Saturday, 6 January 2007

Chillies, Chicks and Cloches

Chooks (the Hungarian word for ‘hens’, apparently, but now the Australian vernacular for chickens) are an integral part of the Aussie backyard veggie patch, even if they do occasionally escape and savage my lettuces or scratch their way through the latest seedlings in search of worms and other mobile protein.
Old hens wear out, stop laying or get too stroppy to put up with, and so the start of spring normally gives me a chance to start all over again. One of the hens – normally the one at the bottom of the pecking order – has a rush of hormones to the head, followed by a long miserable period of sitting broodily over a pile of eggs that grows daily. I once found a hen sitting on a landslide of eggs three deep; finally I tracked the source to her bigger sisters, who take the attitude of "Move over! – Here’s another one of mine for you to hatch", and will peck the broody off the nest until they’ve made their daily donation.
Of course, this all happens regardless of whether the said hen or her sisters have had the attentions of a rooster or not. As in our case, the attentions fall into the NOT category. This is all thanks to another larger hen next door, who’s been complaining about everything on our side of the fence since she moved into her new unit. She regularly forced the council rooster inspector to give us a call, resulting in ritual beheadings and cock-au-vin.
So this year, we wandered off to some place in the hills and came back with 14 eggs ($3 each) of that wonderful Australian purebred hen, the Australorp (big, black, round and meaty, docile and lays eggs). 9 of these hatched and survived the early childhood disease coccidiosis, and are looked after wonderfully by the young hen that hatched them. This little flock wanders all over the property where the other hens and lettuces aren’t; if they come together, the old girls will go on the attack.
Of these nine, five are likely to be males, and will join their grandfathers in the pot. I enclose a photo.
So that brings me to the cloches…
These are made from bird wire, wire mesh and plaster edgings; I learnt the trick from a couple of old fellows down the road. These can be carried about and placed over new seed beds or seedlings, even in the middle of the chicken run. They keep the blackbirds out too.
Then I’ve made a bigger version of these, covered in shade cloth (photo enclosed). I use this in summer over the young lettuce seedlings to allow them time to get on their feet after transplanting, when roots are thin and leaves tend to wilt and die due water stress when the sun comes up the next day. Or I just throw an old blanket over a smaller cloche, to get the same effect.
OK, so the only way chillies get into this story is that they also start with the letter C, and I’ve been recovering seeds this past week from the ones I’d put aside back in autumn. There’s an old Italian bloke with a house down on Kensington Road, who caters for the passing trade by selling them all manner of chillies in pots, which he must raise in a glass house in the dead of winter. Last year, I brought 9 different chilli varieties from him, and claimed the money back from my wife as my Christmas present. (He must have been doing all right, as I gave him a $100 note in payment, and he pulled out the biggest wad of money I’ve ever seen, just to get me a few dollars change).
Anyway, I’ll not be seeing him again, as I’ve got seeds from all of them; Metano, Perk, Serano, Birds Eye, Orient, Hungarian, Habenero, Manzana and Scotch Bonnett. I’ve also got some Thai chilli seeds, but lack my very favourite; Purple Tigers. Anyone want to trade?
There is no point to this little homily, but if there were, it would be this; when shelling chillies, wear leather gloves and use 2m tongs! The slightest touch to the inside of some of these chillies, transferred to the face when wiping ones nose, can cause half hour of the most exquisite agony. Not the better part of a pleasant day in the veggie patch…

Check the photos link to see Andrew's cute little chicks etc

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