Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Plant Auctions - My New Favourite Place

Now I know how the kid feels who's just been let loose in the proverbial sweet shop.

For every Wednesday and Saturday morning there is a plant auction in a little group of buildings tucked away in a quiet corner of Wisbech. I had heard talk of it, but it has taken me four years to get round to visiting... and boy do I regret the wasted years!

The travelling auction begins
They have just about everything you could find in a garden centre, but at rock bottom prices. In some cases you could knock a zero off the garden centre price. Granted, you have to buy plants in lots, but when you can get a whole tray or a group of pots for the same price as one normally costs, then that's got to be good news. In my case, with rather a lot of land to play with, purchasing one plant at a time has no impact whatsoever, so this way of buying is absolutely perfect.

If I'd discovered the auctions a couple of years ago, there would be a lot more shrubs, flowers, fruits and trees in my garden, veg plot, soft fruit patch and orchard. Anyway, my last two visits to the auction have seen me making up for lost time.
I've been quite restrained actually. The focus has been on topping up the orchard, though I have let myself be tempted by a few ornamentals too.

Bare root fruit trees galore.
The bare root tree section is amazing. It comes at the end of the auction, so most people have gone by then. There's not really even any bidding. The auctioneer just calls out what the reserve prices are and which varieties are available. All you have to do is tell him which ones you want. Most fruit trees come in fives, but I like to peruse the ranks of trees before the auction and count the stems in each bundle, for there are twos and threes to be found here and there. If I end up buying five, I can often sell a couple on to fellow smallholders and then everyone benefits.

Click here to read my post on Concorde Pears
So the outcome of my last two visits has been the acquisition of approximately fifty new fruit trees, which has doubled the size of my orchard.
I was especially delighted to find Pear Concorde at £3 per tree (+ 12% commission). This is the pear which did so well last year and I was prepared to pay a lot more to add to my stock.

I've also added to my range of apples. I now have Egremont Russet, Kidd's Orange Red, Laxton Superb, Scrumptious, more Discovery, Blenheim Orange and Ashmead's Kernel.

There are more plum trees, crab apples and cherries too, but I've saved the very best find till last. For my favourite tree in the orchard is my medlar. Even as a young tree it has taken on the appearance of a gnarled, old specimen. It puts on a stunning display of blossom in the spring and produces an intriguing and luxurious crop late in the autumn. The delightful pink tone of medlar jelly provides the final pleasant surprise.

So when, hidden amongst the serried ranks of trees, I discovered the label "Nottingham Medlar" I was very excited. But when I heard the price - £2!!! - yes, that's right, I said TWO POUNDS - I bought five immediately. I think my first medlar tree cost me over £20.

Click here to read my post on medlars, including a recipe for medlar jelly.

All this happened last Saturday, so I have been a busy bee during the week and all my fruit trees are now planted and labelled in the orchard. I've still got some raspberry canes,rhubarb plants and gunneras to go in, but I managed to get the orange contorted willows planted as well as the grasses, the aconites, the snowdrops and the conifers. I told you I showed restraint!

I plan to visit the auction once a month from now. That way, I'll end up with a selection of plants with interest throughout the year. Priority for my next visit are laurel plants and blueberries, though quite what I'll come back with is anyone's guess.

As you can see, I showed considerable restraint and didn't buy too much.

 Wait till I tell you about my other new favourite place! 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Friday Night is Bake Night

Back in 2012 I resolved to see every sunrise of the year. It was hard work at times but worth every bit of effort. It is an experience which I shall never forget. And if you're wondering, I missed one!

I still sometimes see the sunrise, especially at this time of year. It is after all a very special time and every sunrise brings something new with it.

Sometimes we need to push ourselves to develop. I'm not one for tradition, but it does seem that the New Year Resolution is a good way to do this.

So, for 2015, I've decided to do more baking. I already run a Blokes Baking Group once a month, but I've decided that every Friday evening is for baking. I won't go mad about it. If something else comes up, then so be it. (Particularly if it is a rare bird which could have me heading off to any far-flung part of the country at a moment's notice!)
But the principle is that I plan to bake most Fridays.

So today was my first Friday Bake and here's what I made:

A traditional wholemeal Cottage Loaf and a batch of Orange Biscuits.

Usually I post up links to websites where my recipes come from, but I've decided this year to make more use of the ranks of cookery books I've accumulated.
I really don't want to copy out all the recipes, but if you're desperate then please do get in touch.

The recipe for Orange Biscuits can be found
in this book, one which I go to often
for my baking inspiration.

The Cottage Loaf comes from this delightfully
old-fashioned book, available used on Amazon
for 1p (+ postage)

On the subject of New Year Resolutions, I also made all of the Veg Group commit to promises (veg related) at our gathering the other night. They are written down and will be revisited at the end of 2015! My gardening resolution was to keep up the succession of my carrots and beetroots all year. There were plenty of others I could have made and I'm not sure that I haven't made the succession resolution once before!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Cob oven. Part Two.

Day 2 of the cob building weekend.

All twelve members of the Veg Group turned up last night and our gathering went on until quite late into the evening. But I was up before the sun as temperatures again sunk below freezing overnight and there was more rotavating to be done.

I managed to get an hour done before the soil started clogging in the tines of the rotavator.
At least there'll be plenty of clay in the soil when I decide to make my own cob structures on the smallholding.

We turned up at the Green Backyard only to be involved straight away in a hunt for a lost wedding ring. The guy had taken his ring off the day before and put it in his pocket. You can guess the rest. We didn't really know him well enough to joke, but mention was made that maybe it was embedded into the walls of the oven! Anyway, we explained about washing machine filters and sent him home to explore. We set to work mixing more cob. Today the cob was to contain straw, which is more normal. This gives it strength but it meant that we had to stomp and twist and stamp and dance even more to incorporate it into the cob.


The outer layer of cob on the oven was made thick, very thick. On the plus side, the oven will be well insulated and retain its heat. On the other hand it meant that we had a lot of cob to make. I danced more today than I have in the past twenty years!
After yesterday's painful lesson, I wore gloves today to pack the cob onto the oven. It took five barrowloads of cob in the end and we didn't get it finished until gone 3 in the afternoon. A communal meal of soup and bread was much needed and much appreciated.

The oven still has one more layer to go, but this will have to wait a while now. It will be a fine layer of cob, containing cut straw, more as a decorative layer than anything else.
Oh. The wedding ring. Well I'm happy to say it was retrieved from the rubber seal of the washing machine, unscathed.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Dancing the cob stomp. Building a cob oven. Part One.

The Green Backyard
An amazing project which brings together community, art, sustainability and self-sufficiency

This past weekend we were booked onto a cob building course at the Green Backyard in Peterborough.
Before I talk about cob, a word or two about the Green Backyard. I have been there a couple of times before and really could not imagine a more welcoming place. It is a community garden right in the middle of Peterborough run along green principles, recycling, sustainability, creativity etc...
There always seem to be people popping in and something going on.

At the moment this precious project is unfortunately under threat. After 6 years of hard work, in which time their achievements have been amazing, there is a threat from the council to sell off the land to developers. Peterborough calls itself an Environmental City, so it is difficult to see how this can square up.

If you'd like to find out more, or support the GBY in their bid to buy the plot of land they sit on, please visit their website here.

So, back to the cob course. It was to be a busy weekend, starting with Blokes Baking (Shortbread and Doughnuts) on Friday evening. Another sharp frost predicted for Saturday morning meant that I was keen to get out for an hour or so with the rotavator. This is the only time I can easily turn the soil surface at this time of year.

Then we were booked on the cob building weekend from 11 a.m. followed by a dozen people coming round for the Smallholders Veg Growers Group which I was hosting in the evening.

We turned up to find that about 20 people were already there, all warmly wrapped up ready for a hard day's work (and socialising and learning).
Alan was our very expert leader for the weekend. He is based in Sherwood Forest and has spent many years working on sustainable building, green woodworking, woodland management, blacksmithing, charcoal kilning... basically, all the stuff I wish I'd got into many years ago.

Alan is well into double figures in building cob ovens. After a little background information, he led us outside where we all started demolishing an old strawberry patch. The idea was to clear away the topsoil in order to get at the clay/silt/sandy mix that is the subsoil.
This was to be our raw material for making cob.

Now that I think about it there are many meanings of the word cob. Loaves, webs, swans, nuts, corn, a sulk... All of these and more. But the sort of cob I'm talking about is the building material, made by mixing clay soil, sand and straw. It is much like the adobe walls I have seen in many tropical countries.

Today we were to be building a cob oven, but I have my mind set on using this building method to construct a new pig house and maybe as low dividing walls to divide up the chicken pen.

It's amazing how quickly 20 people can dig a big hole in the ground. It turns out this was the easy bit! Fortunately the subsoil had just the right mix of clay and sand, so we could work with what we dug, unadulterated. For the first layer of the oven there would be no straw mixed in. These fires can easily reach several hundred degrees centigrade, so the straw would not last too long and would just burn away to leave holes in the cob which would weaken it.

So we barrowed the subsoil onto a large tarpaulin, mixed in a little water and started stomping the cob dance! It's quite a simple process really, just stomping and jumping and twisting on the soil until it mixes. Roll it up and over in the tarpaulin and repeat...and repeat...and repeat...

Eventually you end up with your building material. After carefully shaping an igloo mould out of sand, we started the task of building up the first layer of the clay oven.

Alan explains to us
where the oven will sit

We gave the sand igloo
a coat of newspaper

For the future, it was maybe not the best idea to choose such a cold day for this. Shaping 'bricks' out of wet clay with your bare hands sucks the heat out of them very efficiently. My palms were caked in mud but the back of my hands was blue!

At that very moment the call went out that pizzas were now ready to be made on the rocket stove. I dipped my hands into a water butt, breaking the ice as I did so. My hands STUNG! They really STUNG! But the clay took some washing off and was I glad to find a slightly less cold bowl of water waiting over in the outdoor cooking area.
Anything hot would have tasted good right there and then, but the pizza which Sue had knocked up was especially delicious.

I retired inside for a while and took the chance to have a chat with a few of the Green Backyard regulars and to pick Alan's brains a little more. When I finally emerged, the rest of the group were just putting the finishing touches to the first clay layer.

The completed first layer,
artistically scored as a key for the next layer

It was time to bid our farewells for the day. Sue and I had really enjoyed ourselves. Hard work, fresh air, a bunch of like-minded people and learning a new skill had made for a very, very good day.

By the time we got home and sorted out the chickens, it was five o'clock. I was pleasantly shattered and had one hour to veg out before the Veg Group started arriving. More on that later.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Peroxide orchard

I wrote this two weeks ago but forgot to publish it! Anyway, here's a little bit of orchard management for you.

It could be a beauty parlour. Hydrogen peroxide, essential oils, castile soap, rapeseed oil, bicarbonate of soda...
Well, maybe the last two ingredients give away that I am not actually branching out into beauty therapy.
Rather I have been winter washing my fruit trees. Growing fruit is a steep learning curve for me. I put lots of trees in when we first moved in and this year the investment started to pay off with what resembled an actual crop. Not everything went well, as it was a tough year with long periods of hot, dry weather interspersed with some decidedly soggy and cold periods. All this played havoc with the apples and all the leaves on one of the plum trees shrivelled at one point. However, we got medlars, almonds, our first cobnuts, quite a few plums and damsons and some rather delicious pears.

But now that our trees are in their fruiting phase, I need to get my head around looking after them more carefully and protecting them from all the nasty pests and diseases. From most of my previous reading, I've probably totally wrecked all my trees with bad pruning and I need to instigate a strict regime of spraying nasty chemicals if I am to end up with any fruit. It'll end up costing me a fortune and the fruit won't be any different to what I can buy in the shops.

Of course, this is not what is going to be happening!

For the pruning, I read and read, then read some more. I think I sort of know what I'm doing, at least enough to not totally wreck the trees. I still have to look it up every time though, but in time I'll become an expert.

As for the spraying, I figured there must be an alternative so started researching. During the winter it is a good idea to apply a dormant tree wash. I found a tin of tar oil in the shed - no idea when I bought it. However, this is one of the substances which has now been banned. I rather suspect it's more to do with protecting the sprayer than anything else, but I decided not to use it anyway.
The idea of a dormant wash is that it effectively seals in small bugs and suffocates them. As such, it really consists solely of oil, soap and water. The soap should not contain detergents though. I purchased some castile soap, enough to go a long way. The oil can be any vegetable oil. Rape oil is one of the best, but sunflower oil will do fine. A soap spray is a pretty effective pesticide all around the garden and the oil helps it stick to the plants and not wash straight off.

Back to the orchard trees. They ideally need spraying a couple of times during the winter. I read somewhere about an alternative to the oil and soap solution which included hydrogen peroxide and baking soda. These have a different effect on the small bugs which overwinter in the nooks and crannies of the trees' bark. It basically attacks their coating and leaves them open to the elements. The hydrogen peroxide and bicarb of soda have a fungicidal effect too, which is the reason why I chose to use this spray mix for the first spray of the winter. I'll use the other for the second. If one doesn't get 'em, the other will!
Now, hydrogen peroxide sounds a bit nasty doesn't it? I looked into it though and it's actually very safe. It's just water with some extra oxygen attached and is a very organic way of dealing with things.

I pruned the trees (not the stone fruits, which need pruning later in the winter, when the sap is rising) and the plan was to spray soon after. However, every day the forecast said strong breezes. Every day, these failed to materialise until late afternoon. Eventually I got fed up with this and mixed up my concoction anyway. There was a beautiful, winter blue sky. When the breeze did pick up, I just stopped for a while and enjoyed where I was. The spraying didn't take too long and it was easier than I thought to cover every surface of the branches. I felt like a proper fruit grower! Except that I knew that what I was spraying would only harm what I wanted it to.

Next up should be grease bands.However, I've looked into them and they seem an awful faff, and a reasonable expense. They are designed to stop critter, particularly wingless moths which overwinter in the soil beneath the tree, crawling up into the tree. However, they don't stop the codling oths, the ones responsible for most maggots, as these can fly. So instead, I've opted for encouraging the chickens to peck about in the orchard. I reckon there won't be many flightless moths or their larvae left in the soil after they've been at it all winter.

So for the moment, that's my orchard management taken care of. The next job will be the second winter spray and pruning the plums and cherries.

Let's hope it works and we will be overflowing with delicious fruits next year. If all else fails, we'll just have to go scrumping in Don's orchard over the fence. He doesn't mind at all. Our geese and chickens have already found his windfalls to their liking, as do the winter thrush flocks which are so abundant this year.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

What happened to all the cornflour?

Afternoon Plan:
Protect and label new fruit trees.
Transplant last year's soft fruit cuttings.
Dig up and move various volunteer hawthorns, ash saplings and laurels.

Actual Afternoon:
Put the fire on.
Stay warm and snug.
Do computer stuff (emails, this blog etc)

Well, I guess it is January and, hardy as I am, there's no point getting sopping wet and freezing cold unless you really have to.
This morning went well though. It started with a check-up at the dentist, not my favourite place, especially considering that I knew there was going to be bad news. For when I woke up one morning about a month or so ago, my teeth felt strange. There was something missing, a strange gap into which my tongue could not stop poking and sharp edges which weren't there before. I presumed I had lost a filling. I presumed I had somehow swallowed it in my sleep, as there was no sign of it now!
Of course, by this morning that strange gap felt just like a normal part of my mouth. I had gotten used to it being there.
As it turns out, it was a broken tooth (still don't know what happened to the broken bit, or when it broke) and my dentist, who is quite nice as far as dentists go, announced that she was going to fill it there and then, so that I didn't spend weeks worrying about the procedure. I guess you have to be cruel to be kind.

So, by 10am I was walking round Morrisons searching for cornflour and unable to ask anyone for fear of biting into the numb half of my face! As it happens, they had run out of cornflour. Every time I need specific ingredients for the Blokes Baking Group, there is always one which I can't get. But cornflour! Why should anyone run out of cornflour? This necessitated a detour to Tesco's. They had run out of the big packs of cornflour too! I ended up paying through the nose for a smaller pack. I would have been seething if I had actually needed to buy two packs for more than the price of one big pack.
Anyway, the shortbread will now happen on will the doughnuts.

Next on the list was lemon grass, for I am also hosting the Veg Group this weekend and top of the crops is Celeriac. I am planning on three different soups. One of them is Thai, hence the lemon grass. Now, buying such exotic ingredients anywhere in The Fens is always fraught with problems. Fortunately I struck lucky. I know from experience not even to entertain such hopes in Holbeach Tesco, but Morrisons came up trumps, and I got limes too. No ginger though.

In between the two supermarkets, I stopped off to buy the seed potatoes for the Veg Group. 200 kgs of them altogether! So I guess that after I've finished this I'll start weighing out what everyone has asked for.
Final task was to buy some Christmas trees. I know. I know. But every year the baby rooted trees get sold off at a local garden centre. Last year I got 12 for £10 (I actually got 36). This year I only wanted another dozen, but they had gone up to £1.50 each! In protest, I only bought ten (even though I did actually need twelve and will probably end up buying some more expensive ones from somewhere else!)

Well, the sleet has stopped, there's even a little sunshine and it's time to feed the chickens. I might just stop by to admire my newly replenished orchard on the way. More on this another time... and those potatoes.

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