Monday, 29 August 2016

A Cloud Tick

25th August 2016
Minipop ready for harvest
as soon as the tassles show
After my trips to Cornwall and Ireland, I needed to catch up on some harvesting. The Sweetcorn Minipop has harvested very well so far, but the later flush of cobs have grown differently, with larger kernels. They don't taste quite so sweet and the cores are slightly woodier, but as long as you catch them early they are still perfectly edible.






In contrast, the maincrop Sweetcorn has been very disappointing this year. Even in the polytunnel I only got about 0.5 cobs per plant. The cobs I did get, though, were huge and a real treat. Outside was a similar story. The plants never flourished and produced small, half pollenated cobs. It clearly wasn't the year for sweetcorn, not enough sun in May and June.

I've cleared all the corn from the tunnel now, which should let more light and moisture in for the crops I've underplanted.
I had lots more vegetables to harvest, but a tweet to 'get ready to hammer it to Spurn' had me heading off again. For the rumour quickly firmed up that a probable Yellow-breasted Bunting had been photographed there round about midday. Several hours had passed since then, but if I waited for further news it would be too late for me to get there.
Curlew Sandpiper at Frampton Marsh
So I started driving, but it wasn't long before a very rare Yellow-breasted Bunting turned back into a Corn Bunting, a British breeding bird. As I was close by, I considered it rude not to pop into Frampton Marsh, an excellent RSPB reserve just north of The Wash. I had great views of a Kingfisher and there were lots of waders, most notably large numbers of Curlew Sandpipers. I see these every summer when the waders pass through, but numbers this year have been exceptional affording good opportunities to really study the birds.


I was most impressed, however, by a strip of sunflowers underplanted with winter seed plants for the finches. I had tried to achieve something similar here on the farm, but sunflowers just can't seem to make it past the ravages of the slugs.







26th August 2016
Back into the polytunnel today as I spotted a few cucumbers hiding. In fact, more than a few!



The polytunnel tomatoes are doing brilliantly this year too. I've grown fewer plants but given them more space and more attention. This strategy has paid off as Sue today froze our 30th carton of tomatoes.
Some of the outdoor tomatoes seem to have made it past the blight too, particularly a variety known as Outdoor Girl which I am trying this year. We're having to pick them before they are fully ripe, otherwise the birds find them, but they ripen off nicely on the windowsill.

27th August 2016
Absolutely stunning views of a hobby today as it repeatedly swooped through the top paddock attempting to catch itself a swallow for lunch.
But it was totally eclipsed later in the day by a sky the like of which I've never seen. The weather was spooky, on the edge of a storm. The air was incredibly humid and still, but it felt as if something major was about to go down.
It was at this point that the Asperitas clouds appeared in the sky. I first noticed a strange inverted funnel looking like the precursor to an alien invasion. The sky then filled with clouds in strange wave formations. It was just like snorkelling under the sea and looking up at the surface.



Asperitas clouds are, I have since learned, the newest named form of cloud, only officially going on the list in 2015. I don't think that means they've only just started occurring, but I've certainly never seen anything like them before.

They were accompanied by rolling thunder and occasional flashes of lightening, but despite their menacing appearance the rain did not come... Not till about half an hour later when the sky darkened ominously and the heavens opened. So much rain fell so quickly that it started coming through the porch ceiling. I quickly scurried outside to clear the gutter. While I was at it I linked hosepipes to all the water butt overflows to collect as much rainwater as possible.

If I ever see asperitas clouds again I'll get ready for the downpour.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

A Royal Flush

24th August 2016
The routine for twitching birds in Ireland is pretty well rehearsed now. Trouble is, the last four times I've done it have ended in failure, dipping the bird.
I waited for a mate from Norfolk then left my house at 8.30pm for the drive westwards towards Holyhead port, picking up another two birding friends along the way.
The ferry departs at 02:30 and you can get a 24 hour ticket which is quite reasonable if you share the cost. I prefer to do it this way as it means I can just chuck all my stuff in the car and go.

It always seems slightly crazy that two companies run ferries on this route yet they choose to have virtually identical schedules, resulting in chaos at the port. Queues were particularly long tonight - we later found out that the road to Holyhead had been closed earlier in the day causing many vehicles to have to switch ferries. We hadn't pre-booked the ferry and it took a full ten minutes for the woman at the ticket booth to issue us a ticket. By this time the cones had been put across and we had an uncomfortable wait while it appeared everybody had forgotten all about us.

We finally received the go ahead and by three in the morning we were steaming out into the Irish Sea. We had secured some reasonably cosy seats in the old restaurant area with enough space to stretch out. Our wallets never stretch to a cabin, not for a three hour crossing. Besides, I was far too hyperactive to sleep much.
The crossing was dead smooth and I did manage to grab almost an hour's sleep, despite Neil's snoring, before we were driving off the other end into Dublin City... well, I say driving, it was more of a crawl as all the lorries from BOTH ferries got off before us.

By 7.30am we had news that the Royal Tern was still there. We were through Dublin and doing unmentionable speeds across Ireland towards the west coast. It was just before we reached Limerick that news came through the bird had been pushed off the beach by the rising tide - we always knew this was a likely scenario. We were a bit gutted, but there was still a fair chance the bird would reappear as the tide dropped again. Fortunately it was frequenting exactly the same area as an Elegant Tern I had seen three years ago, so we knew the places to check out.

The Elegant Tern has stuck it out for eleven days - that's about ten more days than any Royal Tern has ever stuck around for! I had previously had two near misses with Royal Tern but others making the journey were up to seven or eight attempts! Royal Terns have a nasty habit of spending the evening on a beach and buggering off out to sea overnight. You need to be close by when they're found.

As the day wore on we began to lose hope. Us twitchers are by nature a pretty determined and persistent bunch. We must, I guess, be fairly optimistic too, or we wouldn't try, but I always like to retain a healthy dose of pessimism. That way you get more pleasant surprises than ugly let-downs.
There were basically two parts of Beale Strand where the Royal Tern had chosen to hang out, but we knew of a further two parts of the estuary further east where terns liked to hang out, both at the end of very minor roads. So that was four places to keep checking. At least it kept us moving.

As we walked the length of Littor Stand for the third time we were now considering whether to leave in the next hour to get back for the evening ferry or whether to give it all day and catch the overnight. We were all still quite chipper all things considered. There would be another chance at Royal Tern. Maybe we'd need several more chances but in the end we would catch up with one, probably.
It was now three in the afternoon.

Then Dan got a call. IT'S THERE. West Beach.
We scuttled back to the car and covered the couple of miles along narrow country lanes at alarming speed. As we screeched into the car park we could see a line of twitchers on the beach. We left the car in the middle of the car park, grabbed our optics and ran off down the slipway and across the wide, sandy beach. My summer footwear was not well suited to running and bouncing between the salty puddles but right now it didn't matter.
Twitchers lined up on Beale Strand. I had to cut half the picture as Dan decided to moon the camera!

There were maybe twenty twitchers lined up, scopes pointing toward a group of gulls and terns on the sand at the water's edge. The worst thing that could happen now would be that they all fly up and I fail to pick up the Royal Tern as they all disappear into the distance. Though unlikely, this sort of thing does happen, so I aimed for someone else's scope for that first, vital view.
And there it was. A giant tern with a large orange/yellow carrot for a bill.

It was, of course, never in doubt that we would see the bird!

The poor thing had an injured leg, confirming that it was the same bird which had been seen a few days before further up the coast. It sat on the beach, occasionally lifting up to shift position in the flock. Often it was on its own. The line of twitchers edged forward for closer views. At one point the bird flew right along in front of us. That giant bill almost seemed to weigh down its head as those long, slender wings and surprisingly slow wingbeats took it gliding past us.

We shared about half an hour with the bird before it seemed right to leave it be. If we left now, we should be able to make the evening ferry.

And that's what happened. I managed another one hour's sleep on the ferry (would have been more but we had three very loud natterers sat near us) and rolled back onto the farm a few minutes before five in the morning. 32 hours. 2 nights. 2 hours sleep. 2 boats. 900 miles driving. 1 Royal Tern.
The list now stands on 517.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Storm Chasing

Arthur's thinking "You're not off again, are you?"
Sorry, but don't expect to read much about smallholding in this post, for I've been busy scooting around the country chasing rare birds again while the marvellous Sue has been looking after things on the farm.

19th August 2016
A day at the Birdfair
Every year the birding community gets together over three days at Rutland Water Birdfair. I tend to make it a rule not to go as it represents to me the commercial side of birding chasing the all too grey pound. On the other hand, lots of people I know work for such companies so it is a good chance to meet up with people from far and wide. It raises a lot of money for environmental charities too, though fifteen quid per person seems a bit steep for the privilege of going into a giant outdoor shop.

Anyway, there was a reason for going along today as I had decided it was time for a new pair of binoculars, my 50th birthday present from Sue. It would be a good chance to compare them side by side and hopefully to get a show bargain... or so I thought. As it happened service from all of the companies was pretty poor, especially considering the amounts being spent. Unfortunately all competition is eradicated with pre-Birdfair deals which mean that only certain exhibitors get to sell certain brands. The result is that, although everybody is in one place, the big companies concentrate their efforts on making as many sales as possible while providing as little personal service as possible.

Anyway, I am quite capable of choosing my own binoculars, but bearing in mind how much I was going to spend I drafted in a couple of mates to help me with the decision.
Overall I had a pretty good day, but I'm not sure I'll be going back for a good few years yet.

20th - 21st August
Seabirds galore
There's no better time to visit Cornwall than in a howling gale! So last night I travelled down to a cliff near Lands End where, at the crack of dawn, I set myself up huddled in the face of the wind and rain, scope pointing out to sea. Fortunately it was not my turn to drive this time, so I felt relatively fresh. The stiff breeze soon made me feel fresher.
For suitable summer gales only happen a couple of times a year. They bring seabirds, normally living a pelagic life far away from land, within view. Specifically they bring ideal conditions to see tubenoses, that's shearwaters, petrels and even an albatross if you get very, very lucky (and a few more verys).
I didn't take my brand new binoculars, since taking them out into  two days of salty sea squall would have been a baptism of fire for them, not that they shouldn't be able to cope easily with such conditions. Anyway, the birds come within sight of land but they don't exactly dance right in front of you, so most viewing is with a telescope at fairly long distance.
St Michael's Mount, Cornwall

I won't bore you with the detail, but during the morning, as well as ubiquitous gannets and fulmars which are regular fayre, we were lucky enough to see about 80 Cory's Shearwaters, a bird which breeds in colonies in The Canaries, Madeira and The Azores. I have probably only seen these birds about a dozen times so a relatively large passage is a privilege to see and a rare opportunity.

Come lunch time the winds swung round slightly and the procession of seabirds dried up. It was time to move to the north coast of the peninsula, where Pendeen offers slightly closer viewing and often more variety of seabirds. Here we had plenty of storm petrels, tiny little storm waifs which patter over the water. How such a delicate bird survives in such a wild environment is one of nature's wonders. There were Sooty and Great Shearwaters too, birds which breed in the Southern oceans before making a huge migration into the North Atlantic every year.

22nd August
More grandchicks for Elvis
Back on the farm and a recovery day after my Cornish exploits. Highlight of the day was undoubtedly two new chicks, hatched out by Priscilla, daughter of Elvis, who we allowed to sit on a few of the eggs she laid in the turkey stable.
We also finally got our TV aerial fixed after nearly six years. We now have the shiniest new aerial in The Fens and hundreds of useless channels not to watch.







23rd August
Here we go again!
Remember my tales about Royal Tern in my last post?
Well it's back, just down the coast. And this times plans are afoot to go for it. I'll be leaving at 8.30 tonight, picking up people in the Midlands and arriving in Holyhead in time for the 2:40am ferry.
We should be on site in South-West Ireland by about 9 tomorrow morning. Hopefully the bird won't do another vanishing act overnight, though the past record of Royal Terns indicates otherwise...
I hope to be back on he evening ferry, mission accomplished.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Creamed Honey and a Freezer Spreadsheet

13th August 2016
Preparing for winter
Sue was with the West Norfolk Bee-keepers today, focusing on preparations for winter! Taking the advice of people with years and years of experience, she is going to combine the two weaker colonies. Between them they probably have one laying queen and hopefully they will unite and get strong enough to make it through the winter. After a difficult year, if we can get two colonies through the winter it will be considered a satisfactory outcome.

Outdoor Toms a Losing Battle with Blight
While Sue was busy doing that, I was doing my best to save a few outdoor tomatoes. Despite my best efforts to remove leaves and whole plants if necessary at the first signs of blight, I continue to have to chop the plants smaller and smaller. Blight just keeps creeping steadily forward. I'm taking tomatoes off the plants as soon as they show any signs of blush and ripening them on the kitchen windowsill. This saves them from the unwanted attentions of mice and the turkeys too! Growing tomatoes outside is a bit of a lottery. Several years ago we had pounds and pounds of outdoor tomatoes, but since then we have had very little harvest. I really must get the greenhouse up this winter so I can grow the vast majority indoors from now on.

Sow Thistles for the Sheep
Once I'd done this I moved the sheep down to the very bottom section of field where the grass is waist high and the sow thistles grow thick. The sheep love sow thistle, even if it means their fleece gets wallpapered with the prickly stems and leaves. They will knock it back in no time.
One didn't want to go and was a complete pain. At least it gave me some exercise.

Freezer Spreadsheet
Best job of the day though went to Sue, who compiled a list of all the food in our many freezers. I then put this on a spreadsheet. Now this may sound more than a bit OCD, but it's easy to lose food at the bottom of the freezers. Despite pickling, dehydrating, vacuum-packing and making preserves, many of our fruit and vegetables and most of our meat still ends up going into the freezer. At this time of year there is more going in than coming out, despite our best efforts. The spreadsheet means we can keep track of what's in there and make sure our cooking is planned around using up the oldest food first.

14th August 2016
Creaming Honey
The first honey of the year is always rape honey. It sets absolutely concrete solid. This year Sue siphoned it into large buckets with a plan to turn it into creamed honey, a much more versatile product. To achieve this, the set honey needs to be very gently warmed, so as not to destroy all its health-giving properties. The dehydrator works perfectly for this. Then it is just a matter of attaching the honey creamer to the drill and agitating for at least five minutes.

Softened rape honey



The resulting product tasted delicious. We're just hoping that it has worked and it does not reset.

15th August 2016
An Excursion into the Modern World
A trip into Wisbech. I don't get off the farm very much and a couple of pieces of modern technology caught my attention. Firstly, new gizmos at the pedestrian crossings and secondly a machine in the bank which automatically reads cheques, adds them up and issues a receipt including a copy of the cheques. It seems the modern world advances a little more each time I leave it for a while!
One thing about living in a fairly remote setting is that you can't pop into town every time you need one thing, otherwise the petrol cost would often be significantly more than the cost of whatever you are buying. So we tend to save up a list of things to do in town.
We were also meeting up with someone near Wisbech to sell all of this year's honey! (we just kept a couple of jars back for ourselves). Unfortunately Sue only collected about 50 jars this year as only one hive was consistent enough to collect from.

16th August 2016
Most of the day was spent making the place look spick and span for tomorrow's gathering of the Grow Your Own group. The grass got a cut as did my hair, for the first time in a long while. It has gone from a weedy patch of overgrown grass and sow thistles to a neatly mown lawn, without the lines - I'm talking about my hair. I don't really do things in half measures.

Royal Tern Dip still hurts
It seems that every day I get the ride-on mower out, there is a MEGA bird to interrupt proceedings. Today's news was of a Royal Tern on the west coast of Ireland. I have bad memories of Royal Tern. There has only been one record since I have been seriously twitching. It appeared at several sites in North Wales on 15th June 2009, ending up sat on Black Rock Sands beach from 8:47pm until dark, last reported at 10:32pm. I turned up in the very early hours of the morning and slept in the car. In the morning it was gone, only to reappear four days later off Llandudno beach, where it flew up and down, occasionally disappearing round the corner for short periods, from 3:25pm till 6pm, five minutes before I arrived! When I turned up I was told "It's just gone round the corner, but don't worry, it's done that a few times. It'll be back soon." Well it didn't come back. Apart from one brief apparent sighting late in the evening, that was it. Gone. That dip hurt.

So, back to today's sighting. Should I get in the car and head for the ferry to Ireland, letting down the whole Grow Your Own group, or should I be patient and see what the bird gets up to in the next day or two? Had it been this side of the water, I would have been straight in the car without hesitation, but as it was I decided to hang on. After all, I had just spent the whole day getting the place looking nice for my visitors.
The rest of the evening was a nervy one though.

17th August 2016
Well, the Royal Tern was briefly seen for a couple of minutes early in the morning and then disappeared. I wouldn't have seen it had I gone last night, so I got lucky on this occasion.

Back on the farm, there were six buzzards in the air at once today, making use of the sunny weather and the light breeze to soar and hunt the freshly harvested fields.
There were four Grey Partridges (aka English Partridges) in the field at the back of me today. These are getting very scarce indeed now, just another of our farmland birds which is in steep decline.

Grow Your Own group
In the evening I had the Grow Your Own group round. The discussion subject for today was Flowers In The Veg Garden. Top Of The Crops was Potatoes. For this, we focus on one crop, looking at how to grow it, best varieties, pests and diseases and what to do with it when it is harvested. Everybody is encouraged to bring along a dish to share and I was trying my hand at Bombay Potatoes. They turned out very nice indeed and I will certainly be making them again. I'll probably make a big batch and freeze some ... if there is ever spare space in the freezers! Others brought along an Irish Colcannon type dish, a potato, ham and cheese bake and there was even a cake which contained potatoes. All very tasty and a great evening was had by all. We even managed to sit outside and my redcurrant and raspberry sparkling cordial was enjoyed by all.

18th August 2016
Rain At Last!
A rest day today but the rain was very, very welcome indeed, much needed outside. The wind that came with it was not quite so welcome.


Saturday, 20 August 2016

Smart new dogs

10th August 2016
Boris, like a certain one of his owners, likes to be scruffy and likes getting dirty. His favourite activity (not shared by his owner) is to find a nice juicy patch of goose poo and to roll around in it, or even better a dead animal.
Arthur, despite being younger, is more refined, but he is cursed by wiry hair with a fair scattering of grey which makes him look much older than he really is.

But today, for the first time ever, Sue took them off to the groomers. At midday she returned to the farm with two new dogs.

They had clearly enjoyed their pampering session, though Boris was a little befuddled by his new hairstyle. Hopefully he will feel more comfortable in the hot weather though. Arthur was clearly most pleased with his new look and spent the day parading around admiring himself.

Boris asked me not to publish this picture



While the boys were away I ventured into one of the brassica patches. It was getting a bit weedy, though the pot marigolds and hyssop which I planted in between the greens were looking good. It wasn't the weeds that prompted me there, for I've been ignoring those for a while now. It was instead the sight of a calabrese head almost in flower. I walk past these everyday and should have been keeping a closer eye. Fortunately most of the other plants had good tight heads on which I harvested. I must remember next year that, unlike many of the other brassicas, calabrese is quick to mature and to give a crop.


11th August 2016
A massive weeding session today.

12th August 2016
A big step for the older group of Ixworth chicks today as they moved into a pen down with the rest of the chickens. There will be lots of new things for them to see and do and they will have to cope overnight without the heat lamp. They have plenty of feathers now and night time temperatures are not low so everything should be fine.
Sue took honey off the bees. It may be the last honey of the year as she needs to begin varroa treatment soon and the bees need to be left with enough honey for themselves in addition to what we steal from them.


Thursday, 18 August 2016

Broad Beans Sleeping In A Blankety Bed...

August has been busy and at the same time not busy. Busy because there's been harvesting and weeding and mowing to be done, plus I've been trying to catch up on a few jobs like creosoting and mending chicken houses. Not busy because it's the holidays and I don't have to work every spare minute just to keep on top of things. It's been dry so the weeds and grass have slowed their growth. At the same time, some of the warm weather vegetable crops like the beans and squashes have really started to thrive. I've had the onions out drying too.



7th August 2016
Mowing today. It's so much easier if I can keep on top of it, but it still takes a good couple of hours.
Before I could mow I had to collect up the potatoes which had been laid out on the surface to dry before storage.
I was in a good mood today for Sue was due back from a little break in Italy. Apparently if she hadn't been there just at the right time this tower would have toppled over.

8th August 2016
Harvest.
Broad beans- time for all the broad beans to come out. The harvest is good but the plants are looking a real mess now.
I've grown them from saved beans for a couple of years now, Bunyard's Exhibition originally from a mixed pack of beans from Poundland! They've now given me three years of good harvests, so not bad value really. This year we got 6 large freezer bags full, once podded.
Unfortunately you used to get 30 beans for your £1 (plus some less useful dwarf and climbing beans and some peas). Now you only get 10.
Anyway, it's time for some new seed stock now, so I may change variety.
Climbing French beans
They've been a bit slow to get going this year, but we finally took a first small harvest of climbing French beans. The tastiest beans are the Cobras, but the seedlings were deformed this year and I almost abandoned them. In the end, I just threw the healthiest few plants into the ground and stuck a cane next to them. They are doing fine now and we'll probably get a decent harvest. Next year I'll invest in some new seed though.
I do like a waxy yellow French bean too and hunted high and low for a climbing variety. I eventually came across Kentucky Yellow Wax. Again, it's not been the most vigorous of plants but it has just started to crop. Hopefully the plants will thicken up and we'll get a bumper harvest by the end of the year.
Courgettes
The courgette crop used to be an officially classified threat to the human race! But last year I was struck by mosaic virus and courgettes are proving a real struggle to grow now. One of the forgotten principles of organic growing is to find the right variety for your conditions. Although more expensive, Courgette Defender has survived where others have failed and is now starting to give us a crop.
Sweetcorn Minipop
Sweetcorn Minipop, despite being grown just for its baby cobs, is a handsome and vigorous plant. Today we took the first harvest from the outdoor plants. 78 baby corn cobs. This variety has grown just as well outside as in the polytunnel, so next year I'll use the tunnel space for something else, probably more standard sweetcorn, which has been a little disappointing this year. I'm sure the cool weather hasn't helped, but even in the polytunnel the crop has been slim, though the cobs which have been produced are plump and delicious. Next year I'll have a change of variety though.

Pea trial not good
I find growing peas hardly worthwhile. Lots of effort protecting the crop and constructing a climbing frame for at best modest harvests. Add to that the destruction caused by pea moth larvae and I abandoned all peas apart from mangetout for a few years.
But this year I decided to grow an old traditional climbing pea in the hope that it would crop over a longer period. I purchased a pack of Champion Of England from RealSeeds.co.uk. They weren't cheap but would hopefully be worth the expense and I could save the seed from year to year. I sowed it at the back end of April to avoid the attentions of the Pea Moth.
So far so good. The plants germinated fairly well and started producing some very tasty peas. Up till this week I'd taken a few handfuls. It is important to keep harvesting peas so they keep producing, so today I expected to take my first significant harvest. How wrong I was! The plants had gone over already. All I could do was to leave the few pods there were to collect the seeds and have another go next year. What a disappointment.

9th August 2016
Our new neighbours had their hay baled today. It's good to see the hay not going to waste. They have a couple of rescue Dartmoor ponies which have not moved in yet. It will be nice to have some animals in the field.
Hay cut...
and baled.
As the baler chomped up and down the field, I chomped my way through the task of podding all the broad beans we harvested yesterday. If I see another broad bean!









It was a momentous day for the youngest batch of Ixworth chicks as they came outside for the first time. They'll go back into their cage with the electric broody overnight, but with the weather warm they hardly ever seek out the warmth it provides now.


The older chicks chilling out
Let there be light
For the past three months we've had no lights in the kitchen! Every time we turn them on they trip the switch. We have a good electrician, but he often needs several phone calls before pinning him down. So somehow we've just kept putting it off. We did call him a week ago, but our call has not been returned. We've finally trained ourselves not to switch on the light.
Anyway this morning we had a builder round to give us a quote for some other work. He gave us the number of a different electrician. At 5 this afternoon I came in from the garden to discover a very tall young man fixing the kitchen lights. He wasn't even stood on a chair. Even I can't reach the kitchen ceiling without climbing up on something.
We now have kitchen lights and it is amazing! The place is so bright. But we still hesitate before hitting the switch. We also now have a new electrician who has the decency to return our phone calls and doesn't make endless promises. 


Saturday, 13 August 2016

Potatoes - The Results Are In.

6th August 2016
The view over the farm buildings and veg plot from up the ladder
I woke up inexplicably early today so decided to take advantage of the forecast sunny day to creosote the cladding on the house.

The fine was ideal for harvesting the potatoes too, as they need to bake in the sun for a while to improve their storage time. In truth it is a little early in the year to be harvesting the spuds, but blight has dictated proceedings this year.

And so we step back three weeks to when the tell-tale signs of blight swept through the potato crop. Within a couple of days a few brown blotches on the leaves can turn into rows of withered plants. If it gets into the stems it rapidly spreads down to the tubers.
The only course of action is to chop off all growth above ground and hope that it has not spread underground. Of course, this puts a halt to any further growth of the tubers, so the earlier blight comes the smaller the potato harvest.

This year the blight came early.

As if this is not depressing enough, there are plenty of other things that can go wrong with a potato, especially in a cool, wet year. The only benefit of so much rain earlier in the year was that the tubers would hopefully have been swelling quickly.

Once the tops have been removed, you need to leave the potatoes in the ground for two to three weeks so that they do not come into contact with live blight spores on the soil surface when you harvest them. Otherwise they will rot in storage. The fishy smell of a blighted potato tuber is unforgettable.
The longer they are left in the ground though, the more susceptible they are to slug damage, so it is a balancing act which also depends on waiting for a fine, sunny day.

A fine crop of Markies
So today was D-Day, the moment of truth. It took me several hours of hard digging to unearth all the spuds. Some varieties were a joy to dig as the fork lifted to reveal clusters of large, healthy tubers. Others were disheartening with very few usable potatoes. That's one of the reasons why I grow nine varieties, as they all have different qualities and different resistance to disease and pests.



So, here's what can go wrong!
Look carefully and you see the slimy,
melting cheese gunk that is a blighted potato.
Any blighted material needs to be dealt with.
Ideally it is burned, but this is not so easily done!
I put it all into a couple of closed unit plastic compost bins,
never to see the light of day again!
Splitting. Only the Picassos did this.
Still edible, but it did give a route in
for pests and diseases.
(See the slug?)
Slugs
Some varieties seem much more susceptible.
Can cause serious damage in a wet year.
These neat holes often open up into a network of tunnels on the inside.
They don't go to waste though as the geese and the sheep hoover them up gratefully..

A few always get caught by the fork.
Though not many, it always seems to be the best specimens!

And now for the performance by variety. Remember that yields reflect a bad blight year when the tops were taken off in mid July, which would be expected to hit the maincrop varieties worst.
Also, every year is different and performance varies greatly between varieties and in different soils.

Markies potatoes laid out
on the grass to dry.
Markies - Main Crop
A trial crop based on other people's strong recommendations. This variety is supposed to make for tasty chips - always good! Despite the early topping off there was a good yield of medium to large potatoes. Blight had only got into a couple of the tubers. There was some slug damage, but overall very little.
Picasso - Main Crop
I only grew these because I had a few kg left over from the bulk order I do for smallholders. Personally I wouldn't grow a variety that is favoured by farmers. It usually means that it thrives under a regime of chemicals, not necessarily the best for an organic grower. Unfortunately most of the smallholders are very conservative in their potato choices.
The Picassos had split much more than any other variety, caused by rapid growth in wet weather. This had allowed access to pests. Few tubers were blighted, but maybe 20% had slug damage. The yield was fair but nothing exceptional.





Blue Kestrels set out to dry on the soil surface.
In the foreground,
my entire usable harvest of Bonnies!
Bonnies - Second Early
Probably my favourite potato as a baker. Produces a good yield of large, round, attractive tubers. Unfortunately, not for the first time, the usable yield was disastrous. Blight had got into maybe 30% of the tubers and about 90% of what was left had become slug food. The slugs seem to love this variety. The end result was no more than a dozen very nice tubers from as many plants. Bonnie has had its last chance!
Blue Kestrel - Second Early
Having experimented with Kestrel last year and been impressed with the taste and the firm texture of the potatoes which lasted well in storage, I decided to try Blue Kestrel this year. I only grew ten plants, but this year at least it has turned out as one of the two absolute stars. The tubers are very attractive and many were large enough to make excellent baking potatoes. Being a Second Early is always going to help n a blight year. Blight had only got into three individual tubers and, unlike the Bonnies which they grew next to, there were virtually no slug holes. If the taste and storage are anything like last year's Kestrels then this will be on the list every year. Mind you, I said that about Bonnies once, when we had a dry year.

Charlotte - Second Early
I cannot believe how much this variety costs in the shops. It is one of the cheapest seed potatoes to buy from the wholesaler and has performed brilliantly every year. Yield was excellent and the quality of the tubers outstanding. There was virtually no blight in the tubers and virtually no slug damage. This makes Charlotte a brilliant insurance policy for a poor year, though it would more than earn its place in the veg plot in any year.
Dunluce - First Early
I tend to alternate between this variety and Arran Pilot for my bulk standard early potato. Being a First Early it has done all its growing before blight ever hits. However, earlies don't store so there are always quite a few left in the ground when the other potatoes are ready. This is where I like Dunluce and Arran Pilot, for they simply grow larger but retain their great flavour. This year's Dunluce have stayed relatively blight and slug free in the ground too. As would be expected with plenty of rain, the yield and tuber size has been good.
Red Duke of York - Early
A favourite of mine. An early red potato which is excellent for chipping and roasting. Doesn't produce massive tubers, but they are brightly coloured and good quality. This year there were more tiny tubers than usual but the yield was still fair. It has not stood in the ground as well as the Dunluces and blight has got into some of the tubers. So not the best year for this variety but it still performs well enough to firmly hold its place.
Pink Fir Apple - Late
This was the absolute star of the show last year, producing sacks of large tubers. The tubers seem to be pretty blight resistant and incur little slug damage. However, this can be an all or nothing potato, and this year it was nothing! I couldn't risk not cutting the tops off, but being a late developer it was inevitable that the tubers would not have had time to develop. As it was I got about a plate full of mini Pink Firs!
This potato still remains a firm favourite of mine and I am happy to run the risk every year as it is more than worth it when it pays off and this is the first time that I've had no crop to speak of.
Desiree - Main Crop
Despite it being a fairly bulk standard variety, I love Desiree potatoes. They are versatile and produce a good yield of attractive tubers, with a fair percentage of whoppers for baking.
In the shops it has been largely replaced by its descendant, Romano, but I find that Desiree preforms better for me.
The blight reached the leaves of the Desirees last so it didn't really have time to get into the tubers. The tubers had not quite had time to swell to full size, but I still got a fair crop and there was relatively little slug damage. Not the best year, but I've still got enough to keep me going.

So, overall it was a pretty challenging year potato-wise but I still ended up with about five sacks of potatoes which will be plenty to get us through till the first First Earlies come out of the polytunnel next spring.
A couple of varieties bombed and a couple were outstanding. Slugs seem to increase year on year in my veg plot, though nothing like as bad as the plague year we had in 2012. In a wet year though, they probably cause more crop loss than does blight.
When I choose next year's varieties, slug-resistance will remain a high priority.

Definitely on the list will be Charlotte, Blue Kestrel, Desiree, Dunluce/Arran Pilot, Pink For, Red Duke of York and a new entrant, Markies.
Definitely off the list are Bonnie.
As for Picasso, I basically got them free but if I had to pay I'd look for another variety.


Boris and Arthur could have helped with the digging,
but decided instead to go digging for moles in amongst the climbing beans.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

We should be safe from vampires this year

1st August
Happy Cotton Anniversary To Us!
Today is mine and Sue's second anniversary. It has been a low key affair getting on with the business of smallholding.

While I harvested the onions and a few broad beans and peas, Sue inspected her bees. It's been a testing year for Sue and her bees. On her last inspection she was pleased to finally find some eggs in the first hive, though it appears she has lost the queen from the second hive. The third hive continues to do well. But today's inspection brought more disheartening news as the brood pattern in the first hive didn't look correct. It seems most likely that the young queen was not properly mated and is laying drone eggs. Either that or there is a laying worker.


Meanwhile Boris has learned to jump through the open window to get in and out of the garden. Unfortunately, he has not yet learned that the window is not always open!!! I've heard of birds colliding with windows, but a labradoodle!

We should be safe from vampires this year
Sue then continued celebrating our anniversary by plaiting garlic and trying her hand at pickled garlic.



2nd August
The polytunnel tomatoes are doing well this year. I have squeezed in fewer plants but it makes managing and harvesting  them much easier. I still have 18 plants which should give us plenty, even if we don't get any from the outdoor plants.
I sacrificed the two courgette plants which were running rampant in their tunnel bed. Unfortunately they seemed more intent on producing a jungle of leaves than on producing viable fruits. I only really grew them as insurance in case the outdoor plants failed (as they did last year).

At lunch time I tried my raspberry and redcurrant juice for the first time. It was delicious but it didn't last long! I'll make more next year.



Here is the last photo of all the geese together (along with the turkeys). For tomorrow the two young white geese move to a new home. I was intending to stable them up this evening and then risk my life catching the two young ones. Fortunately this afternoon the opportunity suddenly came up to achieve the separation. As the geese headed down the central path, I noticed the two youngsters in the lead. I quickly jumped in, aided (not!) by Boris and Arthur and hurried them along with the plan to close the gate before all the adults could get through. It felt like some surreal dreamtime version of One Man And His Dog where they are tasked with separating off two specific sheep.
I managed to narrow the group down to three and the final adult was easily separated from the others in the stables.


3rd August

Arthur has caught a mole! He is very proud of himself. It must be the Daschund in him. Daschunds were bred for hunting badgers, but Arthur certainly won't be doing that. The Jack Russell in him has started chasing after rabbits, bouncing down the land to try to surprise them, but he lacks technique at the moment.
I don't really mind him catching a mole. Unlike most other people, I think moles are absolutely amazing creatures and that we should be very proud to have such a special creature native to this country. Sadly most people are more precious about their monoculture flat lawns. However, there are plenty of moles here on the farm. Unusually Arthur didn't eat the mole, despite the fact that he devours the voles and rabbits that our cat Gerry brings back as presents for him. Apparently moles don't taste very nice at all. I won't be testing out that particular theory.

Carrot success
The sun has been shining lately and the vegetables have responded. Today I harvested my first mini sweetcorn cobs from outside and the courgettes have started to crop in reasonable numbers too.
Main job for the day was to sort out the carrot patch. I lifted the mesh netting, in place to keep carrotfly at bay, and tackled the weeds. There weren't too many as the carrots have done so well they have crowded out any weeds. My carrot crops have been pretty disastrous in the past, so I was pleased to find rows of carrots doing very well indeed.
It was a little overdue, but I did one last sowing today which should give us plenty of carrots to harvest before winter arrives.

The two young white geese have gone now, to a new home just down the road where I hope they will be very happy. Already, without young to protect, the rest of the geese have calmed down and are being a lot less macho.

The day ended with a stunning sunset across the road.


4th August
Flatpacked Frustration
The day started with an attempt to construct a flatpack garden table. It came with what were probably the worst set of instructions I have ever seen. Some of the bolts came in and out six times as I basically had to work everything out as I went along. I got there in the end.

Roma defeated!
I'm not talking football, but tomatoes. I have been endeavouring to protect my row of Roma tomatoes from blight but it has been a losing battle. I've been picking off any leaves at the first signs of infection and have been spraying them with a bicarbonate spray - this is supposed to create an alkaline environment where the fungus cannot thrive. But it was inevitable following the ravaging of the potatoes that the blight would reach the tomatoes. Today I took the decision to uproot the row of Romas as the blight had clearly got into the stems. Hopefully some of the other tomatoes outside will be far enough away to escape the scourge.

On a brighter note, I harvested the first of the sweetcorn proper (as opposed to the Minipop which I grow for baby cobs) from the polytunnel today. When I pulled back the husk it was a real gem and went very nicely with the pork ribs and stir fry which I made for dinner - almost totally our own produce. The stir fry had fourteen ingredients from the garden!

Following on from sowing carrots yesterday, I did one last sowing of Boltardy beetroot today. It should stand in the ground over winter. I've sown plenty as any spare will be gobbled up by the sheep or the geese.
I also sowed a trial crop, Spanish Black Round Radish. This is unlike other radishes as it is a winter veg which is cooked. I'm expecting it to be more like a turnip. We'll see. Some of my trial crops earn a place in the veg patch, many fall by the wayside.

5th August


Not put off by the flatpack garden furniture experience yesterday, I decided to get the woodwork tools out today and do a complete overhaul of one of the chicken houses. Here it is having been completely disassembled and half rebuilt. This is as far as I've got as it took quite a lot longer than anticipated.

Same Old, Same Old Gulls
The morning was interrupted by a flock of gulls in the neighbouring field. The rape straw has been baled and collected up and today they were harrowing the field which was pulling in the gulls. I scanned through the flock with my telescope and, as every year, it was composed mainly of Black-headed gulls with lesser numbers of Common Gulls and a few Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls. One year I'll find something different in amongst them.
At one point the whole flock rose suddenly, along with the starlings, lapwings and a small group of Stock Doves. The reason for the panic soon became obvious as a Peregrine Falcon torpedoed through the flock, the first of the winter.
Bizarrely a roe deer appeared in the field as well today, right out in the open.

The day was flying by. Sue is away again with friends visiting Venice, Florence and Piza. Looking after all the animals, myself and the crops is a lot of work and I have been putting in very long days.
The young chicks needed cleaning out as well today. They are growing up fast and it won't be long before they get to go outside during the day.

For the second evening there was a stunning fire in the sky. Red sky at night, shepherd's delight.



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