Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Of shallots and snow

Plant shallots on the shortest day and harvest on the longest.

I say this often but one of the things I have to learn about gardening in this dramatically different climate is the timing of planting and sowing things, with the lower light levels than those I'm accustomed to. One of the ways I have done this is to listen to the old-timers, and read old gardening manuals to see what the old traditions are, all the while thinking about how my year-round gardening knowledge can stretch those boundaries (Ironically, I'm also thinking about Australian gardening as I advise my English partner's daughter on her first vegetable Australia). One of those old adages is that above, plant your shallot on the shortest day and harvest on the longest.

I'd saved shallots from last year's garden to replant but when I went to get them I noticed that the aphids had given them a good going-over in the mild autumn. So I'd ordered back-ups and they arrived on the solstice. Perfect. Except...

Although we didn't get our first proper frost until the 16th of December that was followed by a blizzard and we've had snow on the ground ever since. The allotment is currently under 4 inches of snow, which makes me pleased I fleeced the pak choi before it came down.

There's another old adage about planting your onion seeds and shallot bulbs on Christmas day, which always comes with a rider that it never happens because there's too much going on. I've evaded several invitations to enjoy a quiet Christmas at home on my own, so if this snow melts by then I may give that a go.

While down at the allotment I spotted these:

I thought they may be deer as that fence sits between my allotment and a horse paddock, and the horse fence didn't appear to stop the tracks at all. But deer don't have tri-lobed tracks, and these are huge:

Admittedly I have very small hands, but that's almost as large as my glove. I can see a book on identifying mammal track in the UK in my near future. I'd like to know what's visiting the allotment.

It's definitely vegetarian, whatever it is. This is a broccoli plant which has been happily nibbled.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Weekend accomplishments

I'm not going to be allowed to do any lifting or heavy work for the next month or so, so I spent most of my weekend finishing off the autumn heavy work in the garden. Our allotment partner (whose garden starts at the line of brassicas in the background) told us to have the bottom portion of the garden as well as the middle section, so I weeded it, dug it over lightly to continue the N-S narrow beds, and sowed them all with winter rye. It felt really good to have that all done, even if I have the blisters on my hands to prove it.

There are two sets of six beds in this garden, which from left to right this year will be the permanent vegetable bed (for the likes of asparagus, artichoke, perennial cauliflower, saffron crocus etc, but half of which is under barley at the moment) and then in a 5-bed rotation, the grain bed (currently half sown in wheat), the pea/bean bed, the salad, melon, tomato and squash bed, the brassica-and-root-crop bed (currently half is sown with garlic) and the potato bed (currently half is sown with broad beans for spring). I normally grow my veg in a glorious melange, but as this year I'm trying to grow veg for storing as well as immediate consumption, I'm going for a more traditional crop rotation approach, using companion planting and a few permaculture techniques, of course.

I also finished planting out the last of the autumn onion sets and garlic cloves. The onions are mostly in the second veggie patch in a friend's backyard (that was my potato patch this year). Many years ago I started to monitor our annual useage of vegetables, and to sow quantities to match that, allowing for losses. So far we have about 150 onions and 200 cloves of garlic planted, with more onions to go in in the spring (we use about 300 onions and 100 heads of garlic each year). We aim to be able to grow all our onions, garlic and shallots and also beans this year. So far I've planted two and a half packets of autumn-sown broad beans for spring veg, giving roughly 200 plants in two double-rows in a 5-metre bed. I'll sow more in spring for a succession, but by the time these are done, in late spring/early summer the bed will be ready to receive the year's potatoes. We'll eat some of the broad beans fresh (I absolutely love broad beans), and dry some for later in the year. The shallots are yet to go in, but will go into the ground during December. Also during December, I'll manure the bed that will hold potatoes next year as well as the bed for peas and beans, and lime the brassica bed, ready for spring planting. I've already mulched the home veggie garden with manure, compost and leaf mold so it can rot in over winter.

That's almost all of my autumn/winter planting complete: outdoor pak choi, garlic, onions, broad beans and shallots. I got some autumn brassicas in earlier in the autumn, but missed the weather window for autumn-sown peas and asparagus crowns. I'll get them in spring instead. But I'll have leeks, stored potatoes, the last of the slowly ripening tomatoes, cabbage, stored beans, kale, spinach and greenhouse-sown salad greens to get me through the winter. I'm planning to purchase some raspberry canes and heel them in one of the garden beds while I clear their bed (which is what looks like a hedge at the side of the allotment in the photo above) of blackberry and dig and prepare their trench over winter. Hopefully I'll be able to move them to their permanent bed late in the winter.

I now plan to spend much of December going through my garden plans and making sure I have space for everything, and ordering the seeds I need for spring. I've already made a start, with a pre-order for 10 hops rhizomes to complement the barley. *grin*

My allotment partner and I also bodged some temporary repairs to the greenhouse, as the windy weather was getting behind it and shifting the glass:

Hopefully this will hold until spring when more permanent repairs can be done.

Monday, 23 November 2009

That was an unexpected side benefit

I moved the chicken coop to its winter location yesterday. Through the summer, we've had the chickens on grass, moving the coop more or less daily to reduce the impact on the lawn and it's worked, but with the winter weather coming I wanted to get the chickens off the wet grass and muddy ground: and after this week I'm going to be forbidden to lift anything for 6-8 weeks, so won't be able to move the coop. So several weeks ago we laid some flagstones under the willow tree, and yesterday I shifted the coop onto them. I strewed a relatively fine absorbent chaff over the hard flagstones to make a deep litter bed for the chicken's feet, and called it home.

It was a resounding hit. They spent the rest of the afternoon happily scratching through the chaff, diligently removing any grass seeds they could find!

I also spotted a hedgehog roaming the garden early yesterday late in the season. It's been very mild here this autumn though: we haven't even got near our first frost yet and it's already the last week of November. I'd stopped feeding the hedgehogs weeks ago!

I'm grateful that it walked straight to the Hedgehog Palace though, not exploring, clearly heading for bed. So I know that the Hedgehog Palace is occupied for the winter and put out a large bowl of dogfood in front of it last night. This morning? All gone. I'll repeat this for the rest of the week, to give it a bit of a boost before it's long sleep.

ps: You can see that the baby chicken is becoming an accepted part of the flock. She doesn't have a name as yet, but whenever it looks like one of the larger chickens will have a go at her, she has a pre-emptive freak-out, so the name "Chicken Little" suggests itself....we'll see.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Clucking the changes

Back in May, we got three 5-week-old Araucana chicks. We were never very imaginative with names, so as we got one each of three varieties, a blue, a black and a lavender, they came to eb known as Blue, Black and Lavender.

They'd all been sexed as female, but as time went on it it became apparent that things hadn't quite gone to plan and one of them was becoming more and more dominant and aggressive. And was in fact, turning into a boy. We didn't want a cock, so we began referring to him as "the defective chicken". He was, however, turning into an absolute beauty. Fortunately the chickens had come with a "promised sex or return" guarantee (an advantage of buying them from a reputable breeder with a passion). I spoke with the breeder and he confirmed my diagnosis of mistaken sex, and offered to exchange him for a pullet. We discussed keeping him and endlessly debated the pros and cons of the decision, but the bottom line was that we didn't really want a cock as we don't want fertilised eggs. By the time we got around to returning him last Friday, he had started to turn into a true stunner. His ruff over time will turn the most wonderful tawny golden colour.

Catching him proved challenging. The chickens don't particularly like being picked up, in fact we use it as a deterrent to keep them out of places we don't want them. I came home early on Friday, snapped the quick shot above with my phone, gave them a treat and caught the cock bird. But he's a big bird and he fought back, flew over my shoulder and then the other two got out as well. My mistake: they're let out when I get home from work if it's light, and he wanted a run! He got one. I spent the next half-hour tempting him with hand-held treats, and in a flash of being faster than him, grabbed him (cue loud startled squawk) and stuffed him in a cardboard box.

I already knew from talking to the breeder that he was really keen to get his hands on Blue to put him to stud, which had me delighted because obviously we'd become a bit fond of the lad. So I drove out to the breeder's and deposited Blue. I knew the breeder had lost some birds to illness, but when I got there I discovered then why that had happened. In August thieves broke in to his property and either stole or killed most of his breeding stock, in excess of 220 birds, over a dozen different breeds, some very, very rare. He managed to find some that had been sold on, and was insured, but lost most of his genetic diversity. Then, when he bought in some Araucanas froma reputable breeder to replace his stock, several waves of illness decimated much of what was left. Absolutely heartbreaking. That makes me even happier that he has Blue with which to restore his bloodlines.

The breeder was amazed at the sheer size of Blue, and pleased to see him again. This was the last I saw of him, in a temporary home in one of the breeder cages while a new run is built for him. He'll have a good life; relaxed, with as large a harem as he'd care for. Lucky chicken!

This is the new little girl we swapped him for. She's a beetle black araucana, the same as the black I already have, and is only 11 weeks old. She's less than half the size of the other two pullets and was severely picked on by them for the first couple of days. The other two are a bit confused and traumatised at the moment, and very wary of me. That's reasonable: after all, I hand-fed Blue and disappeared him, never to be seen again. Who knows whether it could happen to them?

The new chicken lacks a name as yet, although I'm calling her "Chick-chick" at the moment. I may just call her Blue. She's quite human-imprinted so as the other two chickens are giving her a hard time, she comes to me for company whenever I'm outside at the moment. She's slowly being accepted though, and waits until the other two go to bed, then huddles in between them for warmth at night. They can be clever sometimes, in a chicken kind of way.

I'm even told chickens sometimes produce eggs...although I'm still yet to see any evidence of this from my lot!

Monday, 16 November 2009

The 2009 great potato bake-off

This year I trialled ten potato varieties.

Last winter I was offered a veggie garden plot in a friend's nearby backyard. That doubled the veggie garden space I had at the time. I decided at the time to dedicate that plot to potatoes, which gave the space to trail these varieties. I decided to go with two collections from the Organic Gardening Catalogue: a collection of four blight-resistant varieties, and their "Cook's collection". I also had pink fir apple potatoes which had been given to me as a gift. That meant I had the following varieties:

Early: Colleen and Orla
Second early: Ambo and Cosmos
Early maincrop: Desiree
Late maincrop: Arran Victory, Robinta, Valor and Isle of Jura
Salad: Pink Fir Apple

The Colleeen and Orla were the first out of the ground. Colleen is an Irish first early with a white skin and light yellow flesh. Orla is also a white-skinned potato. We couldn't really tell them apart as they came out of the ground. They're both supposed to fry well, and we found they performed really well roasted or boiled and then fried into curries. They both produced prolific small potatoes, yielding about 5 kg for each kg planted.

Next to come out were the Ambo and Cosmos. I don't have photos of these as we ate them as they came out. Ambo are really pretty, part-red tubers and gave a good yield of good-sized potatoes which roasted really well. The Cosmos are a waxy white potato which also roast well.

Of the lates, from left to right in the picture below are Isle of Jura, Robinta/Desiree, Valor, Arran Victory and Pink Apple Fir:

Isle of Jura provides oval tubers and is supposed to have a white skin and yellow flesh, although I found mine to develop interesting brown patches. It has a high eelworm and moderate blight and scab resistance. The yield on these wasn't large compared to the other varieties. This was the firmest feeling of all the potatoes when cut.

Desiree and Robinta merged into each other in the collecting. They both have pink skin, while Desiree has white flesh and Robinta cream flesh. Desiree are good roasters while Robinta are supposed to be good boiled with a distinctive flavour, so it will be interesting to see if I can tell the difference as I cook them. The two of these together produced as many potatoes as three of the other varities, so both were heavy-yielding, producing the largest potatoes of the year.

Valor matures between early and late maincrop and is a white potato with white flesh. It doesn't feel as crisp as the others to cut. The yield was pleasingly large, with a good number of medium-sized potatoes. It was the only variety which gave any indication of less than perfection however, with some scabbing on the skin. Not enough to worry me.

Arran Victory is an old variety dating back to the 40s. It has a vivid blue-purple skin and white flesh and is a quite floury potato with some resistance to blight. It has a lovely crisp feel when cut. It yielded especially well this year.

Pink Fir Apple is a long waxy salad potato. These produced a very small crop (2kg for 700g planted) compared to the others.

Cut open, it's easy to see the difference in colour between the different varieties. L-R, Valor, Desiree, Isle of Jura, Arran Victory and Pink Fir Apple. You can really see the stunning skin on the Arran Victory in this shot, and the creamy colour of the flesh.

Some of these are better suited to boiling and mashing than roasting, but the point of last night's exercise was to see how well they roasted. So to that end I cut each potato into eighths and tossed them with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and baked them for an hour. Here they are in the same order as the previous photo. There is a lot of potato there, but this was enough for wo meals.

Interestingly, the skin colour of the potatoes disappeared during the roasting (they retain more of the colour when boiled). The skins of all the potatoes went a roasted potato-golden-brown once they were out of the oven. I served them up with a little roasted salsify and scorzonera, and some Bravas sauce made from green and partially ripe tomatoes pulled from the garden.

The results probably aren't surprising. The Pink Fir Apple and Isle of Jura potatoes which are both salady or boiling types were roasted to overcrisp by the time the hour was out (but a Pink Fir Apple piece I tasted afterhalf an hour had been delicious and perfectly cooked, so they may be a good option for roasted potato cravings without enough time to bake them properly).

The tastiest roasted potato was the Arran Victory, followed so closely by Valor and Desiree that there wasn't enough in it to worry about.

The reason for this analysis was to figure out which varieties I want to keep and which I want to drop for next year. At the moment, I'm leaning strongly towards changing nothing and growing all of them again! It's easy to order the two collections of foru potatoes and I love the Arran Victory, so at the moment the only one I could consider leaving out would be the Pink Fir: but I haven't tried boiling them and turning them into salad or a flash-fried curry yet. I have ~30kg of potatoes in the shed at the moment however and we're away for a good chunk of the winter, so it remains to be seen whether we're growing too many.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Wrapping up summer and getting ready for winter

It's been a busy time of late, not least getting as much done on the new land before the weather cools down as possible. We renovated the front section of the greenhouse, our neighbour was kind enough to insulate it with bubble wrap, and we guttered a small section of the roof to set up an irrigation system of types. There's no water on the site, so any caught water is important. Then, weekend before last, we moved the cold-vulnerable plants in there.

There's an intricate hose system to feed rainwater to the large pots on the right, with the smaller pots on the left sitting in an old concrete mixing tray as a giant pot saucer. It's important that they're able to water themselves, as they're going to be left to their own devices for two months over winter. There are lemongrass, chillies, various citrus, a lychee seedling and three varieties of avocado to overwinter. Everything else, everything which can possibly survive a winter outside, is being left outside to take its chances in the rain and cold.

In the other corner of the greenhouse, I've made a start on some winter greens to grow under glass: rocket, spinach, various chinese greens and kale. The asparagus is a two-year-old crown which will go into the ground this weekend if it's dry enough outside. We've had a week of rain and the allotment is pure clay and too wet to be worked at present.

Meanwhile, at home, I've had a special present. I've always wanted to grow my own saffron, but living in tropical and sub-tropical climes precluded that. Once I started to set up my own gardens from scratch in the UK, my mind started to turn to saffron again, wondering whether it would be suitable for my climate in East Anglia. A quick google of "saffron East Anglia" answered that with the first hit....reminding me that the village of Saffron Walden is not 12 miles from my house. Duh! This area was the centre of the British saffron growing world in medieval times! So I ordered 50 corms as an experiment. Although saffron crocus is an autumn-flowering bulb, I read that if you plant the corms in autumn you may be lucky enough to have a spring flowering. So I ordered the corms in September and planted them in October, splitting them between the allotment and pots at home. And a week later...

Many of the 20 corms at home are in flower! The flowers are less showy than the average crocus (and these had been rained on for two days prior to taking this photo so are a bit bedraggled)...but the smell. It's much more intense than dried saffron, and simply delicious. So I'm already harvesting my first harvest of saffron, removing the three stamens and leaving the flowers. I'll post a bit more about that another day.

The allotment is coming along as well.

My part of the allotment starts this side of the covered brassicas in the background. This patch is 8 metres wide by 5 metres deep and I've divided it into six 1-metre wide, north-south beds with paths in between. Four for crop rotation with a fifth for grains, to put into the rotation as well, and a permanent bed. Most of the beds are under green manure for now (mustard, with winter rye about to go in), but in October we sowed the grain bed (second from the left) with hard winter wheat and the permanent bed (the leftmost bed) with barley. They're up and happily growing, setting roots before they stop growing for the winter. That will give them a good start before the spring. In other beds, this weekend I'll get in some very late onion sets (100 or so to complement the 50 already in), 12 different varieties of garlic (aiming to grow 100 heads next year for eating plus some to recycle for growing, as we eat a lot of garlic) and two different beds of broad beans - a full 5m squared bed here and another bed at the other allotment site. It's too late now to get any other veg into the ground: it was just too dry when the weather was warm enough. Fortunately we're already harvesting pak choi, salsify, scorzonera and radishes from this plot. Not bad when we only got it in late summer.

But wait: what's that in front of the barley? More saffron crocus in the permanent bed!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

More of 'the farm' (therefore part 2)

This is the view from the veggie garden, looking more or less south across the bottom of the horse paddock. This is where most of the greenhouses were built: acres of them. All completely derelict now and effectively impossible to get into because of the brambles. You can see how badly in this image:

Such a shame. Still, we'll have our work in front of us just refurbishing 1/4 of one for the meantime.

Looking slightly to the left of the top image, the rest of the horse paddock. The low building is the barn, and to the right of it is a very large cage containing a very old cherry tree.

We got access to the property too late this year to be able to gather any cherries and it seems no-one has been inside the cage for years, but I hope to be able to do a little pruning this winter, and arrange to access the cherries next summer.

From the same spot looking east, the rest of the horse paddock. In the middle of the background, between the two sections of conifer, are some smaller trees with tantalising red patches. A wander across at a time the horses weren't there (we're not so rude that we'd invade someone's horse's space without their permission) confirmed that the area was a largeish apple and pear orchard - probably 20 or so trees, with a lot of apples and pears just coming into least, covered in apples and pears on the parts of the tree that are above horse's head height! On the strength of that, however, I've just ordered a couple of trays of preserving jars and am seriously considering treating myself to something I used to own in Australia and now miss, a food dehydrator.

As a final image, the chickens:

They'd really taken a liking to scratching around in my fruit tree pots, and took a particular liking to this avocado tree. One evening just on dusk I found them all settled in to the pot, clearly expecting to spend the evening cuddled up, wrapped around the tree. Normally they hate being picked up and run if you so much as look like you're thinking of doing so, but this evening they were so sleepy they patiently waited as I carried them one-by-one to their sleeping box.

They've actually become something of a pest, scratching around in the pots, so I've purchased some thin weed matting and have placed it on top of the soil. Problem solved: no more scratching. Yes, I'm aware I'm a killjoy!

ps: You can see that Lavender has been picking up. She's well behind the other two in terms of weight gain - in the last fortnight she's gained just 20 grams as opposed to the 150+ grams the other two have gained - but at least she's gaining weight, and her feathers are finally starting to fill out.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

'The farm', part one

Because we didn't go away the other weekend (see sick chicken in previous post), we were able to make a start on 'the farm', as it's now called. As I mentioned, this is a 15-acre greenhouse-covered former nursery site, which grew flowers for the dried flower industry and some tomatoes as well. It's been unused for some time, and is rapidly returning to nature. We're only using a very tiny part of it. The greenhouses are still there, although almost completely overgrown by brambles now, and most of the open land is rented out for horse paddocks. A small area has been ploughed for allotments to be shared by us an another family (the owner's nephew), and we've been told we're allowed to use a greenhouse as well. This is the greenhouse we chose, as it's closest to the gate and the most accessible in terms of having to dig it out from under brambles.

We wandered down to the site and took some photos (there will be more in another post), and set about clearing the brambles from the side of the greenhouse to assess the damage. The frames are rotten and there are a lot of broken glass panes, but we'll repair one section and seal that off for this winter, and perhaps renovate more of it in the future. Mr. G. immediately happily set about starting to repair the greenhouse. In a single morning he got the first two sets of frames on that side fixed, and set about repairing the door. He was in heaven.

In the meantime, I set to on the allotment. Although it had been ploughed in the spring, quite a few weeds had come up on the uncultivated land. The green netting is about 1/3 of the way down the ploughed area and is the limit of the space the fellow allotmenteer had managed to cultivte this summer. That's why he's invited us to help out in return for our labour: it's too much for him to manage on his own. I cleared the weeds from the rest of it, and set a couple of rows and a few test beds of seed to see what would come up. So it took it from this:

To this:
I sowed onions, turnips, swedes, pak choi, rapa, leeks, radish, kohl rabi and some lettucy greens (and other things I'm forgetting), all as an experiment. We don't know how aggressive the wild animals down there are to seedlings yet. I also broadcast mustard seed over quite a bit of it and raked it in, to use for a green mulch. We went down this weekend, and we already have some radish seedlings coming up. We'll see whether they're eaten. The next step will be to clear out the front of the greenhouse so it can be prepared to overwinter our tender plants, and some chinese stir-fry greens for winter veg:

We'll lay in some late summer veg for winter eating, autumn sown veg for next spring, we'll overwinter our plants in the greenhouse, and we'll work on the fertility of the soil for next spring. It needs a lot of organic matter. Then in March, it'll be all systems go.

In the meantime, the home veggie garden is finally producing tomatoes and courgettes - thank goodness for the bounty of neighbours, who've been keeping us in courgettes, cucumbers and figs! - and handsful of french beans. I grow five varieties - yellow cherokee wax, blue lake, baluhilde (a purple variety), violetto (another purple variety) and borlotto (which I pick as a green bean) and we have some runner beans that have resprouted from last year's root. We'll soon have patty pan squash and the spinach is glorious. The potato patch is producing bag after bag of potatoes for storage, and we even still have some strawberries. While my little veg patch is productive and supplements our diet nicely, the new plot will mean we can plan for maincrops that will sustain us through the year: beans to dry and cook in winter, and our own wheat.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Poor Lavender

We were supposed to go away for an extended long weekend's cycling this past weekend, but we didn't. Instead, on Thursday, we noticed that one of the chickens was opening her beak and straining on each outbreath. You can see her pose in the photo below - head back, beak open, a faint wheeze on the outbreath.

Some diagnosis suggested either a respiratory infection (less likely) or gapeworm, a parasitic nematode which infects the trachea of birds. Gapeworm isn't all that common, but her symptoms were classic - and there are a lot of wild birds on our property and she's been doing a lot of scratching around compost for slugs and worms lately - they're both carriers. We've been watching her anyway, as she has been a good couple of weeks behind the other two developmentally, so on the Friday morning a trip to the vet was in order.

For a bird who doesn't really like being picked up, she was remarkably patient and well beahved at the vet. I was expecting WWIII, but she sat quietly and calmly on my hand for a good 3/4 of an hour, protesting remarkably little even as the vet palpitated her and placed a stethoscope on her breast. The vet suggested worming all the chickens and putting Lavender on daily antibiotics for 5 days - forget that weekend cycling in Wales!

Worming them was easy, as they were all to eat that and have a 'treat bowl' from which everything is gobbled. I mixed the worming powder with some moistened chicken crumbs and a very old and squishy banana. Fortunately I have greedy chickens who will eat out of my hands. So the antibiotics were placed on one piece of bread, and I'd hold one laced piece and one 'clean' piece, swapping hands according to whoever was eating.

Lavender has definitely improved, and is breathing more easily now - and has caught up on one of those two weeks of developmental delay she had. She grew a tail in just three days.

And we got to spend a couple of days playing with our new 'farm'!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Chicken jungle gym

Because apparently, there's nothing quite so much fun in the world as climbing up a log pile. I hear it's also a great place for a snooze:

The next step up towards self-reliance.

We've been lucky enough to be offered a private allotment on our landlady's agricultural land.

After dinner we went for a walk to see the new allotment. We were taken down to view it on Monday, and were given a key for the gate on Tuesday, so we went last night mostly to make sure the key worked. We're both really excited by this - the plot is 15 acres (although we're only looking at 1/2 acre at the front at the moment), and is covered in industrial greenhouses. When you go in and close the gate, the whole world is left behind: it's completely private. It was used to grow flowers for the dried flower industry, and tomatoes. It's been unused for 6 years aside from a paddock agisting horses and it's amazing how quickly it's become derelict and overgrown. A smallish patch has been ploughed for a test veg bed, with potential to dig up more as required: start small. We're going to expand the quantities of usual veg, broadbeans, courgette, brassicas, leeks, onions, garlic, potatoes, pumpkin etc etc, as well as try our hand at growing peanuts and a test bed of wheat. We're also going to renovate 1/4 of one of the greenhouses to start with, to prepare it for next year, at which time we plan to grow oka, aubergines, tomatoes and pineapple in it. That's going to be the big initial job because the outside has overgrown with brambles and some of the glass frames need replacing.

We're trying very hard to rein in our enthusiasm at the moment. We have Friday and Monday off this weekend, to make a long weekend and amongst other possibilities, had thought to go cycling in Wales. We're having to restrain ourselves from staying at home and spending the weekend working on the new allotment. There's a Bank Holiday next weekend, which makes it the perfect time to stay at home and work on it.

Did I mention that we're both excited? This gives us the chance to play smallholders and learn more without having to have bought the land. That means we can experiment a bit more than we otherwise would and decide whether it is actually for us. It's the next step towards increased self-reliance: a chance to move on and do this seriously, rather than dream and play a bit, which is what I've been doing with it for the last 12 years.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009


OK, so it's not much and it's soft fruit, but it's a start. And not a bad one, considering this is the first year I've had the soft fruit in my garden. This morning I pulled a couple of strawberries off the strawberry planter, and the rest of the blackcurrants off the one bush fruiting this year. These are now happily residing in my fruit box for lunch today.

I'm in a bit of a lull in the veggie garden at the moment, because of my haphazard planting this year. I pulled the last of the broad beans out last week, and the first lot of peas are done. The leeks are all in seed at the moment, and the spinach is finished. The cauliflower I planted last summer aren't yet ready. Because I was so late getting things planted this year, the french beans, courgettes and tomatoes aren't quite ready, so all that's coming out of the garden is a few salad greens, the garlic and the leek ramps. I could pluck the cabbage early if I were really desperate, but I'm fortunate that I'm not entirely reliant on the garden this year and don't have to worry about the 'hungry gap'.

Soon we'll be drowning in tomatoes, potatoes, courgettes, squash and french beans; and there are lots of seedlings in the greenhouse to follow up the veg coming into season though: more courgettes to follow the early ones, in case they catch powdery mildew, lots more beans and lots of salad greens, pak choi and spinach to settle into autumn and winter, more cauliflower and broccoli for next spring, and salad onions and herbs requiring heat to germinate. I'm also taking lots of cuttings of clematis, herbs and lavender at the moment so I can propagate those around. And this weekend I'll be planting lots of autumn root veg: more radish as well as turnips, swedes and parsnip.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Small holding in miniature, part 2.

These little creatures are the reason I can justify calling my small rented backyard a smallholding:

Because all smallholdings need some form of livestock! These are my girls. They're very young pure Araucana chickens. I got them as chicks, and they've doubled in weight in the last fortnight. They've not had a lot of human interaction, but I've started to bring them around. They love aphids, and this photo shows them coming to the end of the run to make sure I don't have anything yummy for them. They don't really have names, but as they're different colour breeds, they're called by their colour. From left to right: blue, black and lavender. I've not decided what their pecking order is yet - but neither, I think, do they. At the moment I'm moving their coop and run around the lawn on a weekly basis, but in the long term they'll rotate around veg beds to clear pests and fertilise the soil, and provide eggs of course. I don't expect any eggs until autumn or so. They won't be used for meat, as we're a vegetarian household.

Just past the chicken coop is the rest of the soft fruit area, tucked under some trees. These are white and black currants, and I have a red currant tucked off with the figs. I have a few black currants this year but expect a lot more next year. Next year I plan to also buy a gooseberry bush. I'd absolutely love to have raspberries, but they're not really feasible in pots.
The front of the house is slightly less productive. We're on a well-frequented lane with a lot of young by-passers, so we try hard to cultivate the 'poor and not worth robbing or vandalising' look. That's a pity, because the front of the house faces east and gets a lovely morning sun. But I do have a couple of low tubs of cascading begonias and in the large metal tubs, four artichoke plants on the theory that they're not going to recognise those. And a lovely tub of dahlias and chocolate cosmos, because flowers are good for the soul!

Small holding in miniature, part 1.

All those intentions to blog regularly fall by the wayside when you want to be out in the garden. The veg plot, however, is coming along nicely:

It's the second year for this plot, and I'm still enjoying things that I planted last year, such as leeks, broccoli and garlic, as well as spinach and salad greens nursed through winter. We've been eating a lot of peas and broad beans from spring plantings as well, in addition to early asparagus. Unfortunately I had a drying-out incident in the heated propagator while on holiday in May, so the tomatoes and pole beans aren't as advanced as I'd like them to be at this time of year: but I had my first courgette flowers in a frittata for lunch yesterday. The small greenhouse on the right of the picture is where I raise my seedlings in summer.

I've been renting for the last four years because I've not yet found the house I want to buy. I couldn't wait to start my food orchard though, so this is the stone fruit section. They line the herb garden outside the kitchen at the back of the house. I call it 'the orchard in pots'! From front to back, there's an olive, a Victoria plum, a dual plum tree, a dual cherry tree, a morello cherry, three avocado trees and a standard bay tree. Except for the bay and the olive these are all this year's trees, so none of these have fruit this year aside from the olive, but next year I expect some treats. Behind that is the strawberry barrel and the patio.This is the first year I've grown the strawberry barrel as well. It had a bit of a setback early on, because the moment I planted it I went on holiday for three weeks, relying on the rain to settle in the crowns: and it didn't rain. I lost 2/3 of the 25 crowns I planted the first time, but a quick replant worked. The first strawberries are just coming on.

To the left of that, the patio is a real boon. The sofa there is an old sofa bed, which we sometimes roll out to sleep partially covered and partially under the stars. Beside it is a foling outdoor table and chairs, as we eat most of out meals including breakfast out here in summer. In front of it, around the chiminea (which is often lit for twilight relaxing), is the 'nursery bed', in which I raise seedlings in pots. There I have six types of blueberries, some seedling citrus and a couple of figs, And some flowers in the chimney pots, because flowers are pretty. It's taken me a long time to spare the energy from functional gardening to decorative, but I am finding that taking the time to make things pretty is good for the soul. The recent purchase of a clematis will give something to twine through the lattice on the right of the patio.
The corner beside the patio is the 'vineyard'. In there are two vines each of cabernet sauvignon, Sauvignon blanc and black traub eating grapes. The wine grapes are this year's, the eating grapes are now two years old so I should get some off them later in the summer.

I've never had so much of a pot garden before. But the bounty of summer is so rewarding, even if you're forced to gardenmostly in pots. More in another post.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

More trees on the way!

Yeah, so I'm bad.

I've also purchased a passionfruit vine, a lemon tree, a white Marseilles fig and a lemon tree from a wonderful family nursery in Wales. They're also winging their way to me.

Now I just need to actually get some seeds planted - I managed to effectively dessicate all of my tomato seedlings in the heated propagator while away over the Easter weekend....

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Fruit trees

Spring is here. And with the first stirrings of spring comes the urge to grow things. To plant out seeds, to lay down trees. But spring can be dangerous - she seduces with soft, warm, sunny days and then brutalises with cold frosty nights. So for now, I've settled for laying down seeds in my giant heated propagator, and ordering a profligate amount of fruit trees.

I felt a bit bad ordering so many fruit trees because of the expense involved, but then I put that expenditure back into perspective. I've spent the approximate equivalent of a month's grocery money on enough trees to provide us with perhaps half our fruit consumption for years - possibly all our fruit consumption in the summer. In the current climate, that may well be the best returning invesment one can make!

What did I buy? Well: I already have a Victoria plum, a mini olive tree, a brown turkey fig and two purple (Traub) grape vines. I bought:

1 dual grafted plum - Cambridge green gage & Marjories seedling
1 dual grafted cherry - Brigarreau Napoleon & Van
1 Morello cherry
5 different blueberry bushes - Tophat, Spartan, Gold Traube, Dixi and Patriot (these will ripen at different times, hopefully)
3 canes each of red currants, blackcurrants and white currants.
2 Cabernet sauvignon grape vines
2 Sauvignon blanc grape vines
25 strawberry plants - Cambridge Favourite (has to be the best for the Cambridge climate, right?) and a barrel to plant them in

and soon I'll pick up a kaffir lime tree, lemon tree, curry leaf tree and white fig as well.

I also planted boradbeans and peas in the garden and vast quantities of chilli, tomato, aubergine, courgette and spinach seedlings (amongst other things) in pots and trays on the weekend. Most of these are on heat to germinate.

In terms of cropping, most of what is left in the garden from last summer is greens. I've picked a couple of leeks, a large basket of sorrel and turned that into cooked greens to accompany patatas bravas, and a large bunch of kale to cook into a tofu and kale mole (yum!). There's plenty of chard, rocket and leaf beet for the picking.

But the recent warmer weather is having an effect. The rocket is all going to seed at once. The cabbages are starting to bolt, before they've even started to form head (I'm not a huge fan of cabbage, so I don't view this as a great loss). Thank goodness for the corn salad, chicory and salad burnet! It's not all bad: I've noticed that the parsnips I left in the garden over winter are growing new tops, and last year's celery is happily coming back after all the snow and hard winter frosts. The leeks and radishes are fattening again. And the purple sprouting broccoli is finally starting to raise its first head.