Tuesday 20 September 2022

All A Bit Late In The Veg Garden

Here's what the veg beds were supposed to look like back in early summer. Unfortunately, it is now too late for many of them to produce a harvest. The courgettes and beans are finally putting on some growth but we'll run out of daylight hours and sunshine before they can produce any sort of crop.

Some of the leafy veg will provide a late harvest.

The ground is finally workable enough to harvest some potatoes. I have left them in the ground for as long as possible to absorb as much moisture as they could find, but any longer and the voles and slugs will find them. The harvest is pretty meagre but it's better than nothing.

This year, I am covering cleared beds with straw. There was not much prospect of getting succession or cover crops in and I obtained a stack of old straw cheaply early in the year. The soil will stay protected from beatings of rain. In the spring, when I pull the straw back, the soil surface will be moist and crumbly. Any straw that has not been incorporated into the soil will be raked off and transported to the compost heap so it does not provide an irresistible home to slugs.

Monday 19 September 2022

Our mini rainforest

Strange as it may sound, the key to a forest garden is the network of paths which provide access. These can have a habit of disappearing into the emerging vegetation. They not only provide access, but they invite people to explore. 

Originally I edged the paths with any spare branches I had from work around the smallholding, but now that we have an almost endless supply of logs and chip, I decided to refresh everything. Leylandii logs are not ideal for burning in the log burners as they contain a lot of sap, but they are ideal for substantial path edging. While I was lugging logs Sue was barrowing woodchip, topping up the beds with leafy woodchip from a poplar tree. I filled the pathway with coniferous chip.

This is not just to make everything look neat and tidy, but it is protecting and feeding the soil as well as depriving grasses and weeds of light.

When I reviewed the photos I took, it is all rather reminiscent of trekking through a rainforest - although maybe not on such a grand scale!

While Sue and I were busy doing this, the dogs were being helpful by digging up the grass path by the compost beds tracking the underground journeys of moles or voles. Here's Monty with a chicken overseeing operations.

Friday 16 September 2022

Wonderful woodchip and lovely logs

I have spent many an hour on my hands and knees weeding. At times it's a pleasant mindful exercise. At times it is a back-breaking, soul-destroying chore.

If you believed all the no-dig hype, you would be wondering why I need to do weeding. After all, you just cover the soil with an inch or so of compost every now and again and hey presto! no more weeds.

This works in theory, if you can possibly get enough compost and if your compost has heated up enough to be weed-free.
But unless you have a close relative rich enough to keep cattle and donate a constant supply of cow manure, producing enough compost to keep your garden covered is a Herculean task. Make no mistake, I make a LOT of compost. Nothing goes to waste and we have plenty of poultry bedding to keep it active and topped up, but still it shrinks down and by the time I have covered a third of my beds the weeds are coming through again and I have run out of the precious compost I so lovingly accumulated and tended over the previous few months.

So what's the solution?

Well I may be moving closer to having one. I have steadily increased the number of growing beds which are perennial and the new forest garden area has rapidly expanded this. The perennial beds can take a mulch of woodchip rather than compost. As time goes on the canopy in the forest garden will close over, the young shrubs will grow and there will be fewer and fewer weeds to conquer.

A Word about 'Weeds'

At this point I should acknowledge that many plants referred to by others as 'weeds' are not considered weeds by me, but I won't deny that some plants are most definitely not welcome in certain places. Dandelions are a classic. Welcome throughout the smallholding EXCEPT in my veg beds. The only reason for this is that my observations tell me that every dandelion root harbours a slug. If it weren't for this, they could happily co-exist next to my other crops. I'm sure somebody will tell me that dandelions can be a useful crop too but the reality is that I probably will never get round to harvesting the roots on a regular basis.

My worst weeds are grasses and creeping buttercup which invade the veg beds relentlessly. Next come nettles, welcome in many corners of the smallholding but too painful to accidentally meet on a regular basis, dock, just because it self seeds so readily, though it does unfailingly grow alongside nettles and provides a welcome soothing relief to the stings, then creeping thistle which is remarkably tenacious. These weeds I do try to eradicate from the veg beds, but it is an ongoing fight which neither of us ever wins!
Lesser weeds are dandelion, plantain, willowherb, cleavers, feverfew, fennel, chickweed. These are all tolerated, even encouraged in moderation, but need taming as all self-seed with abundant enthusiasm.

Besides the basics of pulling and hoeing, covering the ground in the veg beds with compost is definitely the best option.

Wonderful Woodchip

So why have I chosen this moment to write about woodchip?
Well if I can use woodchip as a mulch in some areas of the garden, then I can save the valuable compost for the annual veg beds and I might just have enough to go around.

After ten years trying to find a reliable source, I am finally getting regular loads of both woodchip and logs dropped off at my smallholding. It does a favour to the landscape guys and it is very useful to me. I just hope it continues. At the moment I am getting a couple of van loads a week!

What am I going to do with all this woodchip? 

Firstly, woodchip can be added to the compost pile, especially if it is chipped thin branches, known as ramial chip. This is why I have willow coppice and elephant grass growing. Leafy chippings also add good volume and body to the compost. Woodchip heats up incredibly quickly, to the point of being almost too hot to touch, so it is a good accelerator on the compost, the heat produced by bacteria in turn hopefully treating the compost by killing weed seeds and pathogens.

If the regular supply continues, I will give one load to the sheep for the winter. Although they are incredibly hardy and can easily take a thick layer of frost on their wool, they aren't averse to a heated bed either!

I can use the heat generated to give background heat in the polytunnel too or to create a hotbed early in the growing year.

Woodchip makes a wonderful ground cover for the fruit bushes

My main reason for wanting a regular supply of woodchip is that it is great on the perennial beds. The insects and worms slowly take it into the soil and create a rich top layer which is full of life, insects, fungi, worms and plenty of smaller stuff going on which improves the health of the soil no end.

I am also using it as a mulch in my willow holt, where I have struggled to stop the grasses competing with the willows without resorting to landscape fabric, which I hate using. 

And if the flow of woodchip still keeps coming,  I can fit lorry loads of woodchip into the chicken pens. They will love scratching around in it and it will stop the pen getting muddy in the winter.

With the woodchip comes loads of logs. These will be most welcome to use in the wood burners and should save us a fair bit on the oil bill. The pines aren't so suitable for this, but they will make excellent edging for paths, rotting down to provide habitats too. 

There'll be plenty left, so a stumpery is in my plans, plus a giant log pile somewhere just for the wildlife.

And when just the right logs come along I'll order in some mushroom spawn and get that going.

Finally, shifting barrowloads of woodchip and logs around is keeping me very fit!

Saturday 10 September 2022

The Joy Of Sausages

It's hard to believe that we've never in 12 years of smallholding made our own sausages. You need a certain amount of equipment for mincing, mixing and stuffing. This can get very expensive for industrial scale equipment, or you can go to the other end of the scale and sausage-making will be a nightmare if you're making more than half a dozen.

Then there's all the bother with mixing in rusk and choosing the correct skins. And that's before the somewhat suggestive but risky procedure of getting the stuffing into the skins. Anybody remember The Generation Game..!

We've not kept pigs for quite a few years now. They cost a lot to feed and you get a lot (and I mean a lot) of meat.

But for a while we'd been wondering about turning some of the older sheep into sausages and burgers. Shetland sheep are a native breed and are best kept through one winter to go for meat in their second year. This is known as hogget and has a stronger taste than commercial lamb. It is much sought after.

Sending off intact males can be problematic with some species. Goats  and pigs especially can come back with a strong taint to the meat which personally I don't find very palatable. But we've  never had a problem with intact Shetland rams. We keep them away from the females before their final journey and try to make sure they go in late summer, when they have had the opportunity to fatten up on the pasture and before their hormones get going in the autumn.

Rambutan had to go off as he was related to too many of the ewes. And three of the older ewes need to go off soon. Rambutan is about four. The older ewes about nine, so they will definitely be classified as mutton, a rarely sold meat these days as it's not economical to keep livestock that long.

So Rambutan went with a younger castrated ram and we got both of them minced with lamb and mint burgers and merguez sausages in mind. In the end there really was no discernible difference between the mince we got back from the two sheep.

Kill weight for Rambutan was 25.0kg and for the other 17.5kg which is about right for a native breed sheep. Commercials are bigger, but natives are tastier and have longer lives.

We got nearly 17kg of mince from Rambutan and over 12kg from the other, giving us plenty of mince to play with. We weren't sure about the fat content of the mince. Most recipes call for minced shoulder and belly. I reckoned that the whole sheep minced would come back about right and it certainly looked about right.

I did a fair bit of research into recipes for lamb sausages and lamb burgers, tallied up the ingredients we needed and made a visit to the ethnic stores of Peterborough to stock up on spices. Some of the mince we kept back for other recipes.

Day 1 - Mixing the ingredients

We spent an evening mixing up ELEVEN different flavours!

These were: 

BURGERS: Greek, Middle-eastern, Spicy Indian, Thai, Minted and Basic with rosemary and thyme. We mixed up each batch by hand, working the spices and other ingredients in thoroughly, then put them in the fridge overnight for the flavours to blend and the meat to chill.

These were the SAUSAGES: Minted, Lamb Massala, Rosemary & Red Wine, Merguez 1 and Merguez 2.

Day 2 - Burgers and Meatballs

We have a burger press so it didn't take too long to make about 120 burgers. A quick try of a couple of the mixes and we were absolutely delighted with the juiciness and the flavours. We used some of the various mixtures to make meatballs too.

Day 2 - Sausage Making Attempt 1

There is a mysterious aura surrounding the dark art of sausage making. Secret recipes, do it like this, don't do that... It was an art we had thus far never dabbled in.

A while back we had purchased a grinder and sausage stuffer attachment to go on our stand mixer. Even if the sausage making went badly, the mincer is a happy medium between something hefty and commercial and something clamped to the side of the kitchen worktop and cranked by hand. We ordered some sheep casings for the sausages. I had ordered two sizes as I really wasn't sure what we actually needed, what would fit the three sizes of sausage stuffer tube we had and what would work best. The casings come in brine and need rinsing and soaking. They are a bit slippery to handle so we paid a tiny bit extra to get the ones which come on a spool. This makes it easier to load them onto the stuffing tube.

We started with the Rosemary and Red Wine mixture. It went incredibly well. To our amazement the sausages came out almost perfectly. But it turns out this was beginner's luck! When we switched to a smaller diameter skin and tube things started to go wrong. The meat mix was backing up and just wouldn't go into the skins. We tried all sorts with no luck. We even went back to  the wider skins and tube but our problems continued. A brilliant start had somehow come to a stuttering and very frustrating halt.

Day 3 - The Joy Of Sausage making

We figured that our problem had been when the meat mixture warmed up. So we kept it nice and cold and put the metal grinder parts into the freezer for 10 minutes before each batch. Hey presto! Back to successful and easy sausages. 

We tried switching back to the thinner tube. It was better than the previous evening, but still not easy so we settled on the 24/26mm casings.

It really didn't take long to finish making the last three batches of sausages. When I say sausages, I mean 2m long sausages! We still had to figure how to twist and tied them into strings.

This is where YouTube really came into itself. Scott Rea Productions is a fantastic channel. We had used it to solve our initial sausage problems and the slo-mo sausage stringing video was perfect. It wasn't quite as easy as he made it look and we adapted the method a little, but it wasn't long before we were both enjoying great success... to our surprise.

This certainly won't be the last of our sausage-making and I am very happy using sheep instead of pork as the basis for sausages and burgers. In the end we didn't use the rusk we had bought in. It really wasn't necessary.

So, my five pieces of advice:

Sausages don't have to be pork (in fact lamb makes excellent meatballs and burgers too)

Do a bit of research and get everything ready

Give yourself time

It helps to have two people


Wednesday 7 September 2022

Bee-themed paving

There used to be about 20 square paving slabs behind Sue's beehives... until they got pilfered for other projects around the smallholding!

Getting hold of paving slabs is easy if you have the means to transport them and they can be had for free or very cheap on Facebook Marketplace.

But I had the bright idea of bee-themed paving! That's right. Hexagonal slabs. Luckily it only took a week or so to find some locally and a few weeks to find some more to extend the scheme.

There's no fancy patio-laying going on here. They are simply placed on the ground and have to take responsibility for settling themselves down into something approximating a flattish surface!

Sue and I are very happy with the result.

Monday 29 August 2022


Someone noticed that alongside the two boxes which came back from the abattoir were two sheep skins.

It is fairly easy to get the sheepskins back and to process them. You need a special licence from Defra to collect Category 3 animal by-products, but this is a simple process and only needs doing once. 

Then there are two options. The first is to return to the abattoir on kill day (as you usually take your animals in the day before) to pick up the fresh skin, then get it home and salt it immediately to prevent any rot setting in. Alternatively our abattoir were happy to salt the skin for us for a very small fee (£3 per skin) which meant we could pick them up at the same time as picking up the processed meat. This was nine days after we dropped off the live animals.

We then topped them up with fresh salt, getting right to every edge but not onto the wool side. The skins just need laying out on a surface. They don't need any special stretching or anything.

This is all Sue's department. When she is ready she will scrape any surplus fat off the skin - we have a special scraper but a knife will do. There shouldn't be much scraping to do if your abattoir have done a good job. Then apply a tanning mix which is purchased off the internet. There are three different stages to this, the last of which is an opportunity to soften the back or stretch the skin if you wish, but this is not vital. 

Scraping the skins.

You can send the skin off to a tannery to be processed but the cost is fairly high, especially if you need to pay return postage. You will get a really good result, but the homemade version is quite acceptable.

I'll add to this when Sue does the next stages.

Sunday 28 August 2022

Respect your Elders

Elder is one of my favourite trees. It has beautiful creamy flower umbels early in the summer which are a magnet for insects followed by deep purple berries, plates of juicy jewels which wild birds love, especially blackcaps. Maybe it's how the males top up the colour of their shiny caps.

When cut back, elder grows a multitude of dead-straight vertical new shoots which are perfect for lopping off and poking into the ground to become new bushes. Elder wood and leaves have a unique, indescribable smell which I love too. I don't know what the chemical is, but it's said if you poke a stem into a mole run it will drive the mole away - not that I'd want to do that. Elder twigs can be hung in fruit trees to deter insects and the leaves have long been used to keep flies away.

Elder is intertwined in folklore too, with strong links to witches.

But practically, the elder makes a great addition to the hedgerow, woodland or the forest garden. Where it is not quite so welcome is growing in the small space between my sheds and stable block. One has grown up and reached high above, up to about 20 feet tall. I left it as it was still doing more good than harm, but it has grown so much that the trunk is obstructing necessary repairs to the shed rooves.

So I was going to chop it right back and maybe even take it out completely until the turkeys had other ideas. They roost on the stable and elderberries have become their breakfast of choice.

The view from on top of the shed.
They are chopped elder branches on the ground below.

But with the berries finally ripe the easiest way to harvest them was to climb onto the shed rooves and dismantle the tree. Sorry turkeys!

In the early summer we use the flower umbels to make elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne, an excellent drink which tastes fantastic and packs a punch. The flowers are popular for fritters too, though we've always prioritised the alcohol.

We have plenty of elders splashed around the smallholding so every few years we harvest ripe berries too. These can be used for many things, though not eaten raw, but for us there is one product which is unique and trumps all others - pontack sauce.

Pontack sauce is a rich, aromatic sauce full of umami. It's like a fruity Worcestershire sauce and adds a wonderful depth of flavour to stews and slow-cook recipes. Like a good wine, it develops with age. The batch we made in 2017 is just coming to its best.

The downside to all this is that I now have no reason not to get on with fixing the two shed rooves. I also have a mountain of elder branches to process. They don't make great fire wood so most will be chipped and either spread on the perennial beds or added into the compost.

Nothing goes to waste.

Wednesday 24 August 2022

A moth named after not one but two birds

The Hummingbird Hawk-Moth. I've only seen these twice before, but the same day that I read they are popping up in many a garden this year and what should happen?

I first noticed it hovering around a verbena bonariensis plant in the forest garden, but ti quickly turned its attention to a flowering buddleia. In fact I had plenty of time to phone Sue and drag in the house to come and see it. Occasionally it darted off, presumably to another feed plant, but it kept coming back to these same few flowers.
It was impossible to get a picture with my phone. The things never stop moving and even if it did pause long enough, the wings just make the whole thing a blur. So I decided to pick one flower and wait to see if I could shoot a bit of video. Actual views were much better, but hopefully the video I've attached: 1 - works and 2 - gives a good general impression of our visit.

So if you've any suitable flowers in your garden, workplace, local park, wherever, then do keep an eye open and you might just be lucky enough to meet one of these little fellas.

Monday 22 August 2022

Locking horns

Warning, this blog post does contain an account of sending sheep off to the abattoir. I don't go into any shocking detail, but if you think of livestock in a cute, woolly way then you may not want to read this. However, this is all part of the process of keeping livestock with the aim of eventually turning them into meat. 

Lots of smallholders have taken the decision to sell their sheep flocks this summer, the drought and consequent lack of grazing undoubtedly acting as a catalyst for this decision. We've not lambed for a couple of years and have not been sending any to the great freezer in the sky either. 

But Rambutan our ram can't service the females any more as he is related to most of them. The older females need to go off for meat too as I wouldn't want to lamb from them any more and they will become unproductive. I don't mean that in a heartless way but it makes no sense to keep them until they get old and sick or die. I'm excited to see what the mutton will taste like.

Our decision to send some of our sheep off was delayed as both our local small-scale abattoirs closed down. It is increasingly difficult for any small local services to exist as the burden of regulation makes their survival impossible. So instead we have been asking around fellow smallholders to find out where they have been using, both for the kill and the cut.

Our two intact rams get along pretty well together. We keep a large wether (castrated ram) in with them and where male sheep are concerned three is the magic number for peace. But Rambutan and our new ram, Arnie, still like to test each other out sometimes.

A couple  of weeks back something happened to hasten our decision to wave goodbye to Rambutan. Occasionally in smallholding something completely left field happens. 

Early one morning my sleep was abruptly interrupted by Sue informing me that the two rams were locked together. That woke me up sharp! When I went to investigate, they had somehow managed to literally lock horns. It was like one of those interlocking metal puzzles, but imagine trying to complete one of those with a grumpy sheep on the end of each one.

An hour of trying to separate them was to no avail. However I pushed and twisted their heads, I could not unlock their horns. We were seriously beginning to wonder what the outcome of this situation was going to be.

Wrestling with rams is a bit tiring too, to put it mildly.

But there is a happy ending. Eventually out of desperation and needing to try a different tack, I oiled their horns and wrestled one to the ground. Of course, the other had to come too as they were in the sheep horns equivalent of a three-legged race.

As I virtually lay on one sheep and pulled the other round to be in line, suddenly they separated! No harm was done and both wandered off to munch on some dry grass. Both looked a bit sheepish! 

This incident hastened our decision to reduce our flock. We duly booked five sheep in with the butchers in the second week of September, the earliest they could process them for us, We then booked them in with the abattoir.

The way it works is that you either get them killed at the abattoir then transfer the carcasses to a local butcher for cutting or you get the abattoir to do the whole lot. The trouble with the latter is that, especially with a larger commercial abattoir, it's hard to be sure that you are actually getting all of your own sheep back.

Our plan was to get two sheep completely minced, to include the intact ram as he was likely to taste stronger than usual. We also wanted the fleece back from the ram to make a sheepskin. The problem with this plan would be ensuring that the correct sheep was minced. Also, Rambutan would be spending time in close confinement with the girls which might cause his hormones to start rising and potentially affect the taste. 

So after a little thought we rang up the abattoir to enquire if they could take two sheep sooner and mince them for us too. They were busy, but then said that they could take them in the next morning! Sue was due to go away that afternoon, but if I could take the two sheep in the morning this would make everything a lot easier.

So very early morning I  loaded Rambutan and one younger wether  into the livestock trailer for their last journey. On my own this was no easy task. Sheep have more speed and stamina than me, but I am more stubborn and have the ability to change my tactics in light of previous failures!!!

Once in, we drove the half hour to the abattoir. It is always a bit stressful towing a trailer, especially when you don't know what sort of space you will be asked to reverse it into at the end or how friendly the staff will be. The abattoir was much more commercial than those I had previously used. Lorries were already loading up with meat to take away and everybody seemed busy. 

Rambutan and nameless other loaded into the trailer.

A peek inside the holding pens.

To cut a long story short, I dropped off the two sheep successfully and didn't really even watch as they followed each other into their holding pen. Rambutan had been a bottle fed lamb and was a nice friendly boy, though his desire to 'play' could be a bit challenging when he put his head down and charged. I was a but sad to drop him off, but that is part of keeping livestock.

We pick the two boys up (in boxes) in a week's time, then we have our first go at sausage-making. That should be fun.

Wednesday 17 August 2022

The Drought Is Over

138.8mm of rain for Holbeach - that's us!

Last night it rained. Proper rain. More rain than we've accumulated in the last 4 months.

It's the first we've had for a long, long time. In fact I think it's only rained a few times since the beginning of April. and only once this summer.

[ed. I knew it rained a lot and the fields were full of standing water, but it turns out that on a wet day countrywide, Holbeach was the wettest with a staggering 138.8mm of rain!!!] 

Unfortunately there is an obvious pattern in recent years of all our rain saving itself up for the occasional deluge which surrounds uncomfortably long periods of aridity.

It's made for a difficult growing season (to put it mildly) and we've had to think about how much feed we need to bring in for sheep to overwinter.

In the veg plot, crop after crop has failed. Beans, sweetcorn, potatoes, onions, cabbage.... the list goes on. Those planted earlier in the year have mostly come to nothing and it hasn't even been possible to plant out any young plants sown in late April and May. For the most part the rain has come too late for another attempt at things. At least it's a good opportunity to empty the freezers and in reality we never go short of food.

The barley crop next door has been baled. Just look how dry everything is.

If temperatures of 40C and prolonged dry periods are to be a feature of our lives then I can only guess that plums are going to take over the world! Every single plum tree is literally dripping with fruit. Thank goodness we have several varieties which don't all ripen at once.

The forest garden has fared better as that is designed to be a sustainable system which can deal with weather extremes, though I've lost a few young perennials which were tricky to source in the first place.

The controlled climate of the polytunnel will give us some crops this year and I've a couple of new greenhouses too. We'll be living on squashes, peppers, aubergines and tomatoes.

I mentioned winter feed for the sheep. That's because we've already had to start dipping into it.

We are careful with our stocking levels and try to leave some paddocks long to prevent the worst excesses of drying out. But months of dry weather and a couple of intense heatwaves have left the paddocks looking a touch bare and scorched. We bought in our winter hay from a fellow smallholder a few weeks back - the first hay harvest was incredibly early this year, but we've already had to start topping up the sheep's diet, in particular the rams.

So it was fortunate that one of our local smallholders was having a clear-out and we were able to purchase a whole load of old hay and straw. Shetland sheep are not bothered about the quality of their hay so it doesn't matter that it's not this year's.

I've got more straw than I need for animal bedding so I decided to lay some of it onto all the veg beds which I've abandoned for the year. Sometimes it's best to cut your losses and start preparing for next year. The straw will protect the surface, keep in moisture and gradually rot down and be incorporated into the soil by the worms. Over the winter the ducks will sort out any slugs which try to use it as cover and will further fertilise the beds.

I might have a go at some straw bale gardening too, then let the straw bales rot down into the beds. I'm thinking especially about some of the potatoes.

Looking Back - Featured post


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

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