Out in the snow

With the field size being finalised and hopefully we’re on the last leg of the buying process, Suz and I took the opportunity to pop out and measure up accurately so we could use decent measurements. With these we can then work out tree spacings and more importantly, the centre of the field where we’re going to plant a walnut tree (on a Rita rootstock so we get to see it in our lifetime), under which we can sit in our dotage, contemplating our navels, listening to the delightful sound of walnuts bouncing off our heads.

It was a cold day, strange to be out there again without our beloved Frankie, our cocker spaniel, who passed away just before Christmas. The ice forming on the lane was getting pretty treachourous and had already allowed one vehicle an impromptu entry into the adjacent field, but it made a great slide, even with 4-wheel-drive wellies on. And at the end of the cold day, back to the stove with casseroles bubbling away, filling the house with delightful food smells…slurp! We’re still pulling produce from the ground (now that we can dig into the permafrost!) – these are small parsnips, you should’ve seen the size of those we donated to my father-in-law, 2 of them weighed in at 2lb 6 3/4oz – 1.1kg in new money – not bad for a first attempt at growing them 🙂

Keeping our chickens happy over winter

With the inclement weather we’ve been having recently in the UK, I had to gen up rather quickly on ways and means to keep our chickens happy and content over winter. Temperatures were dropping overnight to around -10 Celsius, and whilst their body temperatures will keep the small coop warm to a degree (large enough to house 4 birds maximum, with there only being three in there) I felt they needed more help. I empathised for a few brief seconds and came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t like it out there so we had to do something.

First thing was their diet. They have layers pellets every day, ad lib, and fresh water. They also have free range on grass,  so after they’ve eaten tasty green stuff they fill up on the pellets. When it gets cold I also give them grain on an evening before shutting them up in the coop – this gives their crop something to work on over night and helps keep them warm with their own generated heat. In the summer they have this as a treat, about an eggcup-full for each bird, but over the winter I’ve given them ever-so-slightly more as I figured seeing as though their egg production is non-existent, they probably didn’t need as many of the layers pellets as usual and the bodyweight they might  gain from slightly more grain (mixed wheat, maize, etc) would be beneficial over their first winter outside the battery farm – especially seeing as though their feathers weren’t entirely covering them still.

Each day when it was really cold, around 3 Celsius or under, we used some leftover potato peelings, carrot peelings or parsnip peelings, or even a whole potato (their favourite), and made a mash up. To this I also added:

A tablespoon of live yoghurt to help their digestive system

A teaspoon of codliver oil (I started this in the summer to help them utilise their calcium for egg shell production, but with the low sunlight in the winter and they still insist on producing some eggs, I figured I might as well keep giving it them)

A teaspoon of Poultry Spice – a delicious blend of all your chook’s favourite spicy things – a bit like a multi-vit for poultry which helps them to get over the moult.

A dash of apple cider vinegar in their water – probably about a couple of teaspoons in 2 litres. At the same time I usually have a teaspoon myself in a glass of hot water, mixed with a teaspoon of honey. Slurp. The apple cider vinegar will help with worms and also keeps the water algae free, not that that is going to happen if you change it regularly!

So that’s their treat – I serve it slightly warm still, thinking it’s probably a bit like going out in to the cold on a full belly of porridge, except it stinks to high heaven.

As far as the coop is concerned – I read about an ingenious idea of mimicking foliage by dangling several mop heads in the coop so they can snuggle up to them as if they were dangly duvets. They were a bit worried when these alien beings were discovered having taken over their coop, but after a few days they were like teenagers in the mornings – faces buried into the mops to stay warm. Fantastic! We also went on a scrounge for an old-fashioned hot water bottle – the ceramic type so easy to clean – and filled that with boiling water to place in the coop. The design of our coop meant we could place it in the nest box from outside at night, and keep it separate from the main perches by a piece of styrene so the daft birds didn’t snuggle up to too close. If the night was really cold I’d go out again just before midnight to refill it.

Lastly we gave all their combs a good covering of vaseline to prevent frostbite, and made sure their water was always free of ice so they could quench their thirst.

Doing all these thing perked them up no end and I think kept them happier than they would otherwise have been. I still wouldn’t have traded their coop for my own bed though 😉

There’s Grass!

Yesterday I thought the field looked a bit whispy, but then figured it might be my eyesite playing up, so I hopped over the fence to get a closer look and sure enough we’ve about 1″ of growth of grass! Fantastic! Everyone told us if the weather held up for  a week or so we’d get growth before Christmas but I always try and prepare myself for the worst so I’ll always be pleasantly suprised 😉

Now we only have to see the indent the flock starlings and occasional pigeon cluster have made!



HarrowingAs I sit here and write this, I have a new found respect for Suz Harrowingthe word ‘harrowing’. I ache. My back aches. My arms ache. My neck aches. My aches ache. But it does feel good to have harrowed an acre by hand using 2′ wide wooden tine harrow.

We had access to the heavier metal version usually pulled behind a tractor (or horse) but as it had rained the night before we drilled the seed, farmer John thought it would be best by hand. It may have been a test to see if we’d  break 😉

John popped over to see how we were getting on and to bring us the wooden tine harrow to use. John and DunkHe’d noticed us drilling the seed and knew we’d probably visit him soon to borrow the metal tine harrows he’d offered but he’d come to the conclusion that they’d be heavy going by hand. I think he was right, but I wouldn’t like to do more than we’ve done by hand again! The wooden harrow was a lovely piece of woodwork – all the tines were push fit into the end, the ash handle was split to at the handle end to house the handle itself and only a brass collar was used to keep it from splitting all the way to the business end.

Suz and FrankieOnce we’d pegged out the land and drilled the bits we want to grow as grazing land, the harrowing of the sown piece took about 5-6 hours. Suz came and helped for a fewgary_liz_patch rows which was a welcome break, and Frankie came to sit in the dirt – he’s good at that, an expert even.

7.40pm on the evening, the sun was almost gone and I was rescued by Gary and Liz from next door who came to admire the newly turned dirt and help me with the evil barrow from hell back to the house. Here they’re standing on the piece of land that will soon be part of their allotment! I’m going to sleep well.

Pegging Out & Drilling

Barrow at the ReadyThe wind was calm, the rain nowhere to be seen, the new leather strapMarking Out had arrived for the fiddle drill and the sun was shining – perfect! We filled up the crap barrow from B&Q  (the tyre looks like a pneumatic tyre but deflates to nothing if you so much as look at it) with wooden pegs, tape measure, grass seed, fiddle drill and chunky mallet. The wellies were donned and we skipped into the field. Well, we trudged slowly whilst trying to steer the barrow and it’s road-hedgehog of a tyre.

The first job was to peg out the layout, to see where we needed to sow grass seed and where to leave bare soil for the veggie patch. Suz can be seen here smack bang in the middle clutching a post that will eventually be the walnut tree. We’ve found a variety called ‘Rita’ fromWalnut Wife Keeper’s Nursery, which only grows to 25ft tall. Much more manageable than the 100ft variety and a lot less shadow cast on valuable growing space on the ground.

FiddlingI was amazed at how little seed is needed to sow an acre – as a total novice I had 1 full bag and a 3/4 full bag of seed – enough to sow 1.75 acres in theory. I figured there would be wastage, and sure enough fiddle jams, stumbling and just forgetting to lock off the feed hole on the fiddle meant there were a few piles of seed dotted around the field. All in all it took about an hour to drill the whole field, and I still have half a bag left which is not bad by my reckoning 🙂 Of course, the truth will out if the field ends up patchy 😉 We’re hoping to get some decent growth before Christmas if the next week is as good as it’s promising!

Fiddle Drill for Sowing Seed

Ploughed FieldSo there’s now an acre of beautifully ploughed and prepared land, ready for grass seed. You can just about make out the far South East corner by way of the little pole with a rag attached to it, centre picture. After much advice I’ve decided to put in a permanent paddock in terms of grass seeds as I don’t fancy resowing that often between fruit trees. A local farmer has sold me a couple of acre bags (yes – seed is sold in acre bags!) of a ryegrass mix. Whilst the paddock at the back of our house has white clover in it as a nitrogen fixer, it was suggested by our neighbour farmer that we may want to sow a clover-free mix else it may take over!

The ryegrass mix will make great hay and be good for grazing by both sheep and chickens, but I plan to add some red clover, which I believe is beneficial to chickens, next spring. I also hear this is not as hardy as the white variety so won’t act like a triffid, taking over everything! We’ll have to resow it every spring but I’d rather that than a field full of white clover.

You might have noticed there are a lot of  ‘I believe’s’ and ‘So I’ve been told’s’ – there’s much to learn, much to unlearn, and probably even more to relearn in the future!

My first lesson today was being introduced to this amazing contraption – a Fiddle Drill. Both farmers helping us along in our venture have giggled (in a manly way of course) when seeing our reaction to them miming playing a fiddle whilst dancing a little jig. Essentially you fill the bag with seed, set the slider to how much seed you want to come out and for every pace forward you make one sweep of the bow. In theory this will broadcast seed about 2 yards left and right, on a calm day, and save more time than if broadcast by hand. Sounds a bit like rubbing your stomach whilst patting your head to me, but it’ll be fun trying! This particular fiddle drill is believe to be around 80 years old and still going strong.

I’m hoping tomorrow will be dry enough later to sow the seed, after which it will need harrowing with a light spike harrow (we’ve been offered one where I have to play the part of the ox) and then rolled to tamp it all down (we have been volunteered help with that part 🙂 ).

As far as how much seed to sow goes, when I asked the question I was told if there are 5 seeds under your hand when you lay your palm face down on the ground, then that’s plenty. It’ll give room for each grass root to spread and become stronger in the future. If the weather stays this warm (around 15 degrees at the moment) then we could get some good growth before Christmas!

First Ploughing of the Field

We could hardly contain our excitement! We’d been told by a neighbouring farmer who works many of the fields around us that they’d be ploughing the one behind us soon. Panic had already set in – we’re still waiting on the solicitors to make the purchase but our good neighbour who is selling us an acre portion of the large 46 acre field has suggested we let the ploughs work our land over as well, to get rid of the left over rape seed stubs, but we must catch them before they sow the wheat seed!

So when Gary, our neighbour, and I noticed the tractor and plough pootling over the large field to begin ploughing it was exciting for us – somehow made it all the more real. Up until now I’d spent hours on the evening scouring books and websites for inspiration. John Seymour’s ‘The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency’ has been the bible of course, but various others have been a great source of ideas.

As the plough worked around the edge of the field and into the distance, Gary pointed out that they didn’t seem to be doing a great job as they’d only just about dinted the surface! As ploughing expert number 2, I stated that they were probably just dragging the plough to where they would start properly. Later, telling our famer neighbour next door about this, he chuckled to himself and told his young padawans that this was called ‘sub-soiling’ and is needed to soften the ground up where the plough will eventually be dropped into the hard ground to begin new furrows. Like I’ve said – much to learn 😉

Map of Acre Field

Acre FieldWe have finally been given an outline of the acre field, which we can access through a narrow 10ft corridor from the back of the house. We’re still waiting for the solicitors to finalise things, but the farmer we’re buying from has been kind enough to allow us to mark it out as best we can and sow grass seed before the winter chills come in.

Our initial thoughts are to divide it into equal quarters – the North East corner will have around 30 half-standard orchard trees, a quite traditional orchard set up in the East Midlands or so I’m led to believe. Under this we can graze chickens or geese, nothing too boisterous that will knock over the more delicate trees and eat the low hanging fruit!

The South East corner will contain around 20 standard orchard trees, forming a traditional orchard. Under this we can graze pretty much anything apart from bullock elephants, the trees will live much longer – outliving us I’m sure – but will be harder to harvest. Because of their longevity they will be fantastic for wildlife – bats, lesser spotted woodpeckers, the various insects that will make their homes, and also provide cover for the smaller mammals the local little owl couple like to eat.

The South West corner will be left to ley. This, along with the standard orchard quarter, will provide enough grass for a couple of dairy sheep in the future. We’ll grow the ley for one harvest of hay before opening it for grazing. This way we’ll have some of our own winter food for the sheep. I’m hoping to get around 20 small bales (2′ x 2′ x 4′) from this, but we’ll see when it happens!

The North West corner will be our food garden as it’s nearest the house. In this we will put aside at least one third for our own vegetables and soft fruit. The rest will be left for possible future use for more fodder crops. We’re talking of possibly sinking a borehole for water, jointly with our neighbour, as being in the Trent Wash you need only dig 2-3ft down to reach surface water! We’re surrounded by working and old disused wells, so figure we’ll have no problem gaining our own off-grid water supply for the odd ocassion we’ll need to irrigate the crops. In reality, we’ve only needed to water our small patch outside the house in September’s dry spell – the rest of the year has been fine.