Thursday, 29 August 2013

Duck update

Have you noticed how youngsters seem to grow taller than their parents these days?

The last duck update was when one of our Cayugas disappeared, only to be found sitting on eggs under the abandoned pea crop.

A recycled photo, but I can tell you she's still sitting.
Prior to that, you may recall that Elvis, our broody hen, hatched out six beautiful baby ducks from the eight eggs we'd placed under her.

Taken when they were still cute.

And just before that we took on three white ducks which a fellow smallholder no longer wanted to keep.

A new home, away from Randy
So, first an update on our three white ducks (we really should name them as they are not for the pot). When they arrived we put them in the veg plot along with the four black Cayugas. But our drake Cayuga, who needs a name himself (Randy may be appropriate!), just would not leave them alone. To be honest, they wondered what had hit them. So we moved them in with the chickens and left Randy quacking loudly on the other side of the fence.

A little grubby, but on the mend.
You can still  see the infected eye on the closest bird,
but it is now completely healed.
Unfortunately, one of them very soon developed a badly infected eye, completely closed over and encrusted. Another one showed signs of infection too. We felt terrible, and the reason I've not written about this yet is that we didn't want to worry their previous owner. We read up and Sue discovered that it could even be due to Randy's spit getting into their eye when he was jumping on them! I'm sure that stress didn't help either.

So a quick phone call to Norfolk Farm Vets and a pot of medicine was duly on its way by special courier. For the next five days the ducks' water, which they get through at an astonishing rate, was laced with said medicine. After just a couple of days there was a noticeable improvement and by the end of five days the ducks were, thankfully, back to full health.
We have kept them in their own special corner of the chicken pen and they seem very happy indeed.

Onto those newly hatched ducklings and boy, how they have grown! Poor Elvis doesn't know what she's hatched. Never before have her chicks shown such a liking for water! And never before have they grown so big and so fast. She has effectively been cuckooed.

The ducklings are now out and about in the chicken pen and are pretty much able to look after themselves, wandering around in a little gang making also sorts of squeaking and quacking noises. Elvis stays in touch and fought off a couple of the other hens in the first two days, but it is the gang of ducklings that lead her and not vice versa.

As most of the vegetables are now big enough to withstand a little chicken scratching, I've opened the door to the chicken pen again so the chickens are free to wander. They've got plenty of space anyway, so often don't bother to go wandering. However, yesterday Elvis led the duckling gang (or vice versa) out of the gate and into the big wide world. But no-one had accounted for Randy. He was straight over the rabbit fence which surrounds the veg patch (this is basically a flightless duck we are talking about here) and attempting to jump on the poor ducklings, his own offspring, though he probably didn't realise that. Not that it would have stopped him.

Sue hastily shooed him away and ushered Elvis and the gang back down the land.

So that's it for duck news at the moment, until the next lot hatch in amongst the pea plants. Then we'll potentially have gone from four to nineteen ducks in a matter of months.

Now I know they're cute, but we're currently researching at what age we can begin to eat them!
Sorry! But they're not pets.



Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A Home-grown Melon

I didn't really hold out much hope when I planted some melon seeds early in the year. With many of the more exotic crops, the seed companies are always promoting varieties which they claim will ripen in this country. This melon goes one step further with claims that it will ripen outside "in a good summer".
I plumped for the polytunnel and was quite honestly astonished when, a few weeks back, I peered through the developing jungle and spotted a fairly well developed melon hanging over the edge of an old tyre. (I plant some crops in old tyres so that I can target feed and water more effectively. I think the black rubber helps to warm the soil too.)

This last weekend I noticed a couple of flies hovering around my melon and guessed this was a sign that my fruit had actually ripened. The sweet, honey-like aroma confirmed this. I plucked it from its vine and proudly carried it into the house, whereupon I took a large, sharp knife and ceremoniously sliced it in half.

I was just in time as the melon was beautifully ripe. You can't get a melon like this in the shops. They are picked and stored under-ripe and, as with so much other fruit and veg, remain under-ripe. If you dare wait for them to properly ripen, you open the fridge one day, or look in the fruit bowl to find something which has magically overnight gone completely furry or rotten.

I think we'll only get one melon from this year's plant, though another plant looks like it will yield another melon. I won't hold my breath for the couple I planted outside.

It's only a very small contribution to our diet, but a very special one indeed.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Bean Trials - Findings start Coming In

Two years ago I grew as many different potato varieties as I could with the aim of settling on a few varieties which would serve me well.

This year it was the turn of the beans, runners, dwarfs, dried, French, inside, outside...

The beans broadly fall into two categories, those where the whole pod is eaten and those grown purely for the actual beans inside.

First, let's get the dwarf beans out of the way. They were a complete failure this year, with virtually no germination. I guess the late winter meant the soil was not warm enough. Everybody round here had the same problem. The climbing beans on the other hand did well. Don't ask me to explain that one!

I have abandoned heritage varieties this year and have prioritised stringlessness. This is because I detest finding a mouthful of stringy bean pod in my mouth. It's like eating bony fish.
I have grown a red variety, Armstrong, and it has done well. Even when I forget to harvest it for a while, the ones which have grown a bit too big still snap cleanly. Then there's a variety with white flowers and white beans - the name totally escapes me right now. This I am growing for the beans inside, which I hope to be able to use as dried butter beans. It's pretty much stringless as well, so would have been a good back up variety if needed. For some reason, white varieties always seem less vigorous than red ones and take longer to get going.

French (Green) Beans
I've grown a past favourite, Blue Lake, outside and it has again performed very well. It is a crisp, clean flavoured bean which is responsible for me discovering that there are some green foods I actually like! I've also grown Cobra this year, some in the polytunnel and some outside.Both have done well. Given how precious space is in the polytunnel, I may just grow enough in there next year to last until the outdoor crop comes good.

Yard Long beans
A bit of a novelty one this. It failed outside, even when started off in modules in the polytunnel, but the tropical conditions under cover have suited it much better. You don't need many beans to make a meal and it's cropped very well over quite a long period. Not quite as delicate a taste as the French Beans, but it has earned a place in next year's plan. I have lots of very long pods full of next year's seed just hanging until they fully dry.

So we're pretty much sorted for next year on the green bean front.

But I've also been trying a few varieties for drying, a great source of protein for winter stews. The plants in the polytunnel have gone over now and many of the pods are dry enough to pod out.
It's not that long ago that the luxurious profusion on the bean plants was threatening to overwhelm the whole polytunnel. However, I've a feeling that this may have been somewhat at the expense of the bean harvest. I've also got a feeling that the earlier beans to set weren't pollinated very well. The insects took a while to discover the tropical environment of the polytunnel earlier in the year and the older pods seem to have very few properly developed beans inside.

Today's exploratory harvest was, I have to admit, slightly disappointing, but on the whole I have a lot more beans than I started with and I have a much better idea of what I want to grow for next year, and more importantly where I want to grow it.

Pea Beans
An old favourite this one. It performs pretty well outside and I actually planted some late to replace a couple of failed crops. Inside the polytunnel it romped away, winning the race to the top and thriving under the warm conditions. It wasn't long before I was regularly having to pull leaves from the plants to allow some air ventilation.

But, now that most of the leaves have fallen, the final yield is sparse. I reckon I'll struggle to fill a jar. So although it'll be on next year's list of plants to definitely grow, it probably won't be getting a place in the polytunnel again. There is plenty of space outside to grow as much as I want, so half of this year's harvest may be saved for next year's seed.

Black-eye Beans
I absolutely love eating these beans, so when a few were included in a cheap pack of 'exotic' bean seeds, it gave me the idea to try growing the beans I had in store in the kitchen. Last year I just sowed them straight into the cold, wet ground and they happily rotted away!
Not one to give up, this year I took more care of them and raised them alongside other beans in modules under cover. Germination and initial growth was strong. I wasn't sure whether they would be dwarves or climbers, and they ended up somewhere in between, starting off slowly but then climbing up the sunflower stems in the polytunnel.
Again, though, the total yield looks like it will be fairly low. Each pod has done well, with up to 13 beans in each pod, but the number of pods is fairly low. However, I intend to try some black-eye beans fresh in tomorrow's dinner and if I like them they may just earn a little place under cover next year. I'm hoping, though, that they will thrive outside. As with the pea beans, it may be that less leaves equals more beans. Or are they too exotic?
Black-eye Beans growing next to Pea Beans
A pod full of black-eye beans

Fresh black-eye beans

Over in the corner of the polytunnel, the climbing Borlotti pods provided a vivid splash of colour through the summer. But now the pods are fading. These beans appear to have been the most prolific of the beans I have grown for drying, as well as looking very dapper.
I podded a few of them today to discover the most subtly beautiful beans inside.


So Borlottis haved earned themselves an increase in space next year, as long as they taste nice. There are some growing outside too, a less tall variety, so it will be interesting to assess how they do.

I've saved the very worst till last. Not beans, but peas, I decided to plant a batch of chick peas from the store cupboard to keep the black-eye beans company. They germinated very well and I was pleased with their initial growth. But after a while it became apparent that each plant seemed to have, on average, about one pod on it! Not only that, but each pod seemed to have one chickpea inside! This seems to be a crop which, at least in a British polytunnel, would require quite some acreage to fill a tin.
But it gets worse. For today I realised that most of those precious pods had either dried up and withered to nothing or else just totally disappeared.

 A rare chickpea pod 
I guess then that if we want to continue to enjoy eating chickpeas, hummus and tahini, then we'll just have to buy them from the supermarket. Some crops just weren't designed to grow in this country, which probably explains why you don't see fields full of chickpeas.
My total chickpea harvest!!!!
Sue and I will have half each.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Sitting Duck

Mystery solved.

After a slightly worrying night, we headed down to release the ducks from their house and duck number four just appeared, having been out and about all night.

Not much later Sue relocated her quietly sitting on a clutch of eggs under the abandoned pea crop.

So in a matter of weeks we've gone from sharing the farm with four black ducks to now having an extra three white ducks, six ducklings in the capable hands of Elvis and a clutch of goodness knows how many under this girl.
At the moment our ducks are more productive than our chickens - I'm talking eggs - but any young born this year will be strictly for meat. Shhhhhhh. Don't tell Elvis or this mum to be.

So, that was the exciting news for the day, but there was a shock in store too. Today was mowing day and every time I get the mower out I seem to suffer some sort of mishap, usually another piece of the mower failing dismally or falling to pieces.
But today I managed to sever an armoured electricity cable which someone had considerately laid far too close to the surface. As I jammed my arm under the blade mechanism trying to work out the degree of entanglement, yes, you've guessed, I got a rather nasty shock. For the initial severing had tripped the electricity in the house, but Sue had helpfully flicked the switch back up, so returning electricity supply to the bare cable which I was endeavouring to unwind from the mower blades!

I lived to tell the tale, as did the mower. The cable was not needed anyway

There's been a change of landscape today too. Those neat lines created by the combine yesterday were today transformed into a strange landscape of giant straw boxes.

View from my bedroom window.

They'll probably be gone again tomorrow and it won't be very long at all until the field is ploughed (I get to scan through thousands of Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls in a vain search for something rarer), tilled and sown with the next crop.

Tomorrow's plan is to tart up the veg plot in readiness for our visitors this weekend. The potatoes need topping and the onion stems are lying down so they are ready for uprooting and drying.
What actually happens tomorrow, though, could very well be different. You never quite know.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

One of our ducks is missing!

Computers now working. Normal service resumed.

We are having a little do here on Saturday. It's the first time in almost three years that we've stopped to share and to celebrate all that we have achieved. Then, on Sunday we are hosting the August meeting of the Smallholders Club - the annual auction.

Machines at work.
So, needless to say, we've been very busy indeed getting the place spick and span. One worry on our minds was that the surrounding fields would be harvested while one of these events was taking place. For the combine harvesters have been out in force this last week or two, chugging across the fields all day and late into the night. But when they come they create clouds of dust and debris. Not what you want when you're entertaining.

And so it was with relief that today not one but two combines turned up, one in the wheat field next door and one in the oil seed rape opposite.

View from the bedroom window today.
As I carried buckets of water down to the animals in the soaring heat, lugged branches around and sheared long grass by hand, these monsters efficiently consumed the fields, munching away and leaving just neat lines of straw to be collected later. The contrast in farming styles was stark.

Dust storm.

What with being so busy and all this distraction, I didn't spend much time with the animals today. So it was that as darkness fell upon us - and how the nights are drawing back in now - we drove the four Cayugas back to their duck house. But hang on a minute. One, two, three...where's the fourth? The ducks usually stick together, though occasionally one will take time out from the group, but at the end of the day it's most unusual for them not to be in a tight group. Could it be that the fourth bird had already gone to bed? Torch says no. So we hunted in the gloom, trying to listen for a lone quack, but the noise of the combine wasn't helping. We scoured the whole veg patch, but to no avail. We've had to come in with just three Cayugas put away.

Hopefully all will be revealed in the morning and there'll be a happy ending.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Broodies and Baby Birds

For the last month there has been a strange hissing noise emanating from the Ash trees in the back garden. For the baby Little Owls have been very demanding of their parents. This, in turn, has resulted in some great opportunities to watch the owls hunting and interacting during daylight hours.

Meanwhile in the stables every few minutes there is a rapid crescendo of twittering as the adult swallows fly back to their mud nests to feed their young and get them ready for their flight back to Africa in a month or so. In fact the swallows are on at least their second brood now, maybe even their third. But time is running short for the newest babies. Already there are congregations of up to a hundred swallows over the farm, occasionally harassed by a hobby looking to pluck an inexperienced youngster out of the air.
The Pied Wagtails have successfully reared two broods too. The first in a clump of nettles by the compost bin and the second under some pallets by the door of the polytunnel. The other morning I opened up the tunnel to find a fledged young bird stuck inside. It soon found its way out though.
And down amongst the courgettes and sweetcorn (and, let's be honest, protected by the extensive weed cover) I keep flushing a family of Red-legged Partridges. The babies can only be a few days old, little balls of fluff with clockwork legs. 

The domestic fowl are determined to raise some youngsters too. Elvis, as you know, has been sat on duck eggs for the last four weeks. She is now a surrogate mum.
Chocolate, the French Copper Marans hen has spent most of the last month cooped up in her hen house next to the Indian game hen. When I lift the lid to check for eggs they both raise their back ends in a show of unified indignation.
Priscilla, one of Elvis's first surrogate chicks, and herself a mu  last year, has been sat tight in the main egg-laying house for weeks too. She makes collecting the eggs somewhat of an adventure!

Three of the guineafowl girls are attempting to sit on the three clutches of nine eggs each which I left for them. Over two days we took away a further 87 eggs from them!!
Just some of the eggs that we took off the guineas.
But just this week I found this...

Yes, Lady Guinea, the original girl, has been secretly building her own stash of eggs well away from the others in the long grass by the stables. I was beginning to notice her squawking around in thus area a few times. I'm guessing she'll start sitting any day now.

But not two yards away from this sits this long lost girl...

Yes, the girl who has persistently laid her eggs in secret places all around the farm has finally succeeded in incubating a brood. I actually found her about a week ago and she has 17 eggs underneath her.
Well, here's the exciting thing.

For this morning Sue came into the house and interrupted me putting up shelves to announce that she had seen two new born chicks and could hear some of the eggs peeping.

So it looks like there'll be some more very cute piccies to show you soon, as well as a lot more birds on the farm this summer.

Yardlong Beans

Yardlong Bean - does what it says on the packet.
I'm experimenting with climbing beans this year.

I've chosen several varieties to grow, inside and out. Through the year I'll be noting their germination rate, yield, health and most importantly their taste.

First up is Blue Lake, a bean which I've grown successfully outside before and which I know has a very clean taste and is stringless.
Main challenger to the Blue Lake is Cobra, which is currently cropping very well in the polytunnel and is very tasty too. I have a few on the go outside for comparison. Needless to say, those in the polytunnel are way ahead, but the outside plants may give me a longer season.

I'm also growing a couple of beans not for the whole pods but for the beans inside. Borlotti beans and Pea Beans. Again, I've grown these before, with mixed success. So I have them on the go both outside and in the polytunnel. Those in the polytunnel are already producing some nice fat pods.

But oddest of the lot are the Yardlong Beans which I've decided to give a go. They were slower to get going than the other beans and those planted outside could not cope with our climate and just slowly faded away.

The polytunnel plants kept going, though the leaf growth was never so lush as on the other beans (not necessarily a bad thing, as it lets the air flow around more). I didn't think much was happening until one day, right out of nowhere, I suddenly realised that there were a few ridiculously long beans hanging down. I almost missed them, mistaking them for the stems of the plant!

Since then they've been cropping well. You don't need many of these to fill a freezer bag. 
Other names for yardlong bean are asparagus beans (not to be confused with asparagus peas), Chinese long beans, boro, long-podded cowpea, chori and snake bean.
But yardlong bean does just fine for me.

I have read that if they actually reach a yard long, they will be too tough to eat. Ours, however, don't thicken up until they're at least a couple of feet long and it doesn't seem to affect the taste.

But I'm not one to grow a crop just for the gimmick. So at some point there will be a proper sit down taste test. I'll be looking for flavour and texture, fresh and frozen. Then I'll know which varieties I'll be selecting for next year.

All things being equal though, of course I'll go for the gimmicky one!

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