Wild Flower Experiment #1 – Killing the Grass

Wild Flower Experiment

Getting rid of the rye grass and clover

Welcome to our wild flower experiment, a trial looking to introduce wild flowers to the orchard. There are several reasons for this – one is to encourage pollinators to the orchard, and another is to cut down on the amount of grass cutting needed.

When we sowed grass, before the orchard was started, we thought we might graze it with sheep or geese. Local advice was to use a permanent rye grass lay, essentially a mix of rye grass, timothy grass and white clover. As many know, and we have come to learn, rye grass grows quickly. Really quickly. Which is great if you have animals that like eating a lot of it. As we primarily run chickens under the orchard trees, for their ability to eat a lot of ground-living grubs and bugs and their manure, grass is a secondary food for them. The geese are much better at it, but they’re next to useless as bug control. The result is that we end up mowing grass, which is a waste of resources and time.

It’s been an idea for a while to add more flowers to the acre, and after much deliberation we’ve decided to run a small wild flower experiment, adding a 3m wide ribbon of wild flowers that the orchard trees will sit inside. The immediate base of each trunk will be kept clear naturally by the chickens, it seems to be a favourite hangout for them which they then scratch around in. The first stage is to test the theory on just one row of trees in the half standard quarter acre orchard (or, as we call it, the ‘big’ orchard, because the trees are larger than those in the bush quarter acre orchard (the ‘little’ orchard).

We’ve bought wild flower mixes before from Charles Flower, of Charles Flower Wildflowers. He very kindly has given us some advice after chatting through our plan, and advised us that rye grass is awfully hard to get rid of once you have it. The initial idea was to rotovate to a shallow depth continually over the growing season, but with the space to rotovate, we’ve decided to lay weed suppressant fabric where we will eventually sow the wild flower seed. We’ve used two layers of 100gsm fabric, to hopefully cut the majority of light out. I know one layer will do it as we used it last year over the space of two months to gain more room to grow vegetables. Hopefully three months of two layers will do much the same, only better, and still leave us August in which to rotovate and hopefully nobble as much new seedlings as possible before sowing in September. So far we only have enough fabric to the cover the area you see here, but more is ordered, actually enough to cover two tree rows, but I’ll have to see if we can resist the temptation to do that before knowing if it works.

Hopefully the end result will be more nectar for the insects needing it, and a more interesting habitat for the chickens. As far as wildlife is concerned, it could be a haven for the voles we have here (and therefore the various owls), and the longer vegetation will hopefully keep the soil moist for longer, encouraging insects that the resident hedgehogs will also happily feast upon.

Diggin’ Dirt

Main Crop PotatoesThe sun is out, the sky is blue, there’s not a cloud, to spoil the view, and I’m diggin’… diggin’ in the dirt.

Today I’ve mostly been planting the main crop spuds, so called because they’re the ‘main’ crop – the crop we’ll be eating for the majority of the year and over winter. We have Cara shown here, and then I added a row of good old King Edward, for roasting at Christmas 😀

Root VegThe the root veg went in – three rows of Boltardy beetroot, two rows of Gladiator F1 parsnip and two rows of Nero di Toscana kale.

The last one is from the Seed Cooperative, well worth checking out if you appreciate organic seeds and an approach to growing based on caring for the planet.

First Foray into the Allotment in 2021

And so it begins! So far this year has been great – not too much rain (after the very wet winter), and enough warmth on the back to make outside work pleasurable.

Spud Mountains

We’re getting into a great rhythm with the planting, despite last year being an odd one where so much extra was added to the workload and planting list. This year, with three less mouths to feed here at Merrybower, we’ve covered two growing strips to let them recuperate. The plots we knew we’d use, we add the waste from the poultry houses as a mulch for over winter. The worms and weather do their bit and we just then turn it over to create the tilth we need to plant in. You can see the first and second early potato rows quite obviously here – we popped in Accord as the first early variety, and Carlingford and International Kidney as the second earlies.

The Onion Patch – nothing much to see here, move along now

The onion patch is only identifiable by the clod hopper holes where I’ve tried to walk between the invisible rows of buried onion sets, and the scattered skins of onion and garlic sets. This year it’s enough Red Sun shallots for pickling, then the reliable Karmen red onions for salads and Sturon BC 20 for over winter use. Solent White garlic has always grown well here, even when, as now, it’s planted quite late. We can only hope for a decent growing season. At some point we’ll be adding Musselburgh leeks to this plot too, though I haven’t left much room!

Raise ’em high to deter the fly.

And then the raised bed. We usually put this over to salad crops – lettuce, radish, spinach, rocket and a few carrots. But we’ve realised that we get through an awful lot of carrots, so this is pretty much carrot paradise – full of Resistafly F1. Whilst I prefer the old varieties of veg, we do suffer badly here from carrot fly, to the point we’re not growing at ground level and we’re using resistant hybrids. Carrot fly don’t like to fly higher than 60cm (2ft), so a raised bed is ideal for them. the covering is to stop the spugs from dust bathing in the newly sown seed 😀 We have two new smaller raised beds nearer the house that we’ve sown pick and come again salad leaves. They were actually old pallet collars we used to store a top soil/compost mix in last year, and repurposed for growing veg.

2018 Cider No.2 Pressing Day

The Picking

It all started out with a sunny day, as it usually does. Unless it’s raining, which hasn’t been that often this year, really.

Cider No.2 has typically been a “pick the apples mid October, press them end of October” thing. This year the condensed but intense growing period in the summer has forced the fruit to ripen quicker than usual.

Add to that the fact we have numerous wasps this year and more hornets than we’ve ever seen, the poor old apples have been hard hit. And the many insect bites have soon rotted the apples – a bad year for brown rot too. So all in all, I’m impressed with how much fruit we actually ended up with.

As we picked the various varieties to add to the mix for 2018 Cider No.2, Mikey the Marsh Daisy “stood guard”, which roughly translates to Mikey “stood guard whilst his ladies helped themselves to the freshly picked apples”. Plenty to go around though.

The Tremlett’s Bitter looked particularly gorgeous – the red of the apples is so intense (no filters were used on that photograph!), and I can’t wait to see the impact they have on the cider. It’s our first year of a really good crop off this tree, which is awfully exciting.

Once they were all picked, several hours later, on to the little grey Fergie and pootled back to the house where they’ll sit outside for a week or two sweating. This is where the starch in the apples turns to sugar, which in turn will convert to the alcohol which gives cider its shelf-life and storage qualities.

The Pressing

Rob popped around again to help press whilst Suz took on the animal cleaning, with Jay’s help. This time round we had a much better system in place. The first wash and cutting table. where Rob sat most of the time, was sat in the full sun, which helped. Then the second and third wash buckets were placed between the table and the mill, where I could sit. The press was next to the mill, but faced a direction where we could empty the bladder after each pressing on to the drive gravel. The barrow for the pomace was a distance from the mill so as not to infect anything in the clean area.

It took us about five hours to process 200kg of apples, which in turn gave us 100 litres of juice. The bottle neck is definitely the press now – the mill could easily feed two 40 litre hydropresses – one being filled whilst the other is pressing. It was also a long process as we pressed each apple variety separately, and this mix had a lot of varieties. This was done so the pH and Specific Gravity could be measured for each type of juice, to add to the records for the orchard. Also we could add the right ratio of juice to each of the fermenting containers (70l barrel, 25l bin 4.5l demijohn) . I think in a 7.5 hour day , with two presses, we could press at least 600kgs of fruit for this kind of fiddly mix of nine varieties.

The Original Pressing Plan

The original plan was something like this:

VarietyAttributePercentage Mix
Slack ma GirdleSweet14%
CatsheadSharp14%
Tremlett's BitterBittersweet14%
Wyken PippinSweet14%
Rosemary RussetSweetsharp7%
Marriage MakerSweet14%
BramleySharp9%
Barnack OrangeSweet7%
Ashmeads KernelSweet7%

The final plan, in liquid percentages was this:

VarietyAttributePercentage Mix
Warners KingSharp4.87%
CatsheadSharp9.74%
Tremlett's BitterBittersweet24.35%
Wyken PippinSweet12.35%
SanspareilSweet14.6%
Marriage MakerSweet4.87%
BramleySharp9.74%
Barnack OrangeSweet9.74%
Ashmeads KernelSweet9.74%

Despite most of the fruit in the orchard ripening early, Rosemary Russet was sticking to her guns and remained unripe. The Slack ma Girdle also had ripened too early and we lost a lot of the crop to insect damage, so the sharpness missing from the russet was replaced by some Warners King, and the sweetness missing from the Slack ma Girdle was replaced by Sanspareil.

The pH and Specific Gravity values for each juice were like this at the end.

 Specific GravitypH
Warners King1.0502.8
Catshead1.0582.8
Tremletts Bitter1.0563.6
Wyken Pippin1.0653.2
Sanspareil1.0463.2
Marriage Maker1.0623.2
Bramley1.0522.8
Barnack Orange1.0623.2
Ashmeads Kernel1.0703.0

Whilst the 70 litre blue barrel and test demijohn had the above mixes, the 25 litre fermenting bin had a slightly different mix as there wasn’t as much of some of the juice types as we’d hoped. To that we added 2.5kg each of Allington Pippin, Ribston Pippin and Newton Wonder. The final reading for both types are as follows:

70 litre blue barrel and test demijohn – pH 3  .0 – SG 1.057

30 litre fermenting bin – pH 3.2 – SG 1.059

Cider No.1 Apple Pressing Day

Last Year’s Cider No.1

This time last year we picked around 30kg of fruit, and considered it a horde worthy of Crown intervention. From that we ended  with 30 litres of apple juice, which turned into 50 pints of lovely cider about eight months later. It took about five hours to make that, with the hand-crank scratter and beam press we’d hired from Whistlewood Common (Melbourne Transition group), but it was worth the effort.

Knowing that this year would be bigger, in terms of fruit production, I’d been sizing up which route to go in terms of buying in kit, and talking endlessly (ask Suz…) about the various options which would see us enter apple heaven, floating on gossamer wings no doubt.

This Year – the Kit

Vares Fruit Shark Megalodon

Vares Fruit Shark Megalodon

The first piece of kit to arrive was the scratter – wonderfully called the “Fruit Shark Megalodon”, produced by a company named Vares. It was this or the Speidel Mill, both powerful, but I liked the fact this is made from stainless steel rather than plastic. The fact Speidel offer replacement plastic housing makes me wonder.

40 litre Hydropress

40 litre Hydropress

The second piece of kit to arrive was a 40 litre hydropress. I love the fact that it’s powered by the water mains, water being pumped into a large bladder balloon in the centre which pushed the milled fruit outwards and against the sides of the cylinder, which as holes to allow the juice to run down the outside and collect in the gutter. It’s a beautifully simple system and in practise it was wonderful!

Apple Haul No.1

Apple Haul No.1

This photograph shows it with the lid off, the milled fruit having been squeezed down the sides between the bladder in the centre and the outer cylinder walls, and then covered with the cloth. The idea of a 40 litre hydropress rather than a larger 90 litre, for example, is that one person can easily manage the 40 litre, in terms of emptying, carrying and so forth. Also, if production increases then adding another 40 litre press to the set up means one can be pressing whilst the other is being emptied, ridding yourself of a potential bottleneck. The Megalodon would easily produce enough milled fruit for two presses – we found the bottle neck in this set up was us not preparing the fruit quick enough, and the press.

This Year – the Fruit

Apple Haul No.2

Apple Haul No.2

As mentioned, last year we managed to scrounge 30kg of fruit for our first pressing of the year. This year we thankfully had our little grey Fergie tractor to help us out as we filled about seventeen Eurocrates and hauled up 260kg of fruit! Next year I imagine it will be even more!

Rob busy apple sorting

Rob busy apple sorting

Our good friend Rob offered to help pick the fruit, and then process it (cut bits out and provide banter). I was so thankful when I saw the amount of work, but two of us, powered by bacon butties, tea and apple juice, managed to process the fruit in about six hours.

That said, about two hours were wasted by faffing with the new kit and a few mishaps – apparently blue barrels (we’ve moved on to 60 litre barrels to ferment in now) are quite slippy when covered in apple juice. Luckily I didn’t spill the entire contents when one slipped out of my hands! And why was I trying to pick up a half-full barrel? Because it turns out that a washer on the inside of the tap doesn’t keep the juice inside the barrel, so we needed to retap the barrels. Next time will be much smoother, I promise 😀

Dunk & Rob loading the Fergie

Dunk & Rob loading the Fergie

Finally, the fruit we used for Cider No.1.

The original intention can seen in the post Cider Plans 2018. However, as all good plans of mice and men, it unraveled as the freak weather we’ve had this year caused some fruit to drop, and others to ripen early.

Wocester Pearmain was or main issue – we just didn’t have enough. But on the plus side Tremlett’s Bitter stepped up to the mark and ripened early, so we managed to sneak some of those in, something we’ve never been able to manage in a first press of the year.

The original plan was like this (in weight of fruit, as we assume it all presses about the same – which it doesn’t):

VarietyAttributePercentage Mix
Yellow IngestrieSweet30%
Worcester PearmainSweet20%
RivalSubacid20%
Lord DerbyAcid20%
QueenSubacid10%

The final plan was this, in liquid percentages:

VarietyAttributePercentage Mix
RivalSubacid33.5%
Lord DerbyAcid32.5%
Yellow IngestrieSweet11%
Worcester PearmainSweet10.5%
Tremlett's BitterSweet Sharp10%
QueenSubacid2.5%

Again, notes were taken for the Specific Gravity and pH of most of the juices.

 Specific GravitypH
Rival1.0503.2
Lord Derby1.0482.8
Worcester Pearmain1.0453.2
Queen1.0512.8

The final overall Specific Gravity was 1.050 and the pH was 3.2. To gain a better idea of the final alcohol level, I also mixed up a demijohn at the same ratios as above, and we’re forcing that to ferment quicker than the main barrels in the garage, This way we can see where the fermenting stops, as cider can often be down as low as 0.997 rather than the 1.000 people expect. It will also help me to know when to bottle to gain natural carbonation in-bottle, without going over the allowed 3bar pressure.

Oh, and the final amount of juice? An amazing 125 litres 😀

Busy Sunday

The spring weather continues to be glorious, and as the earth warms up, more seeds can be sown and indoor growers transplanted to outdoors.

Today we began with the task of potting on. Vegetable growing is a continuous production line; plants needing a long growing season, such as aubergine, begin inside in a warm place in the house. They then shift to a greenhouse as the weather picks up, and some stay in the greenhouse. Hardier species will move outside, and some just like being outside from the start of their little productive lives.

Brassicas are one of our hardiest. This year we have cheated and bought plugs from a market garden friend we know (big shout out to Martin at Sharps Growers in Kings Newton). Sharps produce them by the thousands, and when we only need 2 to 7 of a vegetable type, it isn’t even cost-effective to buy the seed packets! Another job is to keep the pesky pigeons from our luscious baby leaves, and so I delved into ‘the barn’ (a shed), and pulled out pieces of the fruit cage we lost to a heavy snow drop a few years ago. Someone stupidly left the top mesh in place and the snow can do quite a bit of damage with its weight! I salvaged enough straight uprights and beams to make a 10ft square walk-in netted cage – possibly the poshest cabbage patch in all of South Derbyshire! In there we have seven spring pointy cabbage, five brussels sprouts, two winter savoy cabbage, three round summer cabbage, six calabrese and six cauliflowers. Rather than staggered planting, we harvest things like the cauliflower at the same time and freeze in bulk.

The it was on to the second sowing of carrots, thirty feet of Robila, and a block of Velvet Queen sunflowers. This variety of sunflower are stunning, with a deep crimson petal – they should look stunning!

Nearer the house, an old belfast sink was requisitioned and repurposed as a pick-and-come-again mixed salad planter, just outside the kitchen doors.

Then the greenhouses were emptied of the winter-crud and refilled with 6 Ruthje tomato plants – a great eating variety apparently, 7 San Marzano plum-type cooking tomatoes, and 6 Arola cucumbers.

All in all, quite a productive day!

Beetroot & Sweetcorn

Asides from lots of mowing and general tidying up, the beetroot (Boltardy) and sweetcorn (Ashworth) were the only things that went into the ground today! Mind you – it *is* looking a lot tidier isn’t it!

Another Odd-Job Day…

…I love those days where there’s no pressure to anything in particular, because you know full well that there’s always a list of things to complete.

As the weather’s warming up, it seemed like an opportune time to get the good old squash going, so in we popped the squash, to start in the house, and eventually move to the greenhouse, then outside under cloche until we’re so very sure that Jack Frost won’t visit.

Our squash choices consist of:

  • Tonda Padana – our favourite, great for Suz’s Lemon Yellow Squash Pie.
  • Butternut Waltham – we do like a roasted butternut soup.
  • Green Kuri – never tried it before, but keen to give it a whirl!

And then we have some Cocozelle von Tripolis courgette, Boltardy beetroot, and Tall Utah celery. I suspect I won’t get around to the beetroot as that will be sown directly in to the allotment, whereas the rest we’re starting from seed.

Next up is the cucumbers – nicely potted on and in to their final position in a greenhouse. We keep them separate to the tomato greenhouse as they like a slightly humid atmosphere, as do aubergines.

Whilst the tomatoes are looking a little leggy, we’ll try and check their growth by hardening them off to greenhouse temperatures. Soon they’ll be potted on into their own greenhouse.

Then on to mulching the currant bushes – we have two of each colour – black, red and white. Any berries that fall off can pop up as new plants, so we mulch to help prevent that, to keep the weeds in check, and to preserve soil moisture.

And finally, the Marsh Daisy chicks are four weeks old and feathering up nicely! This is their first trip outside, where we’ve moved them to a new Green Frog Design coop which will be their home for a while. Indeed, for those that stay with us, their home forever!

Things are Popping Up After the Late Start to Spring!

Blauwschokkers Pole Peas

Blauwschokkers Pole Peas

After the late start to spring, with the ground finally un-soggified, Suz and I took the day off to make use of the sunshine and get the patch into some sort of order. There’s a list of post-winter jobs that still need doing – the grass had its first cut on Saturday, electric fence lines were strimmed, grassless soil was rotovated, seeded and rollered, and Colin the Light Sussex cock was popped in with his nieces to do his job. Coops were shuffled,

De-weeding strawberry runners

De-weeding strawberry runners

Eddie the cock was moved from his into his aunts’ paddock, which leaves a coop spare for the Marsh Daisy chicks that are currently just under two weeks old. Sunday continued the work, and the bantams were moved onto fresh grass.

Today, whilst I had the easy job of sowing the seed in the raised bed, Suz had the unenviable task of weeding errant strawberry runners from under the current bushes, then weeding the future beds of the sunflowers and sweet corn. Horrendous job!

Raised bed

Raised bed

Continuing to use our organic seed from the Seed Co-operative, we sowed in the raised bed the following:

  • Butterflay (spinach)
  • Greens and Salads (lettuce leaves mix)
  • Wild Rocket
  • Merveille des Quatre Saisons (butter head lettuce)
  • French Breakfast 2 (radish)
  • Miranda (carrot)
Red Sun shallots

Red Sun shallots

Witkiem broad beans

Witkiem broad beans

The sowings from a few weeks ago have broken the ground after the last few days of sun, and the weeds are still tiny and easily hoed, too easy! Spring has definitely sprung into action 🙂

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.