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.

Dandelion Wine – Step 3

2016 dandelion wine 5Right-oh – we’re three (well four, but it should be three) days after adding the sugar, yeast and yeast nutrient to the dandelion wine liquid, having first strained it. It’s bubbling along nicely, and so today’s task is to rack it into one gallon demijohns for the final fermentation stage. It was easy enough, I bought one of those auto-siphon things, which was a lot easier than puckering and sucking on the end of a hose, waiting for a mouthful of sugar and yeast concoction! A few minutes later and we have five full demijohns sat in the garage alongside the 2016 dandelion wine 4last slow ferment cider. Just a couple of years before we taste the results!

Dandelion Wine – Step 2

Dandelion Wine – Step 2

Well, the ten days are up and it’s time to filter the dandelion wine mixture into a new clean fermention bucket. This was a simple affair, except I managed to misplace our filter cloth, so we had to resort to using the kitchen seive.

Any fears of there not being enough liquid once the dandelion, orange and lemon mass was removed, were unfounded. The 7kg of granulated sugar added bulk enough to lift the level back up.

2016 dandelion wine 3It was a simple process – pour the liquid into a new sterilised bucket, through a seive (the smell is gorgeous – delicate and flowery, with the citrus tang in the background). I had to remove several little spots of floating mould with a spoon, then once all was in the new bucket, we added the granulated sugar. Again, as we were making five gallons rather than the one gallon the recipe assumed, we multiplied the 3lbs (1.4kg) of sugar by five, so 7kg of sugar! To this mixture we dropped a sachet of GP wine yeast and the relevant amount of yeast nutrient – it will say how much per gallon on the tub you bought.

Give it a really good mix, until the sugar has dissolved, and fit the lid again. Not having done this before, I fitted an airlock to our bucket, in case it starts to ferment wildy before the three days is up!

Dandelion Wine – Step 1

Dandelion Wine Recipe

Okay, so we de-head them, we mow them, we curse them (often), we pretend they’re not really there, we dig them up, and generally aim quite a lot of animosity in their direction. But do they deserve it?! Over the last few years we’ve made dandelion root coffee, and it’s been quite nice, in my opinion, but a lot of faff. This year Suz suggested we try dandelion wine – and not one to argue with that train of thought, I dug out the old 1970’s book “Easymade Wine & Country Drinks” by Mrs Gennery-Taylor.

The ingredients needed are:

  • 2 quarts (2.25 litres) dandelion flowers
  • 3lb (1.4kg) granulated sugar
  • G.P. (general purpose) wine yeast
  • Yeast nutrient
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 orange
  • 1 gallon (4.5 litrs) boiling water

2016 dandelion wine 1Now being of that generation who was brought up in the metric system, yet who had to learn the old imperial system as his father worked in it, I’ve converted the imperial measurement above to metric. However, I’ll be putting it all in 1 gallon demijohns, so I’ll be basing it on that.

So we picked 10 quarts of dandelion flowers – Suz spent a couple of hours of back-bending picking, and I chipped in for the last hour, even stealing some from our grateful neighbour’s lawn! Essentially we just packed the big yellow dandelion heads into a litre jug, and called that one quart.

We washed the dandelion heads, placed them into a sterlised five gallon fermenting bucket, and added 5 gallons of boiling water, five2016 dandelion wine 2 finely sliced oranges and five finely sliced lemons. Gave it a good stir and sealed the lid. We now need to leave it for ten days – no longer! (according to the book).

I must add – it’s important to sterilise everything you use when making home-made wine, beer or cider. Cleanliness is everything!

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

And You Think Coffee is Expensive!

Determined to put the time spent picking dandelions to good use, I vowed I would carry out the task of converting the dandelions to something useful – namely the coffee I mentioned way back.

Trying to speed the process up, I dropped the dandelions into a reasonably clean barrow (yes – the new posh black one – we’re officially a three-barrow household now!) and hosed the majority of the dirt from them before allowing myself into the house. I then topped and tailed them all, keeping some of the leaves for salads, the rest going into the brown bin as I’m lost for ideas that will make use of it.

Once topped and tailed, they’re scrubbed thoroughly with a nail brush to remove the majority of the brown skin – I’m really not sure if it’s necessary to be that thorough, but figure we do it with carrots and potatoes, perhaps it’s a good idea to do it with something else pulled from the ground.

Then they’re diced really small, slow roasted in the oven for about an hour at 75 Celsius, often turning them. Then they’re crushed. At the end of the day, after maybe two hour’s work, I ended up with half a small jar of coffee grinds for Espresso experience, great quality tho.
Something tells me there must be an easier way!

Dandelion Coffee

Dandelion Root Coffee

Right – over the last few years I’ve made it my passion to remove any dandelion I see in the patch. I’ve seen a field not too far from us, heaving with them, and I know how much of a pain it is to get rid of them. Therefore, every spring will see me armed with fork and barrow, marching through the patch, pulling dandelion after dandelion – it’s war on a grand scale, and the enemy is relentless.

I daren’t compost them, so I probably bin at least four barrow loads of them every spring, then another barrow load come mid summer when they have their second burst. But it seemed such a waste. I dislike moving stuff from our land, as I know things like weeds tend to carry an awful lot of goodness, wrapped up in their spikes and stings and wafty leaves. So to search out a use for our dandelions. Earlier this year we tried the young leaves – a bit bitter for my taste, though I’ve heard cooking them down rids them of that. We’ve yet to try the young buds lightly fried in butter, but I also read that you can use the roots to make dandelion root coffee!

Today was that day. I’d just pruned another two plum trees, gradually working my way through the orchard work. I’d noticed the dandelions popping up after a rest of a month or so, and decided this was the moment to have a bash at home-made low-caffeine coffee.

dandelion_coffee_1Firstly I picked around 20 of the choicest roots. None of these dandelions were huge, so all the roots were between 8mm and 3mm in width. Then a darned good scrubbing with the potato brush, to get rid of the soil, and a top and tail.

dandelion_coffee_2Another rinse in cold water, and then finely chopped, to help them dry out quicker in the oven.

On to a metal dish and placed in the oven at 200C for around 30 minutes, and the smell was lovely! Suz said it smelled like a coffee shop – I’ll take that as a positive 🙂 However, opening the oven door let a bit of smoke into the room, so I turned the heat down to 100C for another 30 minutes or so. In reality, this was an awful waste of electric for such a small amount, but it was an experiment.

dandelion_coffee_3Once the small pieces were brittle under a spoon, I removed them from the oven and ground them in a bowl, using the back of a spoon. Again, on a larger scale you could use a decent sized pestle and mortar, or a blender. The resulting pieces, I assume, would be fine to store for future use. dandelion_coffee_4Having no idea how much I needed to use for a cup of coffee, I poured the entire bowl of grinds into a single cup cafetiere, covered with boiling water, and left for a couple of minutes. Then it was a quick plunge and pour, and sniff. It smelled a bit like coffee, a bit like chicory coffee, and a bit odd, which I assume might be the dandelion bit. Adding milk, to about a 50% mix (yes, it seems the amount of root I had could have provided for two cups rather than the one I made), and a couple of sweeteners, made a drink I was more than happy to take away with me!

dandelion_coffee_6So here I am, typing this up, having just downed my first cup of home-made dandelion root coffee!

A lot of hassle, as are most things made and not pre-bought, but on a grander scale could well be worth the effort. Dandelion coffee cake? Hmmm…

June Update

 

What can I say?! The weather has been absolutely fantastic! Mostly sun, the odd shower here and there, then back to sun. Everything is growing as it should be – no late frost to nobble the early starters, no waterlogging, no drought. To be honest, it’s getting a bit scary.

So, to firmly plant the goodness that has been the last month, here’s a quick update on just how well everything’s growing.

 

Sunflower Seed

2014 Sunflower SeedThe result of drying out around 20 Sunflower heads – a decent bag of seed to replant or just feed to the birds. Easiest thing to do, but not sure how you’d clean them decently for human consumption.

Sunflowers

2013 Jungle Fowl 2013 Sunflowers 2013 Sunflower and BeeA new introduction to the patch this year, the sunflower bed is one of my favourites. The bees and insects love it, but as we let our bantams free-range the allotment quarter in the summer, once the seedlings are all established, they pretend they’re teeny jungle-fowl, like their ancestors, all Rambo style.

Of course, once they season’s over we’ll harvest the seed and either use it for ourselves, or it’s free bird food!