Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Shadowy figures

Does Gerry have a night-time counterpart?
Regular readers or those who know me will know that Geronimo, or Gerry for short, is the only survivor of three kittens which we originally had. The others, unfortunately and very sadly, were victims of the road.

Last time we had snow (and that's not this winter) Don, whose house is on the other side of the road, told us that he'd seen Gerry padding through the snow in his garden. This came as heartbreaking news to us, for if Gerry was crossing the road it would only be a matter of time...

However, the next night I found footprints all around the house, yet Gerry had not been allowed out. I began to wonder if there could, in fact, be a mysterious cat in the neighbourhood. It would certainly have had to come a long way. And that was that. I've been wondering ever since....
Until three nights ago.
The outside light went on. When this happens, I like to just peer outside and check that the gates are still closed. Sometimes I see a rabbit hopping about on the driveway, but mostly I see nothing. But three nights ago I received a great surprise when a black cat scampered off as I looked through the window. Mystery solved.

Another shadowy figure has been making more appearances of late. The peacock is regularly this side of the road. I grabbed my camera to try to get a photo, but it is behaving as if almost wild. It quickened its pace and disappeared through the hedge. This is all I could get.
Anyway, this morning I was chatting across the fence to Don when I noticed that Mr Peacock was strutting around not too far away. Apparently he has become used to Don's fluorescent yellow jacket! Not only that, but he was in the company of several of my guinea fowl. Apparently they had surrounded him earlier, as they bravely do when faced with an unknown, but he had raised his tail making them all scarper! I think, though, that he may eventually make friends, at least with the guinea fowl, if not me.

Monday, 24 February 2014

A hot bed experiment.

Read on to find out what's going on here...
I have a perennial problem. But I'm not talking nettles, dock or dandelions. It's the problem which is perennial.

For every year I am itching to start off my first seeds, as is every other keen gardener. But patience is required. For there's no point putting time and love into germinating trays of seedlings if there's nowhere for them to go. There's a good 10 weeks yet before we reach that all important frost-free date and we can't let ourselves get fooled by the absurdly mild winter we've had thus far. After all, it was only two years ago that we had a severe frost in early May which really did a lot of damage.

To some extent, I can bring this May date forward at least a month by using the polytunnel as an interim home for young plants. But if only I could find a way to bring it even further forward without going to the expense of heating a greenhouse or building a conservatory!
An extra three or four weeks would make such a massive difference to those exotic crops which normally grow in the tunnel, the peppers, tomatoes, aubergines and chillies. Germinating the seeds indoors is no real problem, but it's the next bit which is rife with difficulties, raising the seedlings. For, to be honest, there's not really anywhere in the house which is warm enough, light enough or airy enough for such delicate young plants. The polytunnel is tempting and will probably keep the frost at bay, especially if I watch the night-time temperatures carefully, armed with fleece and bubble wrap. But it won't give them the sort of temperature they really need, not for a good few weeks yet.

But I have a cunning plan! A HOTBED.
Free heat in the polytunnel, powered by bacteria, the sort which can raise the temperature of a compost heap to scalding. I don't know how well it will work, so my early sowings will have to act as guinea pigs for this year.
I've been reading this book and discovered that it is perfectly possible to be producing a whole range of crops outside even at this time of the year. All you need is mountains of horse manure, forests of scrap wood and quite a bit of glass. It was all the rage in times gone by - times gone by when horses were more widely kept and the world hadn't yet ran out of raw materials. I guess it could be scaled down a bit, but you still need a lot of manure. This does not quite sound like the system for me, but the theory is a good one.

It's amazing how the deep litter builds up.
Clearing it out is quite a job.
And so I resolved to experiment with building a hotbed in the polytunnel over which to raise my delicate seedlings. I managed to source some scaffold boards very locally, so all I needed now was some poo and used straw. I don't know whether it will work quite so well, but it was time to clear out the deep litter from my goose stable. I figured that this straw, mixed in with the bags of horse manure which I regularly collect, plus a couple of bags of leaf litter which have been sitting outside, should hopefully do the job nicely. I dug the bed out to a depth of about 9" before proceeding to fill it back up with my mixture. I actually don't want it to heat up too quickly, as it will not keep its temperature. I am hoping for a gentle heat within the soil which covers the heap.
An outdoor hotbed would be covered with lights (frames of glass or plastic) to limit the amount of air space which would need heating and to provide insulation to keep the heat in the soil.
My idea is to place those cheap plastic 'greenhouses' over the hotbed. It's a large airspace, but I'm hoping that inside the polytunnel this arrangement will do the trick.

If it works, I might finally get my aubergines to ripen properly, I might get ripe tomatoes when all the other salad crops are ready and my peppers might thrive rather than limping through the year.
The added benefit is that I should have a warm bed, full of nutrients to grow crops in once the seedlings have moved on. This will be my raised bed next year and the hotbed will be rebuilt on the other side of the polytunnel... if it works, that is!

The first layer

Building up the hotbed

The soil goes back on top

I constructed this raised bed too. This will be next year's hotbed.

I still had too much straw from the goose stable,
so I mulched this bed which I will use for pumpkins this year

And the geese have a nice, clean stable.

Monday, 17 February 2014

An unlucky rabbit's tail, a peacock and some very luck ducks

It was the rabbit which was unlucky, rather than the tail.

At yesterday's Veg Growers Group, we were talking about protecting early blossoms from wind and frost when somebody pointed out the need to pollenate the blossoms by hand, the ideal tool for this being a rabbit's tail. As a boy I used to have one of these, but goodness knows where it's got to now.
But in one of those unusual coincidences, Gerry caught his very first rabbit of the year yesterday and ran across the goose paddock with it clamped in his jaws, squealing as it went. He took it under the killing bush and proceeded to devour it, starting at the nose and ending at the tail, as he always does.
But one rabbit was not enough for Gerry yesterday. He got another! But his eyes were bigger than his belly and he left half, including a nice fluffy tail.

So I now have myself a professional hand pollenating tool.

In fact, the last two days have been very satisfying indeed.
For starters, the sun has been out, which raises the spirits somewhat.

Not only that, but I spotted a new species for the garden list. Several months ago a bird moved into Don's garden, across the road. We have no idea where it came from, but it has stayed. And this morning it had managed to cross the road and there, stood beside the roadside hedge, stood a male peacock!

Yesterday was also the third meeting of the Vegetable Grower's group which I run. It is going from strength to strength, to the point where if anyone else wants to join we will have to start up a waiting list. Veg of the Month for February was Jerusalem Artichoke and I spent the first half hour of the day digging up a pile of tubers to show, talk about and donate. I also divvied up some mangel wurzel seeds for the other members of the group. This year there will be strong competition for the Mangel Wurzel competition. I may even lose the trophy! We discussed planning the veg plot and rotating crops. And I enjoyed my first taste of goat - not curried but stroganoff. Delicious!  Also enjoyed some warm company and came away with half a dozen rhubarb plants.

I got home and decided to plough on with constructing a raised bed and a hot bed in the polytunnel. More on the hotbed in a future post. Only rapidly failing light stopped me completing the job.

I was a bit gripped off by Sue, who watched a Barn Owl quartering our land. This was pleasing news as I'd not seen one for a few months. The closest I'd come to one was Don telling me he'd found one dead in the ditch by the road.
The Little Owls are active too, calling loudly last night under a full moon. They will be thinking about nesting, so I am glad they seem to have stayed in the old Ash Trees for a second year.

Today I dropped the car in to the garage following my sliding into a kerb last week. Then it was time for a bit of an operation.
For we needed to capture the Cayugas and move them into one of the goose stables for the day. The reason? Well, Sue suggested that before sending them off to the poulterer's we should try to sell them. So I speculatively put out an advert and, so far, I have had three enquiries and today four lucky Cayuga ducks headed off to new homes, blissfully ignorant of the fact that they have just escaped death row. The £60 I received will make a welcome contribution to my poultry feed costs.
Plucked (not literally) from death row.
The Cayuga girls take temporary residence in
the goose stable, waiting to meet their new owners.

But, even better, the first buyer's ears pricked up when I told him that our rabbits were a bit of a nuisance, for it turns out he is a skilled marksman looking for somewhere to hunt. He will be more than happy to dispose of a few little bunnies for me and even to gut and prepare them for us. Result! I was able to reciprocate by informing him of a more local straw supplier charging half the price he has been paying! The farm will be happy for the extra custom too. So everybody is happy. Just perfect.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Islay - Island of Geese

Last weekend I headed off to Islay with a couple of mates. It's an island I had visited twice before, for one day back in 2002 when I visited to experience the goose spectacle, and earlier this year in the optimistic hope of seeing an extremely rare Ascension Frigatebird which had got itself well and truly lost and ended up being harassed by gulls in the tiny harbour of Bowmore village.

A typical Islay scene
The Hebrides are probably my favourite island group in Britain and Islay is one of the Inner Hebrides. I'd happily spend time on there even if there weren't any birds, but as it is many thousands of Barnacle Geese choose to spend their winters on the island. These are beautiful, diminutive geese. But with them come every year just a few Canada Geese. Yes! Canada Geese. As a non-birder friend of mine pointed out, he could show me loads of those at Ferry Meadows just down the road. But the Canada Geese on Islay are proper ones! Real ones which actually emerged from eggs in Canada. They are a different race to the ones which grace UK parks and lakes.

Before I forget, Islay is also the main wintering ground for Greenland White-fronted Geese. One of these occasionally gets in with the geese in Norfolk or elsewhere, but to watch small flocks close up spread all over the island was special just in itself.

Anyway, back to those Canada Geese.

So, here's the crack.
There are 30000 barnacle geese and, in amongst them there are maybe a couple of Canada Geese. They are about the same size and can easily merge into the flocks of 'barnacles'. The largest concentration is around the RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart, but numbers also spend time in the proximity of Loch Indaal and Loch Gorm, where they roost overnight.
Last time I went looking for geese on Islay, I gave myself the best part of a whole day to find a Canada Goose. I must have looked through maybe 25000+ geese in the main areas, but all to no avail. I began to think that I was just overlooking them, picking the wrong feature by which to pick them out.
But this time there were three of us and we had three days. To be honest, I thought we'd find one by early on the first afternoon, if not sooner.

Virtually the first thing we saw, playing in the seaweed at the bottom of a slipway, was an otter giving great views. Funny enough, on that visit 12 years ago an otter had run across the grass in front of the endless geese I was searching through. Clearly otters like Islay.

The weather on Islay on Friday was probably just about the best anywhere in our storm-ridden land. The light was great and the geese were a delight to watch.
But no sign of a Canada Goose in all the main goose hangouts. We did, however, see a Glaucous Gull at the tip which lost me a £1.20 bet.
As dusk approached, having driven all over the island scanning through flocks of geese, we went to Plan B. Stake out the roost sites. We chose Loch Indaal, but goose numbers were scant. There was, however, an immature White-tailed Eagle pulling something apart on the shoreline and, a bit further along, a nice Iceland Gull.

It was clear that there was to be no mass arrival of thousands of geese any time soon, and even if there were we would be struggling to see them. So that was that. We seemed doomed to be the only team to visit Islay in the winter and fail to score a Canada Goose. We headed over to Loch Gruinart to see how many geese were there and it seemed more promising. We would place ourselves here first thing in the morning.
And so we headed back to Bowmore and our B&B. Accommodation on Islay is not the cheapest, but we found somewhere on our last visit which was only 30 quid a night. Not the best in the world, but more than made up for by the wonderful d├ęcor in the triple room which we shared. That's once Violet had eventually arrived and let us in. She was looking after the place in the absence of the owner.
Islay's classy facilities continued to delight as we dined in the Lochside Hotel that evening. This hotel enjoys a wonderful view over the harbour and on our last visit some of its residents had gripped us off with tales of a certain Frigatebird which they had watched over breakfast! Our meal started off well, with a good pint and some very substantial and tasty starters. We could overlook the inadequacies of the service. Two of us chose Steak and Ale Pie for our mains - a good, hearty and dependable staple pub meal. But what we got was a pot of tough meat in gravy which had never seen ale in its life, topped with a pathetic piece of undercooked pastry which had clearly been in the freezer for months, if not years. They didn't even get the vegetables remotely right. All this was made worse by the stench of fungus which emanated from the waitress every time she came within a few feet!! If you meet a waitress on Islay with the world's deepest voice, beware! Enough about that.

Early next morning we headed out to Loch Gruinart. We were refreshed and determined to find our quarry. The weather was due to deteriorate but we were still feeling optimistic. There were several thousand geese, but even before it was properly light small skeins started heading off into the fields or, worse, over the mountains. Gradually all the geese started walking off the loch and up onto the grass. It was like the March Of The Penguins. But still no Canada Goose! Our optimism was waning. We returned to the B&B for breakfast, which was strangely lacking in cereal or edible black pudding (though Dan managed to eat everybody's anyway). At least it was only 30 quid a night, but I managed to spend half that on snacks in Bowmore co-op to keep me going for the rest of the day!

It wasn't long before we headed out again, this time to some of the more out of the way corners of the island. Today the weather was more variable, but we fared better than we could have. I showed my remarkable ability to adapt to my environment by improvising the back seats and my tripod so I never needed to get out of the car!
Back to those pesky geese... it wasn't too long before we found one. A small, pale bird, this was a Richardson's Canada Goose. But the geese today were incredibly wary. At times we would pull up several hundred yards away and the whole flock would become edgy. This flock was no different and I managed to follow the directions and get the bird for all of about five seconds before the whole flock took to the air and disappeared over the brow of a hill.
The first bird we spotted.
(all bird photos thanks to S. Piner)
But the pressure was off now. We were not the most useless birding team ever to hit Islay. It wasn't long before I clocked another Canada Goose in a distant flock. This one was a slightly different structure, slightly long in body and in head profile, and darker overall. Maybe a different race, but not so straightforward.
Anyway, non birders will now be feeling flummoxed. So enough of the detail.
Here's a Where's Wally for you to do.
I'll reproduce that photo from the beginning of this blog. But look very closely.
For, in amongst all the Barnacle Geese there is a Canada Goose. It has a darker back and a different head pattern (more black, with a white cheek.) See if you can find it.

After all, this is what we spent the best part of three days doing. At one point we even had one of our party searching a flock for a fictional bird!

The second bird.

Over the next day and a half we drove just about every road on Islay. We did get more views of 'our' Canada Geese, but I would be quite surprised if there were more than two present on the whole island. We also encountered a brutish adult Glaucous Gull, a couple of Golden Eagles and a couple more White-tailed Eagles.

More views of the first goose.
Farewell Islay!
Our return journey on Sunday night was complicated by my desire to get to Durham to see a Myrtle Warbler,  a little bird from America which had survived the winter so far by visiting garden feeders. Unfortunately I had to drive south from Lancashire for two hours to drop somebody off before heading back up North. I arrived at three in the morning and slept in the car while outside froze over. I awoke just once, cold at 5.30 am, but I just emptied my bag of clothes over me and slept till first light. It was then that I moved the car and ploughed straight into the kerb on the black ice. The road was so slippy that even walking on it was hazardous. Not too much damage done hopefully, just a slightly wobbly steering wheel on the way home back to the farm.

And on the farm front, the Cayuga ducks have a week's stay of execution thanks to that icy road. They were due to go to the poulterers on Monday, but my car has to go to the garage instead now.
Sad news on another front though. The Poland cockerel which I didn't sell committed suicide while I was away by drowning himself in a bath of water. Maybe he was missing his pal?
Sad, but these things happen, thankfully only very occasionally.

But after this long weekend, I'll never look at my eight farm geese in the same light again.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Potato day

I've been hearing about an organisation called the Cambridgeshire Self-Sufficiency Group who seem to be doing some good stuff. I've finally tracked them down, as today they held their fifth annual Potato Day in Huntingdon.

I couldn't quite work out why it's taken me three years to hear about them and track them down. Even when they were mentioned, at the Fenland Smallholders Club, they were mentioned in hushed voices.

Anyway, I finally got to the bottom of it a few weeks ago. They were, apparently, a splinter group from the Fenland Smallholders! Formed after an acrimonious split, it would seem.

It's ridiculous, but from what I can make out the Smallholders Club was rife with politics when I first joined it and is only just really emerging from that period.

Anyway, that's all I'm saying... before I put my foot right in it. Except that today I joined them, so I now have a foot in both camps!

So, the Potato Day.
40 varieties of seed potato to choose from, a seed swap, potato dishes, craft stand...

I've already purchased my potatoes for this year, but I found out today that I could have purchased most of them at this event. Having said that, the petrol money would cancel out most of my savings, but if I could find a reason to go to Huntingdon anyway... Plus I'd like to support the group's efforts.

I currently buy my seed potatoes directly from Scotland, from a company called JBA seed potatoes. They have a very informative website here. I've always been very happy with the spuds I've received and they don't charge a ridiculous amount, either for the seed potatoes or for the postage.

They have 55 varieties to choose from, which means I can have red, white, waxy, floury, early, late, salad, bakers, chippers, roasters, boilers. Whatever I want.
There is an amazing variety of potatoes with such different qualities. So much so that I virtually regard them as different vegetables. How can you compare a Charlotte with a Romano, a Bonnie with a Pink Fir Apple?

So, here are the varieties I'm growing this year. I've pretty much settled on my selection now as my experimentation over the last few years has taught me which varieties taste best and grow best.

First Earlies: I'm growing Dunluce this year. It was between these and Arran Pilot. Also a red first early, Red Duke of York which makes excellent chips, unusual for an early.

Second Early: Bonnies - fantastic for baking and last well in the ground. Charlotte - a classic salad potato.

Maincrop: Romano - an updated version of Desiree, which has served me very well in the past. Orla - an organic growers' favourite. Cara - a basic white maincrop. Pink Fir Apple - a novelty shape salad potato. Does well in non-blight years.

This selection should give me potatoes throughout the year and I'll never get bored of them.

So today also marked a special day come round again in the calendar. For it was time to start chitting the potatoes. This is the process where they are exposed to the light and laid out to allow shoots to start to form. This gives them a headstart when they are planted and can make a considerable difference to final yield. It also allows an earlier crop.
The only tricky thing about chitting is getting the spuds the right way up! You sometimes have to look very carefully for the cluster of small eyes from which the shoots will develop.
There's a little pruning to do too, as you don't want too many shoots. It doesn't matter too much, you'll just get more, but smaller potatoes.
Some of these shoots will be sacrificed.
The potatoes are laid out carefully in egg boxes.
It's important to label them, as they can all look very similar.

The distinctive shape of
Pink Fir Apples potatoes.

So I opened up my boxes today and discovered that some of them were already chomping at the bit. They'll need a bit of a haircut. For the leggier shoots will have grown too long and spindly by the time I can put them in the ground. Thank goodness there is enough energy in those insignificant little tubers to be able to regrow healthy shoots quite quickly.
There is a crucial bit of timing involved too, as a late frost will catch any emerging vegetation and set the potatoes right back, undoing much of the preparatory work. The only way to get over this is to earth up over them if a cold night threatens... if only I didn't have a job to do as well.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Happy Valentine's!

I'd like to wish everybody out there a happy Valentine's Day.

And we all know that Valentine's Day means.... Goose eggs!

That's right. Forget chocolates. Forget flowers. Forget romance. For Valentine's Day is traditionally the date when geese start laying.
(At this point our broody hen, Elvis, takes a huge gulp, as I have threatened to give her some goose eggs to hatch out!)

Not all geese can read the calendar correctly and we have friends whose geese have, for the last three years, started laying some time in advance of this, even as early as late December.
But our geese are cleverer. They at least have waited for February and it was not really a surprise when I received a text last weekend which simple read 'Goose egg!'

The ganders have been slightly more macho of late, baring their teeth, honking and stomping, at each other and at humans! But in reality they are not too aggressive and have not yet started to defend the nest. Maybe this will change when one of the geese decides she wants to sit.

For the moment at least, we furtively remove each egg which is laid, however carefully the geese are to hide them deep under the straw in their nest. They really do make the most enormous omelette or boiled egg!

Blokes Baking
Now, you may be thinking that I shouldn't be talking about goose eggs on such a romantic day. Well, there is a little bit of romance left in these old bones. For last night was the second ever gathering of the Blokes Baking Group which I run. I had deliberately moved it forward a day so that we could all make romantic bakes for our loved ones.

Piping skills in action
- just like using decorators caulk and a cartridge gun!
It took quite some searching to find a couple of recipes which would be fitting for the occasion. I finally settled on Red Velvet Whoopie Pies and Chocolate Florentines. These recipes would test out our skills to the limit and quite possibly beyond. Piping bags were involved, as were electric hand whisks.
Never mind though, it was just like using a DIY cartridge gun and a plaster mixer! And trowelling the cream cheese icing between the whoopie biscuits was just like brick laying.

Well, actually, I did a run through the night before so that I could find all the pitfalls. This helped considerably with the Whoopie Pies, the second batch being a considerable improvement on the first.

Red Velvet Whoopie Pies - suitably romantic!
(The beer bottles in the background are to keep the table cloth on)
The Chocolate Florentines though were a different story. On Wednesday's practice run, everything went smoothly until I spooned dollops onto oiled baking trays. It was immediately obvious that the toffee mix was going to spread everywhere, especially when it had to go in the oven for ten minutes. Less immediately obvious was the fact that there was an infinitecimally small time margin when it could be extricated from the baking sheets. On one side of this millisecond, it simply disintegrated. On the other side, it was hermetically sealed to the baking sheets. We ended up scraping it all off, reheating it and putting it into Yorkshire pudding trays, without much success. We did manage to bind some of them together using melted chocolate, but it was not a very successful salvage job.

So when it came to Thursday evening, when I was supposed to be the expert, I made a few tweaks and rather unwisely stuck to the same recipe. I substituted the margarine (cheapskate) for butter and tried silicone baking trays and others lined with oiled parchment.
Carefully spooning out the Florentine mixture!
Again, though they appeared better before going into the oven, again the toffee just melted into a sea! At least those in the silicone trays, after a quick blast in the freezer, did come out in one piece. The ones on the baking parchment, however, had inseparably bonded with the greaseproof paper.

Oh, how I wish that whoever compiles these cookery books would actually try out the recipes first, following their own instructions.

Anyway, enough was made for us all to make a fitting romantic gesture in the morning. Brownie points were definitely earned and we had a great evening into the deal!

If you want the recipes for these dishes, please visit the Blokes Baking Blog.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Goodbye FOD

Something is missing from the landscape of our farm. For FOD has gone, moved to a new home. As much as I liked the idea of having a tractor, FOD was just too big and cumbersome a beast for my needs. He was just sitting forlornly outside, gradually getting rustier.
In fact, he had become something of a liability. On the infrequent occasions when he was moved his battery would always have gone flat. His front arms had sunk to the ground, preventing him moving and his only use for the last year or so was as a shelter for the sheep and as an occasional shelter from the rain if I got caught out in the open.
So when somebody offered to take him off my hands, it solved a bit of a problem. Four blokes turned up with a spare battery and set about getting FOD started up and moving. There's no way I could have done this myself. I was anxious that the bucket, which weighs a ton, went with him too, but this had been taken off and left in the spare veg patch quite some time ago.
I did not have high hopes of anybody managing to drive the tractor across the sodden soil far enough to retrieve the bucket, but it did just about make it. The job of manhandling machine and bucket into the correct position was not an easy one and required muscle, brute force, a lot of levering courtesy of a couple of large wooden posts and a fair bit of luck.
But eventually the pins were in place, which made FOD even more cumbersome to steer and even heavier to sink into the mud.
But eventually he was out and ready to go.
Gerry - look carefully, he's seated in the small bucket on the front - couldn't resist one final ride.
Then FOD was off on his longest journey for quite some time. Good job it was on country roads.

And there goes my dream of taking him out onto a busy road and holding up all the traffic!


Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The flat earth society of chickens

Chickens have a very clear mission in life - to make the earth flat. In this case they are doing their level best to eradicate all signs of the muck heap. Or is it just that they've discovered it is absolutely alive with worms and other tasty bugs?
This muck heap will stand a good while longer to completely rot down. The one to the left is ready for this year's potato beds as soon as the weather allows.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Hedging my bets

This Sunday just gone couldn't have been more different to the previous one. Thunder, lightning and hail were replaced by bright sunshine. Great tits burst into song (they do this whenever there is a hint of spring in the air. Will they never learn?), blue tits prospected for nest sites and, most delightfully the first skylark song of the year rang out all day long.

There was still a fairly stiff breeze though. This is a price we pay here on The Fens in exchange for huge skies and 360 degrees of almost uninterrupted horizon. Another plus is that the breeze has managed to dry out the ground a little. The mud is now a little less slippy and a bit more sticky!

I've resisted surrounding our land with laurels or leylandii, but there are times when I wish there was a bit more shelter. The same goes for the chickens and my vegetable plants. Pigs and sheep don't seem so bothered.
Give it a couple of years and this will be a magnificent privet hedge.

So I have come up with a plan, but it's one that requires a fair degree of patience. I've decided to plant a series of hedges to break up the worst of the wind. I'd already done some of this with an edible hedgerow, which is growing and thickening up nicely, but at this time of year deciduous plants do little to stop a harsh wind blowing through.

So I spent this Sunday planting 150 bareroot plants. I purchased them on the internet and I have to say I was very pleased indeed with the quality of the plants. They had excellent root systems and should settle in very quickly. After yesterday's post about the merits of taking cuttings, I could have gone down the cuttings route for my hedges, but a three year heads start was, in this case, well worth it. I can always add the cuttings into the scheme if they take.

The main hedging plant I've used is good old privet. It holds most of its leaves throughout the year, it grows relatively quickly and its fairly easy to keep at a reasonable height, which means I can still scan the fields for birds and still enjoy expansive views. It's not the native form, but it still provides a very reasonable habitat and cover.
More privet to give the chickens a break from the wind.

I also purchased a moderate number of copper beech plants. These are, in fact, Sue's early Valentine's present as this is her favourite tree. Not just a good looker, copper beech also hangs onto its leaves through the winter when its kept as a hedge. Not only that, but they rustle. I love a bit of rustling.

The geese inspecting my new copper beech hedge.
Come back in five years and listen to them rustle
(the beech leaves, not the geese!)

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Cutting Edge of Gardening

Red dogwood
Just sticks poked into a pot, or a future forest?
The gardening industry must be rubbing their hands in glee. With just a bit of expert knowledge, the sort that every decent gardener of yesteryear would have, just a few plants can be reproduced many times over. Imagine if you put £1000 in a bank with the knowledge that in a couple of year's time it would repay you tenfold at least.
Well, in gardening terms, you just cut a little bit off one of your plants - in fact you do this anyway every time you prune or cut a hedge - but instead of throwing all the cuttings away, you plonk them into a pot or directly into the soil and wait. With a little patience, hey presto! You have many new plants. (OK, it's a bit more technical than that, but not a lot).
Most people, myself included, have missed out on this trick. They either lack the knowledge or lack the patience to wait a couple of years. Or both. They prefer to spend out now and have the instant gratification of a plant they can take home and place straight into their garden scheme.

However, all my gardening and land management here on the farm is on a somewhat bigger scale than I have been used to. If I purchased every plant fully grown, I'd have a choice between an empty garden or an empty bank balance!
The demonstration of soft fruit propagation which Steve gave at the last Veg Growers group has, however, sparked me into action. I don't really know what I'm doing. I try to teach myself on the internet to the point when I'm feeling a little confused, then I just have a go.

I know from doing conservation work in the past that if you cut a willow and poke it in the ground, chances are it'll grow. This has been used as a method for stabilising river banks. I know that there's a difference between hardwood cuttings and softwood cuttings. I know that different techniques are better for different plants, and that different techniques need to be applied at different times of the year to match in with the plant's growing habits. And that's about it...except that a rainy afternoon spent preparing cuttings in the polytunnel costs nothing, keeps me out of harm's way and, with a bit of luck, may yield many, many new plants for the future.

Laurels by the lorryload
and a little Wild Privet too
So, here is the product of last Sunday's pottering.

Budding buddleias
Rosa Rugosa - VERY spiky!
Flaming willow
The polytunnel was indeed a wise workplace to choose, as we had a belter of a storm circling around for much of the time, thunderclaps, lightning forks and hail by the bucketload. It certainly sounded loud in the polytunnel.
Anyway, all I need to do now is sit back until late autumn and hope that some of them have rooted. They will go outside in the spring and I'll dig the pots in a little so they don't dry up.

I reckon there's something to be said for the ways of the old gardeners. Looking back could well be the way forward.

Meanwhile, here's a peek at the soft fruit cuttings I took the weekend before. They've gone straight into the ground outside, though not without a little luxury. They have the only carpeted beds for miles around!

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Ducks demand recount

Can you spot the odd one out?

Think you've spotted it?
I'm afraid I'm not sure if I can help you. I think it's the bottom middle but, on closer inspection, there may even be two odd ones out! I couldn't even tell in the flesh, let alone from a photo.

So you'll imagine my surprise when the penny finally dropped. Eight of these are not what I thought they were.

Let's take a step back a week:
January's nearing its end and the chickens are laying more and more eggs every day. The Crested Cream Legbars, which lay beautiful blue eggs, have been laying very well of late. That's to put it mildly, for I am beginning to suspect that two hens are somehow conspiring to lay more than two eggs per day! I'm not quite sure, for I collect eggs several times a day and don't always remember what I've collected. Furthermore the morning eggs could, in theory, have been laid late the previous day. All other possibilities seem impossible though. The other hens do not lay blue eggs. The young Cream Legbar hen is still a chick and could not feasibly be laying eggs yet. And it is pretty unlikely that Spike the Cockerel has started to lay!

Now fast forward to yesterday:
This morning I found a blue egg lying all on its own in the mud. This is very unusual behaviour from one of the Cream Legbar hens.

Yesterday afternoon:
I collected another three blue eggs. Something is clearly up.

Then I realised. I can't believe I have been so short-sighted. Ducks! Not the three white ducks, who lay white eggs, but the black Cayugas... who lay blue eggs. Or, more precisely, the young Cayugas, the ones who are due to be going off to the poultry house in the sky round about February half term.

Once I'd realised, it all fell into place. For Cayuga eggs have a strange, dark film on them, a bit like dirtied eggs but it won't quite wash off. They're a subtly different shape to hen eggs and usually much larger. I guess it was because they are being laid by ducks just coming into lay that had me fooled, for the size difference is not yet marked.

So it appears that Chickens 8, Ducks 1 may well have been wrong. It was probably Chickens 6, Ducks 3. That's actually more eggs per duck than per hen.

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