Monday, 30 April 2012

April's Best Sunrises

Not too often did I see the sun break the horizon during April.
Many was the time that my early morning awakening was rewarded
with a featureless grey sky, not to mention rain and wind.

Do let me know which is your favourite.

Not much of a sunrise,
but just noticed how the cloud formation shadows the form of the tree.

Outwitting the Carrot Flies.

Monday 30th April 2012
April finally comes good

A sunrise!!! A nice day! And a 14 hour day in the garden to make the most of it.
Daisy and the piglets have quickly turned their grassy enclosure
into something more akin to the trenches of WW 1!
Not long till weaning now.

The bees came out in force today and it was fantastic both to see so many filling the air and to smell that heady aroma of wax and honey which surrounds a thriving hive. They allowed fairly close approach, though my stripy jumper seemed to annoy a couple of them at one point, not even when I was close to the hive.

Mauled by a Guineafowl
But prize for brazen attack of the days goes to Guinea Guinea. The sunshine brought out his macho side and, as I plucked the flowering shoots from the sorrel bed, he was making a right racket. I realised after a while that, behind me, he was puffing himself up, spreading his wings, running madly in circles and making false charges at me! I tried to explain that I wasn't a threat and that, if this behaviour continued, he might end up in the pot, but all to no avail.
I decided that ignoring him was the best strategy. That was until, crouched down attending to the sorrel plants, I suddenly felt a guineafowl on my back!!! And I don't think he was being friendly.

Outwitting the Carrot Flies.
The root beds were almost ready for sowing and planting when the rains came. I never thought it would be this long before I could reasonably get any seeds in.
I have ridiculous numbers of carrot seeds, each packet containing seemingly enough to fill a field. There are early ones, late ones, short, fat ones, long, skinny ones, orange yellow, white, purple, even some which promise resistance to carrot fly.

Ah yes, carrot fly.

I've never knowingly seen one, but I have seen the damage caused by their larvae, burrowing round the edge of carrots like a helter skelter, then going through the middle rendering them pretty inedible - though the chickens and pigs don't mind such imperfections.
Carrot flies find their favourite vegetable prey by smell, so it is important to sow the seed thinly to minimise the need for too much thinning later on. There are other ways to counteract these seek-and-destroy tactics, primarily by disguising the smell of the carrots, not with Febreze or Lynx, but with onions, spring onions, garlic and coriander. So my carrot beds tend to consist of rows of carrots interspersed with onion sets, garlic cloves and lines of spring onions. I like to plant coriander, probably my favourite herb / spice plant, in clumps at the edges too.
But even all these attempts at disguise do not always work. So this year I am introducing another tactic, mixing the carrot seed in with packets of mixed annual flowers. Hopefully a pretty way of confusing those pesky carrot flies.

All the text books say, too, that carrot flies are incapable of flying above about 2 feet off the ground, so surrounding the carrot bed with a barrier to this height is supposed to work. I have yet to find a practical or attractive way of doing this.

If all else fails, I am also planting resistant varieties, imaginatively named Resistafly and Flyaway. Hopefully they do what it says on the can.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

A Break In The Weather

Sunday 29th April 2012
Dawn did not reflect what had happened during the night
Yesterday's storm continued into the evening and through the night. The result was this...

At 5:10 this morning we were rudely awoken by water dripping onto the ceiling above our heads. I wearily clambered into the loft and crawled precariously across the joists into the darkest, cobwebbed recesses of the attic. Weeks of rain had seeped through the cracks in the chimney stack and soaked the bricks to the point where they could no longer hold the water. Last night's storm had been the straw that broke the camel's back.

The morning's weather can only be described as atrocious. But, early in the afternoon, there was a strange phenomenon in the sky.

Is the sky supposed to be blue?
This prompted a welcome change in the weather and the whole garden began to smile. The blossom blossomed and the bees began to buzz. 

Typically, this afternoon was the Fenland Goatkeepers and Smallholders Club monthly meeting over in West Walton village hall, so we were unable to take advantage of the weather. But the subject of the meeting was bee-keeping so we did not want to miss this one. It proved to be a very timely refresher course for us and it was good to have the opportunity to ask some questions. When it comes to bee-keeping there really is no substitute for experience and we are all too aware that we are very much beginners.

As is our custom, we took the opportunity to pop into the Wisbech pound shops on the way, stocking up on cheap seed packets, seed trays and various miscellania (is that a word? If it's not, it should be!)


Saturday, 28 April 2012

Bee Action and Pig Pimping.

Saturday 28th April 2012

Bee Background
Bee-keeping is a fascinating hobby, but not a cheap one to start up. After you've bought a hive, there's the bee suits, the smoker, the hive tools, the honey extractors, a few things I've probably forgotten, and then ... then you find out it's always a good idea to have a spare hive too!
So you've been on a course, spent some time with some bee-keepers, and forked out a fortune. All you need to do now is get hold of some bees. Easier said than done.
Everyone's aware that honey bees are having a hard time at the moment, which means they are quite difficult to get hold of. The ideal is to get hold of a swarm, but everybody is after free bees and plenty of people are higher in the pecking order for receipt of such goodies.
So you have to buy some. They're very cheap to buy, just one or two pence... each. Problem is, that adds up to a small fortune when you consider you need them in their thousands.  A full brood box consists of eleven frames and lots and lots of bees.              

A full brood box complete with 11 frames.
We were lucky to be able to buy an established colony
with a proven queen. 

The normal way to buy them is to get a five-frame nucleus, which consists of a young queen and a core of bees. These are united to form a young colony which need to build up quickly in preparation for their first winter. We bought our first nucleus when we lived in London, joining the trend of urban beekeeping. However, due to a shortage of queens, we didn't get them till mid summer. Everything seemed to be going fine (judging by our very limited experience) until early the next year.
One spring morning we noticed an unusual buzz of activity around the hive entrance, with bees fighting and many emerging from the hive laden with honey.
Our bees were being robbed! Despite our best efforts, within a day the hive was empty, pillaged, all its occupants murdered or expelled.
Obviously they'd not had time to get strong enough the previous summer. We had fed them and the queen had survived the winter, but this one we just had to put down to experience.

When we had purchased the bees, we felt a huge sense of responsibility to them and we had let them down big time. Knowing that we would be moving at some point, we decided to hang up our bee suits for a while.

Planning for our new hive
We left replacing the bees until we knew we could give a new colony everything they needed. Primarily, I was worried that fields of wheat and sugar beet might not provide enough food throughout the year for them. This worry was soon allayed when our old pasture flourished into a clover filled meadow last summer. It was a bee bonanza.

My next worry was that bees appreciate a bit of shelter, but still need to face the sun so that the hive can warm up, especially early morning. Our site was so exposed that finding a suitable site would not be easy. The orchard would be ideal, in about ten years time!
The only decent shelter is afforded by the house, but we wouldn't want them living quite so close to us. The stable wall would give a good backdrop and the bees would fly straight out over the herb bed, but the prevailing winds put paid to that idea.
Eventually I used a line of transplanted laurels to afford shelter from the wind, tucking the hive in behind them but still exposing it to the morning sun.

So we dug out the old hives, scorched every surface with a blowtorch, and followed up the ad in the local paper. We were delighted to be able to get a two year old queen and a full colony, and at a sensible price too.

Sticks and leaves across the entrance
make sure the bees don't just fly off
before realising they're in a different place!

First Contact
We were up early to sort out the bees before they got active. We didn't yet know how they'd take to us. We dusted off and lit the smoker, though  a stiff north-easterly made sure it hardly touched the bees. At least the weather meant our feisty little friends were in a most subdued mood.

We prised off the lid, brushed the bees out of the way, and placed the queen excluder over the brood box. This is a plastic sheet which allows all the bees except the queen to pass through. This ensures that the stores of honey stored in the frames above the brood box do not become contaminated with eggs and larvae. Onto this went  the super, a box of wooden frames with a wax sheet of tessellated hexagons enclosed, ready for the bees to build their comb and store their honey, ready for us to steal!
Finally, another super into which we placed an inverted bucket of sugar syrup to welcome Swallow Farm's newest inhabitants.
We then left the bees to settle in, although they were in no hurry to explore given the continued cold weather and strong, icy winds.

Pig Pimping
Gerald is a good natured Gloucester Old Spot boar. He doesn't belong to us, but spends a lot of time here. He has given Daisy two litters so far, and in between fathered a couple of other litters. But the farmer who kindly lets us borrow him is never in a hurry to have him back! Food costs have to be considered and it is amazing how often that farmer's phone gets lost or is out of order! I don't mind too much, as it's not all about money, and I get lots of other favours from the farmer too.
Anyway, while discussing Gerald with a fellow smallholder recently, he was keen that Gerald pay a visit to see his two sows. I OKed it with the farmer, and arrangements were made for him to be moved at the weekend. Gerald would certainly not be complaining, as it was now quite a while since he had a lady friend.
So it was that, shortly after we'd finished dealing with the bees, Dave arrived and Gerald obligingly followed his food bucket out of the stables and up into the trailer. He'll enjoy his new surroundings and company, and should be back in about six weeks to keep Daisy company once again. Meanwhile, we've done someone a big favour and we're not having to feed a spare mouth. He's only just down the road, so we can visit him if we miss him.

The Nursery Area
Today's weather went from bad to worse to worser. I had the bright idea of using some old ground cover material and some old wooden decking to give my nursery area a refurbishment. Fed up with thistles and nettles popping up to bite me in every nook and cranny, even inside the greenhouse, I decided to starve them of light and at the same time give myself a proper surface to walk on and to rest plant trays on. Of course, this meant moving everything first, and as the weather worsened I eventually just accepted that I would be soaked from head to toe. (This often seems to happen in reverse, with the water permeating through my shoes and socks and up my trouser legs.)
No more spikes and stings.
A few pig food bags were used to
fill the gaps when I ran out of the proper stuff.

Access to the back of the bee hive is essential.
The straw bales are to stop the hive being
blown about, and to give it some insulation too.
A reclaimed perspex sheet supported by
straw bales provides an excellent
hardening off area for young plants.

By late afternoon it was necessary to take refuge in the house, as a storm raged outside.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Bizzzzy Times

Friday 27th April 2012

Thursday 26th April 2012

Well, the weather continues in the same vein, so after work it's been dashes down the land to check for eggs and throw some food at the chickens and pigs. Often, they're nowhere to be seen, the pigs all snug in their ark and the chickens huddled under the tractor. Some have even started going to roost very early, clearly fed up with being sodden and windswept.
If the weather were more conducive and the soil more friable, at this time of year I would be working the land until darkness made further exertions impossible. As it is, we're snuggled up by the fire instead.

30000 busy little critters
Last weekend we delivered the brood box from our old hive to the beekeeper in Long Sutton, so that he could transfer a colony of bees into it. We had to do an emergency order of hive carrying straps which were dispatched very quickly ( - not a good idea to risk the bees getting out in the car!
So at 7 this evening, the moment we had been waiting for finally arrived. We called to pick up our new lodgers. They were in a very dopey mood and a few stragglers crawled around on the crown board. The chap who sold them to us was very friendly and helpful, and even gave us a tenner off, as the bees have struggled to build up a store of honey in this dank weather and will need sustaining with sugar syrup for a while.

We left the hive blocked up for the night, ready to introduce the feed and open up the front door in the morning. It will be good to don the bee suits again after a bit of a gap.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Mr C

Wednesday 25th April 2012
Red Sky In The Morning...
peeing it down all day from 8 o'clock.

No smallholding and no birdy talk today. Much more serious things to contemplate.

Mr C
Those of you who have been visited by Mr C will know exactly who I am talking about. I had nothing to do with him until he sneaked up on my father about 8 years ago. Apparently he'd been stalking him all his life, and what's more it's a family thing, so he's stalking me too!
My father fought him off, though he's been back for another go since, but again without success. When he came for me in 2006, at the tender age of 39, I was ready and waiting. I knew he would come one day, so I wasn't about to get taken by surprise. But still, when he did knock on the door, the effort of fighting him off meant that things were touch and go for a while.

Why do I write about this now? Because I am hungry! And I can't eat or drink for another six hours! For today, I have my annual trip to the hospital where they prod and delve for a while to check Mr C is not there. He's always in the background these days, but as long as he keeps his distance. These annual checks are not something I look forward to. All I'll say is, thank goodness for sedation. But you always have to be on the lookout for the return of Mr C.

Let's hope that, come 4 o'clock this afternoon, everything's OK for another year.

Dealing with Mr C
It' a bit of a shock when you suddenly realise you are a mere mortal. It makes you appreciate the life you have so much more. To begin with, I couldn't decide whether I should be reckless and just go for everything, or whether I should play it ultra safe and cherish everything I have. In the end, I think I've settled for something in the middle. Don't miss out on new opportunities just for the sake of safety and security, but learn to appreciate everything you've got and everything around you. Don't let other fools spoil your mood, just let them be fools. Accept things for what they are, but pick your moments to stand up for yourself too.
I have one big thing to thank Mr C for. Because, without him, I would have continued to tolerate my claustrophobic, stressed and hectic life in London. Mr C forced me to step back and undertake a big reappraisal. This resulted in taking the big leap and moving here, letting go of financial security and jumping into my dream, following my beliefs and convictions.

Lastly, a word for my constant companion, Sue. For without her my fight against Mr C would have been all the more difficult. She has given me the reason to fight and has been there always when I have needed someone to lean on. Mr C has changed her life at least as much as mine. When we're old and grey (no comments please!) we'll look back on our current venture with great pride and affection. We'll never feel the same about Mr C! He may, in some strange way, have helped us to get here, but it's been in spite of him. We've doubled and redoubled our resilience and our determination to get here, and now we've done it we're damned well going to make the best of it!

ed - Back from hospital now. Still a bit in the dark. Totally incompetent doctor. NHS Services farmed off to Private Hospital. Nice to see they've managed to lower their standards so efficiently. Anyway, back next Friday for another check. Ho hum.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Just One Big April Shower

Monday 23rd April 2012
Tuesday 24th April 2012

This year the month of April sure has lived up to its reputation.
I can't believe I'm about to do this, but I'm actually going to moan about the rain, something us English people just love to do and a pleasure we've been deprived of for quite some time.
All I need is a couple of days dry and the soil will be perfect for breaking into a fine tilth ready to welcome a host of seeds and seedlings. I don't mind getting cold and wet, though I'd rather not, but at the moment the soil's just too lumpy and cloggy for sowing seeds into. At least my system of small veg beds will mean I can minimise treading on the soil and destroying it's structure.
Meanwhile, the queue builds up. I've filled the coldframe with baby plants hardy enough to survive there and with slightly bigger ones moved on from the greenhouse. I've filled the spaces with those that needed to be in the heat of the house to germinate and reach a few days old. And I've sown the next lot of seeds and filled up the staging in the dining room.
The whole system is now on the point of gridlock, with a giant bottleneck at the actually-going-into-the-veg-garden stage.

Not only that, but the slugs are on the rampage. Not compared to London, where the imbalance of the urban ecosystem gives them an unfair advantage, but for the first time I am seeing slugs in significant numbers. Only small ones and not enough to do much significant damage at the moment, but enough to cause a threat. The one crop they seem to have gone straight for is the young pak choi seedlings. Now, as tasty as pak choi is to us, it seems to be even more tasty to every manner of moving creature out there. I'm on the point of giving up on it, but I've got a couple more experiments up my sleeve before that. I'm going to trying sowing a lot more than I need, in the hope that a few get through and survive. This is the same tactic used by a frog when it lays enough spawn to give rise to about a thousand tadpoles. I'm also going to try the other extreme, growing a few plants in the pampered luxury of the polytunnel. We'll see what works best, or we'll learn to like something else green!

The crops that did make it into the soil outside are enjoying the rain though! The peas, in all their various sizes and shades, are sprouting up and reaching for the skies. The broad beans have awakened and pushed their bushy leaves through the crust. And the first potatoes have already nudged up through the trenches and breathed the fresh air above. Let's hope we have no more sharp frosts or I'll have to get out there and earth them up a little more. In fact, I'll do that anyway at some stage, but I'd prefer to wait till the soil's a bit drier (and lighter).

Anyway, most of the day was spent inside today, sowing seeds. Some are second sowings to continue the succession at harvest time. Others are those which grow fast but can't go out until all risk of frost has passed and the soil is a little warmer. So the squashes, pumpkins and courgettes, the cucumbers, sweet corn and more beans. All these have giant seeds which result in fast-growing giant seedlings with huge leaves. They're amazing to grow. Now that they are started off, I need to prepare their final growing sites as soon as I can, digging in lots of compost and manure and giving them plenty of space. I have plans for the 'Three Sisters' - more on this at the time, and for splashes of radiant sunflowers to mingle in and brighten up this patch.
I also planted up some perennial flower seeds and a stack of rudbeckia and cosmos seeds saved from last year. And finally, I've started off most of the herbs. These packets can yield hundreds of plants and are an ample reward for patience.

A New Polytunnel Is On Its Way
Being stuck in all day often costs me money, since the internet is too inviting. And so it was today, although this was a purchase which was long overdue and not unexpected. For today, I finally got round to ordering a polytunnel, all 14 foot by 40 foot of it. The price hiked up from the basic to almost double that, mainly because I have bought every conceivable extra to protect it from our fenland winds - storm protection brackets, crop bars, a triple ridge system, the premier model with closer hoops... also double doors front and back, ground cover and irrigation system (though I hope that most of the water will be diverted from the garage roof into a bath I shall sink into the ground inside the tunnel - this will provide a little stored heat in the cold winter nights too.)

It should be here in about a week, and I'm sure it won't be long till I've filled it up.

Birdy distractions
First thing this morning, two Fieldfares flew from the Ash trees in the garden. They will certainly be very late reaching their breeding grounds as they should have been gone when most of their cousins left. I've not seen any round for a few weeks now. I was treated to stunning views of a Barn Owl just outside the dining room window but the Short-eared Owls seem to have finally moved on now. Not seen any for a couple of days.

Then, early afternoon, I find out there were two White Storks in a field on the outskirts of Spalding yesterday, and this morning! They would have been a very welcome diversion. A few days ago, a remarkable flock of nine birds were photographed from a tractor somewhere in the South-West. Six of these were subsequently seen a couple of times somewhere in Wales. Could these Lincolnshire birds have come from the same flock? Whatever their origins, they were reported to have flown South from Spalding. All they had to do was to veer a little East and they might just come over the farm. So, between the frequent and very heavy showers, I kept popping out down the garden to give me a good all round perspective, but nothing. Not really a surprise. They weren't likely to gain much height in this weather, and visibility was not great so I would need a large slice of luck for them to fly close enough to see. Besides, I doubt that in this weather they went very far at all. Probably grubbing around in some nearby field.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Proper Mingin'!

Sunday 22nd April 2012
Pig Moving Day
Imagine The Good Life crossed with Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Throw in a Benny Hill chase scene and a bit of Mr Bean.
You could well end up with a scene similar to what occurred on our farm this morning, for it was pig moving day. Sorry for the lack of pictures of the most exciting (!!?) bits, but there just wasn't an opportune moment. All planning ahead had been done. The route is well marked and foolproof, clearly defined with fencing and with gates along the way which can be shut to secure each part of the journey. The only problem was that I suspected the piglets could squeeze through the stock fencing if they wanted to do, but that wouldn't happen as they'd follow their mum down to the pig enclosure... wouldn't they???

We deliberately left Daisy without food for the morning (there is only one way to a pig's heart) and so, at the appointed time, she dutifully followed me, or to be more precise the bucket of food I was holding, out of the stables and into the yard. The piglets followed in a straggly line. Well, most of the piglets followed. A couple stayed behind and a couple went off exploring in the stables. So Daisy turned back to check on them all. Nothing unexpected so far, and we have learned to be patient when moving pigs. This happened a couple more times, then Daisy followed me in one clean, swift move all the way down to the pig enclosure, about 100 yards from the stables. I decided to abandon Plan A and to make hay while the sun shines. I could attend to the piglets next.

I then headed back toward the stables, only to meet Sue expertly ushering half the piglets down the garden. This could go very smoothly... or they could scatter in all directions, breaking through the fence and heading for the potato patch, the dyke and the farmer's field.
Which is exactly what happened. One ended up in the chicken pens, so we shut the door and left it to calm down. Two ended up with Daisy. And we ended up chasing the other two all around the garden and, eventually, all the way back to the stables. We ushered them back into their stable block, ready to move on to Plan C.
One, two, three, four, five, six...SIX!
Fortunately number 7 was soon relocated under the log pile and, after a bit of an adventurous chase around the garden, was reconciled with its brothers and sisters.

Plan C proved far more successful. Catch the piglets one at a time and carry them down. I am now an expert piglet catcher, and once they've had their mad, crazed squeal they soon settle down to their new form of carriage.
It was during one such operation that one of the little porkers must have weed on me. I stunk like the worst men's toilet I've ever been in!
The word MINGING somehow works very well to describe this attack on the senses.

All the time, Gerald (the boar who overstayed his welcome) was taking a very keen interest. This was the first time he had seen any of his offspring.

Eventually, all settled in to their new home. They ate so much grass and ran around so much, I wouldn't be surprised if half of them made themselves sick. They took a keen interest in the chickens, and vice versa.
There now follows a series of cute, happy piglet pics.

After the move, the clean up.

It might not look a lot, but you try shifting it!

Slowly the second pile grew...
and grew...


and the stable emptied...
until the last load..

was done.
These compost heaps and manure piles are the beating heart of my fruit and veg patch.

Now I was proper MINGING.
Time for a long, hot bath.

Some more gratuitously cute pig pics

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