Sunday, 28 February 2016

Meet the Captain

A couple of years ago a peahen moved into Don's. It was when he had a bantam cockerel wandering about and one day the peahen appeared from nowhere to nab the corn he was putting down.

It didn't take long for the peahen to find our side of the road and a free meal every morning and every afternoon.

Over time she has become more and more tame and she now spends most of her time hanging about with the turkeys and various other poultry.

Displaying to the turkeys
She's still pretty wild though. She wanders far and wide and occasionally roosts high up in the old ash trees. Other times she flies up into the roadside hedge with the pheasants. In the springtime she issues loud bugle calls as her not inconsiderable frame hurtles across the garden, for she is surprisingly good at flying.

Last spring the poor girl laid five eggs and patiently sat on them, but with no boy around her venture was always doomed to failure.

So a couple of weeks I got to thinking. Would it be possible to find a mate for her? I put a speculative post onto the Fenland Smallholders Club Facebook page - anybody know where I might be able to get hold of...?
I'd already had a quick look on the internet and found some quite staggering prices! The one that stood out was an advert for male peacocks for £30 each, but they were only young birds and over 100 miles away.
Anyway, the Facebook enquiry yielded results. Mainly suggestions of local collections of peacocks, then BINGO. An offer of a fully-tailed (so at least 3 years old) male peacock from another smallholder down in Breckland. He just needed to entice it into a pen.

And so yesterday the message came. Peacock penned. Ready for collection. I would have gone over there and then, but patience prevailed, for it would be better if he arrived at his new home in the dark.

Late yesterday afternoon Sue and I pulled up and were shown to the pen. Another cock bird bounded along the path ahead of us and into the woodland. If ours was this athletic, we were in for quite an ordeal! Our peacock looked rather splendid and had a fine tail on him. I say 'had', for the first effort to catch him resulted in a rather spectacular shedding of tail feathers! Sue keenly collected them up for school. We'll probably need to wait till next year for the tail to grow in properly again. They shed the display feathers in the autumn and regrow them again in late winter ready to woo the females.
Once captured, our boy was fitted with a bodice (made from an old feed bag) and we placed him gently into the back of the car, where he sat quietly for the hour long journey home.

We carried him down in the dark and placed him into his pen - he won't be in here for long, but he needs to get used to his surroundings before he decides to fly across the fields! He also needs to realise that there is a female around. We'll leave him penned for about a week and then cross our fingers and let him out when the hen is nearby. Let's hope she likes him.

The Captain in his temporary pen. The white at the base of his tail is the quills now showing after he shed half his feathers.

And as for his name, The Captain, you'll have to be old enough to remember a show called Are You Being Served to get that one.

Saturday, 27 February 2016


Unless there is a significant change, we have managed to get through the winter only feeding three small bales of hay to the sheep. They get the occasional titbit too, but on the whole they have completely looked after themselves. The grass has kept on growing and as they are hardy Shetland sheep they seem quite able to survive on this, even though everyone says it has less goodness in it at this time of year.

But responding to a chance advert for eight free bags of sugar beet pellets (an extra treat, especially for the four ewes who are all beginning to look decidedly pregnant) led to more than I bargained for.

The advert continued... also home required for three pairs of Muscovy Ducks. The last time I came across Muscovy Ducks was when I stayed on a forest smallholding in Latvia. They had a sizeable flock free-ranging and their owner was full of praise for their merits as smallholding stock.
Muscovy Ducks are not related to all the other farmyard ducks which come from the humble Mallard. Instead they are tree-ducks, somewhere in fact between a duck and a small goose.
I quickly typed in 'rearing Muscovy Ducks' and found out that they are supposedly delightfully quiet and amiable birds to keep. They are polygamous, usually with one male looking after about five or six females (so not really pairing up as the advert said)  and they are very prolific. They also reportedly taste very nice indeed.

The ducks that we already have, five black Cayugas and one white duck, are not tremendously productive. We get eggs from them, but not a huge number. We have bred them, but if we let the ducks do the rearing we do well to get a couple of new birds in a year - not a great contribution to the table. In fact, two of the Cayugas need to 'go' soon as they are last year's offspring.

I made a phone call and it was agreed that we would take two 'pairs' of Muscovy Ducks, the older pair staying put to keep a peacock company!
We loaded the cat carriers into the car and made the journey across the fens to meet a delightful couple who have been smallholders for many, many years. We had arranged to arrive just as the ducks would be getting put to bed, as catching birds is far easier when they are penned and at roost.

I had read to beware of their claws, for being tree ducks they actually have clawed feet for clinging to branches. I had also read to beware of their other defence mechanism - a quick squirt from the back end!!!
As it was, these were not too much of a problem. The claws were certainly nothing compared to a cockerel's spurs.
But what the literature never alluded to was their Herculean strength and their ability to wriggle free! I guess because they are strong fliers, the Muscovies really were difficult to hold on to. You never want to use too much force but a very strong grip was certainly needed.

When we got the four birds home we put them straight into a couple of ducks houses. We didn't want them flying straight off.

I had spent the day extending the heras fencing compound in which we keep the trio of meat chickens. This would give the Muscovies a safe area in which to forage and get used to their new surroundings, but if they wanted they would easily be able to fence hop and go wandering (or flying) around the farm.

First contact.

The two drakes

The two ducks - stronger fliers than the drakes
So, a week later, the Muscovies seem to have settled in very well. They really are quiet and gentle creatures. They nod enthusiastically to greet each other and the males make a soft but not unfriendly hissing noise when approached. They pretty much ignore the three chickens. Three of them have taken to roosting up on the chicken fence, the heaviest male prefers for the moment to save the effort and go into one of the houses.

This morning, for the first time, I found three of them exploring a little further than the chicken pen - they were waddling around in with the sheep. They seem to have made friends with the female turkey too.
With a bit of luck, one or both of the females will start laying - there's a chance they'll disappear for a while and hopefully return with a gaggle of ducklings in tow. Although we took the four Muscovies on the understanding that they would not be for the pot, their offspring most certainly will be. I look forward to giving you my first cook's review.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Potato Potential

A couple of weeks ago I was digging the veg beds when I unearthed half a row of Arran Pilots. This is an Early and should really have been eaten before the Second Earlies - about June 2015.
But I've discovered this before, that Earlies actually stand surprisingly well in the ground. They seem to be very slug resistant and keep their flavour pretty well. Okay, not quite so tender as the first dugs but still very edible. What's more, they swell up nicely so you get a lot more potato for your money.

I've got plenty of spuds still in storage but freshly dug potatoes at the beginning of February is certainly quite a luxury. It's not something I would plan to do every year or rely on, but I've learned that if some of the Earlies don't come out when they're supposed to it's certainly not a disaster.
Some very late 'Earlies'.

But my thoughts since the Winter Solstice have turned more to 2016's potato crop. Each year most gardeners buy in seed potatoes which, when the time is right, get buried in the ground to magically sprout and flourish into leafy green plants with clusters of fresh potatoes hidden just below the surface of the soil.
Seed potatoes are not cheap to buy, but as I live in an agricultural region, it's fairly easy to find places which sell them in bulk. Buying them this way is ridiculously cheap but you don't always want 25kg of seed potatoes.  In fact, most people never want 25kg of seed potatoes. In total I grow about 15 to 20 kg and that is certainly not all one variety.
So for the last two years I have started a co-operative buying scheme for the Fenland Smallholders Club. I take orders and buy in as much as is needed. Now this is a great scheme for the bulk standard varieties, such as Arran Pilot, Desiree, Charlotte and Picasso, but until the scheme grows I just don't get enough orders to warrant buying the more unusual varieties.

Before we let everyone in
Fortunately I have a second option. Cambridgeshire Self Sufficiency Group organise a Potato Day every year which is held in Huntington. They have about sixty varieties available at just £1/kg.  Potato days run all across the country and are a great way of buying seed potatoes - you get access to lots of different varieties at a good price. If you want to try lot of different types, you can buy just a few of each tuber too. The trouble is for me that the cost of petrol there and back outweighs the saving I make unless I can find another reason for being down that way.
This year I decided to help out with the setting up. There is a lot of lugging about to be done and I enjoy a bit of physical work. Besides that, the CSSG are a great group of people who I really enjoy spending time with.
As a member of CSSG, you get to pick your potatoes half an hour before the general public get let in. Not only does this mean you get to wander around at your own pace without the crowds, you also get to pick the best tubers. Not only that, but nothing will run out. Last year the Charlottes were gone by 11:17. The hall only opened to the public at 11! This year an extra sack was ordered.

As to which varieties I've chosen to grow this year, just read on.

But first to deal with a couple of questions which always crop up.

Do I need to buy in new 'seed' potatoes every year?
I don't know!!!  Of course, gardeners of old just saved their best potatoes from year to year and it is tempting to continue this tradition. Believe me, I'd love to. I keep searching the interweb and never come up with a definitive answer. What I do know, though, is that everybody I know does buy in fresh tubers every year, so I have decided to go with the flow on this one. At least I have managed to slash my costs. I cannot believe the prices that some of the bigger companies charge. Even with postage they are really taking the... potato.
The reason for buying in seed potatoes is to avoid the transfer of disease from year to year. The obvious disease is blight, which can overwinter in diseased tubers to emerge the next year. You still can't completely guard against it as it is windborne and can attack anyway, given the right weather conditions (hot and humid). However, it pays to take all precautions possible since it can wipe out an entire crop. But there are other pests and viruses, less well known, and I suspect the reason for them being less well-known is the modern practice of buying specially selected, virus-resistant potatoes. I looked up some information on how seed potatoes are graded and it was all a lot more complicated than I had imagined. It's not just a matter of growing potatoes in an area which is blight free (all our seed potatoes come down from Scotland) and then storing them in the right conditions. They are specially selected and there are percentage scores for occurrence of all sorts of nasties. There are limits and grades for how many generations of field grown crops the seed potatoes come from too.

Having said all this, I made a slight miscalculation with my Earlies this year. For the bulk order which I organise, I sold all the Arran Pilots without getting any myself. I had anticipated getting enough orders to buy a second sack, but that didn't materialise. I had intended on getting these planted in the polytunnel as early as possible in the year and didn't want to wait for potato day in the middle of February. (Potato day can't be much earlier than this otherwise many varieties haven't physically made their way down from Scotland yet.)
So I chose the very best of those Arran Pilots I dug up and put them straight back in the ground in the polutunnel for, hopefully, a very early crop of tasty new potatoes.

Is it worth growing my own potatoes?
Even if you've managed to source your seed potatoes economically, planting potatoes in spring is back-breaking work. Digging them up, especially if the soil has gone heavy and wet in autumn, is even more back-breaking. And if they catch blight or the slugs get to them, it can be soul-destroying too. So is it really worth growing your own spuds?
To that question I would answer a resounding YES for several reasons.

Firstly, have you ever wondered how, even with your tender loving care, you still end up losing potatoes, yet the farmers plant whole fields full of the things seemingly problem free. The answer is... chemicals. Slug pellets are liberally scattered, they are extensively sprayed throughout their growing lives and even after harvest they are sprayed to stop them sprouting. Personally, I'd prefer not to be eating all that.
Secondly, for each of my potato plants only one seed potato was transported down from Scotland. After that, nothing more than a fork and a wheelbarrow is needed. It really annoys me that we feel it necessary to import vegetables from all over the world just so we can have them out of season. Not only is there the environmental cost of the transport, but there are environmental costs to the countries they are grown in too and the economic benefits for those people are far from sustainable. So if you're going to buy chemical laden potatoes, at least buy them locally grown.
Thirdly, from April to October (at least) my potatoes come fresh from the ground. I have long been a believer that freshness, over every other factor, is why home grown tastes so good.
And if I've still not given enough reasons to persuade you, there's variety. You can get Maris Pipers, Picassos and 'Red Roosters' from the supermarket, but if you want Charlottes or Pink Fir Apples you'll be paying through the nose. Salad blue or Shetland Black will set you back a bob or two... or likely a lot more. And if you particularly wanted Blue Kestrel or Homeguard, then good luck finding those!
And that brings me on to my final question.

Which varieties should I grow?
Potatoes take up a fair amount of space, so if you're limited then it makes sense to grow just Earlies (take up space for less time, less prone to blight, more benefit of digging fresh) or more unusual varieties.
I have come to the conclusion that we should think of potatoes more in the way that we think of apples rather than bananas. There are many different varieties with different attributes. Different colours, different tastes, different uses, different textures, different harvest times. Different.
And for the grower, there are other factors - which potatoes are resistant to which pests and diseases, which potatoes do well in your ground, not that any year is the same as any other year!
At the Potato Day there were 60+ varieties available, which can be a bit bewildering to the individual.

So here are the varieties which I have more or less settled on:


- Red Duke of York is a must. Not a traditional early, but the only early I know which is floury and makes excellent chips and roast.
- Arran Pilot or Dunluce. I think First Earlies are pretty interchangeable, although one year I tried Swift, which are supposed to be one of the very earliest, and was disappointed both with the yield and the taste. Other people love it though. Personally, for my super-earlies I prefer to use the polytunnel and have more choice of variety. As I'm growing Arran Pilot in the polytunnel, I've decided to grow Dunluce outside this year.

Second Earlies

- Charlottes are an absolute must. It is a prolific variety, stores well and tastes wonderful. I am flabbergasted at the price of these in the shops. They are actually one of the cheapest seed potatoes to buy.
- Kestrel. A new one for me last year. I was slightly disappointed with the yield, but the potatoes retained a very crunchy texture and the taste was good. The jury is out, so this year I have opted to grow just a dozen Blue Kestrel, which has the same qualities but is blue.
- Bonnie. This was on my absolute favourites list. It develops into big round potatoes which are fantastic for baking. I had two great years with this variety, but then the slugs seemed to find them so I haven't grown them for two years.
However, as I could buy just a few from the Potato Day, I've bought a dozen tubers to give it another go. I'll thoroughly dig the soil prior to planting and let the chickens in. Hopefully that way the slug problem will be eradicated before it starts.


- Desiree. A favourite of mine in terms of taste and in a good year produce massive tubers for baking. However, one year I had a poor harvest so decided to swap to Romano - an offspring of Desiree - but this too cropped disappointingly. So this year it's back to Desiree. It was in my bulk buy scheme and I had 4kg left for me so there'll be plenty!
- Picasso. Desiree is a red, so I needed a maincrop white too. I would have gone for a couple of organic favourites, Orla or Cara, or even King Edward, but Picasso won the vote of the bulk buy scheme and I had a load left over, so that's what I'll be growing.
- Markies. An experiment on the basis of someone else's recommendation. Again I just purchased a dozen tubers at Potato Day. If it does as well as reported, it'll become my go-to white maincrop.


- Pink Fir Apple. Because it's allegedly so late to develop, it is said to be very susceptible to blight. However, I have not found this. Even when we had very early blight and I had to chop off the tops I got a reasonable yield and virtually none of the blight got into the tubers. In fact, this year Pink Fir Apple gave by far my best yield of all varieties.
Some people don't like its knobbliness, but that's simple. It doesn't need peeling. Just a quick scrub and it boils (or even bakes) wonderfully, retaining a nice firm texture. It's a great one for slicing and putting into those midwinter casseroles.

So that's it. My potato buying advice.
Potatoes have a lot going for them, so go on, be bold! Don't just treat them as bulk carbohydrates. Try some different varieties and learn to appreciate them.
You can even grow them in bags. So get chitting!

Monday, 8 February 2016

Mangetout and Aubergine update

36 days ago I planted 80 seeds of Mangetout Oregon Sugar Pod. It's a strange time of year to sow them, but I missed planting them any earlier and I was hoping they might make it through to give me an early season treat. They were, at least, planted in the polytunnel under bubble wrap.
Well I think that those which are going to germinate have now germinated, which is 34 in total. I put four peas into each pot. Some pots have completely failed. I'll leave them a while just in case. The best pots have given me three out of four plants.

Of course I would have liked 80 plants, but I was pushing my luck a bit so overall I am very happy with 34. The packet contained 200 seeds so next year I'll probably plant the other 120. If I plant them in October / November, I may well get a higher percentage of germination too.

As for the aubergines, they are getting a different start to life. These delicate little things would never germinate in the polytunnel at this time of year. They will need warmth and light for quite some time and will be high maintenance until May. It's early to start them but when I've started them later I've run out of sunshine too early to get a worthwhile crop.
I am growing Aubergine Long Purple. There are plenty of seeds in a packet, so I sowed 16. I only really want a few plants to mature - so Sod's law says they'll all come through and do well! I soaked the seeds in tepid water before sowing them in a heated propagator. It's only really a heated tray without even a thermostat, but it is designed to give an initial boost of heat to kick start delicate seeds such as aubergines, peppers and chillis.

The aubergines have started germinating now and my worry is that I don't want them to get too leggy. I'll leave them with bottom heat for a while but open the vents on the lids. But at some point they will be going into a mini greenhouse in the polytunnel. This will slow down their growth but hopefully make for sturdy little plants. I may have to get that hot bed going again.

In a similar vein, I've started off some celeriac, another crop which can never get too long in the ground. I really like the taste of celeriac, especially in a winter casserole or a soup, but this vegetable is in last chance saloon. I have had limited success growing it, but it takes most of my harvest to make a large cauldron of soup. It quite simply has to perform better this year.

I scattered the tiny seeds on the surface of the compost in a seed tray and the first tiny shoots have appeared today. Hopefully in a year's time I'll be writing about how successful my celeriac crop has been this year!

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Pheasants for the Peasants - vacuum packed

There is much I disagree with about the activities of the shooting and hunting fraternity. There is also much I disagree with about those who want their food neatly packaged and don't care where it comes from or how it was produced.
So I am probably about to upset everybody I know, except, maybe, the smallholders.

If I want to kill an animal for food there is, quite rightly, a whole system of rules and regs to ensure that the animal does not suffer during its last moments.
So how would the public feel if their mass produced chickens , instead of being killed quickly and efficiently (I'm sure none of them really want to know about this either) were turned out into a field one morning so that they could be scared back out into the open and blasted from the air (if they could fly). Would this be considered the most humane way of killing them? Would this be acceptable?

Don't get me wrong, I actually don't have a problem with someone shooting a wild bird, but with provisos.
Firstly, it must be to eat.
Secondly, it must not put the general population of the bird at risk.
Thirdly, it must not cause stress to other wild species or important habitats.

In fact I would much rather that everybody ate animals and birds which had lived a fulfilling, natural life in the wild. Of course, this would not remotely be sustainable.

But here's the thing. On these organised shoots, virtually nobody wants to take the birds home to eat! After all, they need preparation and besides, they'll have shot pellets in them. So 90% of the birds get left. Forget the conservation issues. Forget the welfare issues. Forget all of what I said above. How, in a world where people are starving, in a country where people rely on food banks, how can this happen?

So here's where my friend the beater comes in. I wouldn't do what he does, but he was brought up with it and it is part of his life which I respect. But at least he takes the unwanted birds and uses them. And some of them he very kindly passes on to me.

A fridge drawer full of partridges - 'French'.
I would decline English grey partridges.
Should I take these birds, given my views? Yes. And I am very grateful for them. When I grew up we never got to eat game. Pheasant is a very tasty meat and I'm only making the most of what other people are carelessly discarding.
I also gratefully accept the occasional wild mallard or woodpigeon from my friend and for the reasons given above I have no problem with this. If only I could find a source of rabbit or deer too!

And so it is that I spent most of Monday processing birds for the freezer. I never thought I'd be doing this five years ago.
I got to use my new vacuum sealer too. It's the cheap one from Lidl so I wasn't expecting a perfect performance but I was pretty impressed with the results. The packaged meat (for that's what the birds now are) is snugly and professionally bagged. It takes up less space in the freezer and won't get freezer burn. The labels won't fall off either.

For now, I'm off to bed as I'm up early, taking my friend's three pigs into the abattoir. Then I'll be straight back to plant some fruit trees he picked up for me from the auctions. Apricots, quinces and Mirabelle plums. I'm excited.

The views expressed in this blog are purely my own. If you disagree, I'm sorry but you're wrong! Feel free to leave troll-like comments. I may just delete them. After all, it's my blog and you don't have to read it!

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