I popped over to the local farm today, where Rob and Pete breed the other chickens and geese we mention on the website, and managed to grab a quick photo of the Rhode Island Red chicks, newly hatched, and the two breeding West of England geese. Rob’s also come up with an ingenious little broody shed, using their own hybrid bantam that makes a great broody mother! Less electricity, all natural, and they’re treated well. One little trick I picked up, handed down from Pete’s dad, was to line each broody box with a square of grass sod, earth and all, and place the straw over it. Apparently this helps keep the hen moist, as if it were in the wild, and the grass growing from the front give them something to nibble on!
Here we have our Light Sussex flock, separated from the rest of the chickens for the breeding season. They’re brought to the small paddock at the back of the house, so we can keep a keen eye on them all – they’re fantastic to wake up to, seeing them from the kitchen window.
Colin is a cockerel we’ve bred ourselves, as are the ladies, so at the moment they’re a closed flock although we’ll try and introduce some new blood over the next year or two. The hen with the lighter hackles is Jacqueline, an old rescue hen that is beyond laying, but is at home with the rest of them. In all honesty, she’s Colin’s favourite and the other ladies treat her as royalty, definitely the matriarch!
At this stage their eggs are being collected, ready for incubation. We’re getting between two and four a day, which is about right for the breed. The hen in the coop run, waiting patiently for Suz to finish cleaning them out, is determined to go broody but she’s not quite there yet!
Just a quick post to mention we’ve sown most of the raised bed, the planting list can be seen by clicking here.
For us, this is the *only* way to grow carrots – not one carrot fly has managed to infiltrate the 2′ walls and nobble our orangey roots to date. The cover, just cheap scaffolders netting bought in a huge roll, keeps the birds and cats away, though protects the slugs wonderfully 🙂
To elaborate, we built this raised bed out of decking boards, which are a decent thickness. It’s not lined at all, which hasn’t seemed to matter here, and is conveniently placed right next to the compost bins, when it needs topping up with the brown gold. The longer posts on the corners and sides give the net something to hold on to, and the net’s held in place by screws half-screwed in, so the net can be anchored by pushing it over a screw head. Simple does it!
It’s one of those posts! You know, the sort of post that collects all the lost things that wouldn’t make a post in and of themselves, but I find interesting enough to want to make a note about them. So here goes!
Propogating gooseberries – it’s easy! This is one Colin, my father-in-law taught me. If you have access to a gooseberry bush, and you’d like another, just cut a 12″ twig off and stick it in the ground! Winter is the time to do it, when everything is dormant – the two green twigs on the left are simply twigs cut from a gooseberry bush on the left, and the two more developed plants on the right are branches cut from an existing bush! The reason we did this? Well – we had a bush but the pruning regime wasn’t right for us – they branched out too close to the base, and had thrown up a lot of new stems. Doing what we’ve done here we can propogate the plants, and form them to a more open bush style, which will hopefully be easier and less painful to pick from!
This next image shows the cleaned soil of the main fruit bed. The currants are coming along nicely and we’re going to eventually fill the larger bed with strawberries, but this year, whilst we’re still cleaning it of the random docks and nettles that were brought in with new soil, we’re using it to grow some veg. Here you can see Smiler has laid out lines for his onions, with some yet to be filled with some of last year’s garlic we still have hanging up.
Grass! As you know from a recent post, we’ve grassed over half of our allotment (sniff) as we’ll hopefully be without a kitchen for a good portion of the harvest season – how’s that for timing! Two weeks ago I sowed a ryegrass/clover mix, and today this happened! First thing in the morning there was nothing, and a good day of sunshine after the rain and we’ve almost an inch of growth – fantastic! We’ll be playing cricket on it in no time 😉
Pear blossom – it’s beautiful isn’t it?! What amazes me with pears is that their blossom clumps are huge in comparison to the other fruit types. My fear is that we’ll have a frost or two before they open, killing them off, which is what I think happened last year. The apples tend to come out later, but we seem to have more varieties of plums, pears and cherries that are early starters – bad move possibly, but makes it quite exciting to see if we’ll get any!
Chickens and their lice baths. Chickens are reasonably good at keeping their lice populations down to manageable levels themselves, if given the right space. Luckily, the bare earth beneath the fruit trees is the perfect location for an impromptu dirt bath, so we sprinkle some food grade diatomaceous earth in the hollow to help the chickens with their task.
And finally – walnuts! These buds with the pine cone pattern will eventually form the male catkins – I have no idea what the female buds look like yet, but no doubt we’ll get some again this year. In the photograph showing ‘normal’ smooth buds, the white patches beneath the new buds is where the leaves were last year and have since fallen off and healed. I have my suspicions that the larger buds on the end might be flower buds, but we’ll have to wait and see. Now, reading up on walnut trees started to get me a bit worried – walnut trees produce a substance called juglone, which inhibits the growth of other plants, even killing them. Particularly susceptible are apple trees – yikes! Before reaching for eth chainsaw, I read a bit more on the subject. Apparently the drip line is worst affected, that is any ground beneath the leaf canopy. Now, we planted Broadview, a compact cultivar, which has a 9m height growth if left unchecked, and a 6m spread, which is only 20ft or thereabouts, which is a 10ft radius around the trunk. Our closest apples trees are around 30ft from the trunk, with their roots ending up with a 10ft distance between themselves and the roots of the Walnut. So I won’t panic just yet – the MM106 apple trees might be dead by the time the walnut reaches mature size, and worst case scenario, we end up with some nice walnut wood!
The last two weekends rotovating, hoeing and digging have paid off, and the weedlings are thin on the ground. The weather has warmed the soil, and I feel safe putting something in without fear of weeds taking over before the seedlings have a chance to break through.
When it comes to potatoes, I know we should put the earlies in, well, early, but it just felt too cold and damp, and we’re in no rush. So today we planted the whole kaboodle, first and second earlies, and the main crops. Mid April, nice and warm, clean soil, perfect!
First earlies were Rocket – we usually go for Swift, but I fancied a change – they have a good disease resistance and whilst we haven’t really suffered from keel worm yet, it can’t be a bad thing 🙂 Second earlies were Charlottes, great for salads which are a staple in the house during the warmer months. We’ve grown them before and had good crops. Main crops were our two favourites – King Edwards for roasting – can’t be beaten, and Valor for a general good all-rounder, a rarity in that it’s a main crop variety that can be mashed without disintegrating. It also has very good blight and eelworm resistance. We had some blight last year, and I can’t help but wonder if the blight trials they’re carrying out two fields to the south-west of us is making it as far as us. If so, it upsets me greatly 🙁
Then on to the onion patch – we’ve again gone for the old favourites – Picasso Red shallots for pickling, Sturon white onions and Karmen red onions, both decent storers (though not as good as the shallots in my experience), and Marco garlic – a new one for us. I’m a bit gutted that we’re late with the garlic, they really should have been in weeks ago, but such is life.
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.
I couldn’t resist a gratuitous photograph of the lovely line up of our Merrybower cider – Tally Ho! cider 🙂 Don’t they look smart all lined up! These aren’t for sale, but I’m making inroads into the process, for the day we may make too much and want to sell some. The name is indicative of the style of cider – a wild ferment from random(ish) apples, so you’ll never quite know what to expect when you dive into one! I have to admit it was fun designing the labels!
On a related note, the ‘special’ cider we only have one demijohn of, that was the second batch made last year, has woken from its winter slumber and begun to ferment again! I’m excited about this one in particular as it’s made from a mix of russets, cider and cookers. Fingers crossed we’ll be bottling it soon!
Whilst we’ve only just started collecting eggs from our own flock of Light Sussex, I popped down to see Rob and Pete, and they’ve hatched their first two broods. Here you can see the Derbyshire Redcaps on the left, and the Brown Leghorn bantams on the right, all looking lovely! The Brown Leghorns will find their way into a wooden incubation coop very soon, next door to the Derbyshire Redcaps.
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!
Here 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 treading 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, but 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 do 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!
Speaking 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 empty. 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!