Friday 31 August 2018

Halcyon Days

27th August 2018
Don't spend ages looking for a kingfisher 
- it's not there any more!
I out this dead willow branch by the wildlife pond 
with kingfisher in mind. It worked.
My second new bird species for the farm this year.
After our holiday house sitter saw one perched on a log at the back of our new pond I was green with envy,

Today was a day of harvesting in the veg patch. I had already seen a small group of house martins pass through, a very occasional sight on our farm, but as I was turning the compost heap late afternoon I heard a strange call, clear, loud and harsh. Whatever it was, the local finches and tits were not happy, buzzing and churring, generally scolding angrily. Then it hit me. Surely that was a kingfisher calling repeatedly. And another calling back!
I strained my eyes to catch a glimpse but it didn't take long, for there bang in the middle of the garden right in the open was perched a blue and orange jewel. It was perched right at the top of a dead twisty willow I had planted just for this purpose when I installed the small wildlife pond in the centre of the veg patch. I love it when a plan comes together.
The second bird was somewhere over towards the bean poles but I didn't get time to locate it before both birds took off and whizzed low across the garden, over the hedge and out of sight.


And that was that. The story of how I clocked my 110th bird species for the farm.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

The Rewards Flow In


What a great time of year it is!
Growing and rearing has slowed down considerably, the summer lull is over and now the activity picks right up again as we harvest and process all the wonderful produce from the smallholding. The dehydrator is on almost constantly, the freezers are bursting at the seams, the juicer is squeezing the life out of fruit and vegetables and the preserving pan is bubbling away.

Produce comes in thick and fast and is so varied. Here's just a few images to whet the appetite.










Saturday 25 August 2018

Compost designs


Steaming heaps
There are big changes afoot with my compost heaps. I have 6 made of pallets and three bays made of corrugated iron. But it is an effort turning the compost from one pallet to another and to be honest it doesn't get done anywhere near as much as it should, resulting in cold composting which takes years rather than hot composting which can take a little as a couple of months in the summer.

So gone are the dividers between the bays. This year's compost is now in one giant long heap, easily accessed and easily turned every time I pass or throw something on the heap.
If this new way is successful, most of the pallet compost heaps will go too. I'll just keep the best ones to store well-rotted compost in or for perennial weed roots or leaf mould.


Friday 24 August 2018

Going. Going. Gone!

Sunday 12th August 2018
Going Going Gone


Today saw us helping to organise an auction of smallholding goods. An ex member of the Smallholders Club is taking the envious step of moving to West coast Scotland, though they will no longer be smallholding. They kindly offered club members an exclusive auction.
There was all sorts, from a mini tractor to old tools, trailers to plant pots, pig arks to chicken fencing. Sue played auctioneer for the day and enjoyed the power of wielding the gavel.
I was quite restrained with my purchases, though I did come away with a few unexpected purchase, which I was able to transport in the trailer I bought! Not a perfect one, but good enough for collecting hay and straw from down the road. Best of all, it came full of horse manure which went straight onto the compost heap.



And in case you are wondering, Sue is currently arranging to have the boat transported into her school playground for the children to play on.
There was also a rather special outdoor table and bench, carved from a single oak log, which I had admired at this property since I first visited about five years ago. Needless to say, we are now trying to arrange to have that transported to our place too.
If the plan comes off I'll show you pictures.

Sunday 19 August 2018

Foraging for Fodder

When it was looking like it would never rain again, I started to think about how I could supplement the livestock's increasingly meagre supplies.
There are some things which I know they like. For instance, the sheep go mad for willow or indeed any part of any tree. And I know the hens enjoy a bit of Fat Hen - it doesn't get its name by accident.


Believe it or not, most animals like a bit of nettle too, but you have to cut it for them. The turkeys are the exception to this as they'll happily peck at the growing plants. It's such a shame that for their own safety I cannot let them wander. I have discovered that the turkeys are also hooked on two other things. Dock seeds, which I have oodles of, and squidgy tomatoes. So every day I snip a few dock stems for them. They are easy to find as their rusty brown seed spikes protrude above the vegetation.


It turns out that the sheep like dock too, but I have decided to reserve it for the turkeys. The sheep like Fat Hen too and there is plenty of it growing in my veg patch. So every day I pull some for them. I snip off the fibrous roots and return them to the soil. The fat hen is absolutely laden with seeds which must be a source of goodness for the sheep.

The Muscovies prefer a nice bit of comfrey, especially if it has flowers on. This is jam packed full of minerals and vitamins.


Back to the sheep and a nice bit of Jerusalem Artichoke stem. I cut the sunchokes back at this time of year and they give a good bulk of greenery. Usually it is reserved for the compost heap, but this year the sheep take precedence.

The geese have been let into the lower orchard, mainly to keep them away from the brown chickens' food for my laying girls have been given total free-range during the day.

Main job for the geese is to trim the long grass in there, though they are quite adept at getting to any low growing fruit too! No worries, there is plenty for everyone.















It is not just the turkeys who have a penchant for tomatoes. The Pekin ducks enjoy them too. The problem here is that my ducks live in the veg patch. They are doing a brilliant job at keeping down the slug population but I have drawn the line at swapping this service for tomatoes. The tomatoes are now protected by spare sheep hurdles and netting.

Thursday 16 August 2018

Halcyon Blues

More work on the pond
First job on our return was to crack on with the big pond. The overflow boggy area wasn't working as it obviously had a leak and the damp soil was perfect to be invaded by grass. Taking advantage of my renewed vigour and ignoring the heat I set about digging all the soil back out and relining it. It is now basically a second pond which I will plant up with marginal pond plants.



A Kingfisher Missed
All the while I was doing this I couldn't get out of my mind what Sue our farmsitter had told me that morning. Just the previous day a kingfisher had been sat on the log I placed at the back of the pond. We had a kingfisher in our London garden once and only once, but never have I seen one here. I have spotted them on the Main Drain, but only rarely and little did I think that one would visit my new pond.
Let's hope for a repeat performance.
Until then I am gutted that I wasn't here to see it.

Quack Quack! I'm a Duck, Not a Drake
One animal that won't be allowed anywhere near this pond is my ducks. Ducks have already ruined one wildlife pond. Anyway, most of these won't be around for much longer. They have continued to grow at a staggering rate. They are still only eight weeks old. The males are beginning to show their curly tail feathers - it might be in their interests to try to hide these!
But there is another easier way to differentiate males from females. Only the females quack! Again the males may do well to learn to quack PDQ!




A Whopper First Plum Harvest

Other news and the first plums are ready. I've lost the label and am wracking my brains to remember the variety. It may be Opal, which was originally a cross between a plum and a gage. This year they have remained green and not coloured up at all but they have ripened and sweetened nicely in this year's exaggerated sunshine.
Sue couldn't quite reach all the high up fruits, but she still gathered 17.5kg of fruit. That's a lot of plums! We have about half a dozen other plum trees which should come to fruition over the next month or so.





Wednesday 15 August 2018

Lammas Part Six and a Half - Pembrokeshire and Basket-making



Our cob course came to an end on Friday afternoon but we weren't quite finished with West Wales or Lammas yet.
I had planned to spend Saturday visiting the Centre for Alternative Technology, mostly out of nostalgia for my student days in the Green Society when we all piled into a van and headed west to volunteer at what was then a grassroots project in its infancy.
In the end I decided against visiting for fear that it would be an anti-climax. I am glad it has done so well, but when organisations go mainstream I usually bail out.



Instead we explored the Pembrokeshire coast. It was pretty but access was limited and hence each National Trust car park was full of cars. Instead we found a footpath leading down to the coast away from the crowds and had a relatively short walk in the sunshine.
The day was enjoyable but useful too as it helped us decide this would probably not be the best area to come back to with the dogs.
We even found an old wool mill to look around, but we resisted the temptation to spend.
On Sunday we returned to Cassie's place to learn how to make a frame basket. There were only four course participants. The weather was glorious, so much so that we had to move into the shade.
We had a lovely day making our baskets under Cassie's expert guidance.


Almost as importantly we came away with two very presentable and usable baskets.

This is something I definitely need to make the time to develop. It appeals to my love of natural materials and to my love of mathematical pattern. I should even be able to grow most of the basketry willow that I need.
Who knows, maybe some day I will become skilled enough to lead my own courses.

And that was that.
Into the car and ready for the long drive home.
We rolled back onto the farm just as it was getting dark. We were both looking forward to seeing the dogs again. Arthur was beside himself with joy at our return. Boris was happy to be meeting someone new. I'm sure he actually remembered who we were!
Getting to sleep that night was difficult. We had come back to the hot side of the country and even at 10 o'clock the temperature was way above 20 degrees. Beside that, my head was absolutely buzzing with ideas and plans.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

What we brought back from Lammas

Souvenirs
A wheelbarrow!
That's correct. We brought back a wheelbarrow. Not actually from Lammas, but from a supply shop in a nearby village. It was one we worked with while mixing the cob and I noted how strong it was and how deep it was. It also had the price on it and where it came from.
Last holiday we brought back a ditch spade as our souvenir. There seems to be a pattern developing.

A Wheelbarrow Full of Inspiration
But we brought a lot more back from Lammas. We brought back ideas and inspiration by the bucketload (or even the wheelbarrowfull)

We have to be realistic about our age and the nature of our smallholding. It is probably too late to start over again. I may have the energy now, but it has diminished even in the eight years since we moved out of London. I have to think about eight years time when I will reach the ripe old age of 60.

Our current jobs are good and rewarding. Giving up everything and starting again, though tempting, is probably just one step too far. If I were leaving university and had been exposed to all these ideas it may have been a different story.

Volunteers required
The most obvious thing we can take from Lammas is how they shared what they did with others, one benefit being that they got a lot of their work done for them too. We are not in the same position, but it is certainly possible that we could attract a couple of volunteers. Not only would this give us the opportunity to share what we do with others, which is my one big regret about the lack of community feel in our area however hard I try to get things going, but it would also enable us to undertake bigger projects and release us to learn and practice new skills.
I am particularly keen to develop my basketry skills  - if I can become good enough these could be skills I could share with other people at some stage. Sue is becoming more and more interested in woolcrafts too, especially felting.

Flirting with Permaculture
Secondly, we brought back inspiration. Inspiration to keep pushing forward with new projects and ideas. I am becoming more and more interested in permaculture. I don't necessarily agree with all its ideas about growing food, though I probably incorporate more of them than many others, but I am becoming more aware of permaculture in its wider sense, for it is about sustainability, about sharing and about people.
I have tried to incorporate a lot of this in the work I do for Fenland Smallholders Club, but we are linked purely by smallholding and not by our outlook on life.

Getting Started with New Plans
There are a couple of practical things I shall be looking into straight away. One is growing Elephant Grass. I have already fired off a few emails to try to track down a source of rhizomes. The other is to start a proper plantation of basketry willows. And the third (I know I said a couple) is to grow more willows for biomass. I have already adapted my composting system to make it easier to turn more frequently.
Of course, for the willows and the elephant grass I will be needing a proper chipper. I rarely purchase machinery and am most certainly not a consumerist smallholder (and believe me there are many), but sometimes the proper machinery is required to do things properly. At other times sheer determination, brute force and improvisation will do the job!

The Long-term
Bigger projects, which I may never get round to, include looking into generating our own electricity (unlike Lammas, we do  not have the advantage of a spring or a hydro system), looking into a borehole for water and, of course, building a round house and maybe even a cob greenhouse.

The bigger projects will depend on our success in attracting visitors and volunteers to Swallow Farm. I get the feeling that repeat visits to Lammas and other similar places will be sufficient to give me the knowledge and inspiration to keep moving forward.

So there you have it.
Big plans.

I got a lot more from this one week holiday than I could possibly have hoped for and more than I would from a whistle-stop tour of some foreign clime. I have done my fair share of that in the past and it has broadened my horizons and my appreciation for nature and other humans. But now I feel it is time for something more meaningful.
All these principles and beliefs which I have basically held and developed through my adult life are beginning to form into a workable plan.
The next eight years may just be even more exciting than the last eight.

Monday 13 August 2018

Lammas Part Five - Inspiration - The Lammas Earth Project and One Planet Development

I was a little confused about the Lammas EcoVillage before I visited. For on the web there seemed to be two websites, one for Lammas Eco-Village and one for Lammas Earth Centre. It was hard to work out how they linked.

I now know a lot more about the project though. It started about ten years ago. There had previously been a history of people and communities building low-impact houses on land in this part of Wales. These had inevitably come into conflict with the authorities, in particular rules on planning.

One of the people who spent all of his adult life in these alternative communities was Paul Wimbush(now known as Tao). It must be said that Paul's appearance is between that of Robin Hood and Jesus! But at the heart of it he is a true visionary. He lives in the smallholding along from Cassie and Nigel with his wife Hoppi and a coule of teenage children. We were treated to a whistlestop tour of their place by Tao and it was truly inspirational.
As far as I can work out, just over ten years ago Paul decided to start up a low impact eco community but determined to work within the rules of the planning authorities. I don't know quite how, but at some point Pembrokeshire Council adopted a scheme known as One Planet Development. This allows for people to build on a piece of land as long as the house is low impact and you go back to working the land.

'The aim is ambitious: in a small country where people on average use three times their fair share of the world's resources, Wales wants its One Planet people to use only the resources they are due. Which means a simpler smallholding life, spending and travelling less, growing and making more.'

An old sheep farm came up for sale, 70+ acres. The original idea was to divide it up into over fifty plots, but that ended up being nine, so about 7 acres each. Apparently the rules get a lot more complicated when such co-operative ventures go into double figures of participants.
And so the project started. One Planet Development has now been rolled out across Wales. It is not seen by the authorities as a model for wider society, but it does give permission for a niche to exist. If only Fenland Council would do the same! The chances of that are probably less than zero, but if I ever work up the enthusiasm maybe I will sound them out. I'm sure there was a time when it seemed as if Pembrokeshire Council would never entertain such a thought.

Anyway I said that Tao and Hoppi's place was truly inspiring, so I will leave you with some images and some more information about their plot.

A celebration of Tao's carpentry and design skills, this was built to house his milking cattle,
now sadly gone due to the complexities of selling raw milk.


From a distance Tao's newest project, the temple-like Earth Centre, rises imposingly above the smallholding.

A retreat space


A goose house to envy!
Being on a hillside means that water can run from pond to pond.
Incorporated into this is a grey water harvesting system which runs into an S-shaped reedbed.
As with my smallholding, Tao uses the animals as helpers. The geese are in charge of keeping the grass down in the orchard.

Elephant grass growing as a biomass crop for shredding into compost and as mulch.
You can never have enough biomass in a  productive garden, especially a permaculture one, 
capturing the sun's energy and putting into the soil. The polytunnel contained a small pond
and rocky landscaping to store the day's heat and to provide a home for friendly predators.
It was an ideal spot for a touch of warm relaxation and reflection.
Both these ideas will be coming to Swallow Farm in the near future!

Tipis act as a venue for events and doubtless go back to Paul's time in Tipi Valley.
There are many buildings and places for volunteers to stay. 
Tao had about half a dozen volunteers staying while we were there.
Our place may not be so famous or so idyllic, but volunteers do seem like a good idea 
and I think we still have a lot to offer at Swallow Farm. We have big ideas for the future.





Sunday 12 August 2018

Lammas Part Four - A Greenhouse Made of Mud

The cob greenhouses which Nigel and Cassie had constructed were both charming and functional. Of course they had glass in too, for solid mud does not make for a good greenhouse. But the glass frames were encased in cob and the back wall was entirely made of cordwood and cob. The overall effect was of a light, warm growing environment, but one where the natural properties of the cob regulated the environment, stopping it from overheating during the day and releasing its stored warmth during the night.
Inside there were grapes and peaches, tomatoes and peppers as well as medicinal plants, for Cassie is a herbalist too.
One had a h├╝gelkultur bed - a permaculture system where a growing bed is started off with logs, sticks and brushwood before being covered with layers variously of manure, rotting grass, straw and soil. It is supposed to provide long term fertility and a rich, living soil. It is an idea which I intend to try out in my veg plot.

Two sections of the greenhouse were already built. We were completing the structure. On the other end of the greenhouse was a cob room which had been given over to Cassie's daughter. What a wonderful space for a teenager.
I worked initially on the back wall which was not quite so straightforward as it seemed, having a bit of a lean and a bend going on. We were working on ladder staging with one person on each side of the wall.



Meanwhile others were working on the fill in between the window frames. This was the slow bit as there was not space for cordwood. The cob was sagging too, so we added straw to give it more structure. There was lots of banging in of nails too, known as spragging. These nails give the cob something to key into and hang on to.




Progress on the first day was slow. It was day four before we came back to the greenhouse with a determination to make faster progress. The A-team were on the job today! Progress around the window frames and over the top was faster. We were going through cob mix like nobody's business. There were occasional deviations for creative sculpture in the walls. There were troll-like faces, fertility symbols, a lizard and, of course, a cob-web.

















A cob greenhouse would be lovely back at Swallow Farm, but it is a huge project and one which I am not sure will ever happen. We'll see.
Maybe if the cob was mixed by animals and I had a team of volunteers to help out...

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