Finished Hay Bales

2015 Hay Bale TractorAnd once the deed is done – 68 bales need carting to their storage shed. What you really need is a kind neigbour with a tractor and bucket – what a welcome site (and we all fought over who would sit in the air-conditioned cab ;)).

Plastic Bin Baler

After the successful trial of the DIY plastic bin baler methed post a few days ago, here’s the video showing just how we did it. Small details changed by the end (this was the third bale we’d made using this method), such as cutting the two twine strands before getting into the bin, only treading it down once at the end by climbing in – but pushing it down with fists as the hay was added, as examples. But in general this was the method 🙂

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!

Hay Cutting

2015 Haycutting 2And here it is – after four hours of cutting the grass is done, and the tractor is wheeled off for a service as it feels as though it’s running a bit hot.

We were torn between cutting now or leaving it longer. We have a 5-day window of decent weather to make the hay in, after that it becomes unsettled. As the grass is already a good length, it was decided to cut it now before it started dying off in the base. The only issue is that it’s recently rained, so cutting was hard work, and the ground is still very moist to start with, which is no help. We’ll turn it tomorrow, with the forecast being good, and hope that it starts to dry out.

Plastic Bin Baler

Bit of a quandry this year, and we’ve seen it coming for the last two years.

Our first year of ‘proper’ hay making, in the hay quarter, began in 2013 – Read here for a refresher.

2013 Hay Barn

2013 Hay Barn

At the time I commented on the impossible mission of tracking down someone willing to cut and bail a miserly quarter acre – no farmers were small enough scale anymore to have the kit to do it. Back then we managed to enlist the help of a chap with a mulcher, who cut the grass into small pieces. We had no luck with a bailer, so we ended up bagging the hay into refuse sacks – Farmer John let us have some storage space in the motor room of his grain barn, and things turned out fine.

Fort Cri-Cri Super with Cutterbar

Hay Cutting Independence in 2014!

Then into our second year of hay making – we bought a shiny new 120cm cutter bar for our old Fort 2-wheel tractor, meaning we were self-sufficient when it comes to cutting the hay. Brilliant. Still no luck finding anyone to bail, so we relied on the refuse sacks method again. It’s great, but as our production doubled, Farmer John’s motor room was stacked three bags high, with every bit of floor space taken up!

We’d always envisaged storing the hay ourselves – in our own barn (shed). In fact I worked out that we could fit 20 small 4′ x 2′ x 2′ bales in a 10′ x 10′ x 7′ shed, way back when we were deciding how large a shed we’d need – it ended up being a 30′ x 10′ broken down into three equal 10′ sections – one for dirty machinery (2-wheel tractor, attachments, mower, chainsaws etc), one for clean equipment and seeds animal food (electric fencing, animal products, grain, pellets etc), and one for storing hay for the winter feed. Currently our barn (shed) is 16′ x 10′, so we’re owed 14′ still. If we had our own hay storage space then we would be carrying it 40′ from where it’s cut, rather than carrying it 600′ to the farm next door! And as last year’s production grew to 200 bags and 14 tonne bags, it would save an awful lot of time.

So. On to this year. We’ve solved the cutting issue. A baler attachment to our 2-wheel tractor doesn’t exist, it’s too small a motor. Besides, even if we had a shiny new 2-wheel tractor with more oomph, a baler attachment is a ridiculous price! You can buy a second-hand baler for a fraction of the cost, whic is slightly annoying. No. Our problem is not the effort required to bag the hay, it’s more the transportation and storage.

Our solution? Well – in the future I might build a contraption I’ve seen that they used in North America, to make pine straw bales. It’s a wooden contraption you can build from 1/2″ plywood and some 2″ x 2″ wood, which helps you compact straw that you feed into it from the top. It’s portable, cheap, and does the job. The logic is that rather than drag a baler to where the straw is, you drag the straw to where the baler is, once it’s set up.

2015 Bail Test 3

Tie a strand of twine to each of the two hinges at the top, draping them into the bin, then back up and out over the front of the bin (nearest side)

But for this year I’ve just carried out a test with the good old ‘plastic bin’ baler  method – and I’m chuffed to bits with how well it works! Firstly, it helps being 6’5″ and not a lightweight. I started by tying to long strands of baler twine to each hinge, and dropping  the loops of twine into and back out of the bin – letting the loose ends dangle over the front of the bin. Once the straw is dropped in to the bin, it will cover the twine, and eventually the twine will encompass three sides of the bale.

2015 Bail Test 1

Part full bin and launch tower!

Employing the use of a handy platform ladder that we use for apple picking/hedge cutting/shed roof repairs etc, you climb into the bin once some straw has been thrown in. People throw more straw in, you stand on it to compress it, and once it’s a nice height, simple crouch down, and tie the loose ends of twine to the ends you’ve tied around the hinges, forming two complete loops of twine around the length of your bale (which is actually standing upright in the bin at the time).

2015 Bail Test 2

Bale trussed up inside

Once you’ve tied it up nice and tight, simply drop the bin to its horizontal and drag the bale out – hey presto! One slightly wobbly but firm enough bale home made bale with no fuel used, except the extra butty you had to eat for energy 🙂

2015 Bail Test 4

Side on view – bit ropey but functional

The bale here is the equivalent of eight refuse sacks full. Doing some simple maths, we used 200 refuse sacks last year, and 14 tonne bags. Each tonne bag is the equivalent of 10 refuse sacks, so we produced 340 refuse sacks of hay. That means that if we baled it using this method we’ll have around 42 bales. Each bale is 3′ x 2′ x 2 and you can fit 16 bales onto a floor size of 8′ x 12′, which is perfect for a shed with 10′ x 14′ outside dimensions! Three layers high will allow for 48 bales – easily enough for our needs. This works out at probably double the size needed for a proper baler (I worked out we’d get 20 bales from our quarter acre, rather than 42 bin bales), but I was working on a 4′ long bale in that case.

2015 Bail Test 5

End on view – much more respectable

Any way you look at it, we’re all set for hay making time this year, and we’ve automated it enough for our liking, making the most of the small space we have. I don’t like the idea of adding another small building to our land, but we never add foundations to sheds, so if it’s ever needed to grow on again, we can simply dismantle it and relocate it 🙂

Merrybower Patch Illustration

Merrybower Patch 2014 Illustration

Here’s something I produced last year, to help with the day-to-day organisation of tasks at Merrybower. There are so many things to remember – when to sow, plant and harvest the various crops, when certain jobs need carrying out, when the various fruit trees are in season for picking. Obviously so much depends on the year itself, and you need to fine tune, but here I’ve laid out various calendars so we can see, at a glance, what we should be thinking of doing at any particular time. It’s an illustrated almanac specifically for us here to work from, and will be updated as and when things change (I’ve already noticed we’re missing celery and globe artichokes now, and a few trees are missing. Just click on the image below for the full-sized thing! See if you can spot the little owls 😉

Ah – I know I need some keys, but in a nutshell, the keys are as follows for the various tables:

“Salads, Herbs & Flowers” – sub-sections Greenhouse, Patch, Forage

  • Small dotted orange line – sow in heated area (indoors or heated greenhouse), to be transplanted later
  • Solid orange line – sow where they are to be grown to maturity (in cold greenhouse if appropriate, otherwise outside)
  • Solid brown line – plant out in final position
  • Solid green line – harvest period

“Seasonal Vegetables” – sub-sections by bed – Aliums, Brassicas, Legumes, Roots Squash & Sweetcorn, Potatoes

  • Small dotted orange line – sow in heated area (indoors or heated greenhouse), to be transplanted later
  • Long dotted orange line – sow under glass (cold frame, greenhouse, cloche), to be transplanted later
  • Solid orange line – sow where they are to be grown to maturity (in cold greenhouse if appropriate, otherwise outside)
  • Solid brown line – plant out in final position
  • Solid green line – harvest period
  • Solid blue line – leave in sunlight to chit

“Nuts & Berries”

  • Solid grey line – harvest

“General Tasks” – sub-sections Land, Orchard, Greenhouse, Fowl, Soft Fruits

  • Solid grey line – carry out task.

“The Orchard” – sub-sections Little Orchard (9-12ft), Big Orchard (12-15ft), Banty Paddock & House

  • Dark grey square – type of apple (culinary, dessert, cider/perry)
  • Calender dark grey square – pick fruit
  • Calender light grey line – useable time, with storage if necessary

It is worth noting that the fruit type is defined by the following colours:

  • Light green – apple
  • Dark green – pear
  • Purple – plum
  • Red – cherry


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!

Greenhouse Update

We were only just saying that we finally feel like we’re getting into a rhythm, finally. It’s been five years now since we started growing down the patch, and as we run a five-year rotation with the vegetable beds, it seems oddly appropriate that we feel as though we (almost) know what we’re doing. In those five years we’ve dealt with droughts, floods, winds and rains, pigeons, rabbits, voles, rats and more recently fox, who took our beloved cockerel Ethelred 🙁 We’ve combatted slugs, white fly, greenfly, blackfly, sawfly, codling moth, sparrows (and their fondness for beetroot leaves). We’ve relocated ladybirds from one area to another, where we know the food is, sprayed nematodes, which were fantastic, and learned to hoe little and often – the best thing ever to do.

However, there’s always something sent to test you – current ‘big’ jobs are:

  • Fix the fruit cage that bent under the weight of snow over winter as some muppet forgot to take the netting off the roof.
  • De-head the teasels that have taken over the wild flower strip we sowed last year – I have no idea what they were thinking but the supplier mixed in so many that they’re dwarfing everything else off! Apparently if we de-head them when they’re in flower and remove the heads away completely (they can still ripen off the plant, and there are thousands on a plant), then the plant will naturally die off. We have this issue for several years ahead of ourselves at the moment – so you live and learn :/

Anyway – the greenhouses are definitely in a rhythm – things from inside the house were moved to the greenhouse after being potted on, and they look much happier for it though, as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a bit disappointed at the size of things in general.

Greenhouse 1

2015 june tomatoes

Plum Tomatoes & Eating Tomatoes

This is our tomato greenhouse. An army of ants had made their nest under the slabs running down the centre of the greenhouse, as they had done in Greenhouse 2 last year. As we did last year, we used boiling water as a nasty but effective way of dealing with them. I suspect they’re the same nest who are sending out ants to milk the greenfly on the poor neighbouring plum tree. We stopped that with a sticky glue band around the trunk (what can’t go up can’t go down), and the removal of the nest once found was the end of that problem, for now. On to potting on the tomatoes – six cooking plants and six eating plants – though six eating is far too few for my liking. Still – we tried cramming a third row in the middle last year and it became all too unwieldy. Last year was the first time we tried cooking tomatoes (plum) and they were delicious in sauces.

Greenhouse 2

2015 june sweet peppers

Sweet Peppers

This is our cucumber greenhouse and our potting bench also lives here – a neat collapsible metal bench that was donated along with the greenhouse by some friends in the village. The potting bench becomes a nursery bench for hardier plants, and once they’ve been moved outside it becomes the final home for the plants started off indoors. Here you can see the sweet peppers, which we use stuffed or in ratatouille.

2015 june basil


The basil we dry and use all year, it’s another of those plants that we personally can’t grow enough of. Freshly picked it’s delicious in a salad, or as a dressing with the tradational balsamic vinegar dressing over mozzarella and tomatoes dish. Dried it’s great in anything, especially pasta sauces. I just like eating it raw as a breath freshener!

2015 june cucumbers


Then we have our Telegraph Improved cucumbers – I’m determing to stay on top of them this year – in the past, without exception, they become unruly and all triffid-like, taking over the greenhouse to the extent you need to tip-toe around them to try and get to anything else!

2015 june globe artichokes

Globe Artichokes

Next along are the globe artichokes – which are outside during the day to harden off, and inside again at night. They’ll eventually have a permanent home in the patch, near the sunflowers, in the future. But not where the sunflowers have already been grown – I’ve heard you shouldn’t grow them where any member of the daisy family has been rgown previously – not sure why but I’m not going to find out the hard way!

2015 june celeriac 2


Then there’s the coriander – these are the seeds saved from plants we first grew two years ago. We sprinkled a load into a tray, to see what would happen, and I would say we ended up with a 50:50 germination rate, which wasn’t bad at all considering they’d been kept in the seed box all that time!

2015 june flowers

Sunflowers, Sweetcorn & French Marigolds

Outside is where the previous occupants are now living, before they find their permanent homes – whilst we have the sunflowers in the patch already in place, we tend to grow twice as many items where we can, so we can pick the healthiest and largest to grow on. This means we invariably have spares – here you can see the spare sunflowers, and spare sweetcorn (at the back). In the foreground we have the marigolds which will be used a companion plant in the vegetable patch, namely near the brassicas as they deter whitefly!

2015 june lettuce

Rescued Lettuce

We also have a few pots of lettuce outside – rescued from one of those trays you buy from the supermarket that Suz’s mother brought to the house a few weeks ago, the sort you buy live and cut the leaves off as you need them. Rather than throw away the cut plugs, I just repotted them and now we have seven baby lettuce plants for free! The parsely we’ve bought in, and the lone sunflower was a freebie for buying so much compost from the local nursery! Coals to Newcastle springs to mind 😉

Greenhouse 3

2015 june aubergines


This is our new greenhouse, and is home to the aubergines. We’ve had moderate success in the past with these, and utter failure other years. This greenhouse gets full sun most of the day, so I’m hoping the warmer conditions are more conducive to a bumper crop! That reminds me of another job – I need to anchor this greenhouse down to the concrete base as we’ve moved it from where it was. Where it was is now a lilac tree and will have lavender bushes around it, to attract the bees and give us something to be wary of as we brush past it to and from the patch on the brick path! I’ve just realise that this is *not* our new greenhouse – it is in fact the garden path! I’ll add a photo of the new greenhouse once I take one 😀