Second Day of Decent Sun

Light Sussex

Following on from yesterday’s start on getting some sort of order into the outside, today was spent mowing and strimming, to make sure the electric fence surrounding the orchard and poultry was running at full capacity.

 

Marsh Daisies

The Marsh Daisy parent flock are happy in their current home, but the difference keeping chickens makes to the grass height is amazing! I know they eat grass, but the their paddock hardly needed cutting, whereas the one left fallow (where their children will eventually live) is over a foot in length!

Pilgrim geese – Dwt & Barty

Barty and Dwt have settled into couple-dom better than hoped. After Barty lost his soul mate last year, it seemed as though Dwt would never replace him. But this year she seems to finally have won him over and they’ve been doing the dirty. About once every two days she’s been leaving an egg in her nest, which she decided wouldn’t be in their house, but rather sandwiched behind a pallet we’d erected as a makeshift wind-shelter for them!

 

pear blossom

The mild air has come just in the nick of time for the pear trees, which had been holding out to blossom. All we can hope for now is a lack of frosts over the next few weeks, and if we’re lucky in that regard we should end up with a bumper pear crop. Look at this tree, that’s an incredible amount of blossom!

2018 spring patch panorama

There’s really nothing better than sitting back at the shed and admiring the end result of hard work. Aching back and limbs feel so more worthwhile when you can take a view in like this.

2-spot ladybird (Adalia 2-punctata)

Ladybirds & Strimming

Electric fenceToday I made use of some spare time to strim under the electric fencing I installed over winter. With the sheep netting acting as the earth, it was a relatively simple task to string four strands of positive cable along the front of the fencing. The lower strand is solid steel, mitigating and strimming accidents.

After strimming, a quick walk through the orchard saw me noticing the ladybirds below on one tree – all within around 20cm of each other! It’s fantastic to see the ladybird army awake and ready for the greenfly, which will undoubtedly follow. There’s a mix of native and imposter harlequin below, an all too familiar sight today.

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Cube Run Halved

Destroying the Eglu Cubes!

I lied. Well…kind of. We’d be stupid to do anything drastic to the Eglu Cubes, but things needed to change.

Way back, when we had chickens surrounded by a sheep-netting fence, we thought that the Eglu Cub’s fox-proof run would be a great way to keep our hens safe if we weren’t around at dusk putting away time. We extended the runs to six square metres, enough for six hens, and if we were going out at any time of day we popped some corn in the run, shut the doors after the last hen in so they would be safe and could go to bed at their leisure.

We could still, just about, move the Eglu Cubes on to fresh grass when needed, but it was awkward.

But then the horrible thing happened – we had a fox attack during the day, and lost our wonderful Light Sussex cock, Ethelred the Unready (or just ‘Red’ for simplicity). It was decided then to electrify the entire orchard, a job which began with poultry netting, and this winter progressed to new chestnut stake fencing with electrified strands over chicken wire, to make it goose-suitable.

Eglu Cubes Run Halved

Eglu Cubes Run Halved

This has meant that the long runs are a bit redundant – we can leave the chickens out in the day and the electrified perimeter fence keeps them safe, and the runs are just a double whammy safety feature that gets used when dusk is due. Therefore, the six square metres isn’t needed, and we’re dragging around long runs for no real reason – a task made all the more difficult by the fact that the orchard trees are so much larger and more difficult to navigate between.

The solution? We’ve removed two metre sections from all three Eglu Cubes, and we’re going to make two three metre long fox-proof runs. These we can use for new chicks that are fully feathered, rabbits or guineapigs, knowing that they’ll be safe from Mr Fox.

2018 Allotment Plan (or the Patch Plan as we call it)

It’s that time of year again! It just fair whizzes past these days, but after last year’s house work putting the kibosh on a lot of the allotment work, it is with renewed vigour that we turned to the planning of the year’s veggie and fruity goodness, and the 2018 allotment plan

The Big Guys

We have our favourites of course, but where you get your seed from is a massive question these days. I had two catalogues land on the doormat this week – a rather glossy catalogue from Mr Fothergill and a more rustic looking DT Brown. Needless to say, the DT Brown catalogue looked more ‘niche’, a bit edgy – if you will, but it raised questions about why they should happen to appear on the same day? A quick bit of research on the old interweb showed that these seed companies are so intertwined it’s a bit of a nightmare if you like to support the smaller seed companies – Mr Fothergills and DT Browns are one and the same, but the same can be said for many of the well-known brands these days.

Our Seed Suppliers

So what to do? Dobies were one of the first as they don’t list any seed varieties that are the result of genetic modification. Then there is also Franchi – Seeds of Italy – who are the oldest family-run seed company in the world and were found to be the most ethical major packet seed brand by Ethical Consumer Magazine in 2016. Their range of Italian varieties is wonderful, with the Tonda Padana being our favourite winter squash, and I haven’t seen a packet of their seeds yet that are a hybrid. One year we bought from Stormy Hall Seeds, based in North Yorkshire and part of the Botton Village Camphill Community and the quality was fantastic, but the range wasn’t huge. However, their ethos is incredible, and they’re also Demeter certified, so this year we’ve bought as much as we can from their collection which, I need to add, has grown considerably. We’ve also bought some flower seeds from them, to help provide nectar for the bees and food for the lacewing, to help combat the unwanted pests. As long as we plant within 7 metres (20 feet) of the vegetables which need help, we should see a benefit. We have the old strawberry bed that has been resting for a couple of years, so we’ll sow them there – a good 30ft x 2ft strip adjacent to the current bushes, and the Borage we’re including in the mix will provide a good ground cover that we can also dig in at the end of the season, as a green fertiliser.

Onion Sets & Seed Potatoes

When it came to onion sets and potatoes, we have once again turned to Bridgend Garden Centre. They’re a way away, but they measure out the sets and spuds in convenient amounts. Whilst their onions and shallots aren’t organic, they have a small range of organic potatoes, so we’ve bought our varieties from there. They’re also ridiculously helpful, which is a pleasant attribute to find these days.

Local Brassicas

When it comes to brassicas, we’re planting so little of our own this year that it really doesn’t make sense to buy seed packets! Besides, Jacksons at Swarkestone are one of the oldest growing families in our area and we can buy plugs from them, which makes far more sense.

Fruit

Lastly, we have the fruit – we’ve bought from Pomona Fruits and they’ve supplied quality produce, so when it came to deciding where to buy the new strawberry patch from, they were the obvious choice.

There we have it – where we’re buying 2018’s seeds from. The next post will show what’s going where!

2016 Patch Plan

As mentioned, there have been a few changes this year – most noticeably the shrinking of the vegetable patch, which now has multiple 10ft x 10ft beds. In truth, some of the produce we grew in the 10’x30′ beds was too much – most noticeably the onions. We never get through them! Some we do use – the squash patch in particular. So with more beds, we can give some totally over to one type of plant. I still haven’t thought it entirely through, but I imagine it will be something like this:

Plot A – Potatoes

Plot B – Aliums (shallots, white onions, red onions, leeks, garlic)

Plot C – Root veg (parsnips, beetroot, swede, kohl rabi, turnip etc) and corgettes – carrots will go on clean ground as they always suffer from carrot fly on this patch.

Plot D – Summer (butternut) and winter squash

Plot E – Pumpkins & Sweetcorn

Plot F – Brassica (brussel sprouts, summer cauliflower, winter/spring cauliflowers, spring cabbage, winter (savoy) cabbage, summer/autumn round cabbage, red cabbage, broccolli)

Plot G – Legumes (peas and beans)

Carrots will go in the raised bed again, they do well raised that 2′ off the ground to deter the carrot fly, and also in the old fruit cage, next to the currant bushes as that soil is new to carrots. I may even add extra garlic in there to help deter new flies discovering our carroty goodness!

We’ll also plant the sunflowers in that area, we need sunflowers as they’re so gorgeous and the birds love them!

You may also notice that the wild flower border we had last year, running south of the Old Oak, is no longer there. In reality, it is, but our de-teaseling last year *seems* to have done the trick as I can’t see any young teasels starting off – but we’re doing nothing with it yet until I’m sure it doesn’t need rotovating again to kill any new growth off, so some wild flowers will push through and, as long as they’re not a teasel, they’re more than welcome!

We’ve also added three new trees to the orchard – a replant of a Beeley Pippin after the last one didn’t take well, It’s in the north-east corner of the little  orchard and, judging by the buttercups there, I think it may be that the ground is slightly wetter than the rest of the orchard. Other trees don’t seem to mind it, so it may be the Beeley Pippin is a bit reluctant as a variety. We’ve also added a Vilberie – an old Normandy cider tree – to the little orchard, and the same variety on larger rootstock to the big orchard. I’m quite excited about these, and they’re one variety that has gone in after much thought.

 

Acre Field 2016 01

First Weekend – Patch Preparation

It’s that time of year, yet again! This time we’re a bit later than normal, and Easter is a bit earlier than normal, so it’s all a bit proverbial about proverbial. The weather has just been a bit damp for digging over too much, but Suz and I turned a couple of the beds last weekend, just to throw some of the weaker weeds (chickweed, grass etc) under the soil for the worms to eat. “The Beast” was pulled from its winter shed and checked over, before being put to work to rotovate the brassica bed that hadn’t been turned in a while. The bed we’d spread compost over and then covered with black weed fabric last autumn ended up as beautiful soil and really didn’t need any work with the worms having done it for us!

Jay digging the squash patchHere we have Jay getting stuck into clearing the bad weeds from the old squash patch, just before I started rotovating the straw into the soil. The artichokes in the forground have survived the winter with no cover. Not having grown them before I’m unsure how to overwinter them, but I suspect the harsh ground frosts we sometimes get here might nobble them. Luckily this winter has been ridiculously mild, a sign of things to come maybe, so they all seem to have pulled through, with two having actual small flower heads still intact!

Whilst we prepare an awful lot of our own produce, it’s been getting a bit silly. In the past, Jay and Smiler have cut apples on the top of the old picnic bench in the back garden, we then scratted them on the picnic bench seat, moved the juice inside to the dining room table, and then on into the pokey kitchen to bottle them. Preserving veg is a similar process, so this year, if all goes to plan, we’re going to extend the kitchen so we can at least have two people working in there at the same time without 2016 first patch day 2treading on each other! With this in mind, we have (very) reluctantly decided to grass over three of the vegetable beds.

In the photograph here you can only see two grassed and rollered, as I couldn’t bring myself to grass the third as it was beautiful soil. However, common sense prevailed and that too has been under Johnny’s old roller. Johnny was the chap who used to live at No.1 Merrybower Cottages, and is sadly no longer with us, although his wife Phyliss lives in Kings Newton, where the Newton Wonder apple tree is from. I never had the pleasure of knowing Johnny, 2016 first patch day 5but he worked at the coal board as an engineer, and made his own kit. We’ve been lucky enough to inherit a roller he made, and it’s beautiful! I can pull it, but it’s a decent weight and width, and has proper bearings with grease nipples, allowing it to glide along easily, despite probably being fifty years old. It’ll outlive any of us here at Merrybower, I’m sure.

I digress; the result of a longer kitchen is that for a month or two, we will be without a kitchen, smack bang in the middle of preserving and cooking season. Realistically we need to grow a bit less this year, and we’re also taking into account that this year will see far more tree fruit than last, and more cider making, so the time will still be used up, but in different ways. Whilst we only used five beds for veg growing, we have gained most of the fruit cage after pulling the raspberries and strawberries out last autumn. Where the strawberries will now go still has some older earth from the paths we dug out last year, and keeps throwing docks up, so I’m going to use that bed for root veg (carrots etc) that should do2016 first patch day 4 well in the new soil, and it gives us another season to rid the soil of persistent weeds before adding long-lived strawberries to it. Plus we also have the raised bed, and separate gooseberry/rhubarb beds, so really we won’t starve!

You can see Smiler did a cracking job of mulching the currant bushes – to the left of them is where the strawberries will go next year, to the right is where they were, and I have no idea what we’ll put in there for now!

2016 first patch day 1Speaking of docks, Suz tackled the dock seedlings that are scattered beneath the hedge where they blew over from No.1 when it had a year of neglect whilst empty2016 first patch day 3. We’re still struggling to stay on top of them, but as long as we mow and pick, we’ll eventually rid ourselves of the pernicious things!

Spring Time Shuffle & Update

The rains have subsided, the sun shows itself and we begin to shed the winter sleep from our eyes. Well, that’s not strictly true – a fortnight ago we started digging over the allotment – I tackled the last of the fruit tree pruning in the orchard whilst Suz dug over one of the vegetable beds and cleared the old strawberry patch which had started to deteriorate, having been in the ground for five years. Last Friday I dug over another vegetable bed and the rhubarbs whilst Suz pulled the remaining parsnips, carrots and beetroot, and weeded the artichokes, most of which have survived the mild winter! Jay got stuck into the first mow of the season, and Smiler prepared the raised bed. What a day! This was all on the only sunny day of the Easter weekend, but at least it gave us an excuse to take Saturday easy.

And then yesterday – the Sunday. The Little Orchard was looking quite sorry for itself – the occupation of the quarter acre by 20 chickens had taken its toll, the mole hills had become mole holes, the grass was quite short and it just looked grubby. I started to get the yearning to move them to cleaner ground a few weeks ago, but the time wasn’t right – but yesterday it was. It was a bit of a military exercise – Smiler and I got stuck into shifting electric fences – we’d done it before together and it was fun to get outside on a decent day.

2016 spring move pilgrim geeseWe managed to move the geese from the Big Orchard to the Hay Quarter, where they will have half that quarter acre. We are only making half as much hay this year, partly down to the fact that we have too many animals and need the ground, and also because we have other projects kicking from summer through to harvest that will soak time up. We are finally, hopefully, extending the kitchen, so we can get more than two people in it at a time, and will no longer have to chop apples up outside, press them on the dining table and transfer them to the kitchen to bottle! Which brings me to the other reason harvest time will be busy – apples! I expect a larger crop this year, and it would be good to give more attention to that side of things properly, without shoe-horning it in between hay making and vegetable growing. Again, with the kitchen being dismantled and the apple trees taking over, we have decided to grow only one third of the vegetables we normally do, as we won’t have anywhere to really prep or cook it this summer. We can, however, freeze a lot and eat much of it in salads, but next year we can begin again with renewed vigour, knowing we’ll have a kitchen table for the first time ever! As a plus point, moving the geese to the hay quarter will also give it    some much needed fertiliser – once the hay has been cut later in the year we’ll move them to the other half I imagine, or give them free roaming over the whole quarter acre.

2016 spring move light sussex bantamsWith the geese out of the Big Orchard, we moved the majority of the chickens in, as the geese hadn’t made much of a mess of the quatrer acre. We separated the chickens, the Light Sussex bantams were all put together, with William the Cock and his ladies having their own fenced off area. I suspect it was a bit of a relief for William – there were far too many ladies for him to control, and anarchy had reigned, with egg-eating having begun. We suspected the rescue Warrens had started it, as some are laying soft shells, but it had spread. So now he can control his five ladies, and they’re not competing for space with the huge hens.

2016 spring move june suzColin the Light Sussex cock was separated and placed with the four Light Sussex hens, and they have all moved down to the Chicken Paddock at the back of the house where we can keep an eye on them. They’re the potential parents of the next generation, so we’ll start collecting their eggs for incubation in two weeks, once he’s had time to do his business! We also put Jackie the possible-Light-Sussex-but-not-quite-sure rescue in with them, as the other hybrids were pecking her!

2016 spring move ducksThe ducks have all been annexed in the Banty Paddock, which has weld mesh fencing, to keep them contained! Once the vegetables in the allotment have grown to a duck-proof size, we can let them in there to clear slugs and snails, but at the moment I just don’t trust them!

2016 spring move hybridsAnd that left the remaining big hybrid hens – a motley crew if ever there was one! They are also in the Big Orchard, next to the bantams, so they’ll have some decent shade in the summer under the fruit trees.

As far as the egg-eating goes, the shuffle around seems to have helped somewhat – they’re in a new place so any egg-snaffling through boredom has been nobbled. And we’ve also trialled a roll away nest box in one of the Omlet Cubes, which seems to have worked. It was a simple affair, produced as an insert for the Chick Box. Some of the hens took to it straight away, but as one fills the double nest box of the Cube, it’s meant a queue from some ladies, or some just drop their egg down the side as they try and squeeze in. To help matters we’ve ordered two Chick Boxes, complete with the roll away nest box inserts, and we’ll place one in each of the Cubes. I think we can fit two in, but the floor space would suffer, so we’ll see how we go. I could always make a nest box holder that sits separately to the Cubes, if needed.

And that’s where we’re at! This morning we let them all out, and June came over from the farm next door to let us know they’d tried our cider and were still alive, which is a good thing, I think!

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Electric Fencing

With us losing Ethelred our cock this spring to the fox, we’ve decided we can’t take any more chances, so we’ve moved to electric fencing to keep our various birds safe. In the little orchard the pen is pretty much the full extent of the quarter acre, so the impact on the chickens will be minimal. We’ve used the 110cm high poultry netting, which we’ve used as standard netting to contain the bantams for the last year, but we’ve added another 50m section to it, to produce a 25m x 25m area, powered by a 3.5 joules energiser and 75Ah leisure battery. It gives a reading of between 2,000 and 3,000kw, so it’ll do the job.

The geese, on the other hand, might not really need it, but we’ve done it to be safe. There are foxes around, and the easy pickings of dropped fruit will dry up over the next few months, so we feel it’s best they ‘learn’ our animals aren’t on the menu. Poultry netting is dangerous for geese as they tend to push their heads through fencing, and can easily get stuck in the smaller netting, dieing from electrocution 🙁 So for them we’ve erected a 5 strand fence powered by a 0.5J system, which gives a reading of around 4,000kW! We’ve also added a “hot-gate” system, so we can get in and out easily.

As we haven’t bought another cock in for the large hens, we’re going to run the two flocks together inside the chicken pen, and William the bantam can deal with them all! They’ll still have their own coops and, from experience, they’ll tend to stick to the coops they know.

Another job done ready for the winter!

Wood Cutting

2015 wood storeWood Cutting

Our main source of heat is our old oil boiler. I say old – it’s no more than 10 years old, but it looks and sounds kaput. However, during the winter we try and use our wood stove as much as possible. We source local wood – some bought in, some foraged, some donated – and it’s better to keep the travel miles down on wood if you are keen to think of it as a greener source of heat. Despite being old, the house has been insulated on all of the outside walls, between the brickwork and internal plaster. The result being that the good old wood stove, only a 5kW thing, can keep downstairs at around 18-22 Celsius and upstairs at around 16-17 Celsius, in an average winter. It’s a great little thing, and last year we got through around five cubic metres of hard wood feeding it.

This year we had a selection of woods acquired over the year, so a day was spent bandsawing them all up into fire-sized chunks, and building a new pile. As you can see – Suz is such a fast worker that every shot resulted in her as a blurry ephemeral wood-stacking being (in denims). This is about a third of what we’ll get through, though we do have some nice hard wood to still cut.

Hay Cutting

2015 Haycutting 2And here it is – after four hours of cutting the grass is done, and the tractor is wheeled off for a service as it feels as though it’s running a bit hot.

We were torn between cutting now or leaving it longer. We have a 5-day window of decent weather to make the hay in, after that it becomes unsettled. As the grass is already a good length, it was decided to cut it now before it started dying off in the base. The only issue is that it’s recently rained, so cutting was hard work, and the ground is still very moist to start with, which is no help. We’ll turn it tomorrow, with the forecast being good, and hope that it starts to dry out.