning,' I say, rooted to the spot with fear.
'What is?' says Andy.
'The rat. Look,' and I point to the flag.
'Meaning?' says Andy. I know what he's thinking. He's thinking, here she goes again.
'We have incurred the wrath of string girl,' I hiss. 'By moving the compost bins. It's a warning that we'd better watch our step. Or else. It's a coded message - PI-RATS!'
'No it isn't,' sighs Andy.
'Well,' I say. 'Just you wait. I bet we find a horse's head in there next time.'
Andy disappears back down his end, muttering something about sedatives and over-excitable imaginations.

When I next look up, Andy is sitting in a deck chair, watching me dig. The potatoes are planted and he's even got ahead digging a couple of trenches for the second earlies which will be ready plant in a week or two.

When I look again, Andy is tidying up the blackberry trellis, cutting back the old brambles and weaving the new shoots, sprouting with tiny green leaves into the shape of a giant heart. Which was nice.

Then I had a bit of a dig of the overgrown area recently revealed by the relocation of the compost bins. It's not as bad as it looks. We are still hesitating about whether to get a polytunnel but now I have tested the site and seen we could dig deep enough trenches to bury the edges of the polythene, I feel happier to make the purchase. Yesterday, I bought a tomato greenhouse from Wilkos (basically a green plastic tubing frame with a flimsy plastic cover. Andy liked it though. He stood inside and said how warm it was. And then I made him come out because he was starting to look like some kind of transparent Dalek.) It cost £9.99 and will house three tomato plants easily. But a polytunnel would be better.

After three hours, we head off home. It has been a good morning. Despite the Pi-Rat.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Hoppin', nettin' and campin'

Back into the garden today. With the topsoil on the raised bed warming up under the polythene it will soon be ready to sow with carrots, beetroot, cabbage 'n' stuff. But as soon as we plant anything, we know the chickens will dig it up and eat it.
'No we won't,' says Mrs Poo, her wings crossed behind her back.
'You bloomin' well will,' I say, because I know these chickens.
'Promise!' says Poo.
'A chicken's promise is like a chicken's egg,' I say.'Easily broken.'
'Oooh, hark at her,' says Miggins. 'Spouting her Kentish country sayings.'



What we needed was a net covering that would be a) chicken proof and b) not so human proof that it will deter us from weeding because it's such a faff to remove from the bed. Andy disappears into the attic this morning and returns with a tent. We're not sure if it's his tent or Chris's tent ('HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHRIS!' by the way, 23 TODAY!! P.S we may have used your tent frame to build a top for the raised bed. You might want to claim the rest of your property from the attic before we use it to make other stuff for the garden).

'I can use the tent poles to make a frame for the raised bed, and then cover it with netting,' says Andy.
'Excellent,' I say, pleased that we have managed to build this raised bed on the cheap, in the true spirit of self-sufficiency. So Andy disappears into the garden et voila! One light, moveable and chicken proof net cover for the veg bed!

'What's this then?' says Mrs Slocombe, giving the net a tug.
'They think it'll stop us digging up and eating their vegetables,' says Mrs Poo.
'They have very simple brains, don't they?' says Mrs Pumphrey.
'I'll say,' says Mrs Miggins.

Yesterday, the postman delivered the hop bines. At least, a large envelope arrived, filled with what appeared to be a big wodge of moss.
'Odd,' I think, examining the mossy pile. 'How does one tell the base from the apex of these hop bines. I don't want to be planting them upside-down.' I toy briefly with the idea of digging the required hole (one chicken depth deep by one and a half chicken widths high), chucking the tangled mess inside and making a run for it in the hope Mother Nature will sort out the ensuing mess. But then I think, I'll just have a rummage in this mossy pile and when I do, I discover that it is indeed moss and the two hop bines are snuggled up inside!

'Aha!' I go and manage to plant both bines successfully, up the right way and without them being eaten by Miggins and Poo, who were VERY persistent in their attempts to get at the emerging green shoots. Andy surrounds them (the hops, not the hens) with a chicken wire barricade. What we're hoping to do is train the hops over the swing seat and create a sleep-inducing hop bower. Apparently it will take the bines around three years to achieve their full 20 foot high potential, so we've got plenty of time to reassess the plan if necessary. Planting the bines brought to mind another old Kentish saying - 'Plant your bines on a windy day and your hair will look like a bunch of hay.'

'Is that REALLY an old Kentish saying?' asks Andy, and I give him a look of pity, much the same as he looked at me when I once thought he really WAS going to sellotape a guinea pig back together.

'What made you choose this particular variety?' asks Andy, noticing the name - Phoenix.
I give him a convoluted explanation about my experience of when I tried to order the bines on-line when my original plan had been to have one Fuggle and one Phoenix but the order page went beserk and I clicked the button for the variety 'Challenger' by mistake, and when I tried to delete it and re-order the ones I REALLY wanted and it added another one instead and everytime I tried to go back a page it just kept adding more and more hops to my order and in the end, when I had inadvertently spent over £200, I gave up and telephoned my order instead.
'Oh,' he says. 'I thought you'd chosen Phoenix because your ancient hop-growing family worked for the Phoenix Brewery.'
'Did they?' I say.
'They did,' says Andy.
'I didn't know that,' I say. So now I am convinced I have received hop-planting guidance from beyond the grave.

In the greenhouse and conservatory, the veg seedlings are coming along nicely. A single lupin has also made an appearance. I was going to plant the grape vine today, but having consulted many gardening magazines and books, all of which seem to insist I plant the thing in the greenhouse, I am holding fire until I can phone Radio Kent's gardening programme tomorrow to ask if I can grow it in a pot instead. And if they say 'No,' I shall probably still put it in a pot and to hell with the consequences.

Or it could go in what remains of the tent...

Friday, 13 March 2009

Twittering

Number of escapee worms this morning - 2
Number of days the same piece of chewing gun has been stuck to the wall of the changing cubicle I use when I go swimming -43
Number of lengths I swam this morning - 50
Time it took - 34 minutes
Number of cabbage seedlings appearing in the greenhouse - 5 billion
Number of pea seedlings - 1

Then, for a bit of variety...

What is Mrs Pumphrey doing at the moment? - sitting up the top of the garden with her head under her wing, asleep
What is Mrs Miggins doing? - prodding Mrs Pumphrey to make sure her head hasn't actually fallen off
How is 'Indigo Antfarm, Violet and Blue,' coming along? - very well, thank you for asking
What colour dress will I wear when I go to collect my Orange Prize for the above novel? - purple, probably. Or maybe burgundy.

The new thing to do is twitter. Yet another social network tool has appeared. As if Facebook, Beebo and blogging weren't enough, there is now twittering to cope with. Basically, it is a running commentary you post on-line of what you are doing at THAT PARTICULAR MOMENT IN TIME. Or NOW, if I was practising being a more economical writer.

For example, if I was on the Twitter network I would be writing something like -'Started writing my daily blog, Mrs Slocombe is making a heck of a racket in the garden so just off to check situation in case she's being attacked by a polar bear.'

And I would go off and do as I said...

...and then I would write 'Just got back from checking excessive clucking in garden. No polar bears to be seen but collected 4 eggs from nest box', because that is EXACTLY what I've just done.

And then - 'Just had a Jaffa cake. Could have been worse. Could have been a coffee and walnut muffin (saving that for later!)'

Then - 'Thinking of going to Sainsbugs to get something for dinner tonight but wondering if I ought to wait until postman has been in case he tries to deliver my rhubarb crowns and hop bines.'

Now - 'Staring at wet swimming costume that is dripping all over kitchen floor and listening to Tybalt bashing the door of the cupboard under the stairs as he goes in and out, in and out, in and out.'

I don't know about you, but isn't twittering DULL!!!!?????

I mean, I can understand the interest if you were following the twitters of a famous person, for example and you were obsessed with their every movement and need to know exactly what they are doing and when and - oh no, that's called 'stalking', isn't it?

Or I can see its policing purposes as maybe a method of tagging dubious characters - a bit like a cybertag.

But really, blow-by-blow accounts of what your average citizen is up to could make for very wearying reading. (Is 'wearying' a proper word? It looks wrong, but sounds right. Just off to check spelling now.)

So this is my first and last foray into the world of Twitter. I shall go back to writing my blog as I've always done, conveying my world in a more substantial and usefully informative way, with solid observations and opinions that I know thrill and educate those who read them(ahem!).

I wonder what Stephen Fry is up to at the moment...

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Cider with Andy

In our garden, we have an apple tree which is coming into its third year and still looks a bit like a stick. A tall stick, admittedly, for it has put on some growth, but last year it produced a grand total of 5 apples so as yet we're not self-sufficient, apple-wise. As Andy is keen to have a go at making cider this year, we needed to secure a supply of apples (you need more than 5 apples to make cider - I know, hard to believe, but true nonetheless). And our friend, Jean, who visited for dinner last week, came to the rescue, offering us as many of the apples from her two ancient trees as we can cope with.
'They'll be full of coddling moths,' she said, cheerily. 'But help yourself when they're ready.'

Now, I don't know a lot about cider-making beyond you have to cut the apples up and then squish them in a press and collect the juice. That's all right, I thought, I can cope with picking bits of moth out of the apples as we cut them up. I can handle worms after all (escapees on Tuesday - 4, escapes yesterday - 0 (hurrah!) escapees today - 2 (boo!)).
But then it transpires that it's not the parent moth I'd be picking out, but the baby larvae they produce a.k.a squishy bugs. I thought, I could get the hens to help. They like squishy bugs.
'They also like apples,' said Andy, which is true. So not only would they pick out the bugs, they would then make off with the apples, wolf them down, the excess consumption would probably ferment in their crops and explosions would occur.

'So,' I hypothesised, 'could you just leave the larvae in the apples and crush them in the press, regardless?'
'I suppose it depends how juicy a coddling moth bug is,' said Andy. 'And whether coddling moth bug juice is thin enough to seep through the sacking and mix with the apple juice.'
'Don't you know?' I said, appalled that, as a vet, he appeared not to know the viscosity of coddling moth bug juice.
'No,' he said, equally surprised that I thought he should have such knowledge when any fool knows his spare time is taken up with extending his understanding of the intricacies of Doctor Who.

Previously, we had researched the cost of cider presses. They are VERY expensive, even though the manufacturers are keen to say 'This Cider Press will last you a LIFETIME,' as a selling point. That's all well and good but Andy might not want to make cider for the rest of his life. He might give it a go this year and discover it's a lengthy, messy process with a revolting end product that is only good for stripping grease from the inside of an oven. So Andy has found a way of making his own press which involves bits of wood, a hessian sack and a car-jack.
'I shall hand craft my own press!' he declared, egged on by his work colleague, Tim, who is keen to make cider, too. (Tim also encourages Andy to play 'Consulting Room Bingo' at work in order to lighten the mood of sometimes stressful situations. Or is it Andy leading Tim astray?? Hmmm...it all sounds a bit 'Just William' to me.)

Andy has also discovered a book which tells you how to cook food inside your car engine. This time it was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall leading him astray. In his early TV show 'A Cook on the Wild Side', Hugh cooks food on the engine of his camper van.
'Why would you want to cook food inside your car engine?' I asked.'We have a perfectly good cooker at home.'
'Well, you know, if you're out and about, miles from any shops, service stations, cafes etc, and you happen to be next to a river, for example, you could hop out, catch a fish, wrap it in tin foil with a sprig of wild sorrel, pop it on your hot engine and voila! Lunch!' said Andy.
'When did you start carrying a supply of tin foil in the car?' I asked.
'I haven't,' said Andy. 'Did you know you can buy a book about cooking in your car engine?'
'No, I didn't,' I said. 'You haven't purchased this book, have you?'
'No,' said Andy, suspiciously.

I shall be looking out for strange packages from Amazon...

So, by the end of the year we may have produced the first cider for carnivores -'Cider By Andy with Added Bug Juice' . And if our car starts smelling a bit gamey, you'll know why.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Being a Writer

It's a hard old life, being a writer. All that sitting and thinking and staring, the endless games of Patience, the realisation that life is passing you by outside, so you go outside and realise how suddenly important it has become to clean out the hen house or cats' litter tray. Then you come back inside and that pile of ironing REALLY needs doing, like NOW. And before you know it, it's time to cook dinner and faff about recording the minutiae of 'Eggheads' in your special 'Eggheads' book to see if CJ de Mooi can pull an even smugger face than he did on 27th October two years ago.

Sometimes, being a writer can leave you feeling quite exhausted...

And then there are the times like yesterday morning when you wake suddenly at 5.50 with the sudden realisation that the last 5,000 words of your latest endeavour are all wrong and are thus rendered a complete waste of time BUT the real direction of the piece is buzzing around in your still sleepy brain NOW, but you know if you wait until after your morning swim or nut'n' oat breakfast cereal, the MAGNIFICENCE of the idea (whole sentences and everything) will be gone - POOF! - never to be retrieved and you know, you really, really know that those words and ideas are being given to you by a greater universal force because they are the words of a literary masterpiece that will start a bidding war and (finally) get you published. (Or at the very least, leave you feeling very satisfied with your work).

So you leap out of bed, put on your specs (generally stabbing yourself in the eye in the process), crash into the dressing table and find the pen and notebook you always keep by your bedside for such occasions, only the pen has run out so you have to go downstairs and the cats think 'Waa-hay! Breakfast time!' and they stare at you in an aggressive fashion until you've fed them and refreshed their water bowl because they couldn't possibly drink the water put there last night, it'd be too, too disgusting (what with all the cat hairs floating in it). And then the hens, through some kind of psychic chicken power, realise you're up and about and start a-clucking so you have to wade out in the rain and mud in your jim-jams and feed and water them so they don't wake up the neighbours.

You get to your writing space, desperately repeating the GREAT IDEA over and over in your mind to maintain its essence and brilliance so it doesn't escape before you can commit it to paper. You grab a pen and another notebook and scribble like fury as the words spill out faster than you can write them. And then a cat will appear and say 'Did you change our water?' and you shriek, 'Yes! I changed your *!^'@*! water,' and the cat says 'Calm down, I was only asking,' and stalks off to discuss with the other cat how tetchy these writers can be.

And all before 6.30...

So if you're thinking of being a writer, bear these things in mind - 1) Always keep 5 pens on your bedside table 2) delete Patience from your laptop 3) DO NOT keep cats or chickens 4) invest in a dictaphone 5) always listen to the Greater Universe because it always knows best.

Then when your hubbie comes home and, as you're wrestling to prise overdone sausages off the pan because you forgot to turn them because you've been so absorbed in writing your Grand Idea, you say to him, 'Here, have a read of this and see what you think,' and when you turn back there are tears in his eyes and he says that what you've written is so beautiful it has made him cry -then you know that it's all worthwhile.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Andy's Dalek footwarmer and the disappearing henhouse

Vera, mon amie en France, and I have been pals for more than twenty-one years now. During this time we've spent many an hour eating cake, drinking coffee and tea and putting the world to rights. We've shared psychic time, gossip time, writing time and OU study time. Together, we've moved on from husbands who didn't deserve us and found husbands who did (lucky Andy and Lester!). Being fire (Aries Vera) and water (Scorpio me) we've had periods of drifting apart and drawing together, like the tides of the sea, dependent upon the various crises and movement in our respective worlds. I have learnt much from my pal over the years.

And even though Vera has been en France for 9 months, and the cake we share is cybercake, we still have a good old natter on the phone once in a while and keep up with each other's lives via our blogs and e-mail.

And so it was yesterday that we chatted for nearly 2 hours about various things like livestock and digging and being writers and bees and worms and are we still heading in the right direction or are we in danger of falling off the planet? It was late afternoon and I'd just cleaned out the Eglu and finished some ironing (and believe me, those chickens can generate a lot of ironing). After sorting out the issues of the day, Vera and I bid au revoir and I sat on the stairs thinking how good it was that even when your friends are far away, the wonders of technology mean they still feel as though they are next door. And then I thought, it's getting a bit dusky outside and then I thought 'Oh, flippin' heck! The hens!' and I ran like a loon down the stairs, through the kitchen and into the back garden.

There I was met with the funniest sight ever and I wish it hadn't been too dark to take a photo because then I could have shared this funny moment with you.
'You might have thought it was funny,' says Mrs Miggins, who still, this morning, can't quite bring herself to forgive me. 'But we thought our house had vanished.'
'Yes,' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'Vanished, like an old oak table.'
'I think you mean 'varnished',' I say.
'I think you've been watching too much Blackadder,' says Mrs Poo, who understood the joke and I apologise to those of you who have never watched Blackadder and haven't a CLUE what I'm wittering on about.

You see, the Eglu pod was still in its component parts, scattered across the garden where I had left them to dry out a couple of hours before when the sun was still shining and Vera had phoned. And the sight that met me was one of the four hens standing in utter confusion at the entrance of where the Eglu pod is attached to the run, only the pod wasn't there and they didn't know what to do. I couldn't help but laugh.

It was like a bunch of ladies queueing patiently for the loo...

So I reassembled the pod, re-made the nesting box and four hens shot inside because it was way past their bed-time. There was a bit of a scuffle during which Mrs Pumphrey gained control of the nest and all four were asleep within two minutes.
'It would have been one minute if you hadn't kept us awake with your laughing,' says Mrs Slocombe. 'Look at the bags under my eyes this morning.'
'They enhance your 'crazy hen' look,' I say.
'Shut yer face,' says Mrs Slocombe, and carries on applying her undereye moisturiser.

Meanwhile, Andy is suffering with his foot. The instep, mainly, and although he hasn't actually said so, I expect it's because I made him stay at the allotment at the weekend longer than he would have liked and he is suffering from 'digger's instep.' To ease the soreness, he is using a hot water bottle. In order to maintain mobility 'twixt living room and kitchen, he puts the hot water bottle along with his foot, inside his Dalek hot water bottle cover and that way he can slop around the house like Richard III.

Unfortunately, the Dalek hot water bottle cover comes complete with sound effects which means that the last two evenings have been punctuated with repeated offerings of 'Exterminate, exterminate', 'You are an enemy of the Daleks', 'Seek, locate and annihilate,' and the Tardis taking off at regular intervals as Andy perambulates his domain. This is freaking Phoebe out. She doesn't like it one jot. Whether it's the sounds or the sight of Andy with an alien foot I'm not sure but she's currently giving him a wide berth.
'And I shall continue to do so until his Dalek foot has vanished,' she says.
'Like an old oak table?' I say, because I never know when to back down with the Blackadder jokes.
'You are so not funny,' says Phoebe.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Seedlings up and worms out

The same worm is STILL trying to escape the executive wormery. I've decided to send him for counselling as he clearly has attachment issues to his previous home. So the wormery is still being put to bed every night in a complicated configuration of bin bags and will continue to be so until said worm STAYS PUT. (Are you listening, worm? 'No I ain't,' says worm. 'And if I had hands, my fingers would be in my ears but as it is I am tra-la-la-la-la-ing very LOUDLY!')

Since becoming a worm owner, I have found I am more sensitive to the worms I see whilst out and about. Now I find I can't pass by a worm that has become stranded on a path without picking it up and returning it to the nearest grass or hedgerow. This can cause social issues if a worm is found, for example, in the middle of the High Street, outside WHSmiths. What do you do with the worm until you can find a suitable release point. Pop it in your pocket? Carry a designated worm transport facility (e.g a matchbox) around. Pop it on your shoulder, parrot-like and hope no-one notices there's a worm perched on your overcoat? Whatever you do choose to do, DO NOT carry it in your hand. You'll only find yourself handing it over with your money for your newspaper and worms are not acceptable currency for the purchase of any form of goods in this country. Plus it'll probably make the check-out girl scream and then the police will get involved, and then it's only one short step to an article in the local newspaper and a reputation as 'the weirdo worm woman.'

I fear I've also returned one or two dead worms to a greener resting place. I think, if you're going to decompose in public, it's much nicer to do it on a spot of grass then on a slab of boiling concrete...

On a lighter note, I checked the greenhouse and propagator this morning and SEEDLINGS HAVE APPEARED! We have 3 cherry tomatoes, one ordinary tomato, three aubergines, some mixed salad leaves and a lone pea racing ahead on the germination front. This means I have to activate 'Growing Facility Number Three', i.e Heather's bedroom. The propagator seedlings will now go onto her windowsill which is light but not too warm and sunny, and this should prevent the seedlings becoming too spindly as they unfurl a few more sets of leaves. And this also frees up room for me to get cucumber and courgette seedlings going. (Not that courgette seedlings need much help in getting going. I reckon it'd take a nuclear explosion to prevent a courgette from growing -and then I wouldn't be at all surprised, after the mushroom cloud has settled, to find a stoical courgette amongst the rubble, steaming lightly and trying it's darndest to turn into a marrow.)

And whilst I was in Wilkos this morning getting some washing up liquid, I found a grapevine! It was only £3 and of indeterminate variety(other than 'Red Grape') but it had two little green leaves sprouting from the top of its twig and I thought I really ought to rescue it and give it a fighting chance, so I did. I'd quite like to plant it in the back garden, although it'd be safer from chicken molestation at the allotment.

Yesterday at the allotment, we relocated compost bin number two and are only a little gap short of completing a thoroughly satisfactory barrier between ourselves and the 'string girl' allotment. I dug over another hefty patch of ground, planted more onions and some shallots and Andy dug up some strawberry runners to bring home and pot up for the greenhouse and (hopefully) some early strawberries. We harvested the last of our tennis ball swedes, the pathetic efforts of the broccoli (although it tasted lovely), and some leeks. And then Andy begged to come home.

And so 'Growing Season '09' is well underway. A 'big circle of life' moment. Only without the lions. And Elton John.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Wormitz

Bring on the cow, that's what I say! Now I've spent a weekend as an official wormkeeper, I can safely say that management of any other form of livestock will hold no fear for me. Blimey, you wouldn't think a bunch of worms would be so tricksy to handle, would you? Aside from the fact they are a bit on the slippy side, they can't half shift when they want to i.e when they are trying to escape an alien environment.

The worms land via ParcelForce Friday lunchtime.
'What's this then?' asks the ParcelForce man as he waits for me to sign for my consignment on one of those stupid electronic signing consul thingies using an electronic pencil that ruins your handwriting.
'It's a wormery,' I say.
'A what?' he says
'A wormery.'
ParcelForce man looks at me as though I'm speaking Russian.
'For composting,' I say.
ParcelForce man smiles and seems oddly relieved
'I didn't think you seemed the type to go fishing,' he says. Good, I think, because I am not sure a bristly beard and yellow sou'wester would suit me.

Inside the kitchen I open my parcel. Tybalt helps.
'What's this then?' he says.
'Worms,' I say. 'For composting.'
'I see,' says Tybalt. By now he is already inside the executive wormery having a look around. 'There appears to be a tap,' he says. 'And a black sponge and a white bag.'
'The tap is for the sump to drain off liquid plant food,' I say. 'And the black sponge is coir for the worms to sleep on. I have to put it in a bucket with 3 litres of warm water and wait a couple of hours for it to expand so I can crumble it up. And the white bag is full of worms so DO NOT OPEN IT!'
'Seems like a lot of aggro for a few worms,' says Tybalt.
'You're not jealous are you?' I ask.
'Moi? Jealous of a worm? I think not,' says Tybalt, and he stalks off to do a spot of chicken watching.

Phoebe has been watching proceedings from a chair.
'What's the point of worms then?' she asks. She hasn't helped to undo the parcel because that would involve getting up and moving about.
'They will produce vermicompost,' I say. 'Which is excellent for the garden. Much better than cat poo,' I add, in a dark reference to the neighbourhood cats who are thrilled I am digging up the front garden for the bees because it makes a rather convenient toilet facility for them.

Three hours later I have crumbled the coir, inserted the sump tap, trimmed the mesh, soaked and shredded some newspaper and retrieved some compost from the garden to add to the coir (apparently this will help the worms to settle into their new home. Something to do with bacteria which sounds too gross for words).

'What would help me settle in would be a 42" flatscreen telly, Twiglets and a six pack of lager,' says Fred.
'A surround sound music system would be nice,' says Tiger. 'And one of those cocktail cabinets that looks like a globe.'
'We've got what appears to be dirt and torn up soggy newspaper,' says Fred.
'I think,' sighs Tiger,' this is the shape of things to come.'

At bed-time, Andy and I wrestle the wormery into binbags. This is a safety precaution in case any of the worms try to escape overnight. Apparently, you can leave a light on, too, as worms move away from light so are less inclined to leave their home.
'It's like the first night the hens arrived isn't it?' I say. 'When we had to put a torch inside the eglu to encourage Mrs Miggins and Mrs Bennett to go inside. We were up until one in the morning waiting for them to catch on to the idea, weren't we?'
'I do,' says Andy. 'But this seems to work on the opposite principle.' He's such a scientist, my Andy.
'I can't really see how they can get out anyway,' I say. The wormery seems very wormtight and I have installed the fine green mesh as instructed.
'And worms have very tiny brains, if brains at all,' says Andy.
'Did you hear that, Tiger?' says Fred. 'They think we're thick.'
'I'm already fashioning a rope ladder from the long fibres of this coir bedding,' says Tiger. 'We'll show them!'

On removing the wormery from the bin bags on Saturday morning, I discover one escapee. I give the escapee a stern talking to.
'Stay put,' I say.
'Make me,' says worm, so I bury him under a pile of damp newspaper.
And then I discover another escapee on the floor of the conservatory. So then I have to empty the conservatory in case there has been a mass exodus of worms. There hasn't, thank heavens.

And this morning there was, again, a single worm outside the wormery but inside the bin bags. I reckon it's the same worm.
'How can you tell?' asks Andy, as I return the now persistent escapee to barracks.
'He's got that look on his face,' I say.
'What look?'
'The look of a renegade,' I say. 'We'll have to watch this one. He's going to be trouble.'

Friday, 6 March 2009

The Arrival of the Worms

'Dark in here, innit?'
'Who said that? Get back. I'm armed you know.'
'No you ain't. You're a worm. Worms don't have arms.'
'My spittle it laced with a deadly venom. I'm warning you. Come any closer and you'll get it in the eye. Who are you anyway?'
'Fred. No need to get all spitty. I was only trying to be friendly.'
'Fred Worm?'
'S'right. You gotta name or shall I call you grumpy git-face?'
'Tiger. My name's Tiger.'
'Oh. Like that golf bloke?'
'Yes. My parents were keen golfers. Mum wanted to call me Seve after Ballesteros only Dad said it sounded too much like a pot of marmalade.'
'Yeah, yeah. So, where do you think we're headed? Now we've had our call up papers?'

Somewhere amid the writhing mass of four hundred and ninety eight similar worms, a friendship is born. A friendship that will last for years to come, through thick and thin, banana skins and potato peelings, coffee grounds and chicken poop. A friendship that will traverse time and space and boldly go where no worm has gone before. A friendship that...

'What's that, Tiger?'
'I think it's a voice-over. And the music is from either Star Trek or Star Wars or Ready, Steady Cook. I'm not sure, I always get confused.'
'I can play the Star Wars theme tune on my stylophone.'
'Really? That's very impressive.'
''Course, a stylophone is the ideal instrument for a worm. That or a tambourine. I'll teach you when we get to our base, if you like.'
'Thanks. I'd like that. Sorry about the spitting thing earlier.'
'No worries Tiger mate. I 'spect I made you jump a bit, goosing you like that in the dark.'
'Just a bit.'
'Only I thought you were Delilah.'
'Delilah?'
'Yeah. My girlfriend. Well, fiancee really. I bought her a ring but it was a couple of sizes too big and she kept sliding through it.'
'I have the same problem with trouser belts. That's why I'm a fan of braces.'
'Wise man. So, where do you think we're going?'

They didn't know where they were headed, these warrior worms, this band of brothers. Mostly because the ParcelForce tracking system wasn't logging their movements and estimated time of arrival as effectively as the website suggested. But they knew they were heading south somewhere, to do work of an important and vital matter. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, was to save Planet Backgarden. And if they didn't accept it, Denise would be asking for her money back toute suite.

'There it goes again. The italics and the music.'
'I hope it stops soon. It's getting on my nerves.'
'Do worms have nerves, Tiger?'
'Ever been got at by a bird, Fred?'
'Can't say I have, Tiger.'
'Well, my Aunt Maudeline was once. Six inches of prime pink worm she used to be until one day she became the victim of a vicious attack by a thrush. A frantic tug-o-war ensued. It was horrible. She hung onto the ground, the thrush hung onto her welly. Back and forth they went for, oh, at least a minute...'
'Oh my lordy lord. What happened?Did she survive?'
'Just, Fred, just. Looks like a string of spaghetti now and if she stands sideways on she all but disappears. And she said it was the worst pain ever. Nerves are shot to threads, they are. Shot to threads.'
'Well, I hope there aren't any birds where we're going.'
'Me too. Especially not chickens. Swallow you whole soon as look at you, so I've heard.'

And so their journey continued south. South to the World of Executive Wormery, to the Garden of Mud and the Bed that is Raised. Their life will be fraught with danger from the Birds with Gobby Beaks ('Oi!' says Miggins. 'Less of the gobby and more of the refined, if you don't mind.') but enriched with mucho mucko from the Kitchen of Cake.

'So we're going south then, Tiger?'
'Sounds like it. Although I wouldn't believe everything the voice-over says, if I were you.'
'But you ain't, are you?'
'What?'
'Me.'
'No, Fred. I'm not. That would be just too weird.'
'But south is good, isn't it?'
'Yes. Ah, Portugal! Golden sands and clear azure seas canopied with a sapphire blue sky as clear as the crystal in my mother's chandelier. I can't wait.'
'Your mum has a chandelier?'
'Of course. Doesn't yours?'
'Nah. I've only just got her to put a lightbulb in her standard lamp.'
'What's that?'
'A standard lamp?'
'No, you numpty! That noise! We've stopped! We've arrived! I can hear voices!'
'Is this Portugal? It doesn't feel very warm. I can't see no azure skies, either.'
'Shut up Fred.'
'Okay, grumpy git-face.'