Saturday, 28 February 2015

Herb breads and a doughnut experiment.

Rosemary Herb Bread
As you'll probably already know, I belong to an excellent little group known as The Fenland Smallholders Club.
As part of this, I run a couple of offshoots, one being the Blokes Baking Group, who normally get together once a month. Inspired by this, I've now started baking every Friday evening and I must say I've been enjoying it. However, for the first time in my life I have now gone 1lb officially OVERWEIGHT for my height (though it may just be that I need to recheck how tall I am). So if I am going to enjoy the products of all my baking, I'm going to have to work even harder in the garden to burn it all off.

Anyway, yesterday evening, over a few bottles of real ale, Blokes Baking Group tackled herb breads. I'd planned to use rosemary and sage, as these are about the only two herbs which have not completely died back at this time of year. The rosemary bread was a double rise, which takes about 4 hours from start to finish. Fortunately Sue had the fire on in the living room, which was duly designated as our proving room.

So we mixed and we kneaded and we set the dough aside for its first rise, leaving time to start our great doughnut experiment! This was a project which got missed out previously, but I was keen to have a go. The doughnut dough was soft and gloopy, somewhere between a pancake batter and a pastry mix, so I really wasn't sure if we had it right. It contained yeast, so needed to be set to one side to prove. The book said 20 minutes.

Onto project number three then - sage soda bread.
A soda bread does not contain yeast so is much quicker to make. Traditionally it is made with buttermilk and we usually make one when Sue makes butter. But on this occasion there was no buttermilk in the house so I had to buy some. A hint here - look in the Polish section of the supermarket. You are looking for maslanka. It's £1 for a litre, which works out much cheaper than the other alternative.
The soda bread simply involves mixing all the ingredients into a dough, shaping into a ball, slashing the top and baking. So into the oven it went and we returned to those rising doughballs. To be honest, they didn't seem to have changed much, but we tried one in the fryer. It sank to the bottom, the outside fried nicely and the inside was still mushy! It did, however, taste something like a doughnut should. I reckoned that the dough needed longer to rise, but we also weren't sure about the oil temperature. The book simple said 'very hot'.

We consulted the oracle (www) to be hit with all sorts of contradictory advice. For the proving, we read to prove at 90 - 100F - much warmer than you would for bread. This might explain why the doughnuts didn't seem to have risen. We moved the trays closer to the fire. As for the oil, most people said 190C, but one said 160C. The dough hadn't floated to the surface, indicating the oil was not hot enough. But it had cooked too quickly on the outside, indicating the oil was too hot.
My hunch was to lower the oil temperature and leave the doughnuts to rise properly to make them, well, less dense.
Impatience got the better of us and we tried another batch in the fryer. The result was better, but still not quite there. Jam in the middle might hide some of the problem, but this had seemed a step too far when I was at the planning process.

It was now time for the sage soda bread to come out of the oven. It looked amazing.
The rosemary bread still needed a wee while to rise further and the decision was made to leave the doughnuts to develop too, so we took a while to concentrate on the ales! A new member of the Old Hen family, Old Hoppy Hen, was the subject of much approval.

Some time later and it was time to knock back the rosemary bread dough and shape it ready for its second rise in the loaf tin. While the tins went back into the proving room, we revisited the doughnuts, frying them one batch at a time. Fortunately I'd decided not to triple the mix quantities, for we ended up with 31 mini doughnuts anyway! The more we cooked the better they got. We finally got close to the real thing with the last batch, which floated high in the oil and expanded almost to a state of fluffiness!

I reckon that one more go at these and we'll be ready to unveil to the public.

Our schedule now took us back to the Rosemary Bread. As usual, Phil's had risen the most. I swear he carries a magic powder around with him which he secretly sprinkles into his mix. Into the oven they went and all we had to do now was to wait... and eat doughnuts... and drink beer.

Finally the breads were ready. I was somewhat smug as mine had overtaken Phil's in the oven. Clearly the product of a skilled kneader!!

So here's the final results. Another triumphant evening for Blokes Baking Group.

I don't know what happened to the rest of the doughnuts, but this photo might explain it.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

A Dry Crust Signals GO!

It has been such a delight to be able to harvest fresh asparagus from the garden for the last two years, so I have gone and bought another thirty crowns. As ever, though, there's nowhere for them to go yet. But there is a plan, which is to extend the current bed of three rows across the path and to steal a little of the sorrel patch
So about a fortnight ago I decided it was time to start preparing the ground. The soil was still fairly heavy but we'd had a few dry days and an initial turn with my trusty fork would at least be a good start. Problem was, rain was forecast from about midday. After a couple of hours of pretty heavy work I was within sight of the end when the rain started and I had to stop, not because I don't like getting wet, but because the soil quickly becomes unworkable. Anyway, nine hours later the rain stopped. The ground was completely sodden and I wouldn't be able to go near it for quite some time, even if the weather stayed dry.

Fast forward to yesterday. March is nearly upon us. The days are lengthening and between the showers we've had some moderately warm weather. I've even heard a skylark singing on a couple of days. As I was moving some raspberry canes and planting up some currant bushes (last year's cuttings) I noticed that the tansy was sprouting green again, the rhubarb leaves were almost open and the nectarine was threatening to come into blossom. But more boringly I noticed that there was a dry crust just starting to appear on the soil surface. Prepare yourself for some very exciting pictures!

The half dug new asparagus bed

This is a sure sign that the soil is becoming workable. In the height of summer, I'd have about three days to get the rotavator on it before it turns to concrete! But at this time of year the concern is another downpour. And, being a Thursday, that soaking was duly forecast to arrive at 10am. Not to be outwitted, I was up and out early(ish) and it didn't take long to achieve some pretty impressive results. Four beds completely ready for planting and another three have been worked for the first time this year. One more go and they'll reach a fine tilth.
Ready to go!

All I need to do is wait for the rain to stop (that's why I'm finally composing another blog post) and I can get back outside. There's cloches to be placed, netting and wigwams to be erected and compost bins to be moved.
Meanwhile, inside, the sowing has started in earnest. It's going to be a good year. I can tell.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Hotbed - aka the sh*t pit.

Valentine's Day is a very important day for me. First of all, it marks the day when we need to phone the Rare Breeds Centre and line up our orphan lambs for this year. But, more importantly, it's time to clean out the goose stable. For, if they haven't already, the geese will very soon start laying.

Now, I haven't forgotten the romance of February 14th. Keen to do something special with Sue, I let her shovel the straw from the stable, approximately 30 barrowloads of completely minging deep litter.
The day before I had let her help me dig out the bed in the polytunnel where all this was going. Quality time spent together like this is the key to a good marriage.

Be thankful you don't have smellivision!
This is filled to below ground level with a stinking mixture
of goose stable straw and horse manure.
Otherwise known as the sh*t pit!

The soil should warm up nicely in a week or so.
I mixed the goose straw in with a similar volume of horse manure, treading it down as I went.
The general idea is that, as it all rots down, it acts as a free source of heat. This I use to allow me to move tiny seedlings into the tunnel much earlier than I would otherwise be able to. Without this, I would be trying to raise them inside the house, where the guaranteed warmth is unfortunately undone by the lack of light, invariably resulting in weak, leggy seedlings at the best and damping off at the worst.

Mini greenhouses on a hotbed in a polytunnel.
Seedling heaven.
I tried the hotbed idea last year (see this post) and was able to move my tomato seedlings outside as soon as they germinated. They survived their first night, despite a frost, and went from strength to strength, ending up as healthy and very sturdy plants.
Added to that, I was left with one extremely fertile raised bed. Believe it or not, that two foot deep pile of muck and straw from last year has now completely disappeared down to nothing. But my overwintered celery is certainly still enjoying the goodness.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

A short friendship for a lonely lady

This is a sad tale of a lonely soul who has finally found friendship.

Some time last year, a peahen moved into Don's back garden. Since then he has been feeding her and she has settled around. She laid eggs last year and called for a mate, but to no avail. Romance was not to be, for finding an available male peacock in the middle of The Fens is not easy.

The peahen now spends more and more time on our side of the road and even, occasionally, ventures over into the veg garden. But last week I found her mixing it with the two turkeys. I couldn't make a close enough approach for a photo though, so the moment passed. To be fair, the two turkeys are very happy with each other and the friendship was, I think, all in the imagination of the peahen.

Today I looked down towards Compost Corner and spotted one of the turkeys displaying, it's tail raised up. They are both females, but occasionally they still make the effort to display. The other turkey was just getting on with pecking around... and so was the other turkey! Three turkeys???

Then I realised, this displaying bird was in fact the peahen. In a desperate effort to make friends she was hanging out with the turkeys again and doggedly displaying to them. She was so prepossessed with making friends that she didn't spot me until later than usual. Even then, she didn't panic and hurry off, she just ambled regally away.

But I stalked her, using the compost bins as cover, and finally managed to catch a half-decent image of her.

So, why is this story a sad one?

Well, this is a friendship destined not to flourish. For just as it is about to blossom, the turkeys are about to meet their maker. They've had the turkey luxury of witnessing Christmas. They've seen snow. They've even worked their way into my and Sue's affections.

But they have to go.

And with them vanishes the peahens chances of friendship. She will go back to her lonely vigil in search of a mate.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Gobble. Gobble.

"What can I do for you, sir?"
"Gobble. Gobble. It's about this e-mail."
"The one about the Fenland Smallholders Club butchery group doing poultry. Gobble. Gobble."
"Well... Gobble. Gobble... You do mean the ducks and cockerels and guinea fowl... Don't you?"

long pause..............

"Gulp. Gulp."

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Friendly Garden Sprays

My armoury - The most harmless of ingredients.
Not every insect needs to be obliterated in order to protect our crops. If we do that, we eventually obliterate most of our wonderful natural world.
But I can't deny that there are some insects (general term, even if they don't strictly all have six legs) which are bad news. Whilst it may be possible to control them by encouraging their predators, such as birds, hoverflies, ladybirds into the garden, this noble aim is sometimes a little idealistic in the real world. Not that we shouldn't try.
Besides, it's not just insects which threaten. I've probably had more trouble from fungal organisms - mould, rust, blight... than from creatures. Then there are bacteria and viruses, which we can't even see until their effects are all too obvious.

So, to cut to the chase, I know that I should probably spray my orchard trees and I know that I ignored spider mite at my peril in the polytunnel last year. But I really am not willing to smother everything with nasty chemicals. I may as well give up what I do and go buy it all from the shop if I take that approach.

We are therefore looking at home-made sprays. There has been a huge reduction in the number of sprays which can be used by gardeners in recent times. It's probably mostly good news as far as sensible, organic gardening goes, but the problem is the red tape. Apparently it costs in the region of £3million to get all the data required by European Law to license a pesticide. The effect of this is disastrous (similar to rules they have tried to push through about licences for selling seeds). It effectively means that the big multinational corporations gain a stranglehold on the market and many traditional organic remedies have fallen by the wayside. Unfortunately, I cannot help but think that yet again politicians have, inadvertently or not, allowed corporate lobbyists to tread all over the common people. All these rules which are allegedly to protect the consumer (labelling laws being another example) inevitably punish the small producer and rarely actually achieve what they set out to achieve.

I, however, am a man of principle, and am not about to be forced into supporting multinationals who care less about the fate of the planet than about lining their pockets and controlling peoples spending patterns.
Therefore I have determined to make my own sprays. I have seen it written that any home-made spray is illegal to use, even if it's in your own garden and you don't sell any produce. However, even if this were true, I would ignore it since it is plainly unjust and bonkers. But it appears not to be true anyway. Here is the link to the Health and Safety Executive's advice on this matter. I've also copied the relevant text at the end of this document, in blue.

Health and Safety Executive Advice On Using Pesticides In The Garden

Gardener's have been making up their own concoctions for years. We're a thrifty lot. But these have traditionally included some rather dodgy ingredients such as tar and tobacco. I am not even really comfortable with something like rhubarb leaf soup. Just because you can make your own nasty chemicals does not necessarily mean that you should. And many nasty chemicals have natural origins.

But the main ingredient necessary to fight off insects is... soap. And not just any old soap, but pure vegetable soap. They are not allowed to call it insecticidal soap anymore. You can guess why. £3 million.
I researched a lot and ended up buying a container of castile soap over the internet. Compared to Fairy Liquid or Palmolive, it's not cheap. But you only need a tablespoon or two in a 5 litre sprayer, so it goes a very long way and most definitely ends up much cheaper than any commercial alternatives.
It's worth bearing in mind that soap will not just kill the insects you want it to, so sparing and targeted use is still necessary.
In with the soap goes some vegetable oil, to make it cling to the leaves and stems.You can use any, but rape oil (the American sites seem to refer to it as Canola) is particularly good as it's very thin and doesn't clog the sprayer.
If you search the supermarket shelves, you'll find it not too expensive. Again, you don't use much.

And that's basically it.

There are things you can add. Chilli and garlic are commonly recommended (also supposed to ward off rabbits and maybe deer).
Hydrogen Peroxide is a very natural substance to use too, though you need to know what concentration to use. It's also good against fungi. I know you're thinking "bleach" but it's actually just the H2O with an extra O!
And bicarbonate of soda is good if you're main concern is fungal diseases.

So, with the exception of the hydrogen peroxide, we're basically talking common cookery ingredients that you'd be quite happy to put in your mouth (maybe not the chilli!), so I am quite happy that when I spray I am harming as little as possible.

As for the red spider mites, which decimated my indoor climbing beans last year, I've removed all the places where they might be able to hide away for the winter and added a little essential oil to the mix - lemon eucalyptus in this case, though there are several others which would be just as effective.

See here for more detail.

I spent ages searching the internet for my spray recipes, so here's what I have settled on:
Apologies for the strange mix of imperial/metric. It's my age.

My orchard winter wash recipe:

250ml Vegetable Oil
2 tbsp. liquid soap
1 gallon (4.5l) warm water

Just shake to mix, then spray each tree to coat the bark as much as possible. Choose a nice still day, but preferably not when there will be rain in the next 24 hours or a frosty night. Easier said than done in January and February. Be patient and wait for the right time, as long as you spray while the trees are still dormant.
Don't use on walnuts (I've no idea why! I read it somewhere.)

My red spider mite recipe:
As above, but with the addition of 10 drops of Lemon Eucalyptus Oil (bit of a guess really).

You may want to scale this down, as it will make 5 litres. Spray on all leaf surfaces (not so easy getting at the undersides, but do the best you can). I also sprayed all nooks, crannies and crevices in the tunnel. Don't spray on a really hot, sunny day (unlikely at this time of year, but quite possible once your polytunnel is full of greenery) otherwise the soap may damage the leaves.

I'll let you know if they work.
Meanwhile, here's the text of that HSE advice. I think I'm safe,

Can I use home-made remedies to control pests, diseases and weeds in my (home) garden?
HSE are aware that some gardeners routinely use home-made remedies that are not authorised to control pests, diseases and weeds. In some cases these remedies are simple physical barriers and are outside the scope of UK and EU regulations. In other cases these remedies involve the use of chemicals either from foodstuffs, like coffee grounds, or from household products which are not normally intended to be used as pesticides.
Part of the legal definition of a plant protection product takes into account the intended use of the product. For example garlic extract sold as a foodstuff doesn’t require authorisation under plant protection product regulations but garlic extract sold as an insecticide does. In practice this means a number of own use home-made remedies such as beer traps or coffee grounds fall outside the scope of regulations.
However this does not mean that use of these remedies including use of common household chemicals as a pesticide is without risk or that it is always legal. For example in circumstances where a home-made remedy was supplied to another user (whether free of charge or not) this may fall in scope of the regulations ,and if so would be illegal without an authorisation. In this sort of circumstance, where HSE (or other enforcing authorities) obtain evidence of such a supply or use we would need to consider appropriate and proportionate enforcement action.
HSE’s policy on enforcement and the circumstances in which enforcement is appropriate is set out in more detail in our Enforcement Policy Statement .

Sunday, 8 February 2015

A Secret Stash of Blue Eggs

Spot the birdy

It's been an absolutely beautiful day here today and Sue and I have busied ourselves to make the most of it. Jobs knocked off the list have included winter washing the orchard trees, spraying the polytunnel against red spider mite (more on these two in the next post), planting up winter aconites, snowdrops and grasses, cleaning out the chickens (Sue) and starting to rearrange and plant up the extended herb bed.

It all finished with a beautiful sunset against which I was lucky enough to watch a barn owl hunting, a perched little owl and a little egret fly right over the farm for the second successive night. The barn owl was probably the same individual which had flown from the old ash tree earlier in the day and which has been spending more and more time hunting on the farm of late.

As for the little owl, I saw it for the first time in a while last night. I guess that they are nesting at the moment, as they always go incredibly secretive. Anyhow, as I was pottering away in the herb bed this evening I became aware of a right old racket going on behind me. I could hear multiple blackbirds, great tis and blue tits all very agitated. I knew from experience that there must be a bird of prey somewhere and expected to see the barn owl perched back in the ash tree, but to my surprise it was the little owl which was the subject of such outrage. It was perched out right at the top of the tree. I remember this sort of behaviour last year and wonder if it is not a sign that chicks have hatched. That would cause the adults to have to be out hunting more and potentially keener to keep an eye on what is going on outside too.
The owl stayed in the tree for about an hour and as the sky turned flame red it started calling and was answered by another. All good news.

But it was an altogether more tame bird which provided the find of the day by Sue. My Crested Cream Legbar girls (chickens, in case you're wondering) came back into lay about a month ago. It's easy to tell which are their eggs as they are blue. A friend of ours is keen to have some of their offspring, so we put the first four eggs aside ready to go in the incubator but then...nothing. Not a single further blue egg. In fact, the only blue eggs we have seen since are tiny little specimens, presumably laid by the younger birds just coming into lay for the first time.
I had a sneaking suspicion that the girls were in fact laying, just not where they are supposed to! They spend a lot of their time scratching around near the stables and I did discover a couple of their eggs in there, but as soon as I took them they stopped laying there. Mistake on my part.

And so, today, Sue was in the right place at the right time to observe one of the girls creep stealthily under a large prickly pyracantha bush which grows right next to the patio doors. There she sat and with that was solved the mystery of the disappearing blue eggs. She finally moved off to reveal a stash of ten eggs. The plan now is to leave them until we can take a dozen for the incubator and leave some to encourage the hen to keep on laying.

The secret stash
So I guess this is a tale unfinished. Hopefully it will have a happy ending.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Light at the End of the Polytunnel...and more

I guess the light at the end of the tunnel could refer to the smallholding emerging from winter. I know the last post was all about heavy snowfall, but with the days lengthening there is most definitely optimism and expectation in the air.
This week I have been sowing seeds! Mostly perennials for the garden, but this evening I sowed leek seeds into trays and tomorrow I'll be sowing carrots and turnips in the polytunnel beds. Another growing year is upon us!

Rather than doing everything a week after I should have, I am really trying to be super-organised this year and stay ahead of myself. So a thorough clean of the polytunnel took place midweek. I took advantage of some light rain (cold enough to verge on sleet) to sweep the outside of the tunnel with a soft broom. On my tippytoes I could almost reach the brush to the apex. The dirt and algae had gradually and imperceptibly collaborated to cut the light down, but once I'd cleaned the inside of the cover the tunnel felt like a new place. At this time of year, every scrap of light is important to emerging seedlings.

While the tunnel was clear, I took the chance to spray every nook and cranny with Citrox, an organic disinfectant. It is harmless to plants, so I didn't need to worry about the trays of cuttings (aka free plants) which are growing on the new staging. I also removed all the twine from last year. In the past I have left it for the next year, but Bob Flowerdew said to get rid as it provides a winter home to the dreaded red spider mite.

I have also had a minor redesign of the polytunnel. It started with a pile of old bricks which I wanted to move and ended with new paths through the extended herb bed and two new brick paths in the tunnel, along with a new bed down the middle.

I have found room for a large water butt too, which will not only provide a very convenient source of water, but will act as a heat reservoir through the winter.

The new bricks paths (pre polytunnel cleaning)

I have also decided to take a step forward in my polytunnel growing. As well as the traditional summer crops such as tomatoes, chillis, peppers and aubergines, I am going to try to make use of this valuable growing space throughout the seasons. The polytunnel is already an invaluable space for raising seeds, but I intend to try to have some crops going through the winter too. In theory I should be able to be harvesting all year round.

Here's the plan.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Snow Comment

Monday morning found me at Wisbech hospital for an Xray and a bloodtest. Needles and I do not exactly get on well, so the nurse was trying to distract me with idle conversation. I commented that we'd escaped lightly on the weather so far this winter.

I made the best of an unscheduled day off work and busied myself all day in the polytunnel. As usual, I fed the chickens late afternoon and as darkness loomed I locked them away. It had been a lovely, crisp winter's day. We've had a lot of those this year.

It wasn't much later that the security lights went on by the stables, triggered by... snow. Within half an hour the ground was covered. By mid evening, the scene outside looked like this...

Taken through the window from the warmth of the kitchen.
I still get very excited when it snows. I could watch it flutter earthwards for hours. And so, on and off, I did. And it just kept on coming, far outperforming the BBC's prediction of possibly 1-3 cm on the high ground (which most definitely does not describe our position here on The Fens).

Tuesday morning saw me up bright and early. There was lots to be done before I headed off for work and I was keen to take some photographs too.

A layer of snow makes everything even flatter!

Hopefully the bees are clustered
safely and warmly inside the hives

First job, in the semi-dark, was sweeping the snow off the polytunnel, then on to giving the sheep extra food.

Next the chicken houses were opened to let the chickens out into their snowy pen. They weren't too keen on coming out.

The guinea fowl, as usual, had toughed it out all night. They really are incredibly resilient birds.

The geese just waddled out of their stable in the usual orderly fashion, like soldiers, and stoically continued with life as normal.

The ducks, on the other hand, could not have been more excited. They dived into the snow as they would a pool of water, dipping their heads into it and quacking delightedly. They are never easy to photograph, as they never stop moving and always seem to be walking away. But their black plumage against the gleaming white snow gave me even more problems. Anyway, I managed a couple of half decent images.

I would dearly have loved to have spent the day with my camera. There are only so many different views to be had here on the smallholding, but some of the dykes and drains would have provided some excellent compositions cutting through the flat frozen fenland landscape.

As it was though, work beckoned. The best I could do was a quickly snapped piccie with the phone through the front windscreen.

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