Monday 21 January 2019

Super Blood Wolf Moon Hug Day!

It's International Hug Day and the rest of the family are really getting into it!

It's also the start of Energy Saving Week, though I think the impending headlong dive into catastrophic climate change maybe demands slightly more than an awareness week!

Onto smallholding matters and Saturday saw the Beginners Grow Your Own group round for our third meeting. This is something I run for members of Fenland Smallholders Club.
The chickens enjoy pecking at broken ice,
even though it's not really the weather for lollies!
A chilly but still morning saw us outside clearing the asparagus patch and making a start on cutting back last year's summer-fruiting raspberry stems. The aim is that I get a little help and that, by actually doing the tasks, the group learn practically.

Asparagus patch
Before and after a long overdue clearance

This was followed by a short introduction to fruit tree pruning.

Once we were wrapped up and working the weather wasn't actually too bad but it was nice to come into the warm where we looked at all the gubbins needed to raise your own veg plants from seed.

From next month it all starts to get a lot more real as seed sowing begins in earnest.

Sunday had me engaged in Smallholders Club business again as I had my first ever AGM to run as Chair. I hate having to do this sort of thing and really can't stand the formality.
Anyway, I got through it and we followed the formalities with a talk by one of our members on shooting for smallholders.

I doubt I will be getting a gun, but it really was very interesting. I felt a lot less nervous once the guns went away!

Back from the club meeting, there was time to clear out the duck stable before heading out for a walk with the dogs under a spectacular full moon.
This was a Super Blood Wolf Moon. There seems to have been a recent proliferation in descriptive moon names! At least it encourages a bit of awe and wonder at the world we live in and, to be fair, there was to be an eclipse much later on in the night.

Thursday 17 January 2019

Growing Plans - The Wheel Goes No-Dig

I am more excited about the coming growing season than I have been for a long while.

I am going back to a system of smaller veg beds. I originally had the veg plot divided into 68 beds separated by grass paths. But those paths were a complete pain to mow, offering miles of edges for slugs to hide underneath.
So gradually I joined the smaller beds together until I was down to 28. The advantage of this was a lot less grass edge, simpler mowing and bigger beds which were easier to rotavate. The disadvantage was having to walk on beds to get to plants and it being more difficult to organise crops within the beds.

So this winter I am biting the bullet and going back to many small veg beds, but I am doing it differently. There won't be grass paths between the smaller beds. Instead each of the larger beds will be divided up into free-standing beds with permanent sunken pathways in between.

This means that using the rotavator will be difficult. Manoeuvring it in such small beds is difficult and it will kick the soil all over the paths.
Instead I am going for no dig.

The plan taking shape on the ground

I have been highly sceptical about no-dig in the past, seeing it as a fad which generally requires more mulch than a garden can possibly produce which in turn encourages slugs and usually seems to demand raised beds using forests of wood as edging (given that we don't have access to natural materials like rocks).
There are alternatives to raised beds, such as lasagna beds, but even the name puts me off! These rely on layers of mulch and compost which can go straight down even onto turf. As long as the layers are thick enough this will create an instant fertile bed.
There are also systems which rely on black plastic to cover the ground, but this just feels completely wrong to me.

Then I came across Charles Dowding's method of no dig where he uses compost as a mulch. The advantage of this is that it is not so attractive to slugs as all the rotting material is not sitting on the veg beds. In theory the compost mulch keeps weeding to a minimum too, though I suspect that a fair bit of weeding will still be required.
Of course, we are back to the original problem of how on earth to produce enough compost. Charles Dowding appears to bring in large quantities of soil improver made from green waste. This often comes with plenty of plastic fragments in, as well as needing to be purchased and brought in. He also seems to have a close relative with plenty of cows and benefits from bulk deliveries of manure.

So I set to thinking how I could realistically and sustainably mulch my beds.
The solution I have come to combines a host of methods.

Firstly I will collect from all over the smallholding for the compost heaps. I am hoping to grow Miscanthus elephant grass and to chip short rotation coppice willow to give bulky material to add. I already grow plenty of comfrey but again will make sure that I harvest this on a regular basis.

My compost heaps, the key to my new system.

But this still won't be enough, even with the addition of plenty of bedding from the poultry.

I am using cardboard to exclude light and protect the soil surface too. Everybody who visits has to bring all their boxes with them!

Beds protected for the winter, light excluded so that emerging weeds expend all their energy then die off.
Here I have put nitrogen rich poultry bedding under the cardboard. 
I will let the ducks (aka slug hoovers) in before planting.

I am also planning on using green manures. However, most of these need digging in which goes against the whole philosophy of no dig. So I am being selective. Field beans seem like a good option as they are hardy so will give protection to the soil over winter, but in the spring the tops can be chopped off and moved to the compost bins while the roots will be left in the soil to add structure and nutrients. Unfortunately I made all these decisions a little too late to sow field beans so I am growing them in modules in the polytunnel so they can hopefully be planted out soon.
I also have a plan to trial sowing oats in early autumn next year where crops have been harvested. I don't see a reason why I can't use the whole oats which I buy as part of my fermented poultry mix. I know it germinates.
Oats are not frost hardy, so should die down with the first heavy frosts. They will then protect the soil over winter before being raked off and moved to the compost bin in spring if they've not already rotted down.

The first bed to go into active service. 
Two rows of garlic cloves and I will sow parsnips down the middle when the time is right.

I do anticipate a potential increase in the slug population, which is one of the major problems of no dig in our climate. But I am hoping to make good use of the ducks to control this, letting them into areas at critical times to clear the ground before tender crops go in.

It is going to be a time of trying out new ideas and it will be more work to begin with getting it set up, but I have high hopes for my new growing system.
The disadvantage, if you see it that way, is that it looks more 'rustic'. Usually at this point in the year I would have beautifully rotavated beds and the overall design of the veg plot, which I call The Wheel, would be clear for all to see.

So why go no dig at this point?
Firstly it is about going back to smaller beds again, where Mr Rotavator becomes a little clumsy. The appeal of a lot less weeding is a draw too, though I think this may be overstated as part of the sell.
The main reason is gut instinct. After eight years of cultivation my soil is lovely to work and grow in now, but it doesn't feel like it has much life in it. When I leave a bed uncultivated for a while it becomes full of worms and it is beautifully crumbly, even at the end of winter when the bare soil has been beaten down by the elements.
The theory of no dig is to protect the surface of the soil and to keep the life within it undisturbed. Not just worms but less tangible elements, particularly mycorrhizal fungi which form a linked network through huge areas of soil and interact symbiotically with plant roots.
I will have to take peoples' word for this, but I am prepared to give it a go and see what happens.
Of course, mulching is not exclusively for no-dig systems, but it will go right up the list of priorities. The idea is that the time working and shifting compost is made up for by spending less time weeding and digging. I am hoping too that mulching more effectively will help crops get through dry periods and make for better conditions for vegetables which don't like the soil to dry out.

As I say, gut feeling says this is right for my plot right now.

I will keep you updated through the year.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

A bit of practical sheep-keeping

Before I get onto sheepy things, I did say I would make more effort ot be aware of Awareness Weeks. This week is National Obesity Awareness week.
There are so many reasons for the rise of this issue. Processed food. Inactive lifestyles. Processed food. Inactive lifestyles. Processed food...
I know that some people have genuine food issues and that is a separate matter.

But most of our (well, not mine) food is manufactured by huge companies who will add anything from sugars and fats to misleading descriptions and marketing, all to make us crave more so they can make more profits. And most of it produced as cheaply as possible with some shocking practices going on, at enormous cost to our Earth and its fauna and flora.

Sermon over.
There is one answer. Grow you own! The food s infinitely better and kinder to the environment and you get free exercise. Win. Win.

Onto the main subject. Sheep. Growing your own sheep is fraught with complications. In general sheep are determined to get ill, keel over and die.
But don't let me put you off. Go for a native breed and they will mostly look after themselves.

I don't do 100% organic with our sheep, only in that I do occasionally worm them with proprietary products and I do spray them for flystrike in the spring. Not to do so would be irresponsible.
I keep these things to a minimum. In the past people used to routinely worm their sheep whether or not there was an issue. Unsurprisingly the worms have become resistant to some of the chemicals.
I don't rely on garlic or homeopathy or anything like that - these are possibly of slight benefit, but not enough to cover the problem properly.
Instead good grazing management is my main weapon. The sheep move pasture on a regular basis and the ground they have been on is given as long as possible to rest. This helps break the life cycle of the worm species.
I plan to move some chickens into the sheep fields too with a mobile chicken coop. Their scratching and pecking will help expose the worm eggs to the elements.

I tend to worm when there are possible indicators of a problem. The main sign is runny poo - known as scours. I am pleased to say that my sheep have very good poo! They can get runny poo from a change of diet too, such as suddenly going on to very lush grass, so it is not always a sig of worms.

At this time of year some of the sheep develop coughs too, which can be a sign of worms. The coughs usually disappear of their own accord, but if it seems to be persistent then I generally take the opportunity to worm the whole flock.
This is just a matter of pouring a small syringe of fluid down their throats. I hold them up while Sue administers.
First task is to get the sheep penned into a small space.
Today was the turn of the five ram lambs who are down the bottom of the land where there is no convenient way to pen them.
So I set up some sheep hurdles, sprinkled some sheep nuts (pelleted food) on the ground inside and waited for them to walk in. It didn't take long. Fortunately the ram lambs are not so wary as their mothers. This is helped by the fact that Rambutan and Flash were bottle fed as babies.

This gives a good opportunity to check their condition too, though I am pretty sure from their running and bouncing and frolicking around the field that there are no major issues.
Flash is all skin and bone, but he has always been the runt and has never put on good growth since he nearly died twice as a young lamb.

Tomorrow we shall repeat this operation with the adults. I hope they behave!

Sunday 13 January 2019

The first green shoots of 2019

On the third Saturday of each month I now run a course on growing your own for people with high aims but little experience. I run it for members of Fenland Smallholders Club.
Last month I showed them how to plant garlic cloves - one didn't even realise that a clove of garlic would grow into a bulb, so there will be lots of magical revelations through the year.
I planted the cloves into  undug ground covered with a good layer of compost, according to my new no-dig regime. I then netted them before the ducks could snozzle them up again.

The group are over here next in a week's time so today I thought I had better check on the progress of the garlic. I am very pleased to report that it has taken well and is growing fast. Garlic is remarkably hardy and actually needs a period of cold to ensure that the clove splits to make a bulb.

Meanwhile in the polytunnel I am waiting for the mangetout Oregon Sugar Pod to get going. Germination has been slower so I decided to cover the seed modules with fleece to help things along. Mangetout should be my first crop of the year.

Mangetout just poking its head above the surface.

Saturday 12 January 2019

A harvest of lemongrass and a family of deer

Wednesday 9th January 2019

I finally got round to harvesting some lemongrass today.
One of the more unusual crops I have grown and this year was very much an experiment.
You can buy stalks from the shop and root them in water to grow on, but this year I sowed seeds instead, not expecting too much. But by the autumn I had seven very sizeable clumps of lemongrass several feet tall.
I am not quite sure what to do about winter though. The lemongrass is in the polytunnel. Three plants are in the soil and four in pots. I know that lemongrass is not frost hardy and the pots which were nearest the doors have begun to die back.

I am not sure if this is just an annual die back and if new shoots will come back in the spring.
So somewhat belatedly I cut a big handful of stalks today while they were still healthy and green.
This will be plenty of lemongrass to last through the winter and spring. If the existing plants don't come back, I have plenty of seedl eft over to raise some more plants. If that does happen, I'll bring one or two pots inside next winter.

In the afternoon I took the dogs on a very long walk. There is a sizeable field of rough ground which has not had a crop for a few years. It is possible that it cannot be ploughed for archaeological reasons, for the whole area used to be a fleet and a centre of Roman saltworks. It may just be that the farmer is using it for game cover for the many local shooters to come along and blast a few freshly released gamebirds.
Whatever the reason, this are holds quite a large flock of linnets, a sadly unusual sight in the countryside these days. I extended the usual route to skirt round this field and to take in a new stretch of river. As well as the linnets there were buntings and several snipe. If only more land were like this rather than the intensively exploited surrounding farmland.

Until recently this owl box was nestled in a clump of bushes. Unfortunately this was far too messy for the farmer's liking and probably competed with a fraction of a percentage of his field. The owls seem to have abandoned the box now and they have sadly become quite a rare sight on late afternoon walks.

Bird of the day was, however, not a bird but the family of roe deer which appear irregularly in the fields around the farm. Last week we watched them swim across a river. They have been in the area since we moved in and numbers have fluctuate between four and seven.
Anyway, I think I have found where they live most of the time, for as a reached the edge of the rough land there they were. They looked up but allowed remarkable close approach, close enough for me to get some sort of photo with my phone before they went leaping off across the fields.

Friday 11 January 2019

A bit of basketry and pyrography

I don't like to waste the long dark evenings so I have been turning my hand to a couple of new skills.
Pyrography Signs
The pyrography signs for the veg plot are coming along nicely. Getting them all done will be a long term project.
I am in no way artistic. The process for making these is slow and methodical.
First I produce the signs on a computer (pictures are from image searches, narrowed down to line art) and print them out.
Next I trace them onto the wood using graphite paper.
Finally I burn in the letters and pictures with a pyrography pen. This is a slow process, somewhat reminiscent of trying to colour in a picture using a felt tip pen which has all but run out of ink.
The final step is to give the signs some protection for outside. For this I am using three coats of Danish oil.
Signs for the veg plot ready for cutting and treating.
In front, 3 willow fat feeders. These are very simple to make. 
All I need to do now is mix some seed with some fat and hang up the feeders.

Basketry bird feeders
When I'm not making my signs, I have started to make bird feeders out of willow. These are straight from a book I purchased. These projects are giving me an excellent opportunity to develop my skills in willow weaving. They use the same skills as are required for making larger baskets, but they are a little more intricate. I am using purchased buff willow for these projects. This is willow which has been boiled and then stripped of its bark. The boiling process releases tannins from the bark which stains the willow rods.
So far I have made fat feeders, a cone shaped seed feeder and a barrel feeder. I hope the birds appreciate my efforts.

I am very pleased with this barrel feeder
I have filled this cone feeder with 
meal worms and mixed seed.
Finally I'd like to show you a picture of my poultry pen. It may help you imagine the smallholding as you read about it. This is where my 'sentimental flock' live. They are the ones which, financially speaking,  I shouldn't really keep any longer. Between them they have not laid an egg for several months now.

But in their day they were very productive. Among them lives Elvis, the oldest bird who has served many years hatching out chicks for us and has been here longer than we have. All the rest were born here on the smallholding. They don't cost much to keep and they still scratch around in the orchard performing my pest control for me.
In amongst the chickens live the final two guinea fowl from my waning flock alongside my breeding trio of Muscovy ducks who produce a few birds each year which we take for the table.

Sunday 6 January 2019

A Loveliness of Ladybirds

Saturday 5th January 2019
A while ago I wrote that I try to notice something nature-related, however small, every day on the smallholding. But today it was Sue with the sharp eyes.
She noticed this conglomeration of ladybirds huddled together in the crook of a sheep hurdle.
Rather delightfully, the collective noun for a group of ladybirds is a loveliness. How lovely!
I feel a bit guilty as they may well have been displaced by my path clearing yesterday. But I can't leave everything untouched all year and at least if I do disturb them there are plenty of alternative places for insects to hide away for the winter.
These ladybirds are most welcome on the smallholding as it is their larvae which will be munching away on aphids next summer. A Seven-spot ladybird can eat about 5000 aphids in its life.

My day was spent at the bottom of the land knocking in a line of fence posts. I drive them in by hand using a very heavy and chunky metal tool known for some obscure reason as a post basher. It is hard work, so in between posts I removed some of the tree guards from the saplings. They should be old enough to withstand any nibbling now and I think they are better off with air flowing around their trunks.

The day flew by and before I knew it Sue and I were heading south deep into The Fens where we were due our annual meal out with the Grow Your Own group. Amazingly I founded this group five years ago and it is still going strong with many of its original members. A lovely evening was had by all. It is funny going out with fellow smallholders. Nobody orders chicken, duck, turkey or lamb as we have freezers full of the stuff. Instead the game pie was very popular, as was the fisherman's pie.
We did a gardening version of Secret Santa too. The presents were awarded at random and I got The Grumpy Gardener's Book. For some reason everybody thought this most appropriate.

Sunday 6th January 2019
I did unphotogenic jobs today. Drilling holes in wood in preparation for making some willow bird feeders. I put willow rods in soak too. They will just need a day to mellow and I can start making the feeders tomorrow night.
After this I started on the decking by the back pond. I broke the back of it and another day's work should have it almost finished. Pictures when it's done.

While I was busy with these tasks, Sue was cleaning out the chickens and then surprised me by clearing all the dead vegetation from the small wildlife pond in the middle of the veg patch. She uncovered some very nice fungi and a delicate mouse's nest.

After dark saw Sue preparing two dozen pheasants which we were kindly given by a friend. It's better than them going to waste and we do appreciate getting them.

ed. How could I forget? Our first duck egg from the new ducks. It's been well overdue and I was beginning to wonder what was going on. It may have something to do with the fact that we had a (very) late start today so the ducks were shut in their stable for longer than usual. But ducks normally lay early in the morning  so I would be surprised if they have been laying outside unbeknown to us.

Saturday 5 January 2019

A New Path

4th January 2019 - World Braille Day (chosen to coincide with the birthday of Louis Braille, inventor of the braille system)

Just a couple of hours to work on the smallholding today.
After taking care of all the poultry and animals, I cranked up the hand mower. The weather has been dry for a good week here giving plenty of time for the water to seep away from the surface.

I had got it in my head to open up a new path through the young woodland area at the bottom of our land. To be honest the saplings have struggled to get going here. They have a battle against ash dieback, winds blowing across the exposed field and long grass competing with them. Only the toughest survive. I don't really mind, as the rough grass offers excellent hunting for owls and kestrels. The saplings are slowly getting there and pioneer hawthorns are proving successful at filling the gaps.

This new path will offer us a more 'scenic' route around the perimeter of the smallholding, our dog walk route when we don't have time to go further afield.

It's only a minor change but it is one which will make a small positive impact on our lives every day.
Opening up the new path

Heading down past the bottom sheep paddock

Emerging at the bottom of our land by the dyke
Most importantly the new path has been given the doggy seal of approval.

Thursday 3 January 2019

Greater Awareness of Awareness Days - my late New Year's Resolution

Read on to find out why the dogs went to the beach today
Well that's the festive period successfully negotiated.

That got me thinking. What's next? Is it Valentine's Day or is there one I've forgotten? There seems to be a gradual proliferation of celebrations and almost invariably the original reason for celebrating has been lost in favour of a growing list of things to have and to buy including a fair degree of wasteful cheap plastic tat.

Then I started to think about all the various Awareness Days and Months which exist these days. I am so often disappointed to find out that the day I have just lived was World Soil Day or Rare Diseases Day or National Pie Day (just 3 random examples).

And so, a day or two belatedly, I have a New Year's Resolution - to be more aware of awareness days!

I'll start by saying that I am not doing Dry January or Veganuary. I could easily do either. Alcohol is not a large part of my life and it's a shame it seems such a focus for so many.
As for Veganism, you may be surprised to find that I once was a vegan for a couple of years, when I was much younger. I find the current trend towards veganism quite heartening, though as an advocate of small-scale eco-smallholding I do think the arguments are not as straightforward as many would think.
But at least more people are thinking about their food choices and about their impact on the earth. If everybody thought like this, even if their conclusions and methods weren't always correct, Gaia would have a much better chance of mending herself.

Enough of the serious stuff for now though.

Over in America January is Walk Your Dog Month. I can go with that one.
So with today being the last day of our school holiday, it seemed a good thing to take the dogs to Brancaster beach on the North Norfolk coast.
This is the equivalent of dog Disneyland. Low tide offers miles of sandy expanses and packs (in a friendly way) of friendly dogs and dogwalkers.


Sue and I did about 4 miles today. Arthur probably did about 6 and Boris did about 24!

Tuesday 1 January 2019

2019 gets off to a good start

The difference between cats and dogs 
was well demonstrated by Gerry and Boris today.
2018 has been consigned to the compost bin!
The new year for me starts after the winter solstice but in the spirit of 2019, we've had a lovely 1st of January.

Job for the day was to finish a small stretch of fencing and to hang three gates for which I had  concreted the posts in a couple of days back. This is part of a big redesign of the old pig pen and spare veg patch. These have become a poultry area and willow holt alongside a small new paddock.
More on this later, when it's all finished. Pictures mid-construction don't really do it justice.

The gate hanging went very well

It was a gorgeous day and I really enjoyed time spent outside with Sue and the dogs (and the chickens getting in the way wherever we worked). There was even a blackbird singing this afternoon. 
Time for a lunch break

Chickens "helping out" again
Green shoots for 2019. 
The first mangetout seedlings push their heads through the soil.
I have been working on another new hobby too. Sue bought me a pyrography pen for Christmas as I had seen somebody using this to make their plant labels. Here are my efforts so far. Only about 200 labels to go!

Fortunately we have some long evenings at the moment so there is plenty of time to balance outdoor and indoor activities.

The day was finished off with a little bit of baking. I finally got round to using the last of the carrots for a carrot and walnut cake. Topped with lumpy buttercream! … But still very tasty.

Looking Back - Featured post


Ten years and a thousand blog posts! Enjoy. Pictures in no particular order.  

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