Monday, 16 July 2018

The d word

Drought. This is beginning to feel like a drought.
When they said June would be dry, I didn't think it would be because the country had run out of carbon dioxide just before the World Cup!
But in all seriousness the lack of rain is starting to be a real problem. This is not just the usual moan when it's hot, moan when it's wet, moan when it's cold, moan when it's dry. This is a summer to rival 1976, which I am old enough to just about remember.

This blog post is a quick catch up on the end of June as I've fallen behind a bit. I blame the World Cup and Wimbledon.

Parched Earth
Aside from a very brief downpour early in the month, not another drop of rain fell on the farm during the whole of June. In fact the turkey poults (born 12th May) have only ever seen that one brief spell of rain. The cracks are really opening up now. Most of the crops are just holding up, but the potato harvest is at serious risk. At the moment I can barely even get the fork in the earth. We are doing all we can to preserve growth in the sheep paddocks too. The younger fruit trees have suffered but we will still get harvests from the more established trees. It might even be a good one if the fruits get enough moisture to plump up. The strawberries came and went in a flash but the gooseberry harvest was phenomenal and raspberry canes and blackcurrant bushes are straining under the weight of fruit. I might mention this a few times in the next couple of months, but we are already playing freezer juggling.

Honey But No Nectar
Sue collected the first honey of the year. Most of the colonies have worked through their problems and are building nicely. There is just one which looks like it will have to be amalgamated with another.
Since then Sue has collected another two supers of honey, giving 69 jars, all from one hive. The dry conditions mean there is a lack of nectar though, but if the weather favours us it could turn into a bumper year.

It was while Sue was collecting the second batch of honey that I incurred another bee sting on my temple. My theory that I have stopped reacting to stings went out of the window as over the course of the next twenty four hours the swelling increased and slowly travelled down the left side of my face. It wasn't too itchy though and was nowhere near as painful as it looked.

Collect Hay While The Sun Shines
One benefit of the drought (yes, I am using the d word) is that I have not had to mow the lawns. Of course, the converse of this is that much of the grass on the farm feeds the animals, especially the sheep but the poultry too.
So I was more keen than usual to get in stores of hay for later in the year. I like to collect hay off the field, usually the same day as it is baled. It's a job which always happens when it is baking hot and the smell of the freshly cut hay is the essence the countryside. My first source of hay fell through due to low yields but another opportunity quickly presented itself. I filled the animal trailer and the back of the car, twice.

Astronomy for Dummies
The end of June presented us with a stunning Strawberry Moon, but even more strikingly, through the power of the Twitterverse, I found out that Jupiter and Saturn were putting on a good display too. The birdwatching scope, at 60 times power, was enough to be able to see Jupiter complete with 4 of its moons but better was to come, for Saturn looked like a gyroscope, its rings clearly visible as a bring hoop around the planet. Unfortunately my phonecam was not up to the job to capture more than a fuzzy blur of light.

Cherries, Cucumbers and Courgettes
I already mentioned some of our harvests, but one which we look forward to every year is the cherries. We only net one tree, a Morello, and still the birds manage to get a small proportion of the fruits. But eventually after we have watched the fruits darken and endlessly repositioned the net the day for picking arrives. It takes a good couple of hours to strip the tree, a job which will only get bigger every year. Luckily Sue is in charge of cherry-stoning.
In the polytunnel, cucumbers have started coming thick and fast. It's not easy getting through a couple of cucumbers a day, but the spares are gratefully received at work.
Courgettes have started too! These are the archetypal glut vegetable. But we have an answer to that, for the chickens love them.

A Strategy For Pain-free Dental Treatment
In between all this activity on the smallholding I fitted in a successful trip to the dentist. I have a new dentist and am working on the theory that if I tell her enough times how scared I am and how much I fear injections, that she will take the utmost care not to cause me pain or psychological suffering!

Lambrusco for the Vegetables
The very last days of June saw me reduced to using the hosepipe in the veg plot late in the evenings. My water is metered, not that I would waste it anyway. I reserve it for the youngest of plants or those which absolutely require water to survive and produce a harvest. Many crops such as the broad beans, sweetcorn, pumpkins and amaranths, seem to have thrown their roots deep enough to still be thriving. But I can't keep delaying transplanting plug plants. It is impossible to look after these in the heat we have been having so the best thing is to get them outside and in the ground, but their very limited root system means they need a little encouragement. I don't give them too much water as they can become reliant on it and besides tap water is to rainwater as Lambrusco is to Champagne, except my Champagne is free and I have to pay for my Lambrusco, if you see what I mean.
I have been trying to give the early potatoes some water, but to not much avail.

Four Hours of Solitude
June ended with me undertaking a new venture. Nothing to do with the smallholding. I was up with the larks or even before them to venture out onto the RSPB reserve at The Nene Washes, where I had undertaken to perform a survey of one of Britain's rarer breeding birds to see whether or not there was evidence of young being fed. I spent four hours in one spot just looking out over the reserve and not encountering another human being. Just me, the early morning sunshine and the birds. Perfect.

In At The Deep End
I returned to the farm full of vigour and decided to tackle the wildlife pond which the ducks had totally trashed. All the soil edges had been washed into the pond and all the plants had vanished. Fortunately many of the pond plants I had purchased were being nurtured in smaller ponds. Considering how prolific they are once they get going, pond plants are hideously expensive.

My wellies are no longer totally waterproof but I put them on anyway and stepped onto the shelf of the pond. It quickly became apparent that the whole deeper centre was full of slimy mud. There was no alternative. I took off my wellies and socks and stripped down to my underpants. I then spent an enjoyable but hard couple of hours scooping mud with my bare hands. Fortunately nobody was about with a camera!

What Happened To Community?
I had to scrub up quickly though, for in the evening we had a social meeting of our local group of smallholders. This turned out to be a huge disappointment - one of those events (and there are many) which dents my faith in fellow human beings. Sue and I had a lovely time with the host couple, but nobody else from the group turned up or even let us know they weren't coming. Everybody professes that the group is a great idea but it just seems that these days people expect something called "community" without having to contribute at all. People put a lot of effort into organising everything yet others can't even be courteous enough to send their apologies. 

Anyway I won't give up on humanity quite yet. But I did choose over the next couple of days to throw myself into the tiring and physical task of restoring and finishing off ponds. Temperatures in the 80s (that's the high 20s for younger readers) made for thirsty work. The boggy areas which I always incorporate as overflows from the pond were not retaining enough water so I had to dig out all the soil and start again. Then there was the big pond by the house to finish. It already has plenty of newts in it, but it needed work to blend in with the landscape and offer easier access for wildlife.

Before I knew it we were into July.

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