Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Mangetout are Through

Not the most exciting photos in the world, but today was a big day in the 2016 growing season.

The mangetout peas I sowed for growing early in the polytunnel are starting to poke through the soil surface and reach for the skies. Green shoots and all that.

The sowing season has gone up a gear too. Today I sowed my aubergine seeds. It's very early and I will have to tend the delicate little things for quite some time, but until now I've had precious little success with aubergines. They are a temperamental crop. Some people do well with them. Some people just can't get a decent aubergine off them. I come firmly in the latter group. Until now. This is the year when I plan to join the former. The tender treatment starts now, with the seeds soaked in tepid water for 24 hours (obviously the water was cold by the end!) and now in a small heated propagator, which I purchased over the winter. It's just a crude, basic one but I'm hoping it is just enough to kickstart seeds into growth. After that, for most crops, double and triple cloches in the polytunnel should afford enough protection until springtime proper arrives.

I sowed lettuces too. I always grow too many at once and never keep up the succession properly, resulting in fields of lettuce all ready at the same time, most of which go on to bolt, followed by no lettuce whatsoever. This year, that changes and I've started by sowing some very early lettuce which I hope will germinate under bubble wrap in the tunnel - similar to the mangetout. The crucial thing with lettuces is that the temperature is not too low (below about 5C) and not too high (above 20C) for the first couple of days after sowing. The second of these is often far more difficult to achieve in the polytunnel and once we get into March I'll probably be using the cold frame for germination.
The varieties for so early in the year are the Cos types and the looseleaf (green rather than red). I have sown seeds of Little Gem, Lobjoits Green Cos and Buttercrunch.

Finally I have sown early carrots too today. Early Nantes, straight into the polytunnel beds. If we were in a cold snap, I would hold off on this, but the bees have been out for a couple of days this week, a song thrush was singing today and it is beginning to feel like spring already. I'm sure that winter will still have a say at some point. I hope so.

I've learned from last year and covered the rows with mesh. There always seems to be an interminable wait for carrotlings to emerge, so you can imagine how disheartening it was last year when first the chickens got in and destroyed a couple of rows and then Boris discovered that the polytunnel was a very good place to go digging.

Tomorrow the first turnips go into the polytunnel beds.

Meanwhile the outside  jobs are more winter-like. Moving, pruning and taking cuttings from dormant plants. Digging, shifting compost, rotavating when I can.

Monday, 25 January 2016

One cold snap does not a winter make

I cannot believe that we are already in the last week of January. I consulted my all-knowing spreadsheet, on which I have intricately mapped out every conceivable job and when it needs doing through the year, and it is time to start sowing seeds! Aubergines and lettuces to start inside, carrots and turnips in the polytunnel beds.

But outside, the soil won't be ready for a good while yet. I've been itching to work on it but waterlogged clay soil is no fun and to trample all over it would just do more harm than good.
But with our first (and hopefully not last) spell of cold weather last week, I was up early cranking up Mr Rotavator. When the soil is frozen solid, I have an hour or so to turn as much as possible. After this, once the temperature reaches thawing point, the clay sticks to the tines until they become one solid lump.
I need about half a dozen cold mornings to make a significant difference. I can let the cold in, incorporate some air and, most importantly, expose the slugs and other creepy crawlies to the chickens.
Every slug unearthed and devoured at this time of year is a small army of baby slimy munching monsters which won't be around when my crops go in.

The chickens move in
My two best digging machnes!
Unfortunately two of the three sharp frosts last week came on work days for me so I have only had one chance to turn the soil, but I was pleased with what I did manage to do. I could really do with another freezing spell. Without it, turning the soil will be hard work and the chickens won't have long on it before the seeds and young plants go in. Hopefully February will deliver the goods.

The cold weather reminds me of the need to keep the bird feeders stocked up too. We've had up to 50 Reed Buntings and half a dozen Yellowhammers on the farm of late, by far the most we've ever had. I must be doing something right. But if the buntings feel the need to come in from the fields then the other birds, the more familiar visitors to the feeders, will most definitely need feeding to stay alive.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Pleachers, Beetles and Binders - a day spent hedge laying

The weekend started with a gorgeous sunrise.

This morning's sunrise, captured through the top of the fedge.
Sue and I had signed up for a spot of hedge laying organised by the CSSG (Cambridgeshire Self Sufficiency Group). We've done a fair bit of conservation work and woodland management in the past, but hedge laying was something new to us. Thankfully we had Mick on hand, Mick who pretty much runs the CSSG and who is an absolute mine of knowledge.

Our hedge was located a fair way away down in Haddenham in The Fairchild Meadows. The local committee and helpers from around the village were keen for someone to help them lay about 100 metres of hedge. Mick had been looking for a hedge to demonstrate on and to let us loose on for a while.

This old woman (the one on the left) was pleased to see us laying
the meadow hedge in the traditional way.
The dog is, apparently, an ex champion at Crufts.
This was it's first long walk for a few weeks as it had to be put in a kennels
as its owner had rolled her car!

Mick showed us how to cut, bend, twist and tie a ten year old hedge into a neatly laid hedge. And why would you want to do this? Originally it was mainly to keep in livestock, though these days this is more usually done with fencing. But it also rejuvenates a hedge, using its established rootstock to spark plenty of new growth from the base.

After a little pruning on the good side of the hedge, we learned that you basically perform a shocking piece of tree surgery low down on the main trunk, cutting at an angle almost all the way through until you can bend the whole tree over. The half-severed trunk is now known as a pleacher.

This part of the task was surprisingly satisfying, although the blackthorns in particular occasionally bit back!

Next part of the process was to drive in hazel stakes at 18" intervals. I hadn't realised the importance of these. They are woven together using long hazel or willow binders and provide a framework through the newly laid hedge so that it doesn't get damaged by the wind.

Then it's time for the beetle to come out. I have no idea if I heard this term quite correctly, but that's what it sounded like. It may just be a very local word. It is basically just a big bit of stick for tamping down the woven binders to secure the pleaches and brushwood.

And that's it!

We didn't quite get the whole 100 metre stretch done, but some folks are going back tomorrow, hopefully to finish it off.
What we did achieve was pretty impressive though and I can't wait for one of our young hedges to get old enough to be laid. (that sounds so wrong, but I can't think how to rephrase!)
Or I could be really brave and tackle the twenty foot high roadside hedge... or that might be a bit too ambitious.
However, I could possibly apply some of the same principles to gradually try and rejuvenate it. It would be reassuring to think that there was something beyond the rickety fence should the sheep ever decide to jump.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Taking advantage of good conditions

Boris, Arthur and Gerry were all keen to help in the garden
Boris was behaving very strangely last night and it took a while for me to work out why. It was only in the evening, as my fingers started tingling, that I realised the same may be happening to Boris's paws and nose. However I can explain my tingling, for with the soil soft and workable yesterday I had been digging out nettles. As I threw them to one side, Boris insisted on running after them and shaking them - hence his strange behaviour as he struggled to understand his strange sensations.

The weather this past weekend was somewhat disappointing. We had finally been promised that cold spell we so badly need to set the seasons right. Saturday night was forecast snow and Sunday morning a temperature plunge to several degrees below zero. Somehow we totally missed the band of snow which had others out throwing snowballs, sledging and building snowmen. Maybe because of this, overnight temperatures barely dipped below zero. At least the ground was fairly solid for a couple of days which made a pleasant change from the squelchy conditions we've had underfoot of late. With the Grow-Your-Own group visiting on Sunday, I had been having a bit of a tidy up and had a couple of moments of inspiration.

Twigs and herbs strew the ground
 - an aromatic carpet over the churned up ground.
As I trimmed the herbs which line the polytunnel ( to ward off rodents and to provide a safety zone for the mower blades) I realised I could strew them over the ground as a kind of aromatic carpet to cover the muddier walkways. Pleased with how this went, I moved on to line a muddy path by the chicken pen using a pile of hollow lovage stems. In the chicken pen, I used dryng old catmint stems to line the muddy floor - this should help deter rats too as they reputedly hate the smell.

Broken lovage stems make a good path over the mud.

Yesterday the ground was completely thawed. Thankfully a few cold, dry days had allowed the water to drain out of the soil and it had become more pliable than for a long time. Time to finally get the garlic and shallots in, before a promised low of minus four overnight.

I planted the garlic cloves 4 inches apart in rows 15 inches apart. That's a bit further apart than the rows need to be, but I'm growing something in between. I just need to make sure there's enough space for the hoe. I use a ruler for this as it's surprisingly easy to space wrongly when you're down on your hands and knees with little perspective. I will sow parsnip in between the rows, as the garlic is a good companion for it and will come out before the parsnip plants get too big.
The garlic cloves are planted about an inch deep and it won't be long before they take root and the green shoots appear above the soil. Some are already doing their best to start growing.

Until they get a good roothold, the garlic plants need protecting from the birds' scratching feet and inquisitive pecks. This was the ideal opportunity for me to try out one of my new vegetable cages - more on these in a later post - which I purchased cheaply as part of a 'Black Friday' promotion.

Next in were the shallots - generally the smallest of last year's sets saved for this year. I had about 40 to plant and this was a very quick process with the soil in the right condition. They were simply laid out on the surface at 7" intervals each way and then poked into the soft soil until just their very tips were poking out. Chicken wire went over the top to stop them being pulled out again.

Monday, 18 January 2016

A Touch of Sad News on Blue Monday

What with turkeys, geese, guinea fowl, ducks and chickens, we have almost fifty birds altogether. It never seems that many as they generally wander over much of the farm and each group tends to keep to certain areas. Then there's the peahen which isn't ours but has moved in almost permanently now.
With this many birds, it's a sad but inevitable truth that we occasionally lose one. Last week I found a poor chicken being pecked at by the two turkeys (poultry have no sympathy for each other and can be very harsh indeed). I saved her and moved her to an isolation hutch, where she has stayed ever since. But I had decided that if she was not mobile this morning then it would only be fair to put her out of her misery. Sadly this is what I had to do. It's not something I enjoy doing, but I have got used to it. In fact being able to euthanise your birds efficiently is very much a part of being a caring smallholder and poultry keeper.
However I wasn't prepared for another loss today. For when it came to putting the birds away, only one of the two remaining white ducks was to be seen. In the vanishing light, I looked around and was a bit gutted to find the other lying dead in the raspberry patch. I'd been working very close by all day and hadn't noticed anything untoward. All I can say is that something did not seem quite right when she hopped out of her house this morning. It wasn't anything obvious, but more of a hunch. This was a real shame as yesterday she had gone to roost very happily, quacking and nodding her head up and down enthusiastically.
At least I know that both birds had good lives.

Overall though, despite this, it's been a good day. I've spent the whole day outside with the dogs and got loads done.
Boris, Arthur and Gerry kept me company in the garden today.

Monday, 11 January 2016

A Living Willow Throne

I always seem to be talking about the weather lately. I'm not apologising, as it's important when you live off the land.
Today's weather was a pleasant surprise. More heavy overnight rain kept me off the soil again, but the day started dry and almost threatened to be one of those lovely, crisp sunny winter days I love so much.
Plans to go into town (a rare occurrence) were abandoned in favour of another foray into the world of living willow. This time, it was to be a chair.

I'd already selected some thick stems for the chair uprights which had been stored with their butt ends in water, as these were to be planted into the ground allowing the chair to come to life in the spring and begin to grow organically.
I'd also thrown some branches to the sheep to strip the bark. We'd use these for the non-living struts and for the seat.

With the wood for the project selected, we got to measuring, sawing and lopping.

Then some very rudimentary woodwork and we quickly had something beginning to resemble a chair. It took us some time to select a site for the chair and in the end we settled for a spot up on Weasel Ridge, next to the buddleias and overlooking the whole veg plot - a lovely place to sit and admire the sunset with a bottle of beer to ease the aching muscles after a long day's gardening.


I dug a hole about a foot deep and 'planted' the chair.

Next for the really fancy bits - living arms made by inserting long cuttings into the ground and bending them round the frame into shape. Next a similar process to form the back of the chair, with a little baling twine to hold everything in place. I'll replace this with willow ties. Hopefully, as the cuttings root and grow, they will graft together and will no longer need to be tied.

I left the arms unlopped and I was thankful I did, as it became apparent that I could bend them back round to join the chair back. This is what I love about working with living wood - the design is organic and grows out of the wood itself. In fact, once I'd finished I wished I'd left the uprights longer too.
Having said that, though, new shoots will sprout from all the living parts of my throne, which is the really exciting thing. For these can be either lopped off to keep the chair neat and tidy or allowed to grow and be trained into new shapes and patterns.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Garlic advice I successfully ignored: Never grow supermarket garlic. And never save it from year to year.

The plan was to take advantage of a dry Saturday morning forecast to spend some quality time with Sue, but I awoke to the pitter patter of raindrops on the window, so you'll just have to wait a while longer to see of our living willow chair.
Instead, I've been sorting through the garlic bulbs and shallot sets.

I've selected nice plump garlic cloves which look ready to grow.
I also put aside the smallest shallot sets when I harvested them
last summer. Both of these are now, I think fourth generation.
By collecting my own, I've not experienced any fall in quality or any
disease. In fact, if anything, I think that the process of selection means that
they gradually become better adapted to local conditions.
The original garlic was shop-brought, lovely and fresh from an
Indian supermarket. Maybe I've just struck lucky, but I've saved myself
a small fortune by ignoring  the traditional advise to buy in
special (specially expensive!) garlic bulbs each year.
Garlic and shallots need to go into the ground to overwinter and I normally take the shortest day as my cue, which is convenient as it always falls in the school holidays when I've got time to get jobs done.
Some people like to get them in the ground even earlier than this, but I am very happy with the results I've had with my dates. In fact, with the ridiculously warm and wet winters we're increasingly experiencing, I no longer have a clue when I should be planting them!

But this year the ground in later December was too sodden even to ruffle up the surface enough for a few garlic cloves and shallot sets. No worry, I thought, it can wait till New Year's Day. Little did I bargain for the deluge which early January has brought us. We're lucky in that we are at minimal risk of flooding (even though we live in the low-lying Fens, a robust system of drains and dykes is well-maintained and designed over many years to manage water levels). But our heavy soil is absolutely waterlogged at the moment and any fresh rainfall simply has nowhere to go but to sit on the surface and seep slowly, very slowly into the ground. Ever larger and more permanent puddles are appearing.

Yesterday, however, I did at least manage to turn over some of the soil. I trod on boards so as not to compact it any further and I'd added a layer of semi-decomposed compost a couple of weeks back and let the worms and the chickens do their magic on it.
The result was not too bad. All I need now is next week's forecast of frosty weather and, if the ground is frozen early in the morning I can get the rotavator onto it, at least until the winter sun warms it up to cloggy again. If temperatures stay below zero through the day, I can rotavate until my hands get too cold to continue.

Meanwhile, the garlic hung up in the kitchen is just starting to sprout, so it's time to either puree it ready for the freezer or dehydrate it. One braid has gone off with a friend to be smoked.

I've just been searching for the post with the photo of that Indian supermarket and drawn a blank, but I did find this corresponding post from 2014. 2014 garlic planting
The date was a few days earlier and the soil was a bit more crumbly,  but I love the way these things come round year on year. That was the first year I planted these cloves purchased from Pretty Fruiterers, that little grocers in North London. I also planted some cloves saved from specially purchased garlic - I think it was Garlic Marco. But for the second time that failed to produce well.
Funny how the expensive garlic purchased specially for growing and costing about £2 per bulb doesn't seem to save from year to year isn't it!
I think I purchased a whole bag full of my garlic for that much. It grows better, gives much plumper cloves, is whiter and more disease resistant.

small print
all the horticultural suppliers and references say that if you just use purchased supermarket garlic it won't be disease resistant and you are laying yourself open to importing nasty things like white rot, which stays in the soil for an awfully long time and stops you growing any of the onion family in that piece of soil. So if you decide to try what I've done, on your head be it! Maybe try them in a very small piece of soil which you could easily avoid growing onions on in the future if need be... and keep a close eye on them for disease.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Wonderful Willow

After my dip into the world of fedging, I still had quite a lot of willow left over. In fact, enough to contemplate another project.

Not the willow on the left. No that's my little post Christmas present to myself - more on this lower down on the page. But this willow underneath. It doesn't look so neat, but it's perfect for rustic, living willow structures in the garden.
This 1000 litre water butt has been adapted
so I can easily dip a watering can into it
when my carrots get thirsty later in the year.
But for now it makes for a very good place
to store my willow cuttings with their butt ends in water.

I fancy making an archway, or even a dome, or a living chair!
So I took to the world of Amazon and typed in Living Willow. In less than two days, this landed on my doorstep.

And while I was browsing, I came across this one too.

Just before Christmas I went on a willow weaving day at one of my favourite places, the Green Back Yard in Peterborough. We were just making Christmas decorations and I had a fairly frustrating experience. On my third effort I started to get the hang of it and then it was time to go.

Third time lucky!
The willow used for this type of project is not so easily grown at home. To be precise, it's pretty easy to grow most willows - you just stick a stick in the ground and wait. When you and the trees are ready, you chop them right back (to ground level is known as coppicing, to about waist or shoulder level is pollarding - to prevent livestock from grazing on the new shoots). The result is that all the tree's energies go into throwing up long, straight shoots perfect for weaving with.
The most common variety for basket-making willow is Black Maul. Once you are ready to take a harvest, you simply boil the shoots for about 9 hours and then strip the bark. Precisely how you process it and which variety of willow you use gives you different colours and qualities. Of course, it's not simple at all! For 8 foot long bundles of willow don't easily fit into my largest stock pot and I don't have a machine for stripping the bark, which could take quite a while by hand.

I decided I'd like to try some of the projects in the book I'd just purchased, as well as having another go at what I'd attempted at the Green Back Yard. So I ordered myself some willow. All the willow companies seem to be down in Somerset and I managed to find one which sold the various types and lengths of willow in 1kg bundles. Of course, I had to purchase enough to warrant paying the postage!

So next weekend (weather depending) Sue and I will hopefully be constructing a living willow chair somewhere in the garden. I just need to work out where to put it.
And there'll be a fair few evenings in front of the fire mastering the art of making willow dragonflies, birdfeeders, stars, hearts and fish.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Easy Peasy

It's 2nd Januarty and I've sown some seeds! Mangetout. To grow in the polytunnel.

Really I should have planted them at the back end of Autumn, but using the polytunnel to hold plants in stasis over the winter is something I'm only just beginning to experiment with. Mind you, with the weather we've been having I don't think there will be an issue.
The idea is to have some delicious fresh mangetout peas available early in the year, way before anything's cropping from outside.

Me and mangetout have history and it's one that gets steadily worse. I grow mangetout for a couple of reasons. Although in my experience peas always give a disappointing and brief yield for the space they take up, mangetout are high value and can justify the space, time and effort they are given. They also don't succumb to the dreaded pea moth, that tiny caterpillar which gets inside the pods and prevents you eating any raw pods, unless you like a little extra protein! For this reason, maincrop and Sugarsnap peas have had a rest from my plot for three years to break the life cycle. I'll try again this year, but I'm planting later to try to avoid the moth's emergence period.

So, back to the mangetout. I had a brilliant harvest the first time I grew them. It was that really, really wet year and I think they enjoyed the moisture. Beginner's luck.
Then three years ago I decided to grow the purple ones. They looked fantastic on the plot, but the yield was slightly lower and I have to say they tasted a little more cabbage than peas should.
Two years ago I had a disaster. They all got eaten. And the second sowing too.
Last year, they all came up but it was very dry at the crucial time. We hardly got any pods. On top of this, I think I missed a few pods which meant that they stopped producing too. They seemed to swell everso quickly, almost as if they were bolting.
The result was about three meals worth from 100+ seeds!

Therefore this year I have a different strategy. I am growing some traditional green ones early in the polytunnel. I have gone for Oregon Sugar Pod which is supposedly pretty hardy. Today I sowed them four to a pot, which I have covered with bubble wrap to encourage them to germinate. I don't sow direct as there are too many voles and field mice to devour them. When they're big enough, they'll go in the bed allocated for sweetcorn and squash. Hopefully they'll be out again before the corn and squash even get planted. In the polytunnel I have easier access to water too and can tend them more easily. Plus I have two little helpers who are always keen to help me, especially with digging!

Arthur and Boris, specially bred as gardening dogs.
I will try growing some outside again this year. I'm going for a golden one so I can see the pods easily to keep up with picking. I'll keep them well watered too and hope for the best.
I'll report back at harvest time.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Welcome to 2016

If anybody else said this, I'd be accusing them of spouting superstitious mumbo jumbo, but I've got a feeling that 2016 is going to be a very good year.

It's not even 9 o'clock in the morning yet and I'm already having a great day. The dogs are tearing around playing happily as I sit here with my morning coffee and tap away at the keyboard.

It's a couple of years ago now that I did my year of sunrises and I have no plans to do it again, but if you can't see the sunrise on 1st January - though of course, for me the New Year really started on the Winter Solstice.

There were no wild celebrations last night. Sue is visiting friends so it was just me, Arthur and Boris, Gerry and Angel (dogs and cats). It was still nearly 3 before I got off to sleep though - I was busy making plans. So was the Little Owl. I could hear it calling outside as I lay in bed.
So, 2016 and I was up with the larks - actually, just about the first bird I saw was a Barn Owl which flew across the veg patch right in front of me. Not a bad start to the year.
There was a light frost too, only the second of the winter and the first was almost undetectable. Not enough to penetrate the soil though, but enough to make for a clear, crisp morning.

I took a few photos, just general ones mostly. I like taking photos of the smallholding, for when I look at them I often see things in different ways. It's good to catalogue the changes too.


The chickens have started laying again. As predicted, egg numbers rose sharply after the shortest day to the point where we had a bit of an egg mountain going on in the kitchen. We'd gotten out of the habit of using them. Appropriately for the start of a new year, this morning both our Ixworth hens laid an egg, the first time this has happened. I half expected it as yesterday's egg was covered in yolk. Often the first couple of eggs laid will be soft shelled. The young girls' eggs are small at the moment, but they'll get bigger with time.

Anyway, I'm off back outside now. It's a new year and I'm keen to get stuck in. More importantly, it's dry and it's a beautiful morning. And my coffee's finished.

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