Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Posh Veg

Asparagus, Mangetout, Globe Artichoke, Swiss Chard, Kohl Rabi. It sounds like the expensive section of the Waitrose vegetable aisle, but these vegetables are easy to grow and we have as much as we want.

I grow globe artichokes mainly for their structural appeal, but last week we actually tried eating some of the heads. They were a bit fiddly, but very nice for a change. Some will be left on the plant to flower. They are basically massive thistles and the flower heads are most attractive to insects.

All these wonderful vegetables make for some very colourful and tasty meals.

At this time of year some crops are already coming in. Mostly the perennial crops, but some annuals too with a little help from the polytunnel. Other crops are still tiny plants, just being planted out into the warm summer soil. In fact, the second sowing of sweetcorn (after the first failed spectacularly at germination stage) has been waiting for space in the polytunnel which was made by the ejection of the fading mangetout plants.
Lablab bean seedlings
While I was about ordering the replacement sweetcorn, I came across a bean known as lablab bean and decided it would be worth a try. It has germinated well and is ready to be planted out to climb up amidst the climbing peas.

A replacement sweetcorn crop
should catch up quickly
grown in the polytunnel

ed - I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but forgot to press the Publish button - doh! The lablab beans are planted outside now and the sweetcorn is planted in the polytunnel beds. You wouldn't believe how much they have grown.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Let the courgette chaos commence!

A few images from the last couple of weeks. This is my way of catching up on the blog.

All the lambs together for the first time,
enjoying the lush grass growth in the first sheep paddock.

The white chicks get the run of the whole chicken enclosure.
They'll have to hold their own against all the other poultry now.

Sheep separated again, after last year's ram lamb taught the two brown lambs
to duck through the electric fence.
They are enjoying the mound left when we had the drive scraped back.

Ladybird (and manbird)

8 chicks safely hatched out of 18.
I'm beginning to think one of the hens may not be producing fertile eggs.
But which one?
The first courgette of the year. Let courgette chaos commence! 

Swiss Chard, Lettuces, Courgettes and Butternut Squash all thriving in the polytunnel.
Temperatures have regularly exceeded the thermometer maximum (125F) recently.

When the old turkey hen went missing from her roost perch,
I found her sitting on a new clutch of eggs inside one of the houses.

As usual, the geese have completely cocked up rearing their young.
We are down to one gosling, with Christmas dinner written all over it 😃

Twitch on! A day away on the Sussex coast to catch up with an Elegant Tern,
a Pacific species.
This year has been fairly quiet for twitching so far so an away day in the sun was most welcome.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Heatwave deadly for young swallows

So the summer solstice marked the end of a heatwave with temperatures in the low 30s for days on end.
But that heatwave spelled bad news for some. We lost one of the turkey poults, even though I thought they had now grown to an age where they would be safe. Even more sadly, at least 3 of the swallow nests have failed.
The first hint of this was when I found two dead swallows on the floor in one of the stables. They were well grown young, on the point of fledging - in fact that very morning I had noticed the first young swallows joining their excited parents in flight over the farm.
Another stable and another three dead young, another alive but helplessly crawling around on the floor.

And finally a gruesome find in the chicken feed shed down near the poultry pen. These swallows have nested for the last three years just above the flimsy shed door, virtually at head height. Every time we enter the shed to fill the feed bucket out shoots a swallow.

A couple of weeks back I found a broken egg on the floor and a peek inside the nest revealed at least four rather ugly youngsters, their mouths gaping open hoping for a nourishing insect meal.
Then, just a few days back, five well grown chicks were hanging over the edge of the nest. I just presumed that they were growing too big for the nest, but on the morning of 20th June I found one dead, hanging out of the nest. Another three were dead inside the nest. Looking back on that photo with the benefit of hindsight, I wonder how well those chicks were at the time.

The last time I saw the chicks alive... but how well were they?
I posted this sad news onto Facebook and discovered that swallow nests all over fenland have been failing, with many dead young being found during this heatwave, others found on the floor having left the baking nests prematurely.

As I write, I am hoping to bring some good news too. For this morning I found another four young swallows on the floor in the stables. But these are alive and survived the whole day. The parents are coming in and feeding them on the floor. Obviously they are far more at risk of predation, though this has got to be an improvement on the prospect of being cooked alive in a clay oven nest.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

A Plague of Strawberry Seed Beetles

Sometimes things do not go according to plan.

Rotten Strawberries

My strawberry plants have been looking extremely healthy with masses of young strawberries on them. Last year we had problems with them all rotting, but I weeded them out and tended to them over the winter. However, an old farmer had said that my rows were way too wide.

A few days ago I began to notice that my strawberries had something very wrong with them. Even the hard green fruits were developing brown marks on them and many were rotting way before they were anywhere near ripe.
I searched and searched the internet for the cause, but all that I could come up with was leather rot, and this only featured on American websites. It didn't completely match what I was seeing either. However, it certainly seemed to be fungal in nature, whatever it was, so I decided there could be no harm thinning the rows to let more air between the plants.
I drove the rotavator straight through the middle of the rows, up and down, picking off any damaged plants and brown fruits. I enlisted the help of Sue and the dogs, as this was quite a big job. It was quite depressing too, for most of the fruit needed taking off the plants.

All I can hope is that the plants can grow new fruits which will thrive better with increased air circulation.
If not, I may have to move the strawberry patch which would be very demoralising. I have put a lot of work into creating it and have had very, very little reward by way of strawberries. I thought they would be coming out of our ears!

A Plague of Beetles
On a separate matter, we have been absolutely inundated with ground beetles for the past couple of weeks. They are literally everywhere, even in the house. Last night Sue left a jug of water in the front room and there were 15 beetles swimming around in the morning!
As far as I was aware, ground beetles are good. They eat slug eggs among other things.

HOWEVER, curious as to whether this plague of beetles was peculiar to our farm, I went searching on the internet. First step was to identify them, which was fairly straight forward as they have clearly orange legs. So I typed into an image search orange-legged ground beetle and up came a matching picture - the strawberry seed beetle.

And here the two parts of this story come together.
It didn't take long for my search to hit on pictures of damaged strawberries with the damage exactly matching what is happening to our strawberries.

Further research reveals that this species is widespread throughout much of the world. It is in the adult stage that it is a pest of unripe seeds, anything from strawberries to grains and sugar beet. It is also an important insect for controlling other unwanted bugs, though this is of little use when it has caused so much damage itself.

For the moment the beetles seem to have largely left the strawberry bed and headed en masse into the house! Every evening they literally emerge from the woodwork and I am catching 20 to 30 before I go to bed.
It looks like, with luck, we will manage to salvage some sort of strawberry crop but I am a little concerned about future years. My best hope is that this has been a bumper year for Harpalus rufipes and that in future a more healthy balance will be restored.

For the moment I'm afraid the strawberry seed beetle will receive no mercy.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Drastically thinning the plums

Saturday 3rd June
Today I sowed the rest of my beans along with the sweetcorn, courgettes, pumpkins and celeriac. Finally virtually all of the veg beds have something in them.
I sowed more carrots and lettuce too as well as sowing my swede crop for the year.

With everything growing so well, the creeping thistles have poked their heads up in my young woodland and there are a couple of rather large patches which will get out of control if I do nothing about them. Don't get me wrong, thistles are great for wildlife and I even quite like how they look, but they are just too unruly. So I spent a half hour or so  mixing up the Grazon and spraying it liberally. The great thing about this weedkiller is that it doesn't kill the grass, it just takes out the broad-leaved plants, with a particular penchant for thistles and nettles. It's not organic so I wouldn't use it near the crops, but it is perfect used in the right place. Within 24 hours the plants will already be drooping.

Finally I got on the mower. When it works well it is great, but I have never been able to ride it in confidence. Today it broke again! I gave up.

Sunday 4th June
Job for the day was to thin the plums. Two of my trees have bumper crops this year - the Victoria plum and the Merryweather damson.
Tempting as it is to leave all the plums on the tree, the internet reassures me that this is not the best policy. The fruits need space to grow and they need air around them so they don't rot. Plum trees often suffer from branches breaking under the stress of a bumper crop of fruit - another reason to thin the young fruit. Thirdly, and I had not considered this, if the tree has put all its energies into a bumper crop of fruit it is unable to produce the fruiting buds for next year. This is why so often fruit trees go into the habit of cropping every other year.
And so I set about a drastic thinning process, leaving at most a third of the plums on each tree. It had better turn out well.

Monday 5th June
Following a dismal return from the 500 sweetcorn seeds I originally sowed, I ordered some extra seed from another company. Fortunately they were having an end of season sale, plus I receive a discount on top of this so I ended up paying less than 50% of the packet price.
But of course, while I was on their website, many other items caught my eye. In particular I discovered a good source of seed for my dyer's garden which I hope to develop next year. I also purchased some lablab beans. More on both of these later.

Tuesday 6th June
Boris needed his annual booster today so it was off to the vets over in Norfolk. Arthur came along for the trip too and I had a secret plan to take them both to the beach afterwards. But plans change. The weather was showery here, but by the time I had made the journey to Norfolk conditions were well and truly miserable. In the end we came straight back from the vets and had a lazy rest of the day.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Parsnips and Leeks allowed to Flower

Thursday 1st June
A few images from the veg patch
We never got through last year's bumper crops of parsnips and leeks
so I have left them in to flower.
They are a great attractant to predatory insects such as hoverflies.
Globe artichokes in amongst the grasses, poppies and Scorzonera flowers
The geese protect their two goslings along the edible hedge
A hoverfly doing its job
on one of the
polytunnel melon flowers

Friday 2nd June
Sue did a mega rhubarb pick again today, probably the last harvest of the year. We will leave it now to capture some energy for the plants.
I am looking forward to sampling the rhubarb and fig chutney when its ready. Meanwhile I'll have to settle for a nice bit of rhubarb crumble.

While Sue was busy with that, I put the finishing touches to the brassica netting, where I will grow the members of the cabbage family which demand a long period in the ground, cauliflowers, winter cabbages and Romanesco.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The Bean Forest

Monday 29th May
With a bout of summery weather on the cards, main job for the day was to get all the beans and peas planted outside. I rear most of them in modules to protect them from the attentions of slugs and voles. They quickly fill the little pockets of soil with roots and are soon ready to go out. I sink branches into the ground to grow them up. These branches come from winter's tree pruning and are helpfully and enthusiastically debarked by the Shetland sheep.
The young bean plants still need protection from slugs, so each gets its own cut down milk bottle or lemonade bottle as a mini cloche. This helps shelter them from the wind too and helps to harden them off.
This year I am growing Gigantes beans along with Runner Beans (I forget the variety), Borlottis and Pea Beans. All of these I use for drying. Then there are Cobra beans, my favourite for French green beans.
I do like the bean and pea patch. It adds height and interest to the garden.
In the gaps I grow sweetcorn, courgettes and dwarf beans.
Tuesday 30th May
The sheep have been crossing the electric fence with impunity, even the two little brown lambs. I began to suspect that it wasn't working properly, so today I dug out the voltage tester only to discover that there was actually no electricity running through half of the fence!

And so began the long process of tracking down the problem. First job is to walk the fence and check for any obvious breaks. With this eliminated, it gets trickier. The voltage can drop if there is too much connection with long, wet vegetation, so that by the end of the line the fence is very weak. So I walked the line, clearing vegetation and moving the fence clear. This increased the voltage slightly, but clearly wasn't the main problem.

I eventually worked out where the problem lay - in the sections of tape which link one side of the paddock to the other. What followed was several attempts to get the connection working properly. Each check necessitated a long walk back to turn the fence off at source. Thank goodness Sue was there to help.
Eventually I managed to get a current flowing all the way around the paddock where the sheep are feeding. Doubtless the lambs will charge through it a couple more times until they actually get a shock. After that they will be a bit more wary.

Wednesday 31st May
Look what started today. More in future posts.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A Sluggish Couple of Days

Sunday 28th May
Growing turnips in the polytunnel
The turnips came out of the polytunnel yesterday. I only grow these in the tunnel very early in the year, as they grow lots of leaf and soon start rotting when the weather warms up. But I do get some rather lovely turnips. Some go into the freezer as insurance in case the outdoor crop fails. This year I turned the rest into turnip masala. The recipe used up some of last year's onions and garlic which are just about hanging on as well as a tub of frozen tomatoes from the bumper year two years back.
I collected together the ingredients and set about crushing the garlic and dicing the onions. Actually, I cheated and did it in the food processor, but it still made my eyes stream.

A Visit from The Bee Man
My cooking was interrupted by a visitor. The bee man who turns up for a friendly chat once or twice a year. He is a serious bee-keeper who breeds his own queens and has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. We chatted for quite some time until the next unexpected visitor.

A Case of Fly Strike
Our neighbour appeared at the gate seeking help with her old pet sheep which had unfortunately become a victim of fly strike. This is just about the most disgusting thing to have to deal with. Greenbottles lay their eggs on the sheep and hundreds of maggots hatch out and start eating away at the flesh. The wool starts dropping off, and is soaked with a foul-smelling liquid. Very, very quickly the sheep falls ill and if not caught quickly fly strike may well prove fatal.
This is why it is irresponsible to keep sheep if you can't check on them at least once a day. A fly struck sheep will typically be away from the flock and inactive.
The solution is to cut back the wool all around the affected area, clean it thoroughly and dab on the same solution which is applied to sheep as a spot-on application to keep flies at bay. This is a strong and harsh chemical but there are times when subtlety does not do the trick. We have only had fly strike once and it was certainly a learning experience. We managed to save that particular sheep.
I won't go into any more detail, but after an hour or so Carol Ann had gone through the same fly strike learning curve as we did last year.

A bit of our own sheep husbandry
It was then time to attend to our own sheep, as some of the lambs needed worming. While we had them all corralled, we had a bit of a move around. The fawn ewe and the two youngest lambs were to move up with the others. There would be butting and chasing for a while and mum would be distracted from attending to her lambs, so to minimise the disturbance I wanted to move Rambo and the other entire ram lamb out of the way, at least until things settled down.
We had a bit of chasing around the field while the sheep played silly buggers, but in the end they did what they were supposed to. We drenched them (sounds complicated, but just means giving them medicine orally) and I then spent an hour or so just keeping an eye on things until they settled down.

So, back to the turnip masala. I wasn't sure about it, but the genius touch was when everything got roughly mashed at the end. Suddenly the dish was transformed into an authentic Indian vegetable dish. Success!

Final job for the day was one which I had been putting off for quite a while. Our gutter was blocked and grass was growing from it, but I was unable to reach it leaning out of the upstairs window. So it was up to roof level on the ladder - which is why I had been putting it off for so long. For some reason though today my fear of heights was absent. Climbing the ladder was a cinch. I don't know why I put it off for so long.

Monday 29th May
A very early start after heavy rain during the night. At 5am I was picking slugs off the walls of the polytunnel. For yesterday I cut back the herbs which grow along the outside edge of the tunnel, so the slugs had nowhere to hide.
I stopped counting when I got to 200 slugs! Fortunately I have trained my ducks to recognise the white bucket as their treat bucket. All I have to do is to stop the slugs escaping before I get the bucket down to the ducks.
Smallholding is not always glamorous, so I leave you with an image which sums that up quite nicely.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

When she started sitting we had frosts and drought

Tuesday 23rd May
I decided to kick the black and white Muscovy duck off her eggs today. She had been devotedly sat for six weeks. Muscovy incubation is a drawn out job at 35 days, but I figured that nothing was going to happen now. When I cracked open the eggs, they were in various stages of development, so at least our male is not firing blanks. I think the problem was that some of the eggs were pretty dirty and duck eggs are porous.
Stretching her legs for the first time in seven weeks

Meanwhile, the white Muscovy duck is sat tight in a different house. Hopefully she will be more successful. Ducklings are cute to have around and grow quickly into very tasty meals!
In previous years we have hatched ducklings under our trusty broody hen, Elvis, but this year she is showing no signs of wanting to sit, even when we shut her in a house with a clutch of eggs. Maybe she is too old to be dealing with a clutch of young birds now.

I gave the sheep some new grass today. This is just a simple operation of moving the electric fence posts back a little to allow access to the lush grass on the other side. In fact, there were treats all round for the sheep today as I cleared out some of last year's overwintered Swiss Chard plants to make room for this year's tomatoes.

Wednesday 24th May
Temperatures are soaring. After a worryingly dry beginning to the year, recent weather has been just about perfect for growing with temperatures high but with significant showers every few days to keep the seedlings happy and the grass growing (and the weeds). Temperature in the polytunnel are regularly breaking 100 degrees, so watering and any significant tasks in there have to be done early morning or evening.
Most of the plants are in the polytunnel beds now and the melons, cucumbers, tomato and okra are thriving. In the next few days I'll dig the last of the new potatoes and turnips and
evict the mangetout, which is just on its way out. Waiting to jump in their graves are the peppers, chillis and aubergines.
There should be sweetcorn too, but I'm having to start a new batch after a very disappointing germination - I'll be changing supplier next year.

With the risk of frost over now and the soil warm. the next week will see me busily planting all of the tender plants into outdoor beds. They have been out in the cold frame to harden off. I have bean poles to erect and arches to build to grow my tall peas up as well as more mangetout. The few sweetcorn seedlings which did germinate will be going outside too and the outdoor tomatoes will appreciate some room to spread their roots.
There's Minipop sweetcorn too, which can be grown near the supersweet varieties since it is harvested before pollination. Fortunately 100% of these germinated, so it's nothing I'm doing wrong.

Saturday 27th May
The first day of half term. Hurray!
I took one last mangetout harvest from the poly before evicting it and planting the bed with young butternut squash plants. It won't be long before these are doing their best to take over the whole polytunnel but I will show no mercy in keeping them cut back.

A few weeks back I planted mustard green manure into the bean and pea beds. One moment the beds were spattered with small seedlings but before I knew it they were full of lush green growth. This is my first proper attempt at growing green manure. I chose carefully a crop which I would be easy to work into the soil. I also needed something which could grow quickly and be ready to rotavated before the main crop needed to be planted.
So today I let Mr Rotavator loose. He made light work of cutting swathes through the crop and turning it into the soil.

My work was cut short today though as Sue took the year's first honey off the giant colony of bees. They weren't happy about it and vented their anger on me. At the fourth time of being aggressively buzzed by a bee, I gave up and headed inside.
Sue has been waiting for the honey to be capped sufficiently to collect. She got about 30lb from the one hive which is great. Unfortunately the second hive continues to struggle. Sue has tried twice to add frames from the successful hive. If the weak one has gone queenless then the bees should have used the new brood to make a new queen, but they have failed to do so. The other explanation is that there is a queen in there somewhere but she has gone off lay. To be on the safe side, Sue has decided to split the strong hive into two. Swarm season is upon us and we could easily end up with two weakened hives.

With the warm weather we have been leaving the windows open at night which tonight resulted in numerous moths coming into the house. I am starting to get interested in moths and it is only a matter of time before I take the plunge and purchase a moth trap. But for now I am happy to photograph whatever comes into the house and then struggle to identify it. It is strange to be a total beginner.

Anyway, here's what I captured, along with tentative identifications - I love moth names, they are so eccentric.

Pale Prominent
Silver-ground Carpet
Bright-line Brown-eye
Yellow-nosed Bell
White Ermine

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