ISSUE 77  |  Summerhouse Gardens

School’s Out: Three Kids, 11 Baby Chicks, and a Garden in Bloom

June 16, 2013 4:00 PM

BY Clemmie Hambro

To Hatherleigh poultry market we went (a rather spur of the moment decision that one tends to make during a mid-term break with three children knocking about the house). My chicken situation has verged on unsatisfactory of late, and it was time to remedy the situation.

I am absolutely obsessed with my chickens. There is nothing in my life that gives me more pleasure than watching them, calling them to the door, keeping an eye on their various spots, and–most of all–eating a freshly picked egg with a yolk the color of sunset. I love saving up my leftovers for them to eat. I love having a little snuggle and a chat. They are like enormous, ginger cats. However, they are now all ancient. I am basically runnig a geriatric home for Buff Orpingtons. The characters are fully rounded but the eggs are sparse. And I really love eggs.

Photographs by Clemmie Hambro except where noted.

Above: Photograph by Joanna Filer-Cooper via Flickr.

So off to Hatherleigh we went. Hatherleigh market, situated in mid-Devon, is a very old-fashioned auction with practically every feathered type of creature you have ever seen, as well as the odd rabbit, pecking about in cages as a large burly gentleman calls out prices in an entirely unintelligible way.

Above: Pekin chicks; photograph by Scarlett 1976 via Flickr.

People are wandering about with ducks under their arms, and in a blind panic of bidding you are coming home with three Light Sussex young point-of-lay hens and 11 (the label said eight but it turned out to be 11. Oh yes.) tiny baby pekin chicks in a color known as Mille Fleur. Literally the chicest mini chicken you have ever laid your eyes on. The children were thrilled.

Back home. And now the process of integrating the Light Sussex hens with the clutch of craggy old Buff Orpingtons begins. And it is not pleasant.  Anyone with hens will know that the pecking order in the coup is straight out of Lord of the Flies.  They peck and push and bully and stomp and squawk at each other.  

Above: Billy the cockerel, or Sir Buff Orpington as he is also known, is meekly watching on while these terrible old women stop the young interlopers getting any food and getting into the hen house to roost.  I tell you, it’s a jungle out there in my garden.

The other reason to keep chickens roaming free in your garden is that they are terrific at slug control.  A slug to a chicken is like a delicious bit of smoked salmon or a glass of champagne.  Delicious.  

They do peck around in your borders and can cause a bit of damage, but it tends to be all surface stuff – mostly where they have scratched around and disturbed the soil (and by disturbed, I mean turfed a nice chicken-size hole out where they have then sat and sunbathed for three hours).  But in my experience they don’t eat the plants, but they do tuck into those pesky slugs, which in North Devon at least are more than plentiful and cause heartbreaking damage.  Last year a wet summer with epidemic levels of slugs combined with deer getting in and eating the tops off all my lovely roses caused near devastation to nearly all flowers and vegetables.  I practically had to be admitted.

Above: Geum; photograph via Contemporary Garden Design.

After a freezing cold May the garden had been a bit reluctant to get going.  However, a rare uninterrupted warm patch kick started things, and it is looking positively radiant.  My top plant at the moment is the Geum, which pops up looking so unbelievably cheery that it is a crime not to have a few in your garden.  I have a few colors ranging from red to orange to yellow.  But it has to be the rich burnt orange ones that are my top choice.  They flower reliably and for ages, they make fantastic cut flowers and weave in and out of other plants in a very pretty manner.  I have planted the orange ones among acid green Euphorbia palustris and Nepeta “˜Six Hills Giant’ and Salvia caradonna, and they just zing and sing at me for months at a time.

Above: In another part of the garden we have the alliums and camassias doing their thing.  This corresponds with the blooming of Alchemilla mollis and nepeta under an avenue of hawthorn trees, the popping of poppies and the limey-white balls of Viburnum opulus (which is one of my favourite flowering shrubs with its various incarnations from white pom poms to blood red berries throughout the season)  But most of all, in the sunshine, everyone is in a good mood – playing outside for hours, digging, exploring, splashing in paddling pools and not a whine for the TV to be heard. Yes, when the sun does finally decide to shine, it brings a tiny bit of heaven with it. 

For more of Clemmie Hambro’s gardening adventures, see An English Gardener’s Diary: Spring at Last.