Thursday, 27 March 2014

Wanton Vandalism

It can be slightly disheartening when you've spent several hours (and pounds) on a project, only for it to be vandalised in the dead of night. I thought that moving to the countryside would get me away from such wanton destruction.
But fear not. One of the perpetrators has been caught on camera and summarily dispatched!

A while ago, Sue planted up a couple of dozen young fir trees for me. Every year a local nursery flogs them off for a pound each after Christmas. And that was that... or so I thought.
Next time I passed the garden centre I popped in to see if they had any more and came away with another dozen. My plan was to grow them on the east side of the chicken pen. It's not often the wind comes from this direction, but when it does you generally know about it as it bites into your skin.

Anyway, the operation was going very well until I decided to go and inspect those which Sue had planted. It took me a while to locate them, which seemed a little strange until I started finding small sticks poking out of the ground with pine needles attached. Something had taken to nibbling off the young branches! There they were, just discarded on the ground. I instantly knew the culprit - rabbits! I set about scavenging tree guards from around the garden. As a temporary measure anything would do.



Two days later, I inspected the saplings which I had planted and several of them had lower branchlets nibbled off too. I hastily erected a makeshift fence and quickly got on the internet to order a roll of treeguard mesh.
Temporary protection hastily erected.

This mesh comes on a roll.
Conifers need the open mesh.
And so last week my main tasks were interrupted as I set about protecting my young trees. It doesn't look so pretty now, but give it a few years...


Mesh guards and animal feed bags underneath to act as a mulch.
Back to the perpetrators. Here's the one I caught on camera. But there are more out there, and this is (was) just a baby.
No escape!

Saturday, 22 March 2014

I See, I See, I See

I used to think that I would grow old disgracefully, but now that I'm getting there, I've decided that gracefully will be a lot less hassle.
Nature is a wonderful thing. It's amazing how, as your body goes into a slow deterioration, your eyesight begins to fade so you don't notice it quite so much when you look in the mirror. Those grey hairs blur into the brown and the wrinkles smooth out. I've been managing for quite some time with 99p shop reading glasses. I get through a pair every couple of weeks, as they're constantly coming in and out of my back pocket. But it's a right pain. Even just taking a photo, they come off so I can look at the subject, back on so I can see the camera. On and off all the time. Then I sit down or forget they're in a pocket and either the arm or the frame snaps or the lens scratches. The children at school always notice. "Is that a new pair of glasses Mr Pegden?"
I peer over the top and explain how the last pair broke.

It must be several years now since my arms became too short to hold the book far enough away that I could focus on the words. But in the last couple of years, something else has happened. For everything in the distance has also become blurred, and everything in between. I can no longer see how long is left when I watch football on the TV. I can hardly even read the TV guide. Even the large writing on signs has become difficult to read and I have completely given up on small print.
But the real crunch has come in the last few months. And it's serious. For I can no longer tell a sparrow from a chaffinch, a blue tit from a goldfinch, a redwing from a song thrush. Of course, there are still clues, such as the way a bird feeds, hops or flies, the calls it makes. But without clear vision, I very much doubt I would be able to pick out the subtle differences if a rare little warbler was hopping about in a hedge right in front of me.

So yesterday I took the plunge. I'd been to King's Lynn Hospital for an ultrasound (I have become more familiar with the NHS as I have got older too) and we needed to pop into the big Tesco to buy some ingredients for the Blokes Baking Group. It's not often these days that we visit the supermarket, let alone what they now call a superstore. And so it was that I noticed the in-store opticians. "Do I need to make an appointment?" "We might be able to fit you in today, Sir." Well, I had things to do, places to go, and didn't intend to hang around on the outskirts of King's Lynn for several hours. "We could do you now."

So that was that. My first eye test since university. And boy, did I need it! Miracles happened. Tiny writing which I'd long since given up on, even with the aid of reading glasses, came alive. And looking beyond that, the world leapt into clarity. Distant blurred objects suddenly became crisp and sharp. I chose my frames, bought every option on the lenses and purchased my vision back. All I have to do now is wait a couple of weeks while my new bionic body part is manufactured.

My new eyes should be with me just in time for the main migration period.

It's scary how you can not notice a gradual change until you are able to take a step back in time and see how things used to be.
On that note, my body feels achy this morning. I'm sure it didn't used to feel like this!

Anyway, I'm off to spend the next two weeks looking in the mirror admiring my lack of any grey hair whatsoever and my amazingly smooth skin.
See you all soon!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Woodcock a gogo

Goodness there's been a lot happening on the farm this past week. Warm weather and nights drawing out mean there's no excuse for staying indoors.
A couple of years ago I planted a whole load of conifers and firs down the land, intended as a partial windbreak and as a point of interest halfway down the land. But it didn't quite work out. The difficulty keeping the grass short has meant that the trees got lost and struggled to grow. Added to this, some of them really didn't like the exposed situation and succumbed to the winds. The soil down there is compacted and heavy too, the result of years of agricultural exploitation in the past.

The geese peruse the new planting scheme.
So I decided to take the risk and move the lot of them closer to the farmhouse where they could have more impact. I'm also acutely aware that I may at some stage lose the ash trees, so replacements need to be ready to go. Apart from willows and conifers, I'd be long gone waiting for any other tree to approach the maturity of the old ash trees.



As I trudged through the rough grass, spade in hand, what should fly out but a woodcock - a dumpy bird with a long, straight bill and almost perfect camouflage. In fact, the first one I ever saw caused me quite a shock as I almost stood on it sitting motionless in the leaf litter.
This is only my second woodcock sighting for the farm and came as quite a surprise. I guess it's a migrating bird on it's way back north, like the redwings which are feeding up on the ivy before their flight to their breeding grounds.

Back to the tree moving.
It was an easier job than I'd anticipated, mainly due to their root systems not being very extensive. As long as the rabbits don't destroy them, the evergreens should hopefully soon begin to give more year-round structure and height to the garden.
I mention the rabbits as today I discovered that the twenty four young Christmas trees which Sue planted along the dyke, with the hope that they would eventually form a windbreak, have been wantonly and destructively nibbled! It was enough to divert me from all other tasks to quickly improvise some tree protectors for them. It can be disheartening when something like this happens. Time to call in the rabbit hunter!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Nuts about Almonds

The almond tree in blossom on a foggy morning
The first fruit tree to come into blossom each year is the almond. But the problem is that it usually manages to coincide with early spring cold and windy weather. The wind blows the blossom straight across the Fens and the cold keeps the bees from venturing out to pollenate the flowers.




Last year we got two almonds, which was double the year before. So this year I was ready with the rabbit's tail scavenged from one of Gerry's kills, ready to do the bee's job myself by tickling each flower with the soft fur.
We've now had a week of fine weather with blues skies, soaring temperatures and only the occasional breeze. The almond tree is looking magnificent. Better than that though, the bees have been out and about and it's good to see them returning to the hive, legs laden with pollen. And some of that pollen is coming from the almond tree!


So fingers crossed for the almonds this year. There could be home-made marzipan, bakewell tarts and Christmas nuts for 2014!






Monday, 17 March 2014

Elvis a mum again!!

This is becoming a bit of a recurrent theme on this blog.

Just over three weeks ago Elvis started to sit on her eggs and peck any hand that came near, so we placed ten blue eggs under her, in the hope that this time we might get a few more female Crested Cream Legbars.

They were due to hatch on Saturday evening, a special birthday present for Sue, or Sunday morning. Late Saturday afternoon the guinea fowl were inquisitively hanging around Elvis's coop. Goodness knows how or why, but they always seem to know when a hatching is imminent. I guess they could hear the pipping of the chicks inside the eggs.
When I went to lock up the hens on Saturday evening, I too was fairly certain I could hear a chick and on Sunday morning the first fluffy heads were poking out from under Elvis's feathers.
But Elvis was still sitting tight, so presumably there were more eggs waiting to hatch.

Fast forward to today and I was finally able to count seven chirpy chicks. Elvis had added one of her own eggs to the blue ones we had placed under her.

Elvis has hatched a right motley crew.
Only one, though, is a female Cream Legbar. The good thing about Cream Legbars is that they are autosexing - that means that, unusually in the chicken world, male and female chicks actually look different and can be told apart. As for the rest, well I guess the lady Cream Legbars have been mixing it up a bit with the other young cockerels, for none of them looks pure. We're not too bothered - if we were, we would have isolated the Legbar trio before collecting eggs from them. Goodness knows how one of them seems to have come out pure white!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Veg Plot Plan


It took a while, but I've finally managed to get the main veg plot onto the computer. I had to compress a few paths, as my veg plot actually exceeded the size where it was printable or publishable!

If you want a better look, here's the link
http://gardenplanner.dobies.co.uk/garden-plan.aspx?p=482439

A Winter Job - auditing the seed stock
and planning what's needed for the coming year.
So, I have jumped into the modern age and computerised my garden plans. Not only that, but for the princely sum of £15 I get an e-mail every two weeks telling me what I need to sow or plant. I would usually delight in spending long winter evenings planning my planting scheme for the coming year and carefully drawing it all out. This is OK until I change my mind about something and the whole thing becomes a mess. On the other hand, I do like the feel of a hand-drawn plan, complete with little notes scribbled all over it.
I really couldn't decide whether or not to splash out the fifteen quid annual subscription. What swayed me was that the plan and timings take account of the average last frost date for your postcode area. This is a boon, for I get fed up with trying to work out when I should plant something which the books say to sow in "late spring" or "early summer". You simply place vegetables on your plan and they are automatically added to a planting list, complete with dates for sowing, planting outside and harvesting. If you place a cloche or polytunnel over your vegetables, the program cleverly changes the sowing dates for you. You can also put your own notes in or click links to information about said vegetable. You can customise the dates for different varieties too.
The other advantage of this program is that it remembers where things were planted from year to year and will give warnings when the rules of rotation are being broken. This is not such an issue for me, as The Wheel, as I call my main vegetable plot, is designed to make a four way rotation very straightforward, the main groups just rotating round into a new quarter each year.

The Plan in action on the ground




 
The rotation feature is more useful when you have a small space which you are trying to juggle with year on year. For me, this well describes the polytunnel. Another useful feature is the ability to input which months a certain crop will occupy the land for. You can then display the plan as it would look for a particular month. For instance, the early crops in the polytunnel raised beds will come out in late summer to make room for a few Chinese Cabbages.
 
 
For a proper look at the polytunnel plan you can follow this link.
 
 
So that's it. Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could get the computer to do the digging, the sowing, the mowing and the weeding too!

... Actually, no it wouldn't. Too easy.

Friday, 14 March 2014

George and The Girls

George and The Girls on patrol this morning
I've been meaning to update you on George and The Girls for quite some time now. They've settled in well.
 
 
George is a confident young man and I regularly have to square up to him to show who's boss. Having said that, he was (fairly) gently nibbling at my clothes as I was pruning my newly planted hedge the other day. So maybe he just doesn't quite know how to be affectionate yet.
The first egg laid in the new house.
Halfway through construction
of George's new house.


Biggest news is that the girls have started laying their golden eggs. 
For this reason they have had to move out of the stables... which means that I finally had to get round to constructing the shed which had been sitting for months waiting for its big moment.



 



I am still trying to keep the grass as short as possible by grazing the geese over different areas, so George and The Girls have been down to meet the chickens and ducks, they have had free reign in the veg patch and they have even seen our sow, Daisy (who is still not in the freezer).

Every morning now, the two sets of geese engage in a bout of mutual honking at each other before heading off to their respective bits of the garden.


The white Embdens are laying well too. Their eggs are for selling and for eating. We're leaving the Dewlaps' eggs in their nest (which grows in height day by day) in the hope that one of the girls decides to sit on them. But we'll probably attempt to hatch some out in the incubator too.
Elvis escaped the threat of having to sit on goose eggs. She is, though, currently sat on a dozen blue eggs from the Crested Cream Legbars. In fact they are due to hatch this Sunday.

Elvis is looking forward to her new clutch hatching.




 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Mr Rotavator and The Slug Squad.

The Slug Squad
I'd been waiting for this moment. The soil has gradually been drying out, though receiving the odd top up of water. A week of fine, dry weather made conditions look promising and when the forecast for the weekend was of blue skies and balmy temperatures (well, relatively) I was chomping at the bit to dust down Mr Rotavator and try to turn the soil on some of my veg beds. I have 8 beds for perennials, which don't need too much work and another 36 beds in The Wheel, my geometric arrangement of veg beds (post on this coming very soon). That's not to mention the fruit beds and the 'Spare Veg Patch' where I grow the larger veg such as pumpkins, sweetcorn and my fodder crops.
The garlic I've already planted is doing very well.


I desperately needed to rotavate the patches where the last of the garlic - a bit late I know - was going to be planted as well as the shallot patch and the bed reserved for broad beans. Next on the list were the potato beds, as I'm hoping to get the earlies in next weekend. Finally, I wanted to turn the soil between the asparagus ridges so I can mound up the ridges again.




Unfortunately it's often not just a case of running the rotavator over the bed. If any perennial weeds have crept in, this would be a sure way of spreading them. The weed situation is improving year on year as I gradually wear them down, the dandelions especially. But nettles and docks are always appearing, particularly if the beds were slightly neglected at the end of the previous year. The good news is that, at this time of year, their root systems are not too well developed and the soil is wet enough to get them out properly.

My aim for Sunday was to turn the soil in ten beds. This would be over a quarter of the total and would be a good start to the year. The longer I can stay ahead of myself, the better. For there will inevitably come a point in the year when deadlines start slipping and ideal timings are not met.
The soil was good. Just dry enough so that most of it did not stick to my wellies or clog up the rotavator. The sun bore down all day and, in the company of the chickens and the duck slug squad, who have learned to come to the sound of the rotavator, I pressed on with the task.
The Slug Squad follow the rotavator around,
snaffling up any poor creature unlucky enough to be exposed.

By late afternoon I had weeded and turned an impressive twenty veg beds. How long would that have taken with hand tools? Yet I didn't even have to top up the petrol once. I find it amazing that such a little quantity of fuel can save so much time and energy.

I sat on my favourite bench in the middle of the veg plot, enjoying a fine bottle of beer and contemplating what had been an extraordinarily productive and enjoyable weekend.
In the fading evening light, I watched the tiny flies bouncing up and down over the sign in the centre of my veg plot.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Lambing - The Ins, The Outs and The Offs!


It's early Spring. When the sun shines, it's an optimistic time of year. Daffodils bloom, birds sing, buds swell, blossom bursts forth and lambs are born.
It has to be said though, sheep are pretty rubbish at giving birth and it is not at all unusual for there to be complications. As smallholders we want the best for our ewes and we don't want to lose lambs unnecessarily.
So on 8th March several of us attended a lambing day at Church Farm Rare Breeds Centre in Stow Bardolph. The day was run by Vets1 Ltd and was free, including lunch!

Unfortunately Katherine had been called out to a farm, so Victoria gave her first ever presentation in the morning and did a very good job of it. With the aid of an excellent slideshow, she taught us everything we needed to know about keeping ewes in good condition, vaccinations, common lambing problems and delivering healthy lambs.

 
Body Condition Scoring - honestly!
Baby animals drawing the crowds
We took lunch in the main café area of the farm. It was a beautiful weekend day and there were lots of cute lambs and piglets around. So the farm was very busy and it was great to see so many children learning about animals. Maybe some of them will be the smallholders of the future!


This is when the men all crossed their legs!



Tail docking - humane and
necessary to help control flystrike
After lunch, it was time to get practical. We split into two groups. One group headed off to the lambing pens, where we learned to castrate and to tail dock. This was a hands on session which really was very useful indeed. The vets and farm staff could not have been more helpful. We also got to practice scoring sheep for the body fat levels. You can't necessarily be fooled by all that wool!
Then is was back into the education barn where Katherine had a lambing simulator. We donned our long gloves and delved in, trying to remember everything we'd been taught in the morning and trying to figure out which position the lamb was in. Again, this hands on experience was fantastic.


Trying to work out which way
the lamb is presented
and how best to get it out.
But there was drama too. For Katherine was summoned to a ewe with a prolapse. This was a ewe which we had only left maybe fifteen minutes before - a coincidence which really brought it home that knowledge, experience and professional intervention when necessary are all vital to the welfare of our sheep. Fortunately all turned out well.

Vets in Action.
A real life emergency.
At the end of the day, we were all very happy indeed. Not only had we attended an excellent course, but we had been fed and we had a free pen and notepad. But there was more, for we were presented with our very own lambing boxes, complete with lube, iodine, long gloves, colostrum, digital thermometer, lambing ropes and some very useful information. In fact, everything necessary to be well prepared for the lambing season.

It just remains to once again thank the folks at Vets1 Ltd and Church Farm for their help, generosity and hospitality.
Hopefully, very soon the notes we received from the course will be on the Fenland Smallholders Website www.fgsc.org.uk

Friday, 7 March 2014

Spring Frost Threatens Seedlings

















Well, we're seven days into spring and I think we've had more frosts than we did all winter. I guess that's what's happens when the Jetstream shifts that little bit further south.

Typically, the first rather sharp frost was the very same night when I chose to put my newly emerged tomato and leek seedlings into the polytunnel. There is a certain excitement when the first seed of the year germinates. It's all systems go until about November. To see it withered and frostbitten would be somewhat deflating. Okay, they'd gone into a polytunnel in a minigreenhouse over a hotbed. But this could be the shortest lived experiment ever. The day before it had reached 88 degrees in the microclimate I'd set up for them, but a dip to close to zero might not be good news for a tender day-old shoot.

I tentatively stepped inside the tunnel, unzipped the minigreenhouse and found...


Happy as Larry. Not just that, but they'd come on quite a bit even since yesterday. The day ahead was absolutely glorious too. In fact, it's been quite some start to spring with blue skies during the day and stunning clear skies at night (hence the frosts).
The seedlings continue to do well and I've been busily sowing tray upon tray in the dining room. As soon as they germinate I'll throw them out into the polytunnel so the conveyor belt can keep moving.

The only problem with the hotbed idea so far is that it has given rise to a plague of small flies. But I'm hoping that's just a reaction to going into the warmth of the polytunnel and that it will soon disperse.
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