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.

Waney Edge Fencing

Phrase of the week…

“Waney Edge”

The story of a quick little project that turned out to be quite addictive!

It's a fence Jim, but not as you know it.

It’s a fence Jim, but not as you know it.

With it becoming imminent that next door will once again be rented out again after a fairly eventful year, we thought our good neighbours at the far end of our little collective might appreciate some privacy. We had fence panels in place, but they were infilled with mesh – great to view the hedge through but, at certain times of year, great to view absolutely everything through! Suz hit on the idea of fence panels that we could just attach to the existing framework, given that’s it’s solid wood (I suspect it’s ash). Looking at pre-made fence panels to buy I realised it wasn’t that easy – these are a standard size but they slot into the concrete posts, therefore anything of the same size wouldn’t sit happily on top because they’d be too long and cover a portion of the concrete post at either end.

“Can’t we just buy some slats and screw them on?” Suz questioned. “I quite like those wavey edge panels”, she added.

Peter of Mansfield Mobile Sawmill

Peter of Mansfield Mobile Sawmill

It turns out they’re actually called “waney” edge panels – with an interesting etymology that I shan’t bore you with here. Suffice to say I searched for a supplier and stumbled across a fairly local chap named Peter Ferguson, who runs the Mansfield Mobile Sawmill. A quick call to order some freshly cut locally sourced 12mm larch cladding found me driving up to collect it just three days later from his al fresco open-plan office.

The job the waney edge was bought for.

The job the waney edge was bought for.

And the end result was so much quicker to build, and will last around thirty years with no treatment! My kind of numbers – who wants to mess around with chemicals to preserve something so natural? The colour will fade over time to a silver-grey, much like oak does, but that will only add to the charm. After all, that is our shared destiny. I should add that it also worked out cheaper than buying pre-made panels too!

Another job succumbing to the way of the waney edge

Another job succumbing to the way of the waney edge

With the two main fence panels completed, I realised that the off-cuts Peter so kindly threw in with the job would allow me to replace the rotten end panel at the far end of the fence. Job done!

Patio waney edge privacy panel / Merrybower winds windbreak.

Patio waney edge privacy panel / Merrybower winds windbreak.

And then there was the patio area that last year was filled with tomato plants (“There may be a pandemic Suz, but we’ll never want for a decent passata.”). Suz liked the idea of a wind break that also doubled up as a privacy screen from the road when sat down, enjoying the last rays of summer sun.

Excellent, I got to work once more, grabbing three sweet chestnut fencing posts that we have lying around to replace the naff pine posts that rot within five years.

Finally the blackbod has a home!

Finally the blackbod has a home!

A couple of hours later and we had the perfect rustic background on which to hang a bird ornament Mark & Judy bought us a while ago (I say Mark & Judy – I suspect Mark has no idea he bought it for us). So I’m now busy searching for anywhere else I can add the waney edge to – my eye is on the tractor shed 😀

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.

Freedom!!

Eric and his ladies

What a winter for the chooks! With the avian flu pandemic they were only allowed out of their covered runs this April, several months literally cooped up. This is how is should be, them running free below the orchard, scratching up over-wintered bugs, fertilising the ground and providing us with fresh eggs, in exchange for food, water and a safe home. The symbiotic relationship is certainly strained when they can’t forage as intended.

Still, they’re free now, and what a sight. In front of the green coop you can see Eric and his harem, the parent flock to the next generation of Marsh Daisy to live here at Merrybower.

Sidney and his ladies

And standing in front of their snazzy new grit feeder is Sidney and his ladies, son and daughters of Eric’s bunch, hatched last year. Sidney is actually off to a new home in Cornwall soon, but one of his brothers will step into his place.

2019 Cider No.2

With all the kerfuffle over the confounded Covid-19 virus, cider bottling was put to the bottom of the ‘to-do’ list. Before it all kicked off, we’d managed to bottle two ferementers – No.4, a small 30 litre fermenter, and No.1, one of the new Speidel 60 litre fermenters.

Today we finally got round to No.2 – yes – there is no order we do this in. No.2 is a quarter Warner’s King, for the acidity, with Jonagold making up a large portion of the sugar content, along with Ellison’s Orange and Oslin. I have absolutely no data on the malic and tannin levels of any of the dessert apples used, suffice to say the resulting blend has turned out very smooth and doesn’t seem to have suffered much from being on the lees for so long.

This is also the second time I’ve used the new Grifo capping machine, along with capped bottles rather than swing tops. The Grifo is amazing – very sturdy; the decision to go with capped bottles is largely due to the desire to go commercial in the near future, and the fact that plain bottles are cheaper, but also easier to clean than a swing top. I’m hoping we get many of the bottles back to reuse.

The final ABV was 6%, back sweetened for in-bottle conditioning. As usual it’s a wild yeast fermentation with no sulphites added. A friend asked if it was vegan, which is something I hadn’t really thought about before! But I guess it is? I mean, it’s apples and, in this case, some sugar. Does that make it vegan friendly? I need to learn more!

Hoglets!

We’ve reasonable knowledge about hedgehogs over 300 g, and have overwintered some of these prickly darlings in our purpose-built animal room. But hoglets?!

A passerby saw a hoglet outside the house, knocked on the door … a quick search and we found 4 more abandoned hoglets. We put them in a carrier with a heat pad to warm them through – they were freezing! and quickly phoned the vet. Of course, Sunday service! But Scarsdale Vets in Derby were fantastic and an hour later we were armed with a Royal Canin Babycat milk kit with feeding bottle.

They’re so Tiny!

The smallest hog was 50 g and the largest 66 g, two with eyes open. Using my Vale Wildlife Hospital hedgehog rehabilitation course booklet, we worked out they are 14 days old. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of feeds. Dunk volunteered to take on the night shift as they have to be fed every 2 to 3 hours. Each hog has been marked, so we know who’s who to keep track of weight/feeds/poo. They also have to be stimulated to poo and wee after every meal. They survived – but we have a battle ahead to get sufficient milk into them. Huffy – named after his nature – curls into a ball and huffs and the smallest drinks gratefully.

We are currently at a weight range of between 67 g and 85 g two days after they were found. Watch this space for cuteness!

Hedgehog Nest

Hedgehog Nest

Later in the day we went searching for the nest, just to make sure there were no more waifs and strays waiting to be picked up. It didn’t take us long to find it – only about 2 metres from where they were all found – they must have left it to go looking for their mother, which is a sad thing to think. We’d been walking about ten feet from it all this time, in the front garden, and it’s only about ten feet from the lane at the front! Carefully pulling some leaves back from this heap of dry leaves showed an empty nest, and a thorough search of the rest of the area turned up no more, so we’re pretty happy we have them all.

New Animal Treatment Room

Finally we have a dedicated room to look after those animals in need of extra care. For the last ten years we’ve been using the kitchen, the Sunny Room (the only living area room that gets sun in the day, hence the name!), the hall way, the garage. You name the room, at one stage or another there’s been a poorly or young animal in it.

But not anymore (well – not any more as often as there was). The dedicated room has stainless steel worktop for easy disinfection, an industrial floor, and soon to also have medicine cabinets and cupboards. The first occupants? The hedgehogs who have been rescued from outside because they were either caught in the flooding in the area, or are part of the large number of underweight hoglets which seem so prevalent this year around the country.

Importantly, it’s not attached to the main house, so any animals being looked after will get some peace and quiet!

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 😀