Saturday, 30 August 2014

Guinea Gnanza

"Money is the seed of money and the first guinea is sometimes more difficult to acquire than the second million." I think Jean-Jacques Rousseau may have been confusing his guineas.

I really wasn't holding out much hope so I didn't mention this before. The appointed time has been approaching, but I wasn't sure when they started sitting. They just quietly slipped off and were only conspicuous by their absence on the roosting fence at night.
Last year they laid dozens of eggs but we did our best to disrupt them. We didn't want a whole population roaming around the place. We decided that a family of eleven was enough. Eventually some did sneak off and sit, but it all came to nothing.

This year I decided to let them sit, on condition that if any hatch we start eating them! (We will, of course, wait until they are a bit bigger). And so, for a while now, there have only been five guineafowl sitting on the fence at night, presumably the males.

There are three nests: one in the corner of the chicken pen where three fowl have been sitting on 32 eggs; one under the soft fruits, containing maybe 15 or so eggs sat upon by two fowl; the third took some finding. I presume it's the oldest female who has buried herself deep in the grass in the young woodland. I have no idea how many eggs she is sitting on.

A couple of days ago there was a false alarm when all five males were in close attendance of the nest in the chicken pen. I was half expecting to see stripy heads poking out from under the wings of their mothers, but when they moved there were just 32 eggs to be seen.

Anyone with any ability in maths has probably worked out that we could end up with rather a lot of guineafowl! But I've not been optimistic about the chances of any hatching and even if some do, they will run the gauntlet of rats and other predators. Guineafowl are brave and protective parents though. More of a threat will be long, damp grass, for this kills more guineafowl chicks than anything else.

Well, if you've been reading carefully, you've probably guessed that today the hatching has begun! I went to give the chickens their afternoon feed and collect eggs when I noticed that only one guineafowl hen was sitting in the corner. Half the eggs had disappeared and there were eggshell remnants in the grass. Not quite sure what had gone on, I guessed that maybe something (rat?) had disturbed the nest. But as I approached close, the hen got up and there, on top of all the other eggs, were three extremely small guineafowl chicks.

I quickly retreated and left them in peace. Only another 29 to hatch. That's from this nest! Pictures to follow.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Big, Bouncy Recycling

I collect as much rainwater as I can, of course. I am, after all, on metered water. There are some green reasons too, and water quality. Plants, unlike us, would rather their drink wasn't cold, hard and treated.

I have some green water butts, but they are getting old and need a bit of attention. When we moved here, there were also two 1000 litre containers balanced on pallets. They are industrial / agricultural and fairly easy to get round here. If I remember correctly, they are known as IPCs, though it could be three different letters!
Anyway, the guttering from the outbuildings had been cobbled together to lead the water into these. The trouble was that when they filled up the water just spilled out of the top. Not a problem in itself, except that a tower of pallets with a tonne of water on top does not last long, especially when it is being constantly dowsed in water.

Eventually I had to take the IPCs down and since then I have been trying to come up with a way of raising them up. Sleepers was an option, but not a cheap one. Concrete plinths was another option, again not cheap and I don't really like using concrete unless I have to.

But last week I had a bit of a brainwave. What about tyres? What about tractor tyres? A quick look on ebay and I'd placed a bid. £1 for two. Two days later and I'd won them, for 99p. Three days later and I'd got the measurements and figured out they wouldn't fit in my car or my livestock trailer!

Over to Don the friendly neighbour, and yesterday morning I was heading over to the other side of Kings Lynn to collect my tractor tyres. When I got there, they were huge! Goodness knows how big the tractor had been. Not only that, but they were heavy, especially as the rims had filled with water. We had about an inch to spare across the trailer, but unfortunately they wouldn't quite both fit in flat lengthways, which made for a somewhat bouncy drive home. I certainly drove gently, especially along some of our bumpier fenland roads.

An unusual load

I kept a careful eye on my bouncy load on the way home.
 I got back to the farm and set about hauling and rolling the tyres into position.

Giant specs
There was always the chance that they would be too big for the IPCs, in which case they would make impressive raised beds. But actually they were a pretty good fit.

The next test is whether or not they will support 1000kg of water. If not, the plan is to fill them with rubble and soil. If that still doesn't work, it'll be back to raised beds and trying to figure out how to raise the IPCs off the ground.
An afternoon of teaching myself how to route guttering and I now have a way of capturing two cubic metres of water at a time. A little more plumbing and they will be connected to hosepipes and have overflows leading to a pond which is not yet dug.

All I need now is a good rainstorm

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Something New With Tomatoes

Read on to find out what I've down to these tomatoes
It's been a great year for tomatoes and we have all shapes and colours pouring out of the polytunnel. Sue usually cooks them up, removes the skins and then freezes them. We use them through the year in the same way as tinned tomatoes.
But when another basketful came into the kitchen, we had a problem. Freezers full, plenty enough tomatoes for the coming year.
So I decided to try something different. We recently purchased a steam juicer. It's basically just a steamer with a tube. The steam breaks down the cells in the fruit and pure juice trickles down the tube ready for collection.
And so I loaded up the tomatoes and turned on the gas. It wasn't too long before I'd collected half a pan of translucent tomato juice. I kept steaming until the tomatoes looked pretty sorry for themselves and I had a whole pan of juice.

With my mind on freezer space, I left Sue to watch the pan as we reduced it further and further until it fitted into an ice cube tray.

I wasn't sure what it would taste like, but a dip of the finger and a lick of the tongue was enough to know that we had created something with a vibrant zing to it. A bucketful of tangy tomatoiness in a tiny package. It packed a real punch and will really add a new dimension to our cooking.

As for those rather sorry looking tomatoes, they still had too much flesh inside to ignore.
I wasn't sure whether or not all the flavour would have been already extracted, but decided to push everything through a sieve and see what I got. Again, I reduced it down, though not so drastically. Again it was really tomatoey and will make a great sauce for pasta or to go on a pizza. Alternatively, I can just use a cube instead of tomato paste when I need.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Sheep Scare

Every day I visit the sheep at least twice, often much more. It's important to keep an eye on them, for if one is afflicted by flystrike it can go downhill very quickly. Last week I headed down the land in the morning and my heart sank when I saw a bundle of wool just laying in the grass. It just didn't look right to be sleeping or resting. Something was up. But all the sheep had been fine the previous evening. No illness could strike this quickly, could it? It reminded me of when I found the goose after a fox attack a couple of years ago. But surely the sheep are too big now for this to happen. I clapped my hands hoping that the bundle would lift its head and get to its legs, but nothing. As I approached further, I could see that it was number 6, always the smallest and the weakest. It had only just recovered from a limp which seemed to go on for an age.
As I approached closer, it moved. I ran over and found it fatigued but wriggling and unable to right itself. How can a species survive which is more than capable of rolling onto its back and getting stuck? I lifted number 6 to its feet expecting it to run off ungratefully, but instead its legs gave way and it flopped back onto the ground. I was worried but frustratingly could see nothing obvious to cause this. I lifted her again, this time supporting her, and she managed to stay upright, but quickly sat back down and rolled onto her side when I moved away. I began to contemplate calling the vet for advice, but decided to try just once more. I stayed with her for a few more minutes, steadying her when she wobbled, and then she just waddled off as if nothing had happened.
A little wobbly and a little messy. But still standing.

I guess she had rolled over and tired herself out trying to right herself. Obviously her two left legs had gone to sleep which explains why it took her so long to be able to stand and walk again.
But it shows the importance of checking on the sheep.

Anyhow, back to today and moving the sheep. I keep my sheep on a strip-grazing system. This sounds complicated but it's not. All it means is that I divide the grazing land into sections and move the sheep around the sections in rotation. They munch one area until there's not much left to munch, then they get a fresh green area to gorge on for a week. By the time they get back to the first one, there should be plenty of lush grass in there again.

Ready to move to a new area.
One section seems to be enough to last the sheep for a week, so every Friday it is time to move them on. The operation today would be interesting, for one sheep, the White-faced Woodland, has taken to crossing the line. It has worked out that the electricity only pulses through the fence every second and that if it puts its head down and goes for it, those horns and the coating of wool will see it safely through to the other side. (I'm not actually sure it has quite worked out all the detail, suffice to say that every time I go down to the sheep it is on the greener side of the fence!) It doesn't really matter, as he still stays with the flock, just preferring to eat the greener grass on the other side. Unlike the Shetlands, he doesn't destroy the trees and if I need to he is tame enough to catch.

There's always one!
So I duly created a gap in the fence and called the sheep. Once the first comes, it doesn't take long for the rest to follow. "Hang on a minute! He's eating the green grass over there." Of course, a couple were so busy munching that they didn't notice. Another couple of ewes were engaged in a tussle until they eventually noticed and trotted through the gap.


In no time at all, 18 sheep were moved onto new pasture. That just left one. White-faced Woodland was running up and down bleating. Where were all his friends going? He still respects the fence enough that it is some kind of barrier. I let him worry for a while. Maybe it will be a lesson not to keep crossing the fence.
Eventually he found his way through and all was well. But I expect it won't be long until he decides that the grass on the other side is greener!
White-faced Woodland reunited.

And that just leaves two sheep unaccounted for. My Shetland ram and his wether companion. I have moved them into the pigs' old quarters, which has rapidly become overgrown with weeds, in the hope that they will do me a favour and munch it clear again. But I always have to give them a helping hand, chopping most of it down with a grass hook. I guess that some of the stronger tastes must dissipate once the weeds have wilted a little. Anyway, they seem happy enough in there and haven't tried to escape (yet).

Friday, 22 August 2014

Barnsdale Gardens

Every now and again we deliberately try to have a day away from the smallholding, for as much as we enjoy it, we can still fall into the trap of not stepping back to appreciate what we've achieved.

Last Sunday was the Veg Group's summer outing and we had arranged to all meet up at Barnsdale Gardens, just up the A1 near Rutland Water. These were the gardens from where Geoff Hamilton presented Gardener's World when I were a lad.

Fortunately the weather held, just. At a leisurely pace (we don't spend enough time at this pace) we strolled around a series of 39 gardens, each holding trinkets of inspiration.
Some of these ideas will be appearing in my garden soon, maybe.

I returned to Swallow Farm full of plans. So far I've not spent much time on the ornamental side of the garden and what I have attempted has been seriously undermined by the rabbits (as an aside, I have seen a couple with signs of myxomatosis of late. I knew it was near, so it was only a matter of time before it hit the out of control population here. I have 'myxed' emotions about this.)

But I was not lured by the Barnsdale nursery. Instead I have started searching out the seeds I need and looking around for suitable subjects for cuttings.
A trip to a local plant cash'n'carry resulted in the extremely reasonable purchase of 17 box hedging plants and 6 lonicera nitida. From these I have taken a fair multitude of cuttings.


I reckon that in another twenty years or so Swallow Farm will be ready to open to the public!

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Sweetcorn Salome

The sweetcorn this year has performed slightly oddly. The cobs have swelled and ripened well, but the plants themselves are rather stumpy. The result is that many of the cobs are low down on the plants, within reach of anything that decides to take a nibble.

In the past I have grown my sweetcorn in a 'three sisters' method. This involves growing three crops in one area, corn, squashes (including pumpkins and courgettes) and climbing beans. They are supposed to complement each other in terms of nutritional needs, light and shade. That may work perfectly well in the desert climate where the native American Indians used it, but here in the fens the beans don't seem to do so well in this system.
So this year I tried three different methods of growing my corn.

The first was to grow them in blocks - it is important not to grow sweetcorn in single rows as it is wind-pollinated.
The second was to grow them in stations, 4 sweetcorns, squash, 4 sweetcorns, squash...
The third was to grow a square of 9 corn plants under a wigwam of beans, surrounded by several courgette plants.

In the end, the first two methods did the best. For some reason, those in the third system never got mature enough. Looking back on it, I think they may have gone in a bit later than the others. The beans got nowhere.

So, the conclusion to my experiments is that it does not really matter which pattern you grow it in, as long as it is not in single rows! It does make sense, however, to grow squashes underneath, as the plants quickly creep along the ground between the corn plants and their leaves shade the ground nicely, keeping in the moisture and shading out the weeds.

One reason why my sweetcorn plants were a bit stumpy this year may be that I kept them in modules a little too long. I also used a different supplier, as my original seed supplier stopped stocking my favourite variety, Sweetcorn Lark. I doubt the change of supplier had much to do with anything.

So, when the field next door was harvested a few days ago, I was keen to gather in the corn cobs, for the invading rats are more than capable of climbing a corn plant to reach the succulent cobs, not that they'd need to climb very high this year.
Most of the cobs were nicely swollen and the tassels had turned brown, so in theory they should be ready. However, in this country sweetcorn needs a long growing season to get enough sunshine and I had squeezed this at both ends of the season. I sent Sue in to test one of the cobs and it was deliciously sweet and ripe.

192 sweetcorn cobs in a wheelbarrow

We then set about the task of harvesting 192 sweetcorn cobs. Some plants had two or even three cobs, but others we left unharvested in the hope that they would swell and ripen further.

Not many to go

I lugged the wheelbarrow full of cobs up to the house and set about stripping (the cobs). To be honest, some of them could have done with an extra couple of weeks on the plant as they had not fully ripened, but we had to balance that against the risk of them being nibbled. Also, if they are left on the plant too long they can go too starchy. Harvesting on a large scale becomes more tricky once the summer holidays are over too.
Some of the cobs had developed patchily. I guess this is down to not being well pollinated.
In the end we got nearly 150 cobs though. We put them whole into the freezer. No blanching. This has always worked well for us and should keep us supplied with delicious corn cobs throughout the year, until next August and the next harvest.

In fact, we've got enough for Sue to make some sweetcorn relish and the rejects, the unripe and patchy ones, well let's say that the chickens were very grateful indeed.

Stripping back 192 corn cobs, the mind wanders. So I leave you with a somewhat quirky version of the dance of the seven veils. Sweetcorn Salome!


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