First Weekend – Patch Preparation

It’s that time of year, yet again! This time we’re a bit later than normal, and Easter is a bit earlier than normal, so it’s all a bit proverbial about proverbial. The weather has just been a bit damp for digging over too much, but Suz and I turned a couple of the beds last weekend, just to throw some of the weaker weeds (chickweed, grass etc) under the soil for the worms to eat. “The Beast” was pulled from its winter shed and checked over, before being put to work to rotovate the brassica bed that hadn’t been turned in a while. The bed we’d spread compost over and then covered with black weed fabric last autumn ended up as beautiful soil and really didn’t need any work with the worms having done it for us!

Jay digging the squash patchHere we have Jay getting stuck into clearing the bad weeds from the old squash patch, just before I started rotovating the straw into the soil. The artichokes in the forground have survived the winter with no cover. Not having grown them before I’m unsure how to overwinter them, but I suspect the harsh ground frosts we sometimes get here might nobble them. Luckily this winter has been ridiculously mild, a sign of things to come maybe, so they all seem to have pulled through, with two having actual small flower heads still intact!

Whilst we prepare an awful lot of our own produce, it’s been getting a bit silly. In the past, Jay and Smiler have cut apples on the top of the old picnic bench in the back garden, we then scratted them on the picnic bench seat, moved the juice inside to the dining room table, and then on into the pokey kitchen to bottle them. Preserving veg is a similar process, so this year, if all goes to plan, we’re going to extend the kitchen so we can at least have two people working in there at the same time without 2016 first patch day 2treading on each other! With this in mind, we have (very) reluctantly decided to grass over three of the vegetable beds.

In the photograph here you can only see two grassed and rollered, as I couldn’t bring myself to grass the third as it was beautiful soil. However, common sense prevailed and that too has been under Johnny’s old roller. Johnny was the chap who used to live at No.1 Merrybower Cottages, and is sadly no longer with us, although his wife Phyliss lives in Kings Newton, where the Newton Wonder apple tree is from. I never had the pleasure of knowing Johnny, 2016 first patch day 5but he worked at the coal board as an engineer, and made his own kit. We’ve been lucky enough to inherit a roller he made, and it’s beautiful! I can pull it, but it’s a decent weight and width, and has proper bearings with grease nipples, allowing it to glide along easily, despite probably being fifty years old. It’ll outlive any of us here at Merrybower, I’m sure.

I digress; the result of a longer kitchen is that for a month or two, we will be without a kitchen, smack bang in the middle of preserving and cooking season. Realistically we need to grow a bit less this year, and we’re also taking into account that this year will see far more tree fruit than last, and more cider making, so the time will still be used up, but in different ways. Whilst we only used five beds for veg growing, we have gained most of the fruit cage after pulling the raspberries and strawberries out last autumn. Where the strawberries will now go still has some older earth from the paths we dug out last year, and keeps throwing docks up, so I’m going to use that bed for root veg (carrots etc) that should do2016 first patch day 4 well in the new soil, and it gives us another season to rid the soil of persistent weeds before adding long-lived strawberries to it. Plus we also have the raised bed, and separate gooseberry/rhubarb beds, so really we won’t starve!

You can see Smiler did a cracking job of mulching the currant bushes – to the left of them is where the strawberries will go next year, to the right is where they were, and I have no idea what we’ll put in there for now!

2016 first patch day 1Speaking of docks, Suz tackled the dock seedlings that are scattered beneath the hedge where they blew over from No.1 when it had a year of neglect whilst empty2016 first patch day 3. We’re still struggling to stay on top of them, but as long as we mow and pick, we’ll eventually rid ourselves of the pernicious things!

Spring Time Shuffle & Update

The rains have subsided, the sun shows itself and we begin to shed the winter sleep from our eyes. Well, that’s not strictly true – a fortnight ago we started digging over the allotment – I tackled the last of the fruit tree pruning in the orchard whilst Suz dug over one of the vegetable beds and cleared the old strawberry patch which had started to deteriorate, having been in the ground for five years. Last Friday I dug over another vegetable bed and the rhubarbs whilst Suz pulled the remaining parsnips, carrots and beetroot, and weeded the artichokes, most of which have survived the mild winter! Jay got stuck into the first mow of the season, and Smiler prepared the raised bed. What a day! This was all on the only sunny day of the Easter weekend, but at least it gave us an excuse to take Saturday easy.

And then yesterday – the Sunday. The Little Orchard was looking quite sorry for itself – the occupation of the quarter acre by 20 chickens had taken its toll, the mole hills had become mole holes, the grass was quite short and it just looked grubby. I started to get the yearning to move them to cleaner ground a few weeks ago, but the time wasn’t right – but yesterday it was. It was a bit of a military exercise – Smiler and I got stuck into shifting electric fences – we’d done it before together and it was fun to get outside on a decent day.

2016 spring move pilgrim geeseWe managed to move the geese from the Big Orchard to the Hay Quarter, where they will have half that quarter acre. We are only making half as much hay this year, partly down to the fact that we have too many animals and need the ground, and also because we have other projects kicking from summer through to harvest that will soak time up. We are finally, hopefully, extending the kitchen, so we can get more than two people in it at a time, and will no longer have to chop apples up outside, press them on the dining table and transfer them to the kitchen to bottle! Which brings me to the other reason harvest time will be busy – apples! I expect a larger crop this year, and it would be good to give more attention to that side of things properly, without shoe-horning it in between hay making and vegetable growing. Again, with the kitchen being dismantled and the apple trees taking over, we have decided to grow only one third of the vegetables we normally do, as we won’t have anywhere to really prep or cook it this summer. We can, however, freeze a lot and eat much of it in salads, but next year we can begin again with renewed vigour, knowing we’ll have a kitchen table for the first time ever! As a plus point, moving the geese to the hay quarter will also give it    some much needed fertiliser – once the hay has been cut later in the year we’ll move them to the other half I imagine, or give them free roaming over the whole quarter acre.

2016 spring move light sussex bantamsWith the geese out of the Big Orchard, we moved the majority of the chickens in, as the geese hadn’t made much of a mess of the quatrer acre. We separated the chickens, the Light Sussex bantams were all put together, with William the Cock and his ladies having their own fenced off area. I suspect it was a bit of a relief for William – there were far too many ladies for him to control, and anarchy had reigned, with egg-eating having begun. We suspected the rescue Warrens had started it, as some are laying soft shells, but it had spread. So now he can control his five ladies, and they’re not competing for space with the huge hens.

2016 spring move june suzColin the Light Sussex cock was separated and placed with the four Light Sussex hens, and they have all moved down to the Chicken Paddock at the back of the house where we can keep an eye on them. They’re the potential parents of the next generation, so we’ll start collecting their eggs for incubation in two weeks, once he’s had time to do his business! We also put Jackie the possible-Light-Sussex-but-not-quite-sure rescue in with them, as the other hybrids were pecking her!

2016 spring move ducksThe ducks have all been annexed in the Banty Paddock, which has weld mesh fencing, to keep them contained! Once the vegetables in the allotment have grown to a duck-proof size, we can let them in there to clear slugs and snails, but at the moment I just don’t trust them!

2016 spring move hybridsAnd that left the remaining big hybrid hens – a motley crew if ever there was one! They are also in the Big Orchard, next to the bantams, so they’ll have some decent shade in the summer under the fruit trees.

As far as the egg-eating goes, the shuffle around seems to have helped somewhat – they’re in a new place so any egg-snaffling through boredom has been nobbled. And we’ve also trialled a roll away nest box in one of the Omlet Cubes, which seems to have worked. It was a simple affair, produced as an insert for the Chick Box. Some of the hens took to it straight away, but as one fills the double nest box of the Cube, it’s meant a queue from some ladies, or some just drop their egg down the side as they try and squeeze in. To help matters we’ve ordered two Chick Boxes, complete with the roll away nest box inserts, and we’ll place one in each of the Cubes. I think we can fit two in, but the floor space would suffer, so we’ll see how we go. I could always make a nest box holder that sits separately to the Cubes, if needed.

And that’s where we’re at! This morning we let them all out, and June came over from the farm next door to let us know they’d tried our cider and were still alive, which is a good thing, I think!

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Winter Squash Harvest

2015 Winter SquashWith the first grass frosts expected any day, it seemed judicious to harvest the various winter squash and secrete them away in a dark place to wait the winter out, until we needed them.

Tonda Padana

It hasn’t been a bad harvest – the Tonda Padana, as ever, have done amazingly well – they’re the dark/light green stripey one with the light green stripes being raised quite proud (they’re mostly on the left). These are most definitely our favourite winter squash – we haven’t had a bad year yet, despite having extremes in weather over the years – from dry to wet, warm to cold.

Berrettina Piacentina

The Berrettina Piacentina weren’t quite so good – they’re the dusky green and orange striped at the back on the right. I think we may only have had one of them, and three Tondas – I know there was some argy bargy going on with planting stations when some failed to germinate!

Custard Whites

And then we have the Custard Whites – or UFOs as we like to call them. We still haven’t eaten one yet, but they look so funky I’d be happy to grow them purely for the fact they look like a happy winter squash (big, juicy and healthy!).

Butternut Rugosa

The big disaster was the Butternut Squash – Butternut Rugosa. We had absolutely nothing from them, any that had started to grow simply stopped developing and went moldy on the plant. The only thing I can put it down to was the three weekends we were away – but I’ll have to look into it.

Simple White Currant Cordial – Sugar & Sugar Free

This is such a simple recipe for white currant cordial, and one we had a go at last year for a sugar-free version which used red currants instead (essentially the same berry, with more pigmentation).

Every year we struggle to think of things to do with our white currants. I know there are many things we *can* do, but in reality, there’s only so much jelly you can eat, and we don’t eat enough meat to cook a portion up to accompany it when the berries are ripe. So as I stood by the two bushes we have, taking a break from turning some weeds over, I thought I’d look for a useful recipe that would keep, that didn’t involved freezing the blighters, which can be summed up as a ‘putting the (nice) problem off’ solution.

Cordial was the answer. Everyone likes a drink, albeit sugar-laden, so at the end of this post I’ve also added a sugar-free version. It won’t keep for long, but as it’s sugar-free you won’t feel guilty gulping it down!

Step 1 – Pick the currants! Bit obvious, but important, as it’s the step where you make sure you pick as many of the decent currants as possible, and none of the mouldy or dried currants. Just place a bag or similar under the currants and snip them off with a pair of scissors – easiest method. Jay cut ours on the promise that this drink, unlike many recent ones, was suitable for younger people!

Step 2 – Wash the currants thoroughly – stalks and all. Discard any currants that look dodgy, get rid of stray leaves.

2015 white currant cordia 1Step 3 – Place the currants in a pan – we use the invaluable, and much abused, jam pan. We started out with 3kg of white currants – stalks and all – don’t go to the trouble of removing them! We used to for some recipes, and it’s a needless pain if you’re going to seive the liquid anyway. Add 600ml of water for every kg.

2015 white currant cordia 2Step 4 – Cook them gently until they’re soft and the skins have broken down. In reality I forgot ours and left them on their initial high heat for a while. Suz saved them, turned them down again, and there were no noticeable adverse effects.

2015 white currant cordia 3Step 5 – Strain the juice. Finally, after several years of laying a cloth in a colander, we have invested in a strainer! Posh eh?! It’s one of those things you’d wished you’d done earlier, as we use the technique for so many things. They’ll drain pretty much instantly – I left them overnight and only gained an extra quarter cup of juice – not worth it really.

2015 white currant cordia 4Step 6 – Add 700g of sugar to every litre of juice, in a pan, and heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. I used demerara sugar, which doesn’t give the most pleasing final colour (dirty dishwater      brown!), but does taste delicious. For the sugar-free version I just added 15 sweeteners (Canderel tablets)  to a half litre of juice.

2015 white currant cordia 5Step 7 – Bottle the cordial in sterilised bottles.

The final cordial should keep for several months, but the sugar free version I don’t think will last anywhere near that. In fact I popped mine in the fridge and give it a week maximum, to be safe. To see the effect sugar has on the 2015 white currant cordia 6colour – the photograph to the right shows the sugar-free version in the foreground, with the two litres of juice with demerara sugar added behind.

I used sterlising powder for the bottles, which you can buy at any homebrew shop, and the bottles are some I purchased in a sale at IKEA ages ago – they seem quite sturdy (better than the new Kilner bottles if I’m honest – more metal in the clips).

Allotment Odd Jobs

After the grass cutting, it was on with a couple of smaller jobs.

2015 Globe Artichokes

Globe Artichokes

The globe artichokes were found their new home – in the same bed as the asparagus, so two permanent plants. Inbetween we’ll grow the sunflowers – for some reason not a great thing to be near as far as the artichokes go, but we don’t really have a choice, and the soil the artichokes are in has never been used for sunflowers. It has however been used for Naturtiums, and you can see the odd stray one popping up, which is all good as we’ll eat the leaves – scrummy on a ham sandwich!

2015 Squash Patch

Squash Patch

Next along was is the root vegetable and squash patch. I sowed even more sweetcorn, so that a couple of squash plants will be under the sweetcorn eventually – so two of the three sister plants together 🙂 We’re mulching the squash plants with the straw from the goose house. It’s not in direct contact with the plants, and the straw doesn’t get too soiled as we clean it out regularly, so hopefully the nitrogen won’t be too harsh.

As you can see – the parsnips in the foreground are doing great guns – same goes for the carrots under the enviro-mesh behind them 🙂 It’s all looking a bit green!

2015 Brassica UpdateFinally a quick peak through the scaffolder’s netting to see how the brassicas are getting on. As you can see, it’s doing its job – no slug or pigeon damage yet and the fabric is doing a great job of keeping the moisture in!

Sowing, Transplanting & Shuffling

2015 Baby Leeks

Baby Leeks

With glorious weather finally foisted upon us, there was no time to lose! It’s been a rather weird start to the year – first it was perfect, nice and warm early on. Then through May it gradually became colder again, with the winds picking up so much that anything put in the ground that is mildly nesh (prefers a warmer temperature), just sat there and refused to grow! The sweetcorn were like stubborn little whisps of wafty green, perfectly happy to remain about 3″ from ground level.

2015 June Soil Miller

Wolf Garten Soil Miller & My Stick

So today was the turn of the leeks. All the books say ‘wait until they’re the thickness of pencils’ before transplanting to their “final positions. Well – these were the thickness of the lead in a pencil, but it was time to move them out. I blame the compost we used to start everything off indoors – nothing really burst into life – tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, leeks. You name it, they all look quite small – I think the mix was too coarse for the roots.

Leeks are so easy to plop in the ground. First I used the Wolf Garten Soil Miller to rotovate the ground to about 4″ along the 30′ line the leeks were destined to occupy.

2015 June Leeks Planted

Puddled Baby Leeks

I then used my trusty stick to poke holes about 4-6″ deep, spaced at 6″ apart. Dropped a baby leek into each, puddled the hole with water from a watering can and that was that. They do look quite pathetic, but we’ll see how they go on – I’ve spare left in case they’re not hardy enough but memory tells me they’ll do okay.

2015 June Celery Celeriac Swede

Celery, Celeriac & Swede

2015 June Stick

My Stick

About my stick – it’s probably THE most useful item I have. I crudely fashioned it from a relatively straight piece of holly tree around 5 years ago. As it dried out it developed cracks in a spiral fashion, but they’ve never grown any bigger than the day they stopped growing. I’ve marked out one foot sections along its length, with a smaller 2″ section at the end, which makes it ideal for measuring out planting spaces and distances in a rough manner. I do like things spaced correctly, and this gives me enough peace of mind without resorting to the tape measure (I kid you not). Plus it’s handy for carrying several bags of veg over the shoulder with, warding off angry geese, rounding up chickens, and leaning on when my two existing legs have had enough 🙂 It’s just over 4′ long – which is a bit too short. My dad talks of being the last scout troop in Birmingham to wear the floppy hats, and they also carried proper 6′ staves in case they stumbled across an injured person in need and had to use them to make stretchers from their scarves and staves. I’m reasonably sure that crisis never arose in Kings Heath, but if it did, you could bet the local scouts were prepared! I digress. What it does mean is that I would like a 6′ stave – it would be a much more useful length, I could use it to vault small ditches and I’d be two foot safer from the geese on a bad day.

Then it was on to the last line empty in the onion patch. I’d left it free for celery seed, celeriac transplants and swede – another nice and easy job for the soil miller, which as you can probably tell is fast becoming my favourite tool, after my stick and my old rake.

2015 June Celeriac

Baby Celeriac

Next to the onions, a bit of time was spent reordering the squash – two custard corgettes (the UFO shaped thingummys) had failed to populate their station, whereas the two at the neighbouring station had both germinated. Sensible thing was to pull one out and transplant – they seemed happy enough about it.

Finally on to the peas and beans. Agh! I do suspect a mix of mice, slugs, pigeons and a cold start are contriving to upset me. The runner beans I’d started off under the cut-in-half plastic milk cartons had done well. They had obviously been nobbled slightly by slugs, despite having placed a couple of slug pellets into each carton. Some had no plants, most had one, some had two. As it turned out we had enough for all but one pole, so 19 out of 20 – meaning we need to plant another one, and something had nobbled 21 of the beans.

2015 Squash

Squash Congregating Under the Safety of a Plastic Bag

It could have been any of the four above culprits, as 38 of the 40 climbing French beans had been nobbled, as all were not under the cover of plastic, but laid bare to the elements. I don’t think it was mice as there was no evidence of digging. I do know that some of the broadbeans had been pulled out, pigeon work if ever there was, so they are my main culprit. But judging my general slug damage, I wouldn’t put it past them too, although there wasn’t really any sign of stumps, which slugs tend to leave. Perhaps the colder weather just prevented them from starting, and that’s why there’sno evidence. Whatever the reason, we now have 24 potted beans waiting to germinate near the house, under wire mesh. The broadbeans had met a similar fate – one row looked quite sparce until you brushed away the top cover of soil, revealing the bowed heads of a shoot about to push through. However, the other two rows had over half missing, many had been nibbled off at the top. I suspect mice in this case – pigeons tend to pull them out and disgard them in disgust. I’ve no idea how to combat mice as they can nibble through netting (there’s also a hole in the scaffold netting to the side of the beans, which is also suspicious. Anyway, I planted more beans, I’ll sprinkle more slug pellets, and I may even invest in more netting. Perhaps I should just camp out 24/7 in the bean and pea patch!

A Relaxing Day

I think it’s classed as relaxing? Poppped the sunflowers in, which you can just about make out in the foreground (the two big’uns are self-seeders from last year, transplanted to where they should be rather than where the voles/mice/birds abandoned them. And time to sit down to burn the stems from last year’s dried out sunflowers.

Brassicas!

2015 Brassicas Outside Over the last few years I think we’ve perfected the art of growing brassicas. You can see from these photographs the only way we’ve found of keeping nearly all their pests at bay, though not all. First on the ground, is a black woven weed fabric, with planting holes cut out at spacings that suit the types of brassica we grow. This speeds up the planting process as no marking out is needed. This fabric also prevents weeds growing up around the various plants. Then over that we hang scaffold netting, to keep the butterflies and pigeons off. Initially we used to have a complex triangular framework of bamboo sticks to suspend the netting over, and weighted it to the ground with pebbles. This took so long to create, and was a pain to crawl through to pick stuff, last year we used vertical sticks with cane toppers. This worked until a local fox decided to jump all over the netting whilst trying to chase what we can only assume was a vole. This year we’re using our large amount of metal fence spikes (used for temporary chicken mesh fencing), and hopefully they’ll do the job. The only real pests we can get now are 2015 Brassicas Insideslugs and white fly. I learned one year in particularly heavy rain, that white fly can be hosed off, to keep their numbers down. With this system we can hose through the netting to try and get some off, but we end up suffering the odd fly here and there for the sake of no chemicals. Slugs we can combat either by dropping a handful of sand around the base of each brassica, and/or the new organic slug pellets using ferric sulphite.

We’ve left planting spaces on the left for spring cabbage which we’ll plant out later in the year, and winter cauliflowers, which are about to be sown in pots, also to be planted out later in the year.

Squash Patch

2015 Onion PatchMay is great – especially since we’ve nobbled the spring hoeing-blues 🙂 When it comes to our squash patch, here’s a picture of ‘before’ – the black fabric has been there since last year, and the ground should now be lovely and warm to plant our squash seeds. This year we’re planting Custard White and Nero do Milano corgettes, two stations (why do they call them stations?!) of Berrettina Placetina winter squash, two stations of Tonda Padana winter squash and two stations of Rugosa butternut squash. We tend to store all of our squash, it’s one of our winter foods that since it keeps well and we have so much ‘summer only’ veg, we may as well save it. The sweetcorn will also be planted out to the far side of this vegetable bed, but they won’t go in until later in May.

2015 Squash PatchThis photograph shows the same patch from the other direction once the seeds have gone in (three seeds per station as we like to err on the side of caution). We only have three cloches so the corgettes got spoiled – ideally I’d like one for each of the stations. In the background Suz is watering the fruit not-cage (fixing it is still on the to-do list), and you can just make out the lovely blossom on the fruit trees in the distance. The good old oak tree, no doubt harbouring every pigeon for miles around, is looking gorgeous in leaf now.

Peas and Beans

2015 Legume PatchComing up to mid-May and it’s time to get those legume seed in the ground! This is the first year we’ve covered the entire patch with black woven fabric, and it’s such a time saver! Last autumn we spread the manure over the patch (except where the carrots are going to go), and cover with weed fabric. The worms then spend the winter months taking it down into the soil – it seriously works so well! No digging it in, your worm minions do it all for you. All you need to do is lift the fabric once you’re ready to plant and/or sow. The weeds are nowhere to be seen, so you’ve no early hoeing or double digging either – I can’t think of a reason not to do it. The only We do rotovate the onion bed to make set planting easier, and we hand cultivate the small seed beds (root veg, peas and beans) where needed, using that cracking Wolf Garten Soil Miller – a great tool which rotovates and hoes at the same time, with hand power rather than petrol. It’s proven great between the onion rows too.

So off came the black fabric for the legume patch, and in went two rows of early peas (nice for freezing) Kelvedon Wonder, one row of main crop marrowfat peas Onward, three rows of Masterpiece Green Longpod broadbeans, two wigwams of Sultana climbing beans and two wigwams of Enorma runner beans. All but the broadbeans need protecting from the various pests – for us it’s slugs and pigeons, partners in crime! The peas we sow under netting, with a frugal sprinkle of ferric sulphate slug pellets. The beans we sow under half an old milk carton, with a couple of pellets dropped through the open neck! This way the plant is protected until it’s around 6-8″ high from pigeons, and it has its own little greenhouse to start off in. It’s our first year trying this out after I came up with the idea, it’ll be interesting to see if it works! As  you can see – we need more milk bottles!

Here’s also a quick picture of the onion patch in full swing – my favourites 🙂