Sunday, 20 September 2015

A Pear Treat

Last year we got our first ever pear harvest. I have several varieties, but star of the show was the Concorde, an established cross between Comice and Conference. One young tree kept us supplied with delicious pears for a couple of weeks.
So over the winter in our forays to the plant auctions I purchased a further four Concorde pear trees. Well, you can guess what's happened this year. Not a single pear, not even from the more established tree! Some fruits seem to work like this, plums especially, one year a bumper crop and the next year nothing.
But the Beth and the Williams in the chicken enclosure have come to the fore instead. These pears are different in that they need to be picked before they are fully ripe. If you leave then on the tree they go grainy.
I picked most of the Beths a couple of weeks ago and they have now been eaten. Delicious they were too.
The ones growing on the lower branches fell victim to jumping chickens, who very much appreciate a pear to play with.

The Williams weren't quite ready, but when I cleaned out the chickens last weekend I noticed that three of them had committed suicide by falling off the tree straight into the chickens' water. So I picked out the rest, enough to fill a basket. It's not much, but it makes a welcome contribution to our diet and I anticipate ever increasing yields from all of our orchard trees.

Now, a week later, the Williams are ripe and very juicy. There are 9 trays drying in the dehydrator and almost ready as I type. I tried a slice and the flavour just kept increasing in waves.

I expect next year we'll have no Williams or Beths but five trees full of Concorde pears. I won't be complaining.

Friday, 18 September 2015

One Lonely Sister - Disheartened by the Sweetcorn

I have written about the Three Sisters system of growing before.
For those who missed it, here's a quick resume.
Grow sweetcorn, squashes and climbing beans together. They all have different needs for light and nutrients and all help each other. It is a system used by Native American Indians.

Of course, it is very trendy, especially when you select Cherokee Trail of Tears beans to grow, for this makes it sound even more authentic. While Cherokees are, reportedly, a good bean to grow, so are many other French beans. I prefer Cobra, which sounds pretty authentic in a desert context, though it of course inhabits the other India!

But this system of companion growing is designed to use the same land year after year in a completely different climate and soil type to what we experience in Britain. I have tried it and it does not work for me. The beans never do well, or if you plant them too much earlier than the corn then the corn never makes it. So I have been sticking to Two Sisters growing. Small groups of corn with pumpkins and squashes rambling in between. It has worked well, except that in cooler years, or if the sweetcorn gets off to a slow start, the cobs are not ripe before the wheat field next door is harvested.

The result is disheartening to say the least. I'm not sure if it's the rats or the field mice (I suspect a bit of both, and maybe a bit of rabbit thrown in), but they devastate the crop before it is ripe enough to harvest. They even have the nerve to chew through the husk material to see if the corn is ripe. If not, they leave it till later, irrevocably damaged.
Looking on the bright side, at least we've enough sweetcorn in the freezer from last year that we won't run out. Even if we do, we've plenty more vegetables to choose from. That's the nature of growing your own. Every year some things go mad while others disappoint. Just look at my courgette failure this year for a good example.

On the other bright side, Rambo is enjoying the corn leaves and the stem and roots will go back into the soil and give it body.

And on the third bright side, the squashes seem to be coming good and nothing seems to eat them.

But next year the already depleted Two Sisters will be going down to One Lonely Sister. I am going to experiment with a new variety of sweetcorn, allegedly a supersweet, non-hybrid variety which ripens early. But to be on the safe side, I shall again be growing some in the polytunnel and the rest in my mixed vegetable beds outside, away from the field and in the more protected environs of the main veg plot.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

News From Nowhere

I find the seasonal cycle reassuring. Like the sun coming up, there is a certain security knowing that winter will come again and spring will follow it. Each season holds its own wonders and challenges. Without them things would get monotonous. And as a smallholder, each time they come around I get another chance to try and improve on last year. Unfortunately I grow a year older too!

But this cycle doesn't make blogging easy! How do you write about your potato harvest for the fifth time in five years without getting repetitious? I find pulling potatoes from the ground just as amazing, every time I do it, but it's hard to get enthused about writing about it again. I guess I could always hope that no-one except me remembers the post from a year ago. For this reason, I don't always post about everything I do.

One thing which I do look forward to are the cider club days which Roger runs. The spring meeting fell through due to a last minute lack of apples, so it is now a full year since our last flow of apple juice. I don't see the group in between times, but I enjoy their company. They are a group of thinkers.

This last Saturday we gathered again under ominous skies.
The weather held for us, just, and as we chopped and scratted, pulverised, liquidised and pressed, it put me in mind of a book by William Morris, News From Nowhere, a utopian and nostalgic image of times gone by. (Alternative Title: An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters From A Utopian Romance). It is one of the very, very few books to which I periodically return. In particular it reminded me of the community effort to gather in the hay. These days one man comes along with a massive combine harvester and creates a dust storm. Then, a couple of days later, someone else chugs up and down the field and the hay magically pops out the back in its shiny black plastic roll. It is called haylage these days. But in the past people came together. Undoubtedly it was hard work only made possible by a community effort, but it helped bond the community in a way which has now disappeared.

Anyway, back to the cider making. The beauty of the autumn cider day is that the apples are freshly picked. This year Roger had secured a new supply of mixed apples. Such a mix makes for the best juice and the best cider. He had also surprised us by procuring several boxes of mandarins.

These went straight into the shredder, peel and all and it wasn't long before the juice was flowing.

It tastes absolutely delicious as is, but we have put a good quantity away for when Sue gets time to turn it into wine. Now that's something we don't make every year.

The apple juice turned out equally delicious. We've now got three demijohns naturally fermenting. It won't be long before the bubbles start and the airlock valves start making mysterious noises in the kitchen. There's a demijohn unsealed too. This will turn itself into cider vinegar.

As for those changing seasons, we had the fire on last night. It was dark well before 8. And this morning I watched the swallows streaming across the fields. They are not 'our' swallows, for there are hundreds of them, occasionally accompanied by a handful of house martins. These have not yet chosen to adopt our farm as their summer home, so I see them only very rarely on such days when an exodus is in full swing.

I, on the other hand, will spend much of the winter snuggled up in front of my cosy fire with a glass of cider, or even mandarin wine.

And I'll be thinking of my friends. Thank you Roger.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015


Charlottes and Kestrels laid out to dry.
Boris is helping.
Back in the spring I planted 24 each of 7 varieties of potato. As long as we don't have a disaster, I know that this is plenty enough to last Sue and I for a year and that the last maincrops will see us through until the first earlies come out of the polytunnel

They were:

Red Duke of York - an early which is great for chips and roasting.
Arran Pilot - a bulk standard for nice new potatoes. Performs well and seems to stay in the ground well too.

Second Earlies
Charlotte - Another proven performer and so expensive in the shops!
Kestrel - A new variety for me.

Romano - a descendant of Desiree. I like a red potato and this gives great bakers.
King Edward - a good, honest basic maincrop spud.
Pink Fir Apple - Another 'luxury potato'. If only people knew how easy it is to grow and how nice it tastes. Allegedly prone to blight, as it is very late, but mine are more than ready now and last year, when blight struck early, I got a better crop from this than from many other varieties.

I have pretty much settled on these varieties now, after a few years of experimentation. There is a lot of talk of the blight-free varieties these days, especially with warmer, damper summers. However, the ones I tried tasted pretty insipid, so I won't be converting just yet. I have to admit, in a bad blight year they did come through better than the others. I've found though that if I'm ready for blight and take the tops off before it gets into the plants, that I get a good crop anyway, even when blight comes as early as it did last year.

We have been harvesting the earlies for a good while now, but there are still about half of them left in the ground. One of the Arran Pilots the other day was so big it did for a meal for two of us. It still tasted great though.

The tops have died down on the Second Earlies and I cut them off a couple of weeks ago, so with a dry day yesterday, even verging on sunny, I decided to dig them up. I like to cut off the haulms a couple of weeks before digging potatoes up if I aim to store them, as this gives the skins time to set in the ground. There is no point leaving them in for longer as this just makes them prone to slug damage and rotting in wet ground.
A reasonable crop of Charlottes.
Plenty for the two of us,
plus the geese enjoyed the smaller ones
 and any that didn't pass the quality test.
Digging potatoes is a magical job. You just sink the fork in and lift the soil to reveal clusters of swollen tubers. I dig thoroughly to make sure there are none left in the ground, as any 'volunteers' will grow next year and can harbour diseases through the winter. Some always slip through the net though!
I then leave the spuds on the surface of the soil for a good few hours if I can, before gathering them up and storing them in thick paper bags specially designed for potatoes. Any spudlets or damaged tubers get thrown to the geese who are very appreciative. The best spuds then go into a dark wardrobe in the garage. This keeps them in the dark so they don't turn green. It also keeps them not so warm that they try to sprout but above freezing, for if the frost gets to them in the winter they are ruined.

The potatoes I've dug so far this year are a good size, undoubtedly helped by summer's plentiful rain. The yield is not massive (a bit more sunshine and warmth might have helped) but there will be more than enough for our needs. The cost of a few extra tubers is minimal and once you're planting a few dozen, you might as well plant a few more. Better to have too many than not enough. Plus any extras don't go to waste. Potatoes are very popular with most of the animals.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A New Dawn

It's a new dawn. But that's enough about politics.

It's been a busy couple of weeks, but not busy enough to satisfactorily explain my lack of blog posts. This is better explained by my dropping my smartphone onto a concrete patio. No camera, no blog, for I am an impatient reader who needs some pictures to liven up the words.
I do have a proper camera too, but I've found these to be sensitive pieces of equipment which don't take to being carted around the smallholding in all weathers and all tasks.

But I have now conjured up a shiny new phone. Fortunately my contract was up for renewal anyway. All I can say on this matter is never accept the first deal they offer you... or the second... or the third. With a willingness to play hardball I managed to get them down by almost half. I'm not usually good at this sort of thing, but there really is a limit to how much I am prepared to pay on a phone which, in this part of the world, I can rarely use for its primary purpose anywhere outside. For phone signals, it turns out, do not work well on flat ground. You'd think it would be the opposite, that hills and mountains would get in their way, but no, they like to bounce around. It probably doesn't really work that way at all, but that's how I imagine it. But I digress, majorly.

Back to the smallholding. After a very, very long summer holiday, I'm now back at work teaching, though my hours are reduced which will hopefully mean I can keep on top of everything a little more easily. Of course, there are certain times of the year when ten days in a week would still not be enough!

Here's a quick overview of the last two weeks. Autumn is here! I was pleased to get the grass mowed over what may be the last two dry, sunny days of the year. I've harvested some sweetcorn, but not before the mice found it. The problem here is that they climb up and chew through the husk to check it for ripeness and start eating it just before it is ripe enough to pick. It's been a poor year for more exotic crops which need sun and heat. I really need to have sweetcorn ripe by early August, before all the surrounding fields have been harvested. Mid September is too late.
French beans, on the other hand, have gone berserk this year. Everything struggled to get going in the ridiculously dry spring we had, but once the rain came the beans found conditions very much to their liking. They are almost over now, but for a while I dreaded walking past them, for inevitably I would end up spending a considerable amount of time picking them, with the subsequent washing, slicing and blanching ready for the freezer.

The potatoes have done well too. Remarkably well. One benefit of a cool summer has been a freedom from blight. I've been able to leave the tops on until they died down (some are still on, just) and leave the spuds in the ground to take full advantage of the rains. The result is, so far, a giant harvest. More on this over the next few weeks. Ideally there will be a couple of hot, sunny days so I can dig them up and leave them on the soil to harden the skins ready for storage. I'm not holding my breath though.

My biggest success has been the failure of my courgettes! The plants have never got going since the cool, dry spring. We've barely had a decent courgette. I've discovered the cause. We have mosaic virus. I'll write more about this when I find out more. While the absence of courgette mountain has been a relief, the chickens have missed the giant marrows which I throw them when a rogue courgette has managed to hide for a few days. And I would actually have liked to have a few courgettes. Remind me I said that next year, if the harvest reverts to successful again.

As for the animals, we sadly lost one of our white ducks. These things happen and they have done well. It's just the way of the world and is balanced by the two Cayuga ducklings which are growing fast and continue to stick to their parents like glue. The guinea fowl have abandoned a huge pile of eggs in the middle of the comfrey bed. I've not counted them, but there must be over 60. They would do much better to sit on fewer and take better care of them. However, there are still only nine birds on the fence at nights, so three must be sitting somewhere.  I know where two of them are, but the third is a mystery.

The sheep are doing well this year. The grass is considerably greener and longer than last year. We have started to make plans for some of them to go on a little journey, though that won't be for a while until the grass stops growing. We are only aiming to take seven through the winter this year.

We also have a pig. I've only mentioned it once during its whole life as it has not lived with us but on another smallholding with a couple of other pigs. Anyway, our piggywig is due to trot off for one final time in a couple of weeks. It is being butchered by a wizard (yes, really!). More on this when the time comes.
I am just hoping that a rare bird doesn't coincide with when I've got the pig booked in, for it's that time of year when winds from the east and storms from the west bring lost stragglers to our shores and my irrational self takes over. I have already had an aborted trip to the Outer Hebrides, not to mention trying to chase a seabird up the east coast! I try not to make any fixed arrangements between mid-September and early November. When it's my turn to keep the pigs, I'll time it so they go off after this.

And finally, as alluded to under the headline photo, we have a new political dawn. Many of my younger friends will be experiencing some good old-fashioned honest politics for the first time in their lives. Let's hope it gets them thinking, for we are a country based on eccentricity and creativity, values which have been forgotten in our children's education.
Most importantly though, Jeremy Corbyn has an allotment, so he must be good! Mind you, a couple of Thatcher's cabinet were birdwatchers and that didn't work out too well as far as I'm concerned!

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