Monday, 28 August 2017

All Spick and Span

Ever since we arrived back from the Outer Hebrides I have been working like a dog (obviously not Boris or Arthur, as the concept of work is alien to them!).
For I have been full of new ideas and keen to get things done. On top of that, we had agreed for the monthly meeting of the Fenland Smallholders Club to be at our place at the end of August. Making this commitment was my deliberate way of putting pressure on myself to get the place spick and span.
The focus of the day was living willow structures and I think everybody found it interesting to see the many ways in which I use the willow which I harvest on the smallholding.

Anyway, for the moment here are some pictures of the place while it's looking good.
























Plague and pestilence - a thoroughly disheartening affair

How dare we have a holiday!
We were only gone for just less than a week during which time a plague of pestilence and disease was wrought upon the smallholding. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration but this is a post to show that smallholding is not always a bed of roses.

On the positive side the animals were ok. But it was a different story in the veg plot.

Blight
For the umpteenth year in a row blight has swept through my potatoes and moved onto my tomatoes. And because I wasn't here to spot it early it had a chance to kill off all the foliage on the Earlies and Second Earlies before starting on the Maincrops. There were no signs of it when we left for Scotland and by the time we returned it had ravaged the crop. The timing could not have been worse. I took the tops off all the potatoes and have left them in the ground so they don't come into  contact with any spores on the soil surface, but harvesting has been a thoroughly depressing activity, with perhaps just a quarter of the Early potatoes surviving. I haven't yet dared check the other potatoes, but am clinging onto the hope that Charlottes have been pretty blight resistant in previous years.
The blight has then moved onto the tomatoes. It enters the plants through the leaves so I have removed most of the leaves and check daily, removing all affected leaves and fruit. But once it gets into the stem you are fighting a losing battle. For some reason the plum varieties, Roma and San Marzano, seem to fare the worst. A fairly decent crop can still be salvaged from the others.

Spanish Slugs
Next on the list is slugs. More precisely the big fat orange ones which some people call Spanish slugs. The problem is they are too big and slimy for natural enemies to predate. I think the key to controlling them is to leave them no cover, but this means keeping the veg beds perfectly edged. The most effective killer of these orange slime-monsters is my edging shears - messy but effective!
Unfortunately they also seem to like living under a dense canopy of nasturtium leaves and whenever I have let these companion plants ramble it has resulted in an army of slugs attacking the crops.
So habitat destruction is proving the key to control here, as well as direct hunting out of the enemy followed by quick dispatch.

I have also released the ducks into the spare veg patch where my brassica leaves are more hole than leaf. This is in the part of the smallholding which used to be arable with the result that there is very little topsoil. The clay surface opens into wide cracks during the summer, a perfect daytime hideout for the slugs.
During my research of Spanish slugs I have come across an awful lot of poor advice on various forums, but one comment I read has reminded me of a technique which could possibly work. Apparently slugs are suckers for porridge oats, which then swell up inside them with disastrous consequences (for the slug).
I can buy sacks of porridge oats for just a few pounds and have some in stock, for the sheep love them soaked and mixed in with a few sugar beet pellets.  I would imagine the ground needs to be dry for this to work well and the oats to achieve maximum swell inside the slug, so now would be a perfect time to try.

Red Spider Mite
Third on the most unwanted list is Red Spider Mite. I nuked the polytunnel this winter but they have crept back in, though much later than in previous years. I am managing to keep them under control with weekly sprays of pyrethrum on to the most affected plants and sprays of rosemary oil mixed with eucalyptus oil and a little soap every other day in between. The trouble is you can never quite totally eradicate them.
While we were away they multiplied rapidly in the polytunnel, moving from the aubergines (always the first to be hit) onto the cucumbers (always the second). However, I have been working hard and they are back under control for the moment.



Well, that was a depressing post wasn't it. But we came back from our holiday refreshed and full of optimism. The disappointments have been shrugged off and we have been forging ahead with new projects. Hence the lack of posts recently. We really have been working very, very hard till late every evening.
More on these exciting new projects very soon.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

A Marrow Victory

That's mine, front centre, next to that very long courgette!

Under the umbrella of the Fenland Smallholders Club I run a Grow Your Own group. We meet up most months, taking turns to visit each others' smallholdings and all taking food along to share.

Each year we have a growing competition too and this year it had been decided we would have a go at marrows. This is not a vegetable I usually grow, instead tending to let my courgettes grow into false marrows before feeding them to the chickens - the Ixworth chicks have taken to making tunnels out of them.
I perused the seed catalogues over winter and opted for Long Green Marrow. I treated my seeds as if they were courgettes, but lost a couple of the plants along the way. In the end just two marrow plants survived and along with the courgettes I pretty much forgot about them until a couple of weeks ago when I happened to notice a rather fine specimen poking its head out from beneath the leaves.

Loading the marrow onto the car roof 😉

I turned up at the group today armed with my marrow and a tub of raspberry sorbet as the theme of the day was soft fruits. We always enjoy a bit of banter when it comes to the growing competition and last year it has to be said that I wapped everybody with my giant pumpkin, so I had a reputation to uphold.

Surely a courgette!
Steve's 'marrow' was already on display and it was certainly well endowed lengthwise, though a little lacking in the girth department. It also bore a striking resemblance to an oversized courgette! CONTROVERSIAL!
It then became clear that we hadn't actually decided the criteria by which the marrows were to be judged. We eventually went for weight and the weigh in was stressful with the first two coming in at just over 5kg. Mine was up next and I was overjoyed to hear that it came in at over 6kg. The rest of the marrows were clearly smaller, though a couple were very good lookers.

The prize? Gloating rights for the rest of the year.




The raspberry sorbet went down well too and was particularly well paired with a chocolate cake which somebody else had brought along.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Elvis to the rescue

For one reason or another much of our egg hatching this year has not gone entirely according to plan.
We tried to time it so that nothing complicated would happen while we were away on the Outer Hebrides last week, but the poultry had other ideas!
First there was the turkey hen who abandoned her eggs at the last moment only to sit on a clutch in the other house. Result: hatching due last Thursday, while we were away.
However, the turkey hen is still sitting. I coaxed her off the eggs yesterday. She is only sitting on five eggs and I would be very surprised if they hatch now. It was very late for her to sit, so the eggs may not have been fertile anyway. I'll give her a few more days sitting and then investigate the eggs if and when they don't hatch.

Then there was Elvis and her daughter Priscilla both going broody very late on in the season. With three successive clutches of Muscovy duck eggs failing under three different ducks, I grabbed the opportunity to put some eggs under the two hens. Their due date was this Sunday just gone, our first day back from holiday.

And guess what I found on Sunday morning.

Ducklings!
By Sunday evening all twelve eggs had successfully hatched. Goodness knows how they can hatch under a chicken but not under a duck?
Anyway this is good news, as the only other option for hatching Muscovy ducks would have been the incubator and this is reportedly tricky. Not only that, but there is the hassle of raising the ducklings. With a good broody hen, all this is taken care of.


Then on Monday morning Priscilla was off her eggs in search of food and water. I noticed that one of the eggs was cracked and there was movement inside. Fortunately she went back on the eggs and as I write this I have just moved hen and four healthy ducklings down to a new home in the chicken pen. No pictures yet as they are still getting used to their new home.

Now, as cute as they undeniably are, you must remember that this is a smallholding blog. In about six months time these ducklings will hopefully be big juicy Muscovy ducks, known in the restaurant trade as Barbary duck. 😋

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Uists and Barra - The Secret Is Out


I am no stranger to the Outer Hebrides, the chain of islands that guard north-west Scotland against the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean. For their geographical position makes them prime territory for emergency landfall by lost American migrant birds. This same geography makes for a stunningly beautiful chain of islands, their Atlantic western shoreline dotted with stunning beaches, their leeward east coast more mountainous, a patchwork of lochans, moorland and rocky inlets.

My visits to the Outer Hebrides have thus far been limited to mad dashes to see some very rare birds. A long overnight drive, usually to the small port of Uig on the Isle of Skye, but occasionally to Oban or Ullapool. A ferry across The Minch. A mad dash to see the bird.
The ferry timetable usually necessitates an overnight stay on these wonderful isles and then it's time for the return journey.

Even with such brief visits, any twitch to the Outer Hebrides is much looked forward to since they have become my favourite place to visit in Britain.

Sue and I used to travel abroad almost every holiday (one benefit of teaching as a career), but since our decision to start a smallholding opportunities for holidays together have been limited. Once in seven years to be exact and that was our honeymoon.
So when a friend offered to look after the farm for a few days we jumped at the chance to celebrate our third anniversary with a few days away and I decided to reveal the secret of the Outer Hebrides to Sue, who has only been once before when I dragged her away from a boxing day meal to go and see a Killdeer! The weather that day was awful and it wasn't the ideal introduction to the islands.

We booked up a B&B that accepted dogs. This would be a great experience for Boris and Arthur.

And so last week the day came. We packed everything into the car and embarked on an 18 hour journey to our temporary new home. The dogs coped admirably with by far their longest ever trip. A few breaks for walkies, a couple of power naps for me and 555 miles later we were at the ferry terminal. It was a gorgeous morning and the ferry crossing was like gliding across a mirror. We had the whole doggy area of the boat to ourselves and the Calmac full breakfast was as good as it always is. It is something of an institution.

And now for the pictures.  The scenery was stunning, the people friendly and the weather glorious. The dogs had an amazing time and were absolute stars everywhere we took them.
















We had an amazing week but it is nice to now be back on the smallholding, digging out two new ponds in the rain!
And I guess the secret of The Outer Hebrides is out now. Just don't tell anyone else or they'll all be going there.
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