Monday 27 January 2020

Growing Anticipation

Things are looking on the up. A period of high pressure and dry weather has allowed the ground to dry out a little, though there is still plenty enough water left to keep the Muscovy ducks happy.

And a few clear, sunny days have done wonders to lift the spirits. It almost feels like spring, though I may be getting a bit premature there.
Seed sowing is almost upon us. At this time of year there is a great feeling of anticipation and a temptation to rush into the new growing season. Most seeds, however, benefit from a little patience so they can grow when conditions are actually much better for them rather than having to struggle against poor light conditions, cold weather and wet soil.
The flip side of this is that some more Mediterranean and tropical crops need a long season and only start to produce crops late in the summer. An early start gives a much higher percentage of ripening and cropping time.
In reality it is a balance and very much depends on conditions from year to year. Last year looked good until June, but them summer failed to properly materialise. Blight came quite early and hit the potatoes hard. It hit the outdoor tomatoes just as we were starting to get a crop. Chillis and peppers never had time to ripen either, even in the polytunnel. Beans and squashes didn't get enough autumn sun to dry out properly for storage. I can't squeeze the timing of these any more as they can only be planted out after all risk of frost has passed. We may not get many frosts these days, but a late one can still cause havoc, and let's not forget the Beast from the East and not get lulled into a false sense of security  by mild winter conditions. Onions and leeks never reached their full potential either and I will definitely be starting them earlier this year.

The answer with most crops is not to put all your eggs in one basket. Seeds are cheap and there are often way too many in a packet, so there is no harm trying for an early sowing but with a later one as insurance.

So with this in mind I do actually have a list of seeds to sow right now. Things have been delayed a little by the oiler finally giving up the ghost. We spent two weeks with no central heating.

To say the least, I was not impressed with this Worcester Bosch boiler which only gave us about 6 years of service. 
That black smoke should be clear steam.
So it was a relief to finally get a new boiler fitted.
Most exciting though, look at that big bit of cardboard  which should be enough to cover one of my weedy veg beds!

Now that  we have warmth in every room again, I will be able to give some early seeds the right conditions to get a start in the house. Once they have germinated, most move to the conservatory which is cooler but has good light. From there it's into the polytunnel with the added protection of a mini greenhouse and a propagator cloche if needed.
I have found this system generally to give me really strong seedlings for more hardy outdoor vegetables and for those which will grow in the protected polytunnel environment.

Of course, the race is still on to prepare all the beds. My back still seems to be on the mend, so compost turning is still very much a priority. I have used all of the compost from the ready pile and it has covered not 20% of my beds. However, at the bottom of the huge heap which has not been turned since mid August there is a large quantity of usable material. This will mostly be reserved for covering my seed potatoes in about ten weeks time. This weekend is Cambridgeshire Self Sufficiency Group's annual potato day in Huntingdon. I help out here and will be purchasing this year's crop of seed potatoes. I am planning to grow eleven varieties of potato this year.

Above: Any help greatly appreciated. Boris does his best to shred any sticks he finds in the compost, plus a bit of digging.

Below: Once the beds are covered with a thin layer of compost to exclude the light, I lay fleece over the top. This is to stop the chickens and ducks displacing all the compost. After a while the compost settles and I can remove the fleece. 
When I plant seedlings' out, the fleece will be used to protect them again and once the plants are big enough to remove the fleece, the ducks and chickens will be excluded from the veg patch.

Friday 10 January 2020

Compost turning back on the agenda

8th January 2020 - Jobs for the day

Put bins bags out for collection
Feed and let out poultry
Check rat traps, move one into stable to catch the rat in there
Batch freeze soup made yesterday - by the way, concentrated orange and pineapple squash is not a suitable substitute for the juice of an orange in a butternut and parsnip soup recipe
Go to doctors for vaccinations for upcoming trip
Check out swan flock that has appeared in the fields on the way to the doctors. (49 Bewick's Swans and 140 Whooper Swans)
Clear perennial weeds from two veg beds, mulch with an inch of compost to protect the surface and provide goodness for next year. Cover with fleece until it settles down to stop the ducks and chickens moving it back off again.
Turn 2019 compost heap.

This is significant as it's the first time I've actually been able to turn the compost since the end of August. I don't want to build my hopes up too far, but months of gingerly pottering around in fear of aggravating my back pains may be coming to an end. Enforced rest (which has driven me stir crazy) and half an hour of exercises every night seems to have finally got me to the stage where actually using and exercising my back muscles, within reason, is helping my recovery.

The compost which I started back in November 2018, when I decided to trial no dig, has shrunk unimaginably. Despite my best efforts, there will only be enough to cover about a fifth of my veg beds. This has always been a concern of mine about the no-dig system as I see post upon post on Facebook where people are bringing in compost. To me a truly regenerative system needs to be self-supporting and this is what I am constantly searching for.
On a more positive note, I have a humungous pile of compostable material that I have amassed during 2019. I've just not been able to turn it of late.
From the outside it looks nothing like compost as the outermost surface is recently added material, but when I turned it today it didn't take long to reach usable compost. The best stuff was where I had added woodchip which comes directly from trees and shrubs grown specifically for harvesting for this purpose.
In fact I reckon I will be able to cover close to half of the veg beds with what I have produced.

This is encouraging and spurs me forwards to producing more and more compost. The willow bed will go from strength to strength, as will the elephant grass, both specifically cultivated for adding to the compost. Their roots will stay in the soil to add structure.

I was disappointed not to be able to try my oats experiment this year. The idea is to sow oats quite thickly after the earlier harvests. I can get whole oats as animal feed for less than £5 for a 15kg bag. The oats will grow enough to protect the soil surface, then get killed off by the frost. Come springtime they can be raked off and added to the compost.
I don't know anybody in this country who uses this method but I have seen it on YouTube and can't see why it won't work.

Saturday 4 January 2020

Planting garlic cloves - the first job of a new decade

It was at the beginning of the last decade that we took the plunge and bought our smallholding in The Fens. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.

And so we enter a new decade.

One of the things which we love about growing most of our own food is how our lives are now so entwined with the weather and the seasons.

The first bed of the year planted up with garlic cloves
New decade or not, the turn of the year has seen me planting garlic every year. This marks the start of a new growing season. The ancestors of the garlic cloves I planted today go right back to those three bulbs of garlic I bought from a greengrocer in London quite a few years back. Every year I select some nice plump cloves from last year's crop and each develops into a new bulb, multiplying itself by about 10.
And by my selection every year I get stronger stock adapted to growing here on the smallholding.

In keeping with the developing patterns of climate breakdown, this winter seems even warmer and wetter than previous ones. In fact, it would be good if somebody could tell the rhubarb to stay in hibernation for a couple more months. It really is quite confused at the moment.

Some very confused rhubarb
I had to wait for a protracted spell of dry weather before I could consider working in the veg plot. Even though I have gone no-dig, so no need for digging over sodden soil, even just walking around on the paths would create a mud bath.
Fortunately that dry spell has now come. The puddles are receding and yesterday I was able to prepare the first bed ready for planting up with garlic cloves. The whole family came out to help. Sue cleared the asparagus bed of its old stems, Gerry climbed a tree and the dogs went digging for voles.

My team of helpers.
Left to right: Boris, Arthur, Gerry and Sue

I have had to move the sheep more frequently to stop the ground from becoming poached - with water lying on or just below the surface, their hooves quickly turn the ground muddy and the grass is slow to grow. We have moved the rams well away from the ewes as we are not breeding this year. They were spending all their time frustratedly pacing up and down the fence-line turning it into a swamp.
We have had to feed more sugar beet and more hay this year. Hopefully the paddocks will recover with drier weather and we won't have to hunt for more hay towards the end of the winter.

The ewes are quick to move to a new paddock when I lower the electric fence. 
But the grass doesn't last long in these conditions. 

Looking Back - Featured post


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

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