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!