Wednesday 31 July 2013

Not So Ugly Ducklings

Twenty nine days ago Elvis was sitting tight on another hen's egg and was pecking me most voraciously. For she had gone broody again.

So I decided to save duck eggs for a couple of days. It took me three days to collect eight eggs, which I carefully placed underneath Elvis, who pretty much hadn't moved away from the nest box in several days.

She clucked most contentedly, like only a broody hen can, and settled down to sitting on the eggs.

Well, to cut straight to the chase because it's so exciting, this morning I opened the door to the highrise coop and could immediately hear the cheeping of baby birds. And there, looking incredibly cute, was a duckling! It wasn't there last night, but was already dry and fluffy.
The temptation was to try and see how many others there might be, but I just took a couple of piccies and let be.

My first duckling, no more than twelve hours old

Later in the morning I went back to check on Elvis and her duckling(s). As I approached the chicken pen I could hear a very loud cheeping coming from a very small bird. A duckling had made it all the way down the ramp. Now that's a big ramp when you're a very small duckling. I picked it up carefully in my giant hand and placed it back on the top floor with Elvis and her other chicks. I still didn't get to count them all, for Elvis was protecting her newly hatched young under her spread wings. I did manage to count at least four though.

Two new ducklings doing their very best penguin impressions
The last visit of the day and Elvis had moved off the nest. Two eggs were left intact and proved to be infertile. Next to them lay five empty shells. And one was missing. The decision was taken to move Elvis and her brood to a different coop, without the danger of the highrise ramp. I transferred first one, then a second, then another three ducklings. Sue picked up Elvis, who was protesting quite strongly. She then crawled in the coop to retrieve duckling number six, which had ran to the back out of reach.

I took a few more very cute pictures as they settled into their new home, then let be again.

I only wish that things were going so well with the adult ducks on the other side of the fence. But all is not peace and harmony at the moment. More later.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

A bit pea'd off

A family of tasty peas.
But it's not always peas and harmony inside the pods.
I always um and er over whether or not to grow peas.

Bulk standard peas are lovely raw, straight from the pod, and I like the idea of making pea pod soup. But they take up quite a bit of space and need frequent sowings as the harvest is quite short lived. They always seem to make the messiest bed too.
I would never bother to grow them for cooked peas. Birdseye do a great job of picking, podding and freezing within the hour. (Although goodness knows what chemicals are sprayed on them while they grow)

But therein lies the current problem, for my peas are afflicted by pea moth. They were last year too, but it seems worse this year.
Between June and August, peak time late June to mid-July, a small nondescript moth emerges from the soil, where it has spent the winter as a larva before pupating. The pesky thing then searches for the nearest pea plants (sweet peas included, though these grow terribly on my exposed land) and lays its eggs on the leaves. These hatch into tiny caterpillars which head straight for the young pea pods and drill their way in to gain access to your lovely peas.

A tiny caterpillar, maybe a millimetre long,
begins its youth of destruction
So, you enter your veg garden with the idea of  picking some gorgeous, fresh peas and it's a lottery. If you pick the wrong ticket you open up the pod to find peas surrounded with a strange brown substance. This is caterpillar poo! The posh word is frass.

Oh frass!
Look a little harder and you'll find the caterpillars crawling around inside the pod or more likely burrowing into a pea.
Extra protein crawling around inside the pod.
Now, this is not great. It means you have to inspect each pea as you shell them, unless you relish the idea of a mouthful of caterpillar s**t and caterpillar! But it gets worse.
For my favourite peas are the Sugar Snaps. You know, the peas which grow fat and sweet and juicy, the ones you pick straight from the plant and pop in your mouth, pod and all, and crunch. For these get pea moth caterpillars in them too, the prospect of which rather destroys the whole experience.

The one saving grace for the pea family is that mangetout does not seem to be affected, though I'm not convinced that if you let them swell up there wouldn't be a little critter burrowing away inside.

Is this tiny hole where the caterpillar
went in or came out?
Or is it something else?

To finish the story of the Pea Moth, when it's finished spoiling your crop, the caterpillar drills back out of the pod and drops to the ground to spend the winter in the soil, ready to repeat the whole process next year.

Without the use of chemicals, an understanding of this life cycle is important to trying to control the pest. Crop rotation is said to help, but I do that. I'm sure the emerging flying moths are capable of flying to the next veg bed without too much difficulty.
Another strategy is to cover the peas with fleece as soon as the flowers start to form. Peas are self-fertile so it won't matter that insects can't reach the flowers. You'll still get peas.
But I really don't like veg beds covered in fleece. Besides, the winds here usually make short work of my attempts at protecting crops.

I think that for me the best line of attack will be to rotavate the soil in winter and let the chickens and ducks at it. That's if it's not too waterlogged, too dry or too frozen.

Of course, the other way to manage this problem is not to grow peas for a couple of years and so completely break the life cycle. That's a strong possibility.

Or maybe I could get away with just growing mangetout.

The last possibility, if you're reading this thinking that you really can't do without growing peas, is to sow quick growing cultivars either early in the season (March time) or late (August) to avoid the flight period of the moths.

So, come next spring I'll have decisions to make. I suspect I'll decide to just grow mangetout for a couple of years. I'll turn the soil a few times in the winter so the chickens can get at the grubs too.

And in three years time I'll be looking forward to my next crop of Sugar Snap peas.

Monday 29 July 2013

A Veg Plot Full Of Flowers


I like my veg plot to look good as well as being functional.
It should be a place to enjoy, both for me, others and the wildlife (though I seem to spend most of my time trying to ward off various forms of wildlife!)

So this year I decided to allocate some beds just to flowers. These have not been overly successful, mostly overcome with weeds before the flowers could show themselves. But I've gradually weeded out the unwanted.
Besides this, I've always encouraged French Marigolds / Pot Marigolds (calendulas) to grow in amongst the vegetables. They make excellent companion plants, warding off all sorts of nasties. So many self-seeded this year that I actually had to transplant some and weed others out to allow enough light and space to the vegetables.
I've planted plenty of African Marigolds (tagetes) too. These are an even better deterrent. I think they may even be keeping the rabbits away from nibbling some of my beds.

When I think about it though, it doesn't really make that much sense. I plant some flowers to keep insects off and others to attract them. Some flowers to attract beneficial insects such as ladybirds, bees and hoverflies. Others to ward off carrot flies, flea beetles, greenfly and blackfly.
Nasturtiums are supposed to
attract blackfly away from the veg crops.

More nasturtiums


I think I'd have to be very lucky for the flowers I've planted to achieve the right results, but they certainly brighten the place up.

Broad Bean Bumper Crop

Broad beans as they stood
before the storms
The couple of storms we've had of late (most welcome they were too) half flattened the broad beans, so I decided that today we would harvest them all.
I have grown two varieties this year. Neither of them did I attempt to overwinter, for we have got down to 16 below during each of the last two winters. Not only that, but the ground at the end of last year was completely waterlogged. But come spring, broad beans are always one of the first crops in the ground.

Sue busy podding beans

The Aquadulces I bought for 10p a packet late last year from QD. They have grown well, though not so tall or so prolific as the Bunyard's Exhibition, a variety which came in a multipack of beans from a pound shop!

Tall isn't necessarily a good thing though, especially in such an exposed location as out here on The Fens, but I have always found that shorter plants give shorter pods too.

Some of the Aquadulces had strange black marks on the outside of the pods and some had gone even further, completely black at one end and split open. The culprit seemed to be small caterpillars which had got inside. This has left me befuddled as I can find no reference to this on the interweb. I've had problems with Pea Moth caterpillars in my peas, but I don't think these are supposed to attack Broad Beans.
What's more, it only seems to be the Aquadulces which are affected.

So all the more reason to harvest them all before the crop took heavier losses.
Any which were infested I fed to the chickens, who turned their noses up at them. I seem to remember the chooks not being keen on broad beans last year. So I tried the pigs, with the same result unless I podded the beans for them. Clearly they were not keen on eating the furry pods. Not surprising until you consider that even banana skins are considered a delicacy by Daisy and her daughters.

At least the compost heap would appreciate all the greenery. I was careful to leave the roots in the ground though. The small nodules which fix the nitrogen in leguminous plants were clearly visible and will be dug in to nourish the soil for the brassicas which will follow on in the rotation next year.

Once we had two baskets overflowing with beans, I decided to leave a few plants standing (and staked) so that I could collect the seed for next year, as long as the caterpillars don't get to them all. After all, I may be not be lucky enough to get them for 10p again.

some of today's other harvest
French beans, Yardlong beans, turnips and beetroots 

I left the Bunyard's Exhibition for another day, as these plants, despite their extra height, had withstood the battering from the storms and were looking much healthier.

I'll have to perform a proper taste test. If, as I suspect, there's not much discernible difference, then at least on this year's performance it'll be the Bunyard's seeds I'll be saving and not the Aquadulces. Of course, there's a strong possibility that they will have cross-pollinated as they were grown in the same bed, so I could well end up growing Bunyardulces anyway!

And finally, Sue has insisted that I point out that she does not always dress so skankily as in the photo above. It's just that she's been doing lots of this...

and this...

Sunday 28 July 2013

Harvest is upon us

OK, we've already had the rhubarb and the asparagus. And most welcome they were too.

But for the last couple of weeks harvest has been well under way. In fact, some crops have come and gone already and the freezers are starting to groan.

It all started with the soft fruits. Punnet upon punnet of strawberries, enough to share a few with the guineafowl. It's been a good year for them.
Strawberries in preparation for freezing.
They lose their texture when frozen, but still make excellent jams and sauces.

The gooseberries weren't far behind. The Red Hinnomakis were the first to ripen and the most prolific. This variety is incredibly sweet. Close your eyes and you could be eating a grape.

Meanwhile some of the veg were responding to the warm weather. Turnips swelled nicely, both outside and in the polytunnel. The courgette plant in the polytunnel - I never meant to grow one in there, the labels must have got mixed up - started throwing out its offerings, closely followed by one of the more advanced plants outside. A night of heavy rain magically transformed skinny green fingers into fat, foot long giants.
Elsewhere in the polytunnel, hidden amongst the jungle of leaves, I came upon a wealth of French beans. I am growing the climbing variety Cobra in there and it is yielding a huge quantity of beans. Unlike some others which I've grown previously, Cobra's beans don't seem to get tough and stringy if you miss them by a couple of days.
The Borlottis and Pea Beans are producing pods too, but these will be saved for the beans rather than eating the pods.
And the potatoes have finally swelled. We've made a small dent in the Earlies, Arran Pilot and Red Duke of York, as well as starting on the Charlottes.  
I pick a little from each crop and suddenly
we have enough to more than fill our plates

Peas are ready too now. I have grown Sugar Snaps, Mangetout and normal peas. Unfortunately I seem to have a problem with the Pea Moth in my garden, which means that each pea in each pod has to be checked for the tiny caterpillars which burrow into individual peas. A complete pain, and it means that the Sugar Snaps, whose pods I would usually eat whole and raw, have become a bit useless. Still, the Mangetout are still OK as long as I catch them before the peas swell.

You can't get this freshness and crispness in the shops.

The broad beans have done exceptionally well this year. I wasn't intending on freezing any, but we've hardly even made a dent in the harvest and I don't want the beans inside to get too big and leathery.


But I've saved the best till last. For on the way to the chickens I get to pluck fresh raspberries every day. The varieties have got a bit mixed up now, but the tastiest are definitely the smallest ones, the most difficult to pick and definitely not the ones you would ever find in a shop. Imagine a ruby with exquisite taste. No. Imagine hundreds of rubies, then more and more every day, for the raspberries have been very fruitful this year.

Not every crop has fared so well this year. It's been a very poor year for dwarf beans and, as I've mentioned, the Sugar Snaps will be going to the chickens. But it looks as if we'll have plenty enough to keep us extravagantly supplied in delicious fresh food. And when that runs out there'll be a freezer full of produce and a pantry full of jams and preserves. If my planning goes right, there should still be some more hardy veg coming through the winter and there'll be a store of root crops in the ground or packed in boxes in a cool, dark place. Oh, and there'll be mountains of pumpkins too.

The greatest delight about all this is that we've put all our efforts into it and now we are reaping the rewards. And what a reward! For what you can buy in the shops just falls flat on its face, both for choice and most especially for freshness. The crunch of a carrot pulled straight from the ground, the juiciness of a strawberry ripened by the sun while still on the plant, the bite of a gooseberry teased from the prickly branch, the freshness of a peapod plucked straight from the plant, the earthiness of a potato fresh from the soil.  

All these things make our harvest special.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Turning Piglets into Pork

There have been comings and goings at the farm in recent days. Most obvious goings were the two piglets at the weekend. It still seems strange when we go to feed them and only two pigs emerge from their hut for food.
But today the two piglets came back, just not quite as they went away!

I was impressed by their eventual weights. I usually send the pigs off at just over 50 kg, but leaving them that bit longer gave us some much more chunky chops. By my crude reckoning, the extra feed costs were more than compensated for in the extra meat.

The extra growth gave us some lovely, traditional style chunky chops too and we also had the leg cut into steaks. The leg joints are always the leanest, but our customers know their pork and know that this makes the meat slightly drier too. When I discussed this with my butcher, he suggested steaks and very nice they look too.
Mind you, with the piglets weighing in at 68 and 63 kg it's no wonder I couldn't get them off the trailer!

It was interesting to chat to the butcher for a while too. The sisters of these two piglets, which I sold to a new smallholder just around the corner, grew much quicker than ours. So much so that, when their owner came and asked me if it was time to go off, he was obviously surprised at the size difference. It made me doubt our pig-rearing too. Could it be that I was not growing our pigs fast enough? Although I take pride in the amount of space they've got and in producing slow-grown pork, could it be that I've been keeping them too long and spending out far more than I need  on food?

I wrote a post on how much to feed a pig some time ago. I didn't give any numbers, just advice to keep an eye on the piglets' condition and not be lured by their persistent squealing for more food. Could it be that I got it wrong?

Of course not! For my butcher informed me that those two piglets which had grown so quickly were insulated by a very thick layer of fat. Some fat is good, maybe up to a couple of cm, but any more than that and you have just been turning expensive food into a layer of blubber.

So, if any of you want any perfectly reared pork, the likes of which you'll never have tasted before (unless you're old enough to remember what good old traditional pork is supposed to taste like), just take a look at the Pork and Sausages tab on this blog and pop in to see us on the farm. 

New Arrivals

There have been some cute arrivals on the farm recently.

The first goes by the name of Angel. She is a ten year old black and white cat, very small and very friendly. We always said we would have to think long and hard about taking in another cat, what with the heartache of losing two on the road. But Angel's owner is off on a big adventure and Angel has no home. Even the rescue centres wouldn't take a ten year old, so it was come to us or go to the vets.

Now Angel was very friendly when she first moved in,  but she has not taken a liking to Gerry. He is absolutely desperate to play with her and has been very patient and restrained so far. He has spent over a week gradually getting closer and closer to her, only to be met with growling, hissing and the occasional side-swipe of the paw.
Not only that, but Angel has turned into a bit of a feminist, deciding after a few days that she's not going to trust me either!
Ah well. Old cats are not known for their adaptability so we will just give her the best home we can and as much time as she needs to get used to it.

And if she's scared of Gerry and me (both as soft as anything), goodness knows what she'll make of the other new arrivals when she finally gets to meet them.
More unwanted waifs.

Our favourite animals are the ducks, and we now have seven wandering around clearing up the slugs in the veg patch. For yesterday we collected three white girls from a fellow smallholder who no longer wanted them.

First steps into the new home.

First contact with the Cayugas

Our drake Cayuga was very quick to hear the soft quacking of three new girls and wasted no time introducing himself. His current three girlfriends looked on in bemusement as he ditched them and spent the rest of the afternoon courting the new girls. When I say courting, there wasn't much gentlemanly behaviour going on! He (we really must give him a name) was most insistent and most persistent.

The grass is always greener!

In hot pursuit

No comment.

Thursday 25 July 2013

To Islay and back for a Friggin' Frigatebird!

Ascension frigatebird (picture courtesy of Jim Sim)
It's not every day one of these turns up.

I've only been to Islay once before, and that was in the depths of midwinter to see the thousands of geese which flock to the island at that time of year.
But a couple of weekends ago news of an absolute MONSTER RARE had me racing Northwards for the third time in a week. Having twitched the Needletail on Harris the previous weekend and the Bridled Tern on the Farne Islands during the week, here I was again heading up the A1 aiming to catch a ferry to some far flung island early the next morning.

A somewhat indecisive and calamitous start meant that I had 5 minutes to pack and get going. I was to meet a team who were heading up the M6. Usually I would head across to Stoke, but this was not on the cards as I'd have to break the land speed record to meet the others there. Instead, an ambitious plan was hatched to meet at Carlisle. With a ferry to make in the morning from a remote stretch of shore in Argyll, the others were not hanging around and I had to make up quite a bit of time on them.
So I leapt out of gentle farm pace and into twitcher mode. To cut a long story short, and so as not to incriminate myself, I arrived at a car park in Carlisle just 5 minutes after the others. I hastily transferred cars and we headed through the night.
In the end we made it to the ferry terminal with plenty of time to spare and were delighted to be informed that there would, contrary to earlier indications, be room for our car as well as us. Several other carloads of optimistic fools were in the line too. I reckoned our chances of actually seeing the bird were low, but not as low as those who stayed at home for the weekend.

I'll cut the suspense right now and tell you that we never did set eyes on the Frigatebird. You can probably tell that from the title of this post. Having come all the way from Ascension Island (which lies roughly midway between the horn of South America and Africa) it had landed up here, sat on the harbour wall in a tiny town called Bowmore on the island of Islay. But it wasn't there when we got there. We didn't really expect it to be. After all, we knew it had flown off, harassed by the local gulls, some 24 hours earlier. However, birds are creatures of habit and there was just the tiniest hope that it might decide to return to this remote village. Or even that it might be soaring over the island. Frigatebirds are difficult birds to miss, absolutely huge, prehistoric creatures.

The very pier where the Ascension Frigatebird chose to alight.
The first time one of these birds has been seen in Britain for 60 years!

Optimistic twitchers scan the horizon for a miracle.
However, it was worth a go. And we had a most enjoyable weekend on Islay. I enjoyed my best ever views of Corncrake and a great view of a perched Golden Eagle. The scenery was stunning, the people were friendly and, at the end of the day, we came back from our mini adventure better off than when we left. Much as I love my life on the Fens, there is something very enriching about spending time on an island such as Islay.
It's not just about seeing the bird.
Twitching takes me to some fantastic corners of the country.
I wonder what my next twitching adventure will be. Hopefully there'll be a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater involved.

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