A novice's guide to producing his own food


Getting hopeful

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Spring. I know it’s not here yet, but I’m starting to sense signs of it in the air. All that promise of great things to come makes me so impatient. So last weekend, when the sun was winter bright but there was some heat, I sneaked off down to the apiary hoping to see evidence that spring was around the corner.

Sure enough, the bees were flying (despite the thermometer only registering 7C). Peppered around the hives were substantial clumps of snowdrops — and my bees were exploring.

I couldn’t wait to check each hive. Just quickly lift off the roof and peak inside to see if bees are still there. The first one was OK. So was the second. And the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth. All my colonies were hanging in there. So far none have died. Could I possibly make it through winter without losing a single colony? It seemed almost too good to be true that I tried not to think about it too much.

Everything on that day was as well as I could hope it to be. Plus it was just so nice to see the bees out flying that I spent an hour or so just watching them, pleased that they were able to get out and do what they like to do. Most were on “clearing flights” (doing a crap), but some were actually returning with pollen. Bright orange from the nearby snowdrops.

When bees collect pollen that usually means there’s a queen laying eggs. I could just picture her slowly getting into gear, squirting out more and more eggs each day. It’s another sign that my hives might be turning a seasonal corner.

After a while, I happily trotted off to inspect the clumps of snowdrops. At first they looked devoid of bees, but once you focused in  you could see them feeding and collecting nectar. A lovely sight after all those long months of them huddled in a ball to conserve heat, barely able to move.

But it’s too tempting to get complacent. I reminded myself over and over again that March is the month when most colonies die due to starvation. I must remain vigilant. When I hefted the hives, they all still seemed reasonably heavy with stores, and most had plenty of fondant icing as well. That’s good. But it’s important I keep a close eye on things at this stage, and constantly check for starvation. Then, when temperature rises above 10C, the bees can really fly — and the fun begins.




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Here’s to new venture

39 bottles from a kit that was supposed to only make 36. Oh, well

39 bottles from a kit that was supposed to only make 36. Oh, well

Here at we like to start a new venture each year. We’ll keep adding stuff until we burst (which is soon). So what’s it to be in 2015? Buying a boat and catching our own fish? Growing a field of wheat? Although both (and, in particular, the first option) are things I want to do eventually, I’d thought I’d stick to something simpler and cheaper — home brewing.

I must admit, it has fascinated me for a while. I do like something that’s quite esoteric and takes knowledge beyond the ken of “normal” people (Call me a snob, if you like, but I prefer the term “elitist”).

The reason I’ve put it off for a while is two-fold: 1. the cost of equipment seems ridiculous (£60 for a bucket and a few bits) 2. Sue said the process would smell. Well, she’s no longer living in this house, so what does that matter?

The cost factor was overcome when I visited my local Original Factory Shop (also, a great place for wild bird seed). They had Kilner home-brew starting kits at £20, reduced from £60. At that time  I was counting pennies, but I realised I wouldn’t get a better offer than that. I needed to get bottles as well. However, I was delighted to see that Tesco had 25% off all their homebbrew equipment. So I got 96 plastic PET bottles for under £25. A bargain. Total outlay: £45.

The reason for so many bottles is that can have half fermenting away, while the other half is ready to drink. A constant supply of cheap beer!

I decided that before I go down the route of growing my own hops etc, I thought I’d better start simple — with a kit. One that caught my eye was St Peter’s Golden Ale. Unlike a lot of kits, you can actually buy the real deal, all bottled and ready to drink, from your supermarket. And it’s pretty good. At £23 for 36 pints (Lakeland), it wasn’t the cheapest or the strongest, but it had the potential to be tasty, which, when all is said and done, is more important than strength.

Following the instructions was easy-peasy, and within  a few days I had 39 half-litre bottles. The kit said it would make 36 PINTS. A pint is just over a half-litre, so that explains the discrepancy. Besides, I didn’t fully fill each bottle due to a fear of explosions.

Now all I need to do is wait. The instructions on the box says two weeks, but some folk on the home brew forums (whom I feel I should make my buddies) say give it six weeks.

I’ll let you know.


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Fowl play in the chicken coop

All gone to the coop in the sky

All gone to the coop in the sky

The hens were the big upset of last year. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t stop them falling sick and dying.

I bought eight hens in 2013, and lost three that year. Then at the start of the following spring I was given another two by a fellow allotment holder, bring the numbers up to seven.

But the new year didn’t stop them going beak-up at almost regular intervals. I tried everything I could think of: cleaning the run more often, changing the water more frequently, spraying for red mite regularly, but to no avail. Perhaps, I began to fear, I was just rubbish at looking after them.

But worse was to come: whereas previous chicken deaths were protracted affairs with sickly looking beasts acting under the weather for several days before dying, by the summer I was going into the coop to find them suddenly dead. No warning.

With only three left, I decided I had to get to the bottom of this for once and for all. I took the corpse of the most recently departed to the vets to find the cause. They directed me to a department of Scotland’s Rural College in Perth where they perform animal autopsies.

After a week, I got a phone call. “Your chickens have been dying from Marek’s Disease,” said the vet. I’d heard of this, but knew next to nothing about it. “It’s related to the herpes virus, and hens catch it when they are a few weeks old. It has a slow incubation period, and they start to die after two years.” A few weeks old! To be honest, I was completely relieved at this sudden turn. None of this was my fault after all. The infection occurred before I got them. There is a vaccination against Marek’s, but many smaller breeders don’t use it, because it can only be purchased in batches of 100 doses.

Basically, it meant I bought hens that were already infected with a killer disease. I got them “second-hand” from a guy who was as much of a novice as me, and I suspect he wasn’t aware they hadn’t been vaccinated either.

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