Feeding our feathered friends in winter

The arrival of ‘proper’ winter weather has seen the usual flurry of wild bird activity in our garden. I see robins fluffed up like pompoms and black birds looking huge – thank goodness they have such great insulation in their feathers. But it’s important we look after our garden birds throughout the winter months, especially now as so many of them are under threat.

Garden birds need extra nourishment to keep them warm, just as we do and, as I know you are all so keen on cooking and ‘making’, I thought you’d love to have a go at making your own winter bird feeders!

All you need is vegetable suet, or lard, bird seed mix and empty yogurt pots.

Mix one part suet to two parts seed, transfer to a saucepan and gently heat until the fat melts.

Next, make a small hole in the bottom of each pot and thread some twine through to tie the feeder to a tree branch. Pour the mixture into the pots – do this on a tray or baking sheet so if any fat leaks through the hole it won’t damage anything. Set overnight in the fridge, then simply remove the pot and hang up outside.

Don’t forget their water in winter. I keep a stock of old plastic post and cartons from packaging that I fill with water and weight down with a stone to ensure they always have fresh unfrozen water.

Finally, hygiene is very important – when a large number of birds are attracted into an area to feed, the danger of disease increases. Prevention is always better than a cure, and is the best thing you can do to help the birds.

The RSPB has lots of useful information about bird feeding and advice on how to keep everything clean. Click here to find out what they suggest

http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/helpingbirds/feeding/hygiene.aspx

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Scenting pinecones

Now is definitely one of my favourite times of year for scavenging and trawling the local paths and woods. Pine cones are of IMMENSE use to a crafter and can be used so many different ways, but my particular favourite is to use them as a Christmas pot pourri.

The fibrous material that makes up a pine cone is also, fortuitously, really good at retaining scents. So I capitalise on this ability and have a lovely big basket or bowl of pine cones near the open fire, or around in the kitchen throughout the dark wintery season.

The first and most important task is to dry out the pine cones – take great care as small bugs seem to lurk and these need to be removed. Start by shaking each cone well, outside on a sheet of newspaper. Tap it and give it a good shake – some people wash them in a very dilute bleach solution, again to eradicate any bugs – I usually just shake them a bit and then the drying process sorts out bugs as you will see. However the bleaching technique can be used to vary the colours of the cones in your collection if you’d like some lighter ones.

Once you are happy they are well shaken, bring them indoors and arrange on a wire cake rack, over a baking sheet and put in a very low oven (sort of thing that would be perfect for an Aga if you have one!) and leave for 4-5 hours. This should dry them nicely – if they were sopping wet then you might need a little longer – just check them and see.

Then decide what fragrance you want – either a bought pot pourri oil (like a refresher oil) or your own mixture of essential oils. Drop some oil onto each cone, stick them in a sealable plastic bag and leave for 24 hours or more. Then bring out of the bag and arrange in your chosen container. The scent can then be topped up by dropping oil onto the cones and shuffling them around in their container.

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Preserving’s just perfect!

I adore chutneys and jams, probably due to being brought up on them – my Mother, Diana, is a demon preserver!

Well, it’s certainly been a bumper year for green tomatoes… as they have resolutely refused to ripen in the dismal wet summer we have just endured. So, what better way to use up produce than to make hot and spicy chutneys to see you through the winter months?

Below are two really tasty chutneys for you to try – and they are really straightforward to make. If you’re new to preserving, it can seem a bit daunting, but really, it’s not!

Here are some useful preserving hints and tips to get you started…

  • Jars – Make sure you use sterilised Jars and lids, wash in hot soapy water, rinse and put on a baking tray and put in and warm oven (140ºC) and make sure your jars are completely dry before filling. Also make sure there are no chips/cracks in Jars. You can also sterilise all jars and bottles in a dishwasher.
  • Vinegar – When making chutney and preserving it is important to use a vinegar with 5% acidity and above. Malt, white, cider, red or white wine vinegars can all be used.
  • Equipment – When preserving I like to use different pans and wooden spoons, one for Jams and one for chutneys, this avoids cross contamination of flavours. A slotted spoon is useful for taking the scum off the top while cooking. A thermometer is handy for jams, but not essential. The most useful bit of equipment I have when making jams and chutneys is a funnel to fill the jars – it avoids drips and ending up with worktops covered in jam and chutney!
  • Produce – Make sure that when you prepare your fruit or vegetable for preserving you use only the good fruit and veg and ensure that they have been washed.
  • Sugar – When making jams you will need preserving or jam sugar – it has extra pectin in it to make it set, you can buy this from any good supermarket.
  • Storage – Once jams are made they can be used straight away and can be stored in a dark cupboard for up to 12 months. Once opened, they can be stored in the fridge for about one month. When making chutney it is best to keep it in a dark cupboard for at least a month before opening, to let the flavours develop. Once opened keep in the fridge. Unopened chutney can be kept in a cool, dark cupboard for several years providing they were packed into properly sterilised Jars.

If you’re an ‘old hand’ as this preserving game… why not share some of your own hints and tips?

Spicy Tomato Chutney

This makes about six standard sized jars

  • 1kg (2.2lbs) chopped tomatoes (red, green or mixture)
  • 2 onions peeled and chopped
  • 200g (7oz) raisins
  • 200g (7oz) caster sugar
  • 6 chillies (red, green, purple or mixture) deseeded and chopped
  • 2tsp mustard seeds
  • 2tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1tsp salt
  • 1stp ground ginger
  • 500ml malt vinegar

Put all ingredients into a large pan and cook for about 3 hrs.

The amount of chillies can be reduced or increased depending on how hot you like it. 

Tomato and Apple Chutney

This makes about six standard sized jars

  • 1kg cooking apples
  • 1kg tomatoes (red, green or a mixture)
  • 500ml (18fl oz) vinegar (malt, cider or white)
  • 500g (Ilb) onions peeled and sliced
  • 250g (8oz) dried fruit (raisins, apricots etc.)
  • 500g (1lb) soft brown sugar
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp mustard powder
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • 1tsp salt 

Put all the ingredients in a large pan and cook for 2-3hrs, stirring occasionally. Put in to sterilised Jars and keep for about one month in a dark cupboard before opening, keep in fridge once opened.

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Remember, remember the 5th November…

… gunpowder, treason and plot! Ah, the smell of bonfires, gunpowder – we had many wonderful family parties on Guy Fawkes night when I was a child.

My parents always had their respective jobs – Father would disappear purposefully down to the bottom of the garden wearing his gardening jacket, “Come along John dear, the nights are drawing in, don’t forget your scarf”. Meanwhile, my Mother would have spent hours in the kitchen cooking up a ‘feast’ that invariably consisted of jacket potatoes, sausages, occasionally baked beans with apple pie and cream for pudding.

We children would all be trying hard not to get over excited (not sure one can ever be over excited – just more excited than usual maybe!) and would restlessly tackle puzzles, or try and read books and keep busy – anything to make the time go faster until it was dark enough for the fun to begin.

I must have been about 12, the year of the disaster. As was tradition, we had all moved to the end of the garden where a small bonfire glowed and the Black & Decker workmate had been turned into a table, where the box of fireworks was laid out in readiness for the ‘grand display’.

We could never afford many fireworks, I think I remember about £2-£3 being the family budget. This would have been spent on carefully chosen favourites – sparklers, Catherine wheels, Roman candles… one called a chrysanthemum I remember and, inevitably, in that selection were the dire and dreaded jumping jacks… how I hated them!

This particular year we were huddled round the small bonfire, eagerly anticipating the first Roman candle… my father struck a match with a flourish – and a spark leapt into the box of waiting fireworks sitting on the trusty workmate. We were treated to an amazing, if somewhat scary display of jumping, shooting, whizzing fiery noisiness for about one minute … and that was that! The whole box was gone in a single flash.

Ah sad memories, the over 40s were inconsolable, the children thought it was hilarious if a bit short lived and we have teased my father with the story ever since. But they were happy and simple times, when a sparkler and a jacket potato were really all you needed – my precious memories of 5th November.

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Hedgehogs, frogs and (non) barking dogs!

I think we’d all agree that, in weather terms, it’s been a bit of an odd year. This in turn has made a big impact on the flora and fauna in our gardens.

I’d just been listening to a friend bemoaning her lack of peas and broad beans this year – almost all eaten by Jays, something she had never witnessed before – and I suddenly thought (as you do!) – hedgehogs!

Hedgehogs have always been regular visitors in our garden – I’d spot them toddling across the lawn just at it turned dimpsy, as we say in Devon – or dusk to the rest of you.  But this year I haven’t seen any.

Predictably, Wellington, our slightly mad cocker spaniel, would always enjoy a good bark at any passing hedgehog, but not this year. And that seems very strange as we’ve had so many slugs and snails which hedgehogs adore.

And so, I started thinking about all the other things that have been strange in 2012…

I haven’t noticed many frogs or toads. These usually make their way into the garden via the stream. Despite the months of rain from April onwards, and the generous supply of slugs to feed on I haven’t seen a single one. Perhaps the hedgehogs and frogs have more food than they know what to do with closer to home, so haven’t needed to look further afield. Have others gardeners among you noticed this, or is it just me?

On the other hand, we seem to be inundated with woodpigeons, squirrels and magpies all of which are hugely destructive in different ways. Jays being members of the crow family, as are magpies, have been much more prevalent probably accounting for my friend’s vegetable losses.

If you feel like helping out some of our smaller garden inhabitants, you could try building piles of sticks and leaves at the back of borders for them to use for winter shelter. Nothing complex, just welcoming homes made from natural materials, something a hedgehog would find very cosy.

And, finally, as Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night loom, if you are having a bonfire do please restack the heap on the day of the bonfire on a fresh site to ensure no wildlife has crawled in and taken up residence.

 

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