Saturday, 25 June 2016

One hell of a hail storm

21st June
Six chicks have now hatched and are fluffed up nicely in the incubator. There's no sign of anything happening to the other twelve eggs though, which is disappointing. We are only collecting them from two Ixworth hens though, so it took a couple of weeks to collect a clutch to go in the incubator.

I set up a broody box for them which included our new (second hand) electric hen. I am much happier using this than the anglepoise lamp we used to use. I was never quite sure I wouldn't come home to a molten plastic box or worse still.

The weather was good today so mowing was very much on the agenda. This is a job which feels very much like repainting the Forth Bridge, never ending! I don't mind doing it but it takes time away from other jobs.
In between mowing I took full advantage of the new neighbours' invitation to harvest their strawberries, which always appear to be ready before ours. Sue has dried a fair few and the rest are in the freezer waiting to be turned into jam, ice cream and yogurt.

22nd June
I am a bit surprised to report that we are up to 11 chicks. They are all safely in the broody box. The next batch of eggs will be in the incubator as soon as I have time to clean it out.

23rd June
The electric fence in the top paddock has been set on full bluff for a while now as the battery has no power in it. But the Shetland lambs have figured this out and hop through it with impunity. Within the confines of the paddock this is not really a problem since there is enough flimsy fence to still keep them where I want them. The problem is though that the lambs now have horns and I came home from work today to find one pathetically entangled. It was no great effort to set it free, but I decided that now would be a good time to move the lambs up with the adult Shetlands. The ewes' udders would have completely dried up by now and the adults need a little help keeping the grass down this year.

Before the move I did a little maintenance work on the electric fence which runs all round the bottom field. This one is mains powered and it's not a good idea to touch it! A couple of wooden posts needed replacing and I wanted to set up the strip grazing system again.

This was a couple of hours work, so at about 8pm I led the lambs down to be reunited with their mums and dad, Rambo. The two new lambs we bought from Church Farm went too. Introducing seven at once would share out the stress if there was to be any argie-bargie. As it was, the sheep mixed together very well...

... until the Shetland lambs started going straight through the electric fence and into the orchard.

This was more serious, as from there they could go absolutely anywhere if they so chose. They could also do a lot of damage to the trees, as Shetlands' favourite food is tree bark. I tested the fence and it was very weak.
A few older parts of wire had started to rust a little and in places the fence was running through very long grass indeed. It was possible that too much electricity was being lost along the fence. However, my poor understanding of the subject led me to believe that at least at the beginning of the fence the charge should still be strong. I tested it and it wasn't.
By now, the sheep were back out into the orchard again and it was raining heavily. I turned the fence off and decided to reconnect it where the lead-in wire comes in. It was while I was doing this that I received a rather sharp shock! My finger was tingling for several minutes afterwards. There was obviously power somewhere.
Still the power was low. I went right back to the energiser in the stable and reconnected the lead-in wire at that end. Still no difference.
There was no choice but to go all round the perimeter of the fence moving the posts inwards to shorter grass and pushing the long and very wet grass away from the base. By the time I got all the way round time was getting on and I was absolutely drenched. Not only was the rain coming down heavily but the water was travelling up my trousers from the sodden long grass. From there gravity took it back down into my boots which were squelching nicely.

I got back to the beginning and tested the power again. Still no difference. :-(

This was clearly going to need further investigation, but darkness was approaching so I took the decision to move the lambs back to the top paddock.
The whole evening had gone, I was drenched, the sheep were back in the same place and I now had two electric fences not working.
On the plus side... any suggestions?

24th June
The morning after the night before.
I always stay up ridiculously late on election nights. I'm addicted to the coverage. I'll keep away from the politics. Suffice to say that I'm glad I grow all my own food - it just might shield me from some of the worst effects of what's to come.

Good news today. At the fifth attempt I've finally managed to germinate some Pea Beans. I literally chucked loads of them into a seed tray and covered them in compost as a final last ditch attempt.

More good news. Sue has been away for a couple of days and now she is back. She came back to another swarm of bees. At a guess from the same hive as the last one. Sometimes they just keep swarming.
The swarm I caught a couple of days ago didn't stay in the end. By the morning the spare hive was completely empty. Hopefully we'll have more luck with this lot.

Final job for the day was to nip out the tomato side shoots. As well as those in the polytunnel I'm growing lots outside this year. This is always a risk and often comes to nothing, but if everything comes together we will have mountains of tomatoes at the end of the year. The first ones should be ready in the polytunnel in the not too distant future.

25th June

The videos, if they've worked, say it all.
I was working on the bean patch today, weeding, edging and planting out module grown plants where there were gaps. Only a couple of the kidney beans had come through so replacing these was the main job.
After that I set about erecting supports for the broad bean plants which are on the verge of collapsing under their own weight. Half way through this the heavens opened and I had to make a run for it into the polytunnel. This was to be no normal storm though. Hailstones absolutely pelted down for half an hour. Fortunately for you, in the name of the blog, I made a run back to the house to get my phone and record the event. I was literally running through about an inch of water and hailstones. My second drenching in three days.

When it finally eased off there was water everywhere and piles of hailstones.

I hadn't twigged that the brassica netting might be in trouble too. When I went back out to check all the birds and animals were okay I noticed that the aluminium poles were dangerously bent and the netting was weighed down with hailstones, which I had to scoop out by hand. It is late June and my hands are stinging from scooping up hailstones. Something is wrong here.

Fortunately the netting was strong enough not to tear and the poles sprung back into shape. Otherwise a fairly harmless but spectacular weather event could have been a bit of a disaster.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Strawberry Moon Solstice or The Honey Moon Buzz

It's been a long day, 16 hours 51 minutes 30 seconds to be precise.
An awful lot has happened so the day deserves a blog post all to itself.

Allegedly the first day of summer too, though nobody told the weather gods.

Sunrise was 4.36am today. I didn't get up to see it, though I was up about an hour later. However, it wasn't till the afternoon that the sun finally put in an appearance after a thoroughly damp morning.

There's a full moon tonight too, a June full moon being known as a Strawberry moon. It's a nice name for a moon which is supposed to coincide with the start of strawberry picking season... if you are an Algonquin Indian in North America, which is where the name comes from.
Here my strawberries aren't quite ready yet, though I've been offered the chance to pick all that I want from next door this year.

One newspaper article described a June full moon coinciding with summer solstice as a "once in a life time" occurrence. They clearly don't understand statistics. As full moons come round every 28 days, surely you'd be unlucky if there was only one in your life time!

When I checked, the last time this occurred was 22 June 1967 - when I was almost one year of age. If I live to nearly 96 I'll see it again on June 21st 2062.

First Red Duke of Yorks
So with the strawberries stubbornly refusing to ripen I went for the next best thing and dug up my first outdoor grown new potatoes of the year. I could have waited longer and got bigger tubers, but there will be enough and the first potatoes of the year always feel special. I love the deep red colour of Red Duke of York and I love the fact that this early variety is so floury and makes excellent chips. For the classic new potato taste, though, I've grown Dunluce outside this year and Arran Pilot in the polytunnel, the last of which we have just consumed.

Two new lambs
First smallholding business of the day was to drop by in Upwell to pick up a bone saw and a few other bits and pieces. I don't do much butchery but it was going second hand and always handy to have.
Then on to Church Farm Rare Breeds Centre in Stow Bardolph to pick up two lambs. These are just  for fattening up - the farm buys in orphan lambs as this is their main attraction and income during the spring. Luckily for me, it means they have a supply of ready weaned, tame sheep all ready to go just as the grass is getting long. They'll join the Shetlands for five months before going off to slaughter, so I won't be giving them names or getting too attached to them.

Arthur and the turkeys
The turkey poults stayed in this morning. With the weather being cold and damp I thought it best to play safe. One of them jumped the stable wall with mum though and spent the day having some quality one to one time with her. The weather brightened up for the afternoon and the rest of the poults came out. Arthur joined them, He gets on well with the turkey family.

There's a but of a buzz round here
I'd been up for about eight hours and still there was half the day to go. Now another name for the Strawberry Moon is the Honey Moon, which turned out to be a far more appropriate name for today.
After a little early afternoon nap (it was, after all, a very, very long day), I took the dogs out to check on the sheep and turkeys. But something was amiss. There was a buzz in the air. And I mean a BUZZ.
Thousands and thousands of bees were swarming around hive number one. The cloud of bees stretched over toward the veg patch. There must be a swarm somewhere but I just couldn't get close enough to see. I gingerly skirted round, taking a very wide berth, until I eventually came across this.

The bees always swarm when Sue is not at home, so muggins here gets to don the bee suit and collect them up. While I was getting ready, the bees settled onto a wooden fence post. Not the ideal swarm location. There would be no shaking them into a box or simply cutting off the end of a branch. Swarm bees are not supposed to be aggressive and they did in fact allow very close approach. But there are limits to their patience and when you scoop them into a box by the glove full, there are some who suspect you of trying to hurt their queen who is somewhere at the centre of things )or hopefully by now in the box).

A solstice chick
Remember I said it was a long day. Well there was more. For when I came in from recapturing the bees one of the Ixworth chicks had hatched and several more were pipping. By tomorrow there could be eighteen of them to look after!

And so I sit here watching the first episode of the new Top Gear I've managed to catch up with before I turn over for the start of the England Match. It's now a beautiful evening to be watching the beautiful game.
When the sun sets at 21.28 I'll go and put the chickens away and hopefully get to admire the Strawberry Honey Moon.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

D-Day looming

Sue's checking out the bees so I've decided it will be safest to stay inside for  a couple of hours and update the blog.

17th June
The school fayre
The school summer fayre and a good chance to sell some jams and honey. I got stuck sitting on the stall as Sue was bravely singing in her band, which I'm sure will have impressed all the children and parents in her school. Anyway, all the honey went. I could have sold more but the weather this last week was too wet for Sue to rob the hives again.
Sue's onion marmalade always sells well too - it's the main reason I grow so many onions.

I returned home to the realisation that today was D-Day. I've not mentioned this before but I've known for a while that our wonderful neighbours Don and Maureen are moving. They will be a great loss. We will both miss our chats over the fence and Don was always there looking out for us and ready to help when we needed it. We will still see them as they've not moved too far away. In fact they've moved very close to our dentists so we can pop in every time we've got a toothache.
In one of our last conversations, Don told us about his long-time dentist and how he used to greet him with the phrase "Neither of us is going to get hurt today, are we?" He followed this with a raucous bout of laughter. That's how I'll remember Don.

So I returned home to see a different car in next door's driveway. That's when it all became very real. Later in the evening our new neighbours knocked at the door and we invited them in for a chat. They seem decent enough people but they're not Don :-(

Elvis ducks set free
I let Elvis's ducklings out tonight too. They've grown pretty big now, big enough to make a terrible mess of their small pen. When you first let a hen and her family out, the trouble comes with the hen being too defensive and fighting with the other hens. To ameliorate this I now try to let the hen out on her own a couple of days before letting the whole family out. This seems to avoid most of the trouble.
The ducklings clearly enjoyed their new diet of plantain leaves and whatever bugs, grubs and slimies were unfortunate enough to be in their path.

18th June
With the weather dry and us at home to keep an eye on them, we decided we would have another go at letting the turkey family out. Mum has been hopping the stable wall into the goose stable and then spending the day outside, but we have kept the poults inside following the terrible events of a while ago when we let them out too early and in bad weather only to lose four poults over the next two days.

Today's release went well and the turkey family spent most of the day around the stables. They seem to be very keen on the herb patch.

There are raspberries in here somewhere
Meanwhile, I tackled the raspberry patch. The raspberries, under a strict regime of neglect, seem to be doing very well indeed this year. However, they are impossible to get to. Long grass, nettles, tansy, docks and sow thistles have been thriving. I spent the whole day just pulling weeds to restore the paths to their former state. Mowing them used to be a real pain so instead I decided to rotavate them and keep them bare. But with the soil wet the weeds took full advantage. I'm now opting for the cardboard mulch route. This should starve the weeds of light. At the same time, hopefully the weed seeds will germinate and rot off.

19th June
Peg looming
I am really aching from yesterday's mammoth weed pulling session, so I'll spend the morning pottering in the polytunnel. I've a few late brassicas to sow and there's kohl rabi to be picked.

Later on Sue and I are off to a fellow smallholder's to learn how to do peg looming. I'll post up some pictures when I get back.

... back from the peg looming and we have bought a peg loom!
James keeps Leicester Longwools specifically for their dreadlocks which produce long strands of wool for peg looming. But I don't intend changing all our sheep just so we can use the fleeces to weave, so I took along the fleece we got from Rambo this year. To my delight it was easy to pull off and stretch out the fleece to almost a yard long with no great skill required.
Peg looming is the oldest form of weaving and is pretty easy to do, if a slow process - the perfect way to spend long, dark winter evenings. Admittedly these are far from my thoughts with the summer solstice looming.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

An enchanted forest

11th June
Another gruesome poultry discovery
The week started the same as last week, with yet another gruesome poultry discovery. I put the chickens to bed in the dark last night. One of the small Ixworth chicks must have hopped its fence yesterday and ended up roosting outside. There are predators around at the moment and the young poultry are very vulnerable. Staying out at night was a deadly mistake.

On a more positive note, the swallows are back nesting in the chicken shed and have so far laid four eggs.

An enchanted forest of bean plants
The rest of the day was spent clearing the final veg bed ready for the bean plants I've been raising in the polytunnel. I'm growing borlotti beans from saved seed. These are excellent in a winter stew. I'm also trying Kinghorn Yellow Wax, a climbing French bean.
It took me quite a while to find a climbing yellow variety. I prefer to grow climbing beans as they make better use of space, crop over a longer period and the beans grow out of reach of slugs and muddy splashes.
My saved Pea Beans have completely failed to germinate this year, so they'll have to wait till next year when I'll buy more seed and my Cobra green beans have all grown with distorted leaves, which I presume means some sort of virus. Luckily we still have plenty of green beans in the freezer.

I'm growing these beans up twisted willow branches too. They look great all planted in the ground like some ancient enchanted forest.

12th June
Cardboard box city
I think I mentioned in my last post that the weeds had taken over the soft fruit area. Well I've decided to go on the offensive by starving them of light. I was going to use weed suppressant fabric, but I don't like buying in synthetic products if I can help it. Unfortunately I don't have enough material to naturally mulch the whole area - besides, the poultry would quickly undermine my good work. So the solution I've arrived at is to use cardboard. It's a bit ugly to start with, but it will blend in eventually.
Mangetout evicted
In the polytunnel it was time to evict the mangetout. It's done very well indeed but is now past its most productive. The sweetcorn and butternut squashes need the space and the light now. Fortunately the outdoor mangetout has just started to flower. This is a variety with beautiful purple and pink flowers which produces yellow pods - hopefully it will make them easier to find when picking.

13th June
RAIN RAIN RAIN. Boris has worked out the best thing to do on days like this.

Yesterday one of the goslings from the white geese did not seem to be keeping up very well. In fact I'd been worried about it for a couple of days since it seemed to have stopped growing. Sue gave it all the care she could, but sadly it did not make it through the night. These things are sometimes inexplicable but I guess it's just part of natural selection.

I finally got the last flower bed sown. These beds should be a riot of colour come late summer. And that was that for outside work. Torrential rain set in and I retreated to the polytunnel. I harvested a few turnips and quite a few of the beetroots, which in turn made room for planting more peppers and chilli plants into the beds. No space is wasted if I can help it.
Some of the peppers have been nibbled by slugs, so I applied a triple level of slug protection. Organic slug pellets. Sheep's wool as a barrier. But can you spot the third one?

Oh! How could I forget? The courgette invasion has begun. Today I discovered the first one on its way to marrowdom.
14th June
Success at succession
Another day of heavy showers. Weeding was a joy - the weeds jumped out of the soil. In between the downpours I sowed more carrots, lettuce and turnips outside. For the first time this year I'm actually keeping up with succession sowing.
I planted out the last lot of climbing beans too. In the foreground of the photo you can see the sweetcorn minipop and in the background the potato plants.

Another sad loss
Sadly another gosling disappeared. It was absolutely fine one minute and then, when I ventured outside after a 20 minute shower break, the grey geese just had one gosling with them. It didn't take me long to find a pile of down in the grass. What is taking the young birds I do not know, though I suspect the crows as they have some rather large young to feed at the moment. It seems like I'm constantly writing about losing young poultry at the moment. I try to run my smallholding as a balanced system with crops, animals and birds and nature all interacting. Unfortunately sometimes the harsh rules of nature cross over into the world of domestic livestock, especially poultry. The alternative is that I keep all the baby birds inside and feed them bought in food. This is, in fact how I am now keeping the turkey poults until they are bigger, but it just wouldn't be right for geese. It's sad, I know, but at the end of the day I didn't really want any more geese anyway.

15th June
Barny's back
A good start to the day with a barn owl making the most of a dry morning to hunt over the sheep field. This is the first time I've seen one on the farm for quite some time since the farmer cleared all the bushes from around the breeding box.

Most of the rest of the day was spent hanging around while the plumber was here. At least we'll not have drippy taps any more and for any visitors, the waterfall taps are gone, so you won't risk a soaking when you wash your hands!!! 

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

June jobs

4th June
Uncovering the strawberry patch
Just where do the weeds come from? A bit of warm weather and a spot of rain and suddenly the strawberry patch disappeared under a metre high forest of grasses and docks. It got so bad I'm ashamed to even show you a picture of it. The berry bushes and raspberries are the same. It's not been this bad in previous years but this year the grass is growing like elephant grass. Even the sheep field is outgrowing the grazing efforts of the Shetland sheep.
And so it was that I spent the whole day pulling weeds. At least the damp soil meant that the roots came out easily. But it was hard work, so much so that I drafted Sue in to help. We'd better get a good strawberry crop, especially as the new strawberry patch is about five times the size of the old one.

An artificial swarm
In the morning Sue had been doing a spot of bee-keeping. At this time of year, if the hive is getting full, the bees start building queen cells which look a bit like monkey nuts hanging down from the frames. These they fill with royal jelly to raise new queens. They are a sure sign that the old queen is getting ready to leave, taking half the colony with her. Sue took two strong hives into the winter rather than three weaker ones with the aim of splitting one or both in the spring. The imminent swarm is the time to do this. Basically you create a small colony, known as a nucleus, in a mini-hive, a nuke box. With luck you avoid further swarming and create a new colony. We'll see if it works.
Sue took honey off too. It's rape honey so timing is critical before it sets solid. This had happened on a few of the frames. The solution is to spray them with water and out them back in the hive for the bees to clean up if they can.

Despite Sue's tinkering, the bees which were visiting the strawberry plants today seemed unconcerned with me, just going about their business in amongst the strawberry flowers.

On the bird front we still have 7 turkey poults, so fingers crossed we are over the worst of the losses. They'll be staying in the stable until they are much bigger and the weather is much warmer. Lesson learned.
Sadly Captain Peacock is confirmed dead. I found his body in a bit of a mess. I found out more of the story from Don. Apparently a couple of days ago there were feathers strewn on the roadside. But Captain was still alive, sitting in the dyke. I guess though that the verge cutting must have injured him or rendered him defenceless, for something obviously got him overnight.
More news from Don. Apparently on Wednesday night yet another car came off the road at the bend and went straight through his field gates! We didn't even know it had happened. About two cars a year come off here and usually end up in the ditch.

5th June

A willowy day!

The early part of the day was spent back at the Green Backyard. This week we were making dragonflies. These start with a basic bell shape which I have never mastered. I've not been able to understand how to influence the shape. My bells end up looking like cigars! But today I finally got it. It was on the last go, just before I was about to spit out my dummy and give up.

Once I'd got the weaving technique sorted I could use my knowledge of nature to make some very realistic dragonflies.
I also started working out a design for some willow bulrushes to go round the pond in the veg plot.

Giant Beans
Back home and there was more willow magic to be woven. Last year I chopped down a couple of overgrown twisted willows, nearly taking out the stable block in the process. Over the winter we threw the branches to the sheep who did a wonderful job stripping off every last thread of bark, which should stop them rooting. Today I planted four of them into the bean patch. At the base I've planted my Gigantes beans. These are a variety of runner bean grown for the gigantic (hence the name) white butter beans it produces. I have high hopes for this new variety.

A ring of willow arches
But I wasn't yet finished with my willow day. For about 80 willow whips I harvested in the winter have been sat in a water butt growing a tangle of roots. I was planning to use them for a fedge or a tunnel but that project will have to wait for next year now. I didn't want to waste them though and while at the Green Backyard I found some inspiration. They use willow to create living archways and screens all around the place. I decided that a circle of archways around the 'wheel' of the veg patch would create dramatic effect.

As it was getting dark I had to stop. I'd planted and twisted a dozen arches. Some need to grow a little before I can link them across the top. I had four left to do, though an extension of my idea meant that an extra eight would be needed!

Last act of the day was to pick my first ever kohl rabi bulb. We had it steamed and it tasted very nice indeed. We'll try the next one raw, sliced into a salad.

6th June
24 degrees today. The morning was spent picking up some sheep hurdles and other equipment from a fellow smallholder who is giving up and moving on. You can never have too many sheep hurdles.

Straw for the strawberries
I spent the afternoon tucking straw under the developing strawberry fruits. It lifts them off the ground and stops them rotting or getting splashed by mud. I chose not to use slug pellets under the straw mulch. Hopefully I won't regret that decision.
Finally I netted the strawberries to protect them from marauding birds - mainly the guinea fowl who are rather partial to the occasional strawberry.

At the end of a hot day there was still time to finish the remaining dozen arches in The Wheel. They don't look much at the moment, but give it a year...

7th June
Mowing, mowing and more mowing. The grass has got a bit unruly (understatement) and on the few dry days we've had I've been chasing birds all around the country. I've perfected a technique of lifting up the from of the mower and using it like a strimmer. It was hot and thirsty work, punctuated by many a break for drinks. I'm sure I didn't need this many breaks when I was younger.

The mower needed rest breaks too, so in between scything paths through the jungle I planted out the leeks and celeriac alongside tagetes marigolds in nice neat rows. They make good companions and are one of the combinations I've stuck to over the years.

I grow two varieties of leek, Jolant, an early one and Musselburgh. I raise them in trays early in the year. They are slow growers.

I put some spare strawberry and herb plants into the 'permaculture' beds too. We should have strawberries coming out of our ears, but I can just never throw away spare plants

Today I kicked the broody Muscovy off her eggs too. They obviously weren't going to hatch and she needed to get back to normal life.

8th June
Glorious weather again. Too hot to do much though. Every now and then I have a day of just pottering, making the time to appreciate everything on the smallholding. It's far too easy to get so bogged down in work that you never get time to enjoy what you've created.

Our Cream Legbar hen has moved out from her three Ixworth chicks. She has jumped the fence and left them on their own! A couple of days ago we tried letting them out with the flock. The chicks coped fine but mum got into lots of fights so we had to separate them again. Mum moving out will make things much easier.

A gosling disappears
But not a day goes by without a drama of some sort at the moment. I guess it's inevitable with so many young birds. One of the small goslings has gone missing. One minute the two grey geese had three little goslings, the next time I looked there were only two. I searched everywhere but to no avail. It has just vanished. There's no way it will still be alive.

9th June
Eggs back on the menu
The garden is starting to get pretty dry now. Temperatures in the polytunnel are unbearable at times. My glasses steam up when I go in there!
As the evening temperature settled down I turned on the overhead irrigation. Three hours later I remembered I'd left the water on! I do try to set an alarm as I always think I'll remember and always end up forgetting.
The chickens are liking the warm weather. They had virtually stopped laying for a few days (this happened last year at this time too) but today we were back up to 11 eggs again.

10th June
Noisy skies
Two fighter jets spent much of the day practising their dogfight manoeuvres over the farm today. Spectacular but noisy. There was thunder too, but no rain yet. I used the evening to get right on top of the grass. Even the front lawn got cut. This is always the last one I get round to.
The trouble with mowing the grass is that, unlike other big jobs, once it's done it soon needs doing again. I'm not talking about obsessively manicured lawns and paths here. No. I'm talking just keeping it below waist height!
So it's been quite a productive week. The veg patch is coming along nicely, the grass is all mown, the strawberry patch is looking amazing, the chickens are laying again and there are willow sculptures everywhere.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

A thoroughly disheartening start to June

What's the difference between a turkey and a fly? Turkeys drop more easily. Read on and you'll understand.
It's been a bad start to June and one which has put a heavy demand on my stoical resources.

1st June
The grey goose now has three beautiful little goslings. She is already bringing them out of the stables. Unlike the white Embdens, she has done the decent thing and hatched them all out at the same time.
Meanwhile outside it rained and rained and rained. The 1000 litre water butt I had to empty to repair is now full again and I spent much of the day using the rainwater to irrigate the plants in the polytunnel. I planted my pepper and celery seedlings into the polytunnel beds along with another round of coriander plants. I came upon this little cryptic fella under a plank too.
Can you see it?

He's most welcome (I don't know why I'm assuming it's a he).

A freshly fledged tree sparrow appeared on the feeders today for the first time this year. Its mum (or dad, for both sexes are alike) was feeding it. These birds are becoming rarer and rarer in the English countryside so I am very proud to have them on the farm.

And so to the turkeys. I kept a close eye on them all day and mum seemed to be doing a great job looking after them. They spent quite a bit of time in the herb bed and quite a bit of time sheltering under a wheelbarrow. Mum spreads her wings and all you can see of the poults is all their legs poking out underneath mum. It looks like a 24-legged turkey!
When the rain got heavy I ushered them into their shed where they stayed for a while before going out for another wander. Come early evening I decided to round them back into the shed for the night. They had already taken themselves in but I could only count ten chicks. I counted three times. Still just ten. I wandered round the garden for ages looking and listening for a lone turkey poult but to no avail. Sue found it later on (well, Arthur actually, who has a very keen nose for such things) but it was dead.

2nd June
Everyone who has raised turkeys talks about how easily they give up on life and today I began to witness that. For when I opened up the turkey shed there was one of the young birds lying on its side, apparently dead. When I picked it up it was still moving, just. So I brought it inside, wrapped it up, put it under a heat lamp and fed it as much sugary water as I could. But after an hour it became obvious that it was to no avail.
We had been doing so well with the turkeys and I was now regretting the decision to let them out. Lesson learned for next year. I moved the turkeys back into the stables.

I spent the afternoon planting out my various pumpkins and squashes with names like Hundredweight (self-explanatory), Cha-Cha (not so), Table Queen, Golden Nugget, Delicata, Sweet Dumpling and Naples Long. These go into the more exposed veg patch where I grow big plants, but it does put them more at risk of attack by rabbits and slugs. So each one gets a tree protector until it becomes established. They usually take a bit of a knock for the first few days outside, but after a week they get their roots down and from then on growth is rapid. I've put 25 plants out, so I'll be very happy if 20 come through which will give us plenty enough pumpkins and winter squash.
The tree protectors keep the rabbits from nibbling but they do nothing to protect against the silent enemy from underground, the slugs. So I sprinkled organic slug pellets around the base of each plant. The advantage with these, as well as supposedly not harming other wildlife, is that they don't just disappear when it rains so the extra cost is offset a little.

In the evening we were off to the monthly CSSG (Cambridgeshire Self-Sufficiency Group) meeting for a talk on edible plants which can be part of a forest garden. This is a system of gardening I know a fair bit about, though I tend to dismiss it as a little gimmicky. However, I'm always open to new ideas. I just think that the way forward is to integrate the best bits from lots of different systems - Forest Gardening, Permaculture, Polyculture, No Dig... I've not yet dabbled with Hydroponics or the one which relies on the cycles of the moon - can't remember what it's called.
In fact there's a fair bit of Forest Gardening goes on in my patch anyway, it's just that I don't go for all these exotic plants which you can, in theory if you really wanted to, eat. I'm all for trying out new things, but there are very few which eventually earn their place in my veg plot.

Anyway, we enjoyed the company. This group is very different to the Fenland Smallholders (from whom they split somewhat acrimoniously just before we came on the scene). They are the old guard, the more hippyish element, very open and extremely knowledgeable. It's such a shame the two groups can't merge as each has particular strengths which would make them very strong together. For the moment, Sue and I keep a foot in both camps. Unfortunately the CSSG is a little too distant for us to get more involved.

3rd June
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but today was one of those most disheartening days which occurs every now and again. Smallholding is never all rosy and sometimes demands a very strong resolve.
If you only want the view through rose-tinted glasses, then I'd suggest you stop reading now!

Sue had gone to a friend's to continue with making goat's cheese and to try to figure out why their efforts at goat's milk ice cream kept failing (turns out it needs more fat, something to do with goat's milk being naturally homogenised).
I opened the turkey stable to find a dead youngster with no head! Whether it was attacked by a predator (rat, weasel, stoat?) wasn't clear but would present a big problem if it were. I more suspected that it had passed away in the night and that the others had pecked away at it - poultry can be incredibly insensitive creatures.
Another young poult was looking not too good either, droopy winged and it's eyes half closed. It was no surprise when Sue found it dead later in the morning. This was feeling like a losing battle. Worst case scenario would be that some disease was jumping through the flock at an alarming rate, but my suspicions were still that the birds had just gotten too cold when we had let them outside on a wet day and possibly developed pneumonia. Whatever the case, I felt terrible. I feel responsible for these young lives and although I expect losses, this was becoming serious. Of course, the practical side of me was also thinking of the number of turkey dinners we would be missing out on, for that is the reason for rearing these young birds.

Just when I thought things couldn't get much worse, I discovered a neatly laid out pile of peacock tail feathers next to my digging spade. The only explanation was that Don, our neighbour, had found the body of Captain Peacock. This was a gentle way of letting us know. Having survived the road for so long (and presumable developed a bit of road sense), I suspect that the verge cutter may have done for him.

I spent the rest of the day doing big, physical jobs in the garden, trying not to think too much about other things. I got about half of the lawns mowed - quite a feat considering how long the grass had got. Then there was the strawberry patch to tackle. Despite my earlier weeding efforts, it had become overwhelmed with grasses and docks. With the soil nicely watered this would be the ideal time to start the not inconsiderable job of weeding before laying down straw and netting to protect the developing crop.
I called Sue in to help and we got half the job done before running out of energy. The remaining seven turkey poults made it through till the evening. What would we find next morning though?

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The birds and the bees... and the sheep

The first honey of the year
complete with new labels.
Sometimes I don't mind getting wet, for once you're really wet through you stop noticing it and just carry on. But today I feel like staying dry, so I'm staying indoors. Besides, in the past week of warm, dry weather I've totally failed to mow the lawns so the soaking would come from the bottom up.
Why have I not mown the lawns? Priorities.
March and April are all about getting seeds sown and young plants raised. But come the second week of May, when the soil is warmed up and the danger of frost is passed, it's all about getting all those little plants into the soil so their roots can delve and explore and nourish. Stuck in seed trays or modules the plants just stop growing or, even worse, wither up and die if you accidentally miss watering their tray on a hot day.

Fortunately we have a rather well-timed week off school in which I can hopefully catch up with everything I've fallen behind with (mainly because I've been scooting all over the country chasing rare birds).

It's not all been about the vegetables though. There's been action on the sheep front and plenty of news from the poultry pen, most of it a bit calamitous, but not all.
So here's a run down of what's been going on.
Rambo shorn - a shadow of his former self.
24th May
The ewes and Rambo came down to the paddock near the house, briefly meeting the lambs on the other side of some sheep hurdles before the lambs went down to the big sheep field all on their own. The lambs were delighted to see their mums again and started bleating loudly. Their mums pretty much blanked them, fearing for their udders which are beginning to dry up now.
The reason for the swap was that Carl the shearer was due in the morning.

25th May
I managed to get all bar one (sorry for the pun, if you noticed it) of the sheep penned in with relative ease. They still come to investigate a bucket, but I wasn't quite quick enough to sneak round and close off the hurdles. One of the ewes made a dash for it. Never mind. It wasn't long before I had her penned in too. The secret with sheep is just to move them into smaller and smaller areas, remembering to bar (sorry!) their way back to the previous place. And never try to move a loan ewe. Easier to take the whole flock, separate the one and then take the rest back.
Carl arrived from his previous job and I was quite proud that I had the sheep so well penned and ready for shearing. Shetland sheep are sort of self-shedding, but they look a right mess while this is going on and some are too late for the warm weather. Two of my girls, the ones who had multiple lambs, were pretty much self-shorn already.

Shearing went well. Carl is amazing with the sheep. Strong but gentle. Even Rambo didn't put up too much of a fight this time. I got Carl to check and trim their feet too. For an extra £1 per sheep it's worth getting it done. As it was he didn't charge me for this and was not even going to charge for the two ewes which just needed a little tidying up. I paid him the whole amount though as he deserves it.

Last year we sold the wool to some spinners. They were very, very happy with it and we recovered the cost of shearing. This year we are planning to learn how to do peg looming so will keep as much wool as we need for ourselves. More on peg looming in a few weeks.

26th May
The exertions of the weekend were still telling on my body. I used to be able to do overnight drives seemingly with no effect but as I get older my body demands considerably more time to recover. So today after work it was a rest day, a lazy evening pottering around enjoying the smallholding, just taking stock of everything.
I did get the car serviced and MOT'ed today. It's a dangerous time of year to be without car (rare birds don't hang around waiting for the car to be fixed) so I was glad to get it done.

27th May
Only 3 eggs today! That's a pretty poor return. But it happens sometimes. The spring egg glut has happened and several of the hens have chicks or are sitting on eggs. Some of the hens are getting older so are less productive. The others have just gone on strike and we have a very sudden drop in egg production. This is not unusual, but inexplicably the timing seems to vary year on year. But I seem to remember this happening last year.
I should keep records, but I've never been good at that sort of thing. I like to be more inefficient! Organic. Creative.
Anyway, I sort of suspect the crows which now nest in the old ash trees. There's only one pair but they hang around the chicken pens a lot. I know they sometimes go down for the wheat and I've seen them take duck eggs when the ducks have decided to lay on the ground outside. What I'm not sure about is whether or not they have the audacity to enter one of the chicken houses and take the eggs. I can't believe that we could lose this many eggs and never catch them red-handed though, so  suspect it's more about the chickens than the crows.

Meanwhile, in the big chicken house where our Muscovy duck has inconveniently made her nest and been sat for the last five weeks, today we had the first cheep cheeps of a little duckling. Hopefully by tomorrow they'll all be hatched and I can think about where to move the young family for safety.

IT'S THE HOLIDAYS! I have eleven days off work.

28th May
A somewhat challenging day today.
Sue took the first honey of the year off the bees. Despite the proximity of a giant rape field, the bees actually seem to use a variety of sources of food. However, the presence of even some rape means that the honey is likely to set hard as a rock. Left in the frames in the hive, it quickly becomes irretrievable, so timing is crucial. It needs to be taken off the bees when it is just capped. For non beekeepers, the bees store the honey until it reaches the correct consistency and then cap it off with wax to prevent it drying out any more.
Sue's bee-keeping skills are developing fast now (thanks to the excellent West Norfolk Beekeeping Group).
Today she managed to mark one of the queens. Finding the queen is tricky so it is useful when you do find her to trap her in a queen cage and dab her with a bright colour. But it's a bit daunting handling the queen when the whole hive centres around her. This was the first time Sue had performed this delicate operation.
She also removed drone comb. This is the brood cells which will produce male bees and is where the varroa mite can really get a hold in a hive. Since the drones are pretty useless it is best to remove. Sue feeds it to the chickens who very much enjoy pecking out the juicy drone larvae.

I said today was challenging. That's because I was trying my best to work in the veg plot despite the unwanted attentions of Sue's angry bees, who were even more grumpy than usual as somebody had stolen their honey and interfered with their queen!

I resorted to wearing a hat with a veil over. I'm pretty good at ignoring the attentions of inquisitive bees and can even tolerate them landing in my hair. Usually they find their way out again. I find I just have to freeze still for about a minute. Then they go away but I remain frozen, for after a few seconds they always come back, just to check.
However, once in a while you get a complete nutter hell-bent on destruction. You can tell by the buzz. They go for the face or land in your hair and start burrowing and buzzing fiercely. If they're in your face the best thing is to run for it, but they pursue with vigour. In your hair I reckon you've got a 50/50 chance of getting them out before the sting goes in!
One of Sue's hives is way too aggressive. They have been since the back end of last autumn and things haven't improved. Unfortunately the queen will have to be replaced. A new one, specially bred to be peaceful, will be brought in and should then produce calmer offspring. The bees which remain should calm down too.
This is why there are no photos of the bees. I used to be able to stand right next to the hive while Sue had them open.

Anyway, in the face of such challenge I still got quite a lot done outside. Most of the outdoor tomatoes are now planted. The main varieties are Roma and San Marzano (both Italian plum tomatoes for sauces), Gardener's Delight and Outdoor Girl, a new variety I'm trying which is supposed to do well even if the weather is not ideal.
What sort of harvest we get from the outdoor toms is unpredictable. If they come good we will have tons. If blight strikes we could get none. And if the summer is dull we could have lots and lots of green tomatoes.

The other job for today was to sow the kidney beans, variety Canada Wonder. I've sown these direct, but if they don't come there's still time to resow them in modules. They are interplanted with Perpetual Spinach, a new crop for me.

29th May
Sad news. No sign of the Muscovy duckling this morning. Mum has moved the nest and the remaining eggs are all over the place. Maybe it was a mistake letting the chickens back in to roost last night.
I've closed the house off now and the girl is back on her eggs. The chickens will get a shock when they try to go to bed tonight, but I have laid on alternative accommodation for them if they find it.

Today was a perfect day for working outside but all I could get done was picking out and planting French Marigolds (tagetes). These act as a wonderful insect deterrent. I've planted a load of them in amongst my turnip and swede sowings to try to deter the flea beetles which destroyed the first sowing. I plant them between tomato plants too. They keep off whitefly. Then I just dot them around the place as a general defence against insect attack.
The other type of marigold is Pot Marigold (calendula). This is a pretty good companion plant too, though tagetes is a stronger deterrent. Calendulas are more hardy though and self-seed everywhere, appearing every spring almost in weed proportions. Fortunately they are easily pulled or transplanted to where I want them.
My work was interrupted though as today was the Smallholders meeting. I so wish they would consider evening meetings but I've made my point and it's not been taken. It was tempting to carry on working on the veg patch but fortunately with holidays coming up there's not too much pressure. Besides, today there was a visit to a smallholding I'd not visited before. It's always good to visit other places, though invariably I come back full of new ideas and jobs to do. There was a very informative talk on building a pole barn as well as the chance to catch up with my smallholding friends.
I also managed to pick up a copy of The Polytunnel Book for £1. This is my polytunnel bible. If I had to recommend one book, this would be the one.

There was just time after the meeting to take a small diversion on the way home to Paxton Pits where a Great Reed Warbler had been singing for about a week. These are like one of our regular reed warblers (small boring brown birds which sing from reedbeds) but a mammoth version and they don't sing, they holler! As it was, our Great Reed Warbler was having a very shy day. We heard a few loud calls but it wasn't in the mood for climbing to the top of the reeds and belting out its song. We left with a 'heard only' record.
Today was a good chance to try the car out too. The braking had been a bit shaky before the service and the garage had replaced something on the anti-roll bar. However, the problem seems to have got worse! Over 60mph it feels like the car has a wobbly wheel and breaking requires a firm hand on the shaky steering wheel. It'll have to go back in. Let's hope a rare bird doesn't turn up while I'm carless. Over in Denmark a Sulphur-bellied Warbler has turned up. It's so rare I can't even begin to explain. If one of those turned up here while my car was in the garage I think I'd just start walking.

30th May
Today I released the turkey family. They've been incarcerated in a very luxurious stable since their birth for their own safety. Mum led them all around the smallholding. Terry the Turkey would have been so proud if he were still around.

Early evening I decided to try and put them away for the night. After a couple of failed attempts, I managed to get them into one of the new sheds which has been kitted out in readiness. It's pretty nice in there.

The rest of the day was spent planting out my brassicas. I've abandoned the idea of using carpet underlay to stop root fly laying its eggs in the soil. Firstly each collar provided a cosy home for a slug with a handy local food source (my cauliflower seedlings). I sorted this out, slugs chopped in half, slug pellets scattered (I use the organic ferric phosphate ones, though I still try to minimise their use) but today I found half of the surviving plants dried up. The underlay obviously hadn't let through enough water. So that was it. Collars abandoned. Luckily I only really needed about a third of my caulis to make it through and the ones which have survived are looking very strong. There are more on the way as I sow them in succession. This means I can fill the gaps and that they will not all harvest at once.

Today, along with the cauliflowers, I've planted Romanesco, Calabrese, Cavolo Nero, Scarlet Kale, Red Cabbage, Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Cabbage January King.
They're all under netting and I've interplanted with marigolds and hyssop as companion plants.

This is a concerted effort at finally growing and harvesting brassicas successfully. If it fails I might just give up.

31st May
And so to the last day of May. A welcome rainy day, for I was starting to get worried about the young plants and seedlings outside. The water butts are filling up nicely.
Two surprises when I let the birds out this morning. The first was a robin inexplicably encaged in one of the broody hen runs. Quite how it got in goodness knows. I released it. That was good act number one.
The second was to find a very small gosling stuck in the feed trough near one of our Toulouse goose nests. Fortunately the grey geese are not quite so aggressive in their defence and I was able to gently pick up the little gosling, which felt cold, and place it next to mum on the edge of the nest. When I looked later it was gone, so I presume safely tucked in underneath mum again.
Not such good news from our other sitting mums-to-be. No sign of any ducklings under the Muscovy, despite the first one hatching three days ago. And no sign of any Ixworth eggs hatching under the other broody hen either.
To compensate for the various failures of our broody hens and ducks, we have placed 18 Ixworth hen eggs into our new (second-hand) incubator. It'll be more work for us to raise the chicks but we should have a greater success rate.

Every time we use an incubator we have a power cut. I don't think it's the fault of the incubators! It's just the poor rural infrastructure which means that every time it rains or is windy the power cuts out. Today we had two and the second lasted three hours. Hopefully it won't affect the development of the eggs.

So that's it. May has flown by and tomorrow it's the official start of meteorological summer. Bring on the rain!

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