Digging over the patch

So the promised sun didn’t materialise, but then does it ever? It was still warm enough to don wellies and scoot the barrow over to the new veggie patch in Acre Field (the default name seems to be sticking, how original…). We already have potatoes chitting on a window sill in the house, and have been for about a week now – ready for an Easter Sunday planting session as the old boys always do. You need 6 weeks to allow them to chit properly. Today’s task was to dig over one of the two 30′ square vegetable patches and plant around 100 shallots. Tomorrow’s labour of love is to dig the second 30′ square vegetable patch over and sow parsnip seed – something we should have done a few weeks ago if we’d owned a spare ice axe to dig through the ground.

The digging over of the patch also gave us ample opportunity to rid the area of larger stones, and to de-weed the little blighters that have popped up – mostly chickweed but also some groundsel and wild pansies. Single ones we hoed out, those more prolific we turned over with a spade to bury them as a cheap green manure, as we were advised to do by farmer John.

We’ve got two 30′ rows of shallots, bought from the local allotment society, and planted them 6″ apart, in rows 1′ apart, and placed just below the surface, using the most useful tool I own – a piece of dowling, lovingly hand-crafted, that fulfills the jobs of a spacing ruler, a string holder and a dibber. Each bulb will sprout around 8-10 bulbs which means we’ll be eating a lot of pickled onions!

As is getting the norm each time we dig here, we also unearthed some pottery, what looks like a couple of sherds of Midlands Purple Ware which was made and used between AD1450-1600, and a piece of flint that looks suspiciously like the base of an arrow head – which will make it either Paleolthic or Mesolithic. These are to add to the other 20 pieces we’ve already piled up from this 30′ square piece of land! If only we could find some Anglo Saxon gold 🙂

A general weekend update

With some time to poddle in the garden this weekend, I went to check the grass growth in the acre field and it’s looking good! You can make out the brown rectangular patch just above the orange netting, where our new veggie patch will be. Come spring this should turn rampant, and we’ve decided to not plant any orchard this year seeing as though it’s getting a bit late and I’m loath to spend money on a slightly risky planting session.

Instead, we’ll blow the budget on getting all the fencing in place that we will need to split the field into the four quarters we want – the vegetable growing quarter, the hay/grazing quarter, the small tree orchard quarter and the larger tree orchard quarter. This year we’ll try and get 4 or 5 sheep in after April to tread the ground down and to eat the grass tops, both encouraging new growth and replacing the need to mechanically roll the ground. They’ll also add useful  fertiliser! We’ll also be able to add chickens as well, so I’ll build a coop or two, and we’ll also be able to plant the hedgerow whips so they can get a good start. This lack of planting of orchard trees will allow us to concentrate on the vegetable patch so we’ll have plenty to do! We’ve changed our minds about half standard and standard trees, and have decided to take things down a peg and use MM106 rootstock for apples, St Julien A for plums, Colt for cherries and Quince A for the pears. This will allow us to grow fruit ‘bushes’ in the smaller fruit tree orchard, to grow to about 9-12ft high and mostly pickable by hand and stepladder. The larger tree orchard will grow to half standard size, so lower branches will be around 1.2m from the ground – hopefully just about high enough to prevent sheep from grazing the fruit when they’re fully grown.

There was also time to dig over our existing veggie patch to let the night frost attack it – the chickens happily came onto the patch to help munch exposed bugs and worms whilst I dug, and added some welcome manure without me having to lift a finger! I lifted the remainder of the large leeks and cabbages, leaving some smaller leeks in to see what happens.

Chicken clean out

The weekend is the time I set to clean out the chooks. I tend to hand pick out the large poops from the coop’s removable ground tray over the course of the week and throw them on to the manure pile that is gradually building up – the best manure for the veggie patch, so I hear! The weekend clean out is everything left in the tray which goes into the compost bin (a mix of saw dust donated by our next door neighbour who wood turns regularly, and their poop that escaped the weekly hand-picking session). Check this link out for a chicken-owners guide to composting. The chicken coop wood shavings and poop mix contains phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen (in the poop) and carbon (in the shavings). When water is added the ingredients are all there to produce a good compost, though I also add some lime, blood and bone powder and grass cuttings. For a good organic composting technique check out Lila’s page here. Then a good scrub down inside with a mix of ecover washing up liquid and a splash of organic red mite concentrate made by Barrier, so that the wood inside the coop gets a good douse regularly of anti-red mite goodness. With the coop nice and clean inside, the wood shavings are replaced with good dust-free shavings (dust can cause respiratory problems) and a handful of lavender leaves (in the winter) or flowers (in the summer) are crushed and scattered over the sawdust to help them sleep at night and keeps the coop smelling slightly more pleasant than having none in there! If the straw in the nest box is ruined then I’ll replace that, although I tend to leave it for a couple of weeks if it’s ok. I’ll get rid of it after a couple of weeks to prevent any bug build-up in the straw itself. Lastly I spray the red-mite concentrate in all the crevices in the coop to ensure the red mite are kept at bay. I always check the ends of the two perches where the mites love to hang out.

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 😉