Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Fedging, not sledging

Before I write anything else, I have just been down to let the chickens out and had the great pleasure to watch two barn owls perched and flying around the sheep field. One is the most ghostly one I think I've ever seen. The owls are becoming active at the moment. Last night a pair of Little Owls were duet calling from over near the veg patch somewhere. I mimicked their call and managed to get both birds to fly into the Ash Tree just outside the patio doors. Amazing!
But there was a reason for the pair of barn owls being quite so conspicuous this morning, for a fortunate forgetful moment meant that I had to nip back to the chicken pen to close one of the doors. Without this slight senior moment I wouldn't have seen the Short-eared Owl which was flopping about over the field. So three owl species in two days. That can't be bad!

It's been a bit wet and windy this last week, but ridiculously mild. The soil is too wet to work for a while, so I've turned my efforts to other jobs. I pollarded some willows which I planted about four years ago and was left with an assortment of logs, sticks, twigs and whips. Only one thing to do... build a fedge!
Last year I experimented with this, but I really just stuck a few sticks into the ground in a pattern and hoped they'd grow. I took the chance to inspect them the other day and only about half have taken. Some weren't pushed into the ground far enough, some I think were just too thin and some were older wood with less chance of rooting.

But this year's fedge was going to be done properly. Firstly, I would use only the freshest wood. Secondly, I would use a strip of ground cover material to protect the young fedge from grass competition. Thirdly, I would keep to a neat, criss-cross weave pattern. And finally, I would make proper deep holes so I could get the sticks as deep into the soil as possible.

While Sue got busy with the loppers to give each stick a neat, pointed end, I searched out something to make the holes with. I eventually settled for an old polytunnel crop bar, which actually made for the perfect tool.

If I could go back to my youth and choose a career, I would probably become a woodsman, living in a shack, coppicing, making charcoal, green woodworking... it's probably a bit late for that now (especially as some tree species go on a twenty year cycle!) But to have planted my own willow, to be starting to coppice and pollard it and to be using the product to construct my own fedge, outside on a fine winter's day with Sue and the dogs, that comes pretty close to perfick!

Another aside. When I was cutting back the edible hedgerow, which is now into it's fifth year and thickening up nicely, I spotted a nest. My guess is that it belonged to the gang of house sparrows which spent so much of their time in the hedge during the summer months.

My hedge's first nest!
Note the fresh green leaves... at the end of December!
Anyway, here's the almost finished fedge. It just needs some long whips weaving in across the top.

It would have been finished by now but I needed to harvest the long whips. These came from a different patch of willows which I had cut back for the first time in their lives just last year. Being slightly older trees, the year's growth they had put on was amazing, with some shoots almost two inches thick at the base and many whips up to about 10 feet long.

My willow harvest, all bundled up
Any older wood I cut back gets thrown to the sheep who instantly get to work debarking it. I can then use it for any stakes which I don't want to take root. The smaller twigs get devoured and turned into fertiliser, lamb meat and wool! Nothing goes to waste.

An Egyptian mummy points out the offending branch!
But then I had to stop. For whilst cutting another willow down to head height, one of the branches somehow fell down onto my saw hand such that the bow saw teeth bit into my other hand, the one holding onto the tree as I was precariously standing in a V about three feet above the top of the step ladder. I stayed in the tree, but that bow saw had a good chew on my hand!
Not too much damage was done, but I had some quite nasty scratches and it stung.
All is fixed up now and the bandage makes it look more dramatic than it was. It's just on to hold the dressing and to give protection so the wounds don't open up again.

For today, I'll be taking it easy, though I should be able to weave in those whips.

I've just ordered a book on living willow structures, so there'll be more to come next year. Archways, benches, domes...

ed... Update

The fedge is finished!

And the hand is on the mend. The bandages are off and the cuts are healing fast.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Meet The Vinegar Mother

No, this post is not a Christmas attack on my relatives. Read on to find out.

Well it may have been the shortest day, but we seem to have got a lot done.
I've been taking advantage of the ridiculously mild weather to tidy up the veg patch. The main job has been to make a start on edging the beds - the grass encroaches more and more every year, but I'm determined to have everything looking spick and span by early spring. This is a big job though, so after each bit I do a quick other job - pulling up old vegetation, removing posts and wires, weeding, turning compost.
This way, lots gets done and I don't really notice how hard I'm working.
A nice crisp edge is very satisfying... but a lot of work to maintain

And when I'd finally put the chickens to bed and sat down to relax, what better thing to do than make the first slice into the Solstice cake.
It was delicious and will definitely become a tradition at Swallow Farm.

Meanwhile, in the house, Sue has been racking off the cider vinegar. This is the first time she has made this properly (though we have let cider turn to vinegar before). A couple of months ago Sue organised an Apple Day for the Smallholders Club. A big part of this was cider making and Sue brought home some of the apple pulp. Usually this would be a treat for the chickens or pigs, but this time Sue had other ideas. She covered it with water and left it in three large plastic boxes, covered with muslin to keep the fruit flies out.
After a while the entrance hallway was filled with a distinctive vinegary aroma. The developing vinegar grew a layer of white mould on top. This is supposed to happen. We were supposed to leave it there until March, but my winter squashes kept going mouldy until I figured that the fermenting vinegar might not be helping the situation.

So today Sue racked off the vinegar into demijohns. She filled almost nine! She has added a dollop of the mother of vinegar back in - this is that slimy white layer of mould! It is actually a form of cellulose and acetic acid bacteria. It's good for you. Honestly.

The 'Mother of Vinegar'

She has also added some apple pulp back in. The demijohns are not sealed, just covered, but they have moved to a different room.
Come March we should have 8 and a half gallons of very authentic apple cider vinegar.

And now the chickens can have the vinegary apple pulp mix. They love it and it's a very good natural wormer. It's also a bit of an all round tonic for them, which is just what they need on the shortest day.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Happy Solstice!!!

I don't like Christmas and I don't apologise for that.

So this is as Christmassy as it gets.

Arthur is clearly coveting a leading role in panto

Wheareas Boris patently feels the same way as I do about Christmas.

I do, however, very much like sausage rolls and mince pies. And I have made a Christmas cake which I've been feeding alcohol for the last couple of months. I've actually been feeding it Cointreau, for in a deliberate departure from tradition I've made a spicy orange rich fruit cake.
Last night it came to decorating it. When I was little, Christmas cake came with peaks and troughs of royal icing with various traditional figurines poked into the top - Santa Claus, a reindeer, some fir trees.
I felt this would not be appropriate for my cake, so opted to go with the orange theme. This is what I came up with. I'm rather proud of it.

The flowers are about looking forward to Spring. I've decided that a Solstice celebration would be more appropriate for us in future - it's probably where Christmas started anyway. But don't worry. I don't intend to get dressed up in a long cloak with a pointy hat and start prancing around a fire in some woodland clearing. I will celebrate quietly with Sue and the animals.
The Winter Solstice is a turning point in the year, especially for those of us who have chosen to live off the land. The coldest months are ahead of us, but the days get longer. Winter Solstice this year occurs at 04:49 on 22nd December. Hopefully the dank and damp dullness of November and early December will give way to crisp and clear winter days. A bit of frost wouldn't go amiss either and a good cold snap would make a refreshing change.
I'm already thinking about sowing seeds and I've just put in my big seed order for next year. I've started edging the veg beds ready to cultivate them and I've started a big tidy up.
In the next couple of days the shallots and garlic will be planted as they need a cold snap to encourage the cloves to divide.
So I guess that's it. The 2016 season is upon us. Let's hope it's a good one.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Great egg-spectations

When chickens moult they stop laying eggs, for they need to put their energies into regrowing feathers. The moult coincides with rapidly shortening daylight hours and so often decidedly grubby weather. The hens look a mess, though this state of affairs is quite natural.
When you think about it, as distanced from their natural cousins as they are, why would a bird be laying eggs when it can't fly and any chicks born would have zero chance of survival?

So when you buy eggs from the supermarket, however they are labelled, you should think about what they have done to ensure this steady supply of eggs. Maybe they control the lights to trick the hens. They don't need a period of rest as they are disposable at the end of their short lives. Odds are that the eggs you buy are quite a bit older than you'd imagine anyway.

But here in the world of the smallholder, eggs remain a seasonal product. We get loads of them in the spring and hardly any in the first half of winter. This varies from year to year, but at the moment we are getting about two eggs a week from 25 hens! That's not the best return in the world! Of course the hens still need feeding. If profits were the only motivation, you'd get rid of them all and get new ones in at the right age to begin laying. That's what mass production is about. Even some smallholders fall into the trap of adopting such practices, but it's a slippery slope. I don't want to be overly sentimental about my birds - they're not pets. But at what stage of considering costs does it become pointless trekking down to the chickens at least three times a day, whatever the weather, in the mud, in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, in the icy mornings? How far down the costing slope do we slide before we might as well buy our eggs from Tesco?

So I feed the chickens, take the dogs for a little walk to 'help' me several times every day, and return eggless. I do this in the knowledge that it will change soon. It won't be too long before I need to take a large basket with me to collect the eggs. At least the ducks have started laying again, but they are quite old now, so an egg every other day is the most I can expect.

But this week I had a couple of surprises.
I was wondering when the Ixworth hens would start laying, for these young hens don't need to moult yet so the time of year should have no effect. They are at what is known as 'point of lay' (POL).
The Ixworth trio. Growing up.
So it wasn't too much of a surprise a few days ago  to find a broken egg in their house. The frst eggs are always soft shelled and small. But for the last two days I have collected one small egg from their house. Come spring, these eggs will be hatched under a broody hen and the chicks will be raised as meat birds. For now they are a valued source of eggage.

One of our Crested Cream Legbars (the ones that lay blue eggs) has been spending all her time in the stables. I think she may even be roosting in a livestock trailer. I had a sneaky feeling that she may be building a secret stash of eggs somewhere. The Legbars moulted before the other hens and are now back in their finery again.

Last week Sue spied our girl sneaking out of the turkeys' stable, where we have a small store of straw bales.

I went to investigate and wasn't too surprised to find a clutch of  eggs. This is as many as the rest of the hens have laid in total in the last month! It is an easy place to collect from though, so I have stolen the cleanest of the eggs and left four, marked with big black crosses, so that she keeps laying there.

Those eggs will be savoured when we eat them, for at this time of year eating eggs is a treat, even for us folk who keep chickens.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

March of the greenhouse

Something has been going on in the garden. I can't quite put my finger on it, but things don't all seem to be in the same place.

I got a little carried away with my polytunnel reorganisation and decided to sort out the outside area too. First was a layer of weed suppression fabric, rejected from the polytunnel as I have gradually moved from container planting to growing directly in the soil.
I already used this patch of ground as a nursery area and transition zone between the polytunnel and the outside beds, but it was all a bit haphazard and long grass kept creeping up in inaccessible areas... and you don't want that happening.
Anyway, the new area looked so appealing that this happened...


This old greenhouse has already moved with us all the way from London, but it never quite fitted back together properly. Polycarbonate doesn't last for ever either. The brittle frames easily succumb to Fenland winds. And so this poor bedraggled greenhouse had become neglected, hidden away in an inaccessible corner of the garden.
It clearly liked the look of the newly developed area outside the polytunnel and walked itself there, even finding its way over two fences. Remarkably all of the panels stayed in place, but when they eventually perish I'll use scaffold netting or pallets around the frame to create a sheltered nursery area.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Polytunnel Re-design

In my last post I alluded to a change in the layout of my polytunnel. Well now that the tunnel is as clear as it will ever be, I sat down last night to plan.

When I first set up the polytunnel, I had a path down the middle and grew the crops on either side. This worked well, but the beds were too deep and it was difficult to tend the plants at the back, along the walls of the tunnel. As the season progressed, growth became luxuriant (to say the least) and air circulation was too limited.

One of the raised beds being used as an early season hotbed
In the second year, I built a raised bed on each side at the front of the tunnel, which worked quite well but there was wasted space down the back and the beds still became too deep to tend properly.

A central bed under construction

Last year I had the idea to put a narrow bed down the middle of the tunnel, where I grew my peppers. This worked very well. They were easy to reach.
I also put a 1000 litre water butt inside the polytunnel, both as a means to have plenty of rainwater to use and as a heat reservoir for the tunnel. But still the side beds were slightly too deep and I had to waste a lot of growing space to leave room to get to the crops near the side walls.
Polytunnel plan 2015
But then I read a chance comment on a website and it became obvious what to do. I can't believe I didn't see it in the first place.
The central bed should be the widest, as it can be reached from both sides. So I set to redesigning my polytunnel. It's not as straightforward as just changing the shape of the beds. There's a tricky crop rotation to plan for too. And it is tricky in a polytunnel, for most of the crops seem to come from the same family of plants! Tomatoes, peppers, chillis, aubergines and even early potatoes are all closely related. You can't keep growing them year after year in the same soil, as diseases can easily build up and nutrients become depleted. In the end, I came up with the idea of six beds for three groups of plants, to be rotated on a three year cycle. Since each group of plants has two beds, each species can change places when the three year rotation comes back on itself.
It may be easier if I show you the plan.
Where crops appear to be in the same place, they will follow each other. Some will be in and out early, others go in late on in summer, after the main crops have come out, to give winter crops.

The new polytunnel plan - 2016


So that's what it looks like on paper.
In reality, it's not quite so easy. There are paths to move, planks to resite and plenty of soil to be shifted.
I'll be getting on with I then.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The final polytunnel harvest (almost)

Cayenne chillis
Ideally I would grow crops in my polytunnel year round, but realistically the space is best used for the classic covered crops - tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and chillis. I do use it for a few early potatoes, which works well as they occupy the soil before anything else goes in. I also grow carrots in the polytunnel as it's the only way I have any success with them.
A few other more exotic crops have made it in too - melons, watermelon, tomatillos. They do okay but not amazingly. I've never had much luck with aubergines either.
The last of the tomatoes

One crop which does earn its place in the polytunnel, though it does its best to take over the whole place, is butternut squash. They produce well and love the conditions in there. I grow Butternut Waltham.

The last few butternut squashes

I have also been growing some climbing beans in the polytunnel, but have decided that on the whole they do just as well outside. The only exception to this are yardlong beans which need to be undercover.

However, my polytunnel honeymoon period is over now. Pests have found their way in, particularly red spider mite, which is living proof that if lots of individuals achieve a little then the sum of their actions achieves great things. Unfortunately, their efforts go into sucking the life out of my plants! They always take a hold on the beans first and for this reason I am going to give the polytunnel a break from beans. I think it's because the beans grow up above where the sprinklers reach and afford the mites a safe haven, for they like warm, dry conditions.

I did a pretty thorough job of cleaning the polytunnel last winter, but it obviously wasn't enough to prevent a few mites from overwintering. This year, if they come back, I'll have to use biological controls. I have no objections to using these, but they are expensive.

Jalapeno chillis and Paprika

Anyway, getting back to the point, the tunnel is more straightforward to manage if it goes through a period of being pretty much empty. This makes it far easier to conduct basic cleaning and maintenance during the winter. The only crops which will continue in there are celery and a little Swiss Chard. Protected, these crops will last long into the winter and even when they die down, they just sit dormant and spring back into growth in the spring, offering a very early crop before they go to seed in their second year.

The classic polytunnel crops have completely run out of energy come late November. A few cold nights, dull days and moisture in the air cause everything to suddenly die down. So last week I took one final harvest - the chillis, any peppers left on the plants and a few tomatoes still clinging on.

Red, yellow, green and purple peppers

The tomatoes especially were on their way out, so I roasted them up before passing them through the mouli to make passata, which I then freeze to use in my winter dishes.

Passata in the making
The last job before the big clear out was to collect some fruits for next year's seed. This is not always as easy as just collecting a fruit and taking out the seeds, since many will cross-pollinate all too easily. For this reason, earlier in the year I had tried to isolate some of the chillis and peppers by tying a nylon bag over the flowers after they had set. This wasn't entirely successful - most of them dropped off the plant after about a week. But I did end up with a couple of 'pure' fruits from which to take seeds. 
Next year's seeds
The polytunnel is now pretty much cleared out. I'm careful to remove all old foliage and dying vegetation so that pests, fungi and viruses aren;t harboured in the tunnel.
This winter I'll be reorganising the beds again to make better use of the middle of the tunnel and to make the beds down the side easier to reach. It won't be too long until I'm setting up mini greenhouses ready to raise next year's seedlings in there.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Medlar Mash Up

We had another good harvest from our medlar tree this year. This is my favourite tree in the orchard with its spreading, gnarled branches bearing fantastic white blossoms in the spring followed by the most unusual fruits. In fact, I like the tree so much that I've planted another five, even though I don't really need them.

One of the great things about growing your own food is that you get to taste things which are just not available in the shops, medlars being an excellent example of this.

Medlars are probably most well known for the need to 'blet' them, which basically means letting them begin to rot. But this is not as disgusting as it sounds.
There are two choices here - either pick them early and store them until bletted or, what Sue and I do, let them blet on the tree. The weather has been a bit funny this year (isn't it every year?) and things have been slow to ripen. Quite a few crops just didn't quite make it before a decidedly damp November led to them rotting off.
So we held off on picking the medlars. Other things got in the way too. Last year I'm pretty sure the leaves were still on the tree when we picked them, but this year the leaves have well and truly gone.
This last weekend I noticed that the fruits were much thinner and on closer inspection most of them had fallen onto the ground. There they lay on the leaf litter, nicely bletted.

Basically each medlar fruit looks like a giant brown rosehip, each containing seven stones. What's not stone is a spicy, aromatic, peary, apply mush. That's the best way I can describe it.
I collected just over 100 fruits from the tree and more than 300 from the ground. I left some windfalls for the birds and insects.
In all they weighed 10.2kg.

Sue makes an amazing medlar jelly which does not involve the need to extract the flesh from the fruits. She basically boils them up with a couple of apples for pectin until mushy and then strains them through jam bags.

To keep the liquid perfectly clear, it is important not to press the fruit mush but just let the juice drain. The juice then gets turned into an amazingly pink-hued jelly. It's a popular seller, but we like to keep a fair bit for ourselves.

In theory, the left-over pulp can be used to make chutney, but this would mean extracting all those stones. Besides, we have chutneys of various descriptions coming out of our ears!

This year we were keen to expand on our medlar repertoire and Sue found a recipe for a ginger, medlar and apricot cake. Only problem was that it required 250g of medlar flesh and it fell to me to extract it. Normally this would have been a doddle as I have a mouli which I use for making things like tomato passata, but this was not an option because of the stones. I tried pushing the medlars through a sieve, but the sieve was not strong enough and the holes not big enough. Eventually we ended up impovising with a metal steamer. It was a long, messy job though. The resulting mash did not look appetising but the aroma was beautifully spicy and exotic.
Sue took her 250g of mashed medlar which was a very small proportion of the 3+ kg I had prepared. The rest was portioned up and frozen, so there'll be no need for more medlar mashing for quite some time.

The cake, unsurprisingly, tastes amazing. And I won't be sharing it in case you're wondering.

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