Category Archives: Growing

When the sun shines

It’s amazing the difference the weather can make when you are smallholding. I can really see why sun worship has been so popular through the ages. Everything just feels so much lighter, hopeful and easier.

We had been meant to go away this weekend but due to family illness it was cancelled last minute. We put the change of plans to good use though. Friday we made into a Chi day. Trip to the local garden centre to visit the owl centre, look at plants and seeds, have ice cream and look at fish. Followed by a quick stop in some shoe shops to get me some shoes other than trainers that I can put on without bending and have a dinner out. Home with an exhausted Chi so time for a boardgame. Nice and restful with plans to get smallholding at the weekend.

Saturday started off with a smallholder’s club meeting. I’ll keep on saying that joining our local club was a really good move for us, being active in it has been even better. Sometimes you look at the long list of jobs you have and the forecast of good weather and think maybe we should skip it this month but it has always paid off when we have gone. It’s not just about the topic of the meeting (although this one was all about growing which was well timed for us as this year we are focusing less on livestock and more on growing). There is also a massive benefit to meeting other smallholders, making friends and getting ideas of how to set things up/fix things that you may not have thought of. If you are a smallholder and have a local group then I highly recommend joining it. I picked up a lot of tidbits at this meeting and of course there is always cake!

We grabbed some chips from McDonalds on the way home and headed straight outside. Sam got started on the compost heap again. The chickens now have free range of the land (which they love, although some still think the garden grass is greener) but it means they have attacked our muck heap and giant compost heap, spreading things everywhere. So we are using 4 heras panels to enclose the muck heap.

Finished compost/muck heap enclosure.

We would love to have a row of 3 or 4 neat contained compost heaps that we could use to turn the compost as it matures and keep things manageable. Unfortunately this year has a gazillion jobs we want to be doing so the muck heap is low down, we’ll contain it and just pile everything up. Hopefully next year, when we have the fruit patch contained and raised beds in the polytunnel, we can work on building some nice compost heaps. Sam managed to finish it and then he cleared out all the straw from the polytunnel from our lambing last year. We’re a bit behind on it I know!

Making headway on clearing the lambing side of polytunnel

Whilst he was working hard at that I attacked the beds again. I’m very against using products to kill the weeds. We aren’t registered organic but I really try to raise our animals and grow our crops with organic principles in mind, possibly too much so. Neglect over the end of summer, through autumn and winter meant that the thistle on our land moved into the polytunnel. We have beds of it. Some good friends cleared one bed for me at the end of last year but thistles are persistent. We had a slight problem with them last year but by weeding them pretty much daily, pulling the new shoots as soon as I can see them I managed to weaken the root system enough that over summer I had no problems with them at all. So I’m taking that approach again. Pulling up every thistle I can find in the polytunnel with as much of the roots as possible. It’s not easy as kneeling and bending are quite hard work for me at the moment but I think I am getting somewhere. I just need to keep on top of it. The beds are all a bit merged but we’ll sort them out once we get the sides on and manage to keep the chickens out!

De-thistled veg beds

Chi had some great fun feeding some of the flowering purple sprouting broccoli to the ewes, I think they enjoyed it too. Sometimes it’s the small moments, like seeing her barefoot, smiling and feeding sheep, that boost my confidence that we are doing something good for her here.

Feeding the sheep

Sunday’s task was to be the fruit patch so we spent Saturday night going through all our notes from last year about the size of patch, the plants that are in and the distances between them. I have signed up to The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Planner. It’s a paid for service, although there is a free trial, but I really like it. I used it to plan the garden in Scotland but didn’t really follow up with it. It can give you updates about when to plant things, spacing and means you can go back and see what was planted where and when. I have one for the polytunnel and now for the fruit patch. I don’t think we will get anything into the outdoor veg patch this year, the covers can remain in place to kill the weeds for a while longer. You can see the fruit patch plan here.

Sunday morning we headed straight out. My mum came up and joined us for a few hours in the afternoon which gave us a bit more freedom to work as Chi played with her. We managed to plant 9 new bushes, giving us 9 blueberries, 8 gooseberries, 3 blackcurrants, 7 red currants and and 8 white currants. The garden centre we visited on Friday has some very mature bushes going very cheap so if I can get down there I’ll grab some to fill in the black currant and red currant gaps.

You can just about see the plants

Sam worked on clearing the weeds from the weed proof fabric, I think we may need to put woodchip down over the fabric but the fruit patch is Sam’s part of the smallholding so he gets final say on everything.

Clearing the weeds

Last year we were trying to improve the soil and thought we would cover the whole patch in a thick layer of manure. It didn’t quite happen but we did pull up a strip of weed proof fabric and gave a good foot of manure to it. That has rotted down now which is great but the thistles loved it! (Are you sensing a theme here?) So my next job on the fruit patch is pulling the thistles that are there, once that is done we will cover it over with weedproof fabric again and get the loganberry, raspberry and blackberry planted down that side. We are hoping as they grow they will provide a bit of shelter to the sheep (or anyone else) who grazes in polytunnel way.

You can just about see the uncovered, manured patch

It really, really feels as though things are moving in a positive direction on the holding. Of course it is April so we have had showers this week, limiting what I can do with Chi outside, but I managed to do another bit of thistle weeding on Monday and hope to do some more on Thursday. I’ve been using the rainy time to focus on getting the inside of the house under control (I am nesting after all) and had to do some pregnancy research in the evenings but I am hoping that tonight I will get some seeds in to trays inside and really kick our growing off. Better late than never hey?

Then it will be working towards making some raised beds in the polytunnel for my nice new seedlings to go into. It feels all go here at the moment, which is exhausting but oh so good!

Dans

Best laid plans

Sometimes you can make the best plans in the world and it all goes awry. We’re having a bit of this at the moment.

Easter weekend seemed like it would be a great time to get on top of some of the jobs that had piled up. Sam had 4 days off and we’d just had our first real taste of Spring the weekend before. We started really well, getting into the polytunnel on Friday and doing a good tidy. The chickens we had in there had merged all our beds into one  which we worked at sweeping into individual beds. We are planning to make the polytunnel beds raised beds this year, we have the wood for it but we will see how that goes. On the upside they should have done a good job at removing pests and added a bit of fertiliser. I’d quite like to let some chickens loose on empty beds each year. Whilst sweeping and weeding the beds Sam spotted two parsnips we had missed, they were huge. He also managed to start work on getting our muck heap fenced in as the chickens have been spreading that too.

I busied myself with doing the second coat of varnish on the new poop tray for the chicken house. The plan was to get that in on Sunday when the weather would be drier, it will massively reduce the amount of time spent cleaning the chicken house and hopefully give us some cleaner eggs. I then cleaned out the chicken house in the polytunnel as it was no longer in use, Aurora being back in the main flock and Chihiro being in the freezer. Whilst the varnish was out and as it was nearly finished I threw a coat onto the inside of the roof. The ventilation on the house isn’t great and we found that some days there was condensation inside which was rotting the inside of the roof. It isn’t a brilliant house, I did a review of it here, but it works for housing chicks and broody hens, newcomers and anyone we want to isolate. I know the varnish isn’t a proper fix but hopefully it will help. Chi was kept entertained once she realised she could get into the house. We even managed to play a board game that night, things were looking good!

Saturday was a Chi day, we took her to her first cinema trip which she seemed to enjoy. We were meant to go swimming after but she was very tired and ratty which should have been my first clue something was up. She was asleep by the time we got home and we managed to get another game played. Sunday we had swimming in the morning then the plan was home to make the most of the dry spell. The forecast lied. There was no dry so we went to a soft play instead. Whilst there I noticed Chi was getting ill again, which resulted in a 3 day stay at hospital. Bang went the rest of the plans for the weekend and the next week as I really struggle to take her outside in the cold and wet when she isn’t well. We seemed to be getting better but something else has cropped up that the GP is looking into. Over a week after getting out of hospital and I am still worried about taking her out. Children really can add a random factor into smallholding that you just can’t account for.

On top of that the rain hasn’t helped things. We haven’t been hit as badly as some people but the land is pretty saturated, we’re about to buy even more hay, in April. It feels wrong but there just isn’t enough grass.

The chickens are laying like mad, but we’re getting less people stopping at the stall to buy eggs. Plus the chickens have muddy feet so we’re getting a lot more dirty eggs that I feel bad trying to sell. We have 20 boxes of eggs in the fridge right now for our use. I have to admit I’m feeling a fair bit overwhelmed! There’ll be a post soon about the different bits I’m doing with eggs. On top of that I was so glad to see 4 boxes had gone from the gate yesterday, only to find out that once again no money has been left. We have a repeat offender who will help themselves to several boxes and leave no money. It’s depressing to put so much work in and have people take advantage, especially when you are producing on such a small scale so every sale counts.

One day’s harvest of eggs

It’s also starting to get impossible to get to the Derbyshire Redcap cockerels as the entrance to their polytunnel is flooded, they have also started to fight with each other. The geese still aren’t laying and have eaten through their grass. We’ve made the decision to send the geese for meat. We really wanted to keep the descendants of Athos, April and Abigail but they are all boys and we are struggling with the workload this year. It will be very strange not to have geese on the land. The two cockerels are going too as they are well past time and I don’t know when I will get to killing and butchering them.

The cockerels sizing each other up

Last bit of news was some mucky bums on two of the ewe lambs (Celaena and Caitlin), they hadn’t been wormed when we did the other lambs last year so they got their first dose of wormer. Not before Celaena jumped straight over the hurdles and went for a wander around the area though. She takes after her father I think. We did Caprica at the same time as her bum was a bit mucky. I would have liked to do a worm count first but honestly I’m struggling to get things done. The ram lambs are showing no signs of needing and neither are the ewes so we left them be. They are starting to look quite smart, I’m thinking about trying to sell Cisco for breeding, he’s a great ram lamb, when he isn’t putting his head in a fence, but that’s probably to do with the lack of grass.

All in all we are finding things hard right now. We make plans to get things on track but other things crop up. There’s lots to do, the year is ticking by, Chi isn’t well, I’m pretty useless and the weather is literally raining on us. It’s probably the hardest we have found smallholding since starting and we have had thoughts about packing up. We won’t make a decision now, not in the midst of the bad, but we are longing for some good weather and a bit of a break from all the hardships of winter.

Dans

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Harvest challenges

Things have been busy here, we are well into the harvest season and I have to admit it is getting to be a bit of a struggle to keep up with everything! I do think we are doing better each year with the animals and growing, but there is still so much more we could harvest and could be doing with the land.

I’ve actually decided to join in with a challenge that I saw on another smallholding blog, Holding On 4. The aim is to harvest 5lbs of something each day for 50 days. It can be fruit, veg, nuts, seeds, meat, eggs, well pretty much anything. On her blog she wasn’t counting anything that she was eating that day, but I’m not quite that hardcore. We are including things that we pick to eat or put out to sell but we aren’t including the eggs. I do find that it can be quite easy to get bogged down in the jobs that keep things ticking over, especially in the house, and leave things unharvested, so I am hoping that this keeps me going out each day. I started on Friday and smashed the goal with a harvest of 11lbs. 2lbs 10.9oz of cucumbers, 10.2 oz yellow courgette, 11.7oz green courgette, 3lbs 11.9oz of yellow plums, 1lbs 2.4oz of cooking apples and 2lbs 4.3oz of red onions. The next day we were away for the day so I only collected a few apples to take with us. 3lbs 11.1oz of Beauty of Bath apples. And today we were out again so we didn’t harvest anything at all.  14lbs 14.5oz over 3 days. Sam isn’t sure we will manage to have 5lbs of things to harvest each day, and days we are away it will be hard, but it’s a fun little challenge.

Speaking of daily harvests, we now have another incentive to get out and picking each day. We have started putting some of the veg out on the stall to sell along with the eggs. We haven’t had many sales yet, but I am hoping that, like with the eggs, it will pick up soon. We just need people to take a chance on us and then hopefully they will come back based on the taste. Our tomatoes this year are delicious.

Our ‘farm gate’ stall

I’ve set myself another mini challenge and this one might actually be achievable. We were getting quite behind on the harvesting and the fridges and freezers were filling with the things we had harvested. To work our way through I decided to try and harvest at least one thing a day and do at least 1 batch of preserving each day. That could be freezing if needed, but also includes dehydrating, jam, wine, chutney, juice, fruity spirits, or sauce. Last week I turned my hand to drying plums (purple and red) and tomatoes, plum (purple) and blackberry wines, plum brandy, blackberry rum, blackberry and plum jams, passata and a cucumber and apple chutney.

I spoke a bit about preserving last year, mainly saying that I hadn’t done much of it so far! We did a little bit last year but chutney and jam were still new to me this year. I was quite nervous to try them but so far they have gone down a treat with everyone who has tried them. I’m really looking forward to trying to keep up this harvest 1/preserve 1 a day, it’s making it manageable and keeping the gluts under control. I’m open to all kinds of recipes so fire away if you have any. Especially anything with cucumber that will keep!

Between all the harvesting, preserving, cleaning out sheds, getting set up to sell more complicated food items, and dropping my laptop (which means it will no longer run chrome for some reason) I just haven’t been able to come on here much. I am hoping that now I’m a bit more comfortable with internet explorer, I’ll be on more regularly. I need to update about the geese, and the chickens, and all the things we are growing.

Dans

A unexpectedly lame weekend

This weekend was full of unexpected turns of events. Firstly I was booked onto a spinning course on the Thursday so Sam took the day off to look after Chi. I have been wanting to get my spinning wheel back into use for ages so was really looking forward to this. I actually booked onto the course in Feb, but it was cancelled. Unfortunately, it was cancelled again at the last minute.

We decided to make use of the day and got a bunch of tasks done. Another 12 berry bushes planted in the berry patch so we have gooseberries, red currants, white currants and blueberries planted. Still have the raspberries, loganberries and strawberries to go in but it is really starting to take shape. I am looking forward to many years picking berries in this patch.

The growing berry patch

We also planted some onions in the outdoor veg patch, to go with the potatoes I planted earlier in the week. I need to get some more bits in those beds but I can see things starting to come together.

We are facing a bit of a dilemma with where to do lambing. We were going to use our storage polytunnel but I am starting to worry about it getting too warm in there as we are lambing later in the year than I’d have liked. Sam had an idea to partially cover the shade tunnel using tarp so we gave that a go. A few false starts getting it on but we succeeded at last. So far it seems to be holding and not flapping so we may put a second one on to give a larger area.

Our makeshift cover

Lastly we cleared up some big thistles from the sheep field and filled in a few ankle breaker holes. Our ground can get so dry in summer that it actually cracks, leaving nice gaps that will fit a foot in! While we were in there we noticed that one of the sheep, Aeryn, who is pregnant with twins had a slight limp. Everything I have read has said it’s best at this stage to see if it resolves itself rather than trying to catch and see to a pregnant ewe. So we noted it and left her be.

We were meant to be going away for the weekend to see Sam’s family in Dorset, including his grandmother, before lambing. We got up early on Friday morning to get all the animals cleaned out and sorted ready for the sitter coming that evening. I gave the sheep fresh hay but they were all sleepy and not bothered, as they are most mornings. After sorting the other animals I went back as an after thought to move their hay rack (3 hurdles in a triangle with hay racks over them that we move regularly), as there was some nice grass under it and we are moving them out of that area on Monday. It was then that I noticed that Aeryn had gone from a slight limp to completely non-weightbearing on one leg.

Got Sam to come out, with ewe nuts, foot spray and foot shears. At first I thought I could just grab her but even on 3 legs Aeryn can be quite flighty. We got her penned easily enough though (Sam really is a sheep whisperer). We couldn’t turn her as she is 6 weeks off lambing but we were able to pick her feet up to have a look, a bit like a horse. The worst one was the front right. Really bad shelly hoof, to the extent that the whole external wall was flapping. There was also a slight smell coming from the foot. I cleaned the mud out of the gap and we clipped away the loose bits of hoof. and sprayed it. The other front foot had a bit of shelly hoof as did one of the back so they got the same treatment. We let her go and then had a chat with one of our friends, Cassie, who is a vet. She suspected foot rot, which would need antibiotics and painkillers as well as daily spraying, so we got in contact with our vets. The trip away would have to be cancelled.

I don’t know if I have spoken out the vet situation on here but we have only 1 that covers our area.  That wouldn’t be so bad but the practice is an hours drive from here so not ideal. It’s not all bleak as they have a half price call out day for our area once a week, are happy to post out meds and have an ‘outpost’ where you can arrange to pick meds up from if it is arranged in advance. The receptionist said that she would get a vet to call me back but we would need to come to the surgery to get the meds as there was no-one nearby. Not great but, as our plans had already changed, getting Aeryn sorted was the priority of the day.

The vet called and was worried about Aeryn being off her feet for twin lamb disease (TLD) but although she was lying down a lot she was still eating and she was running over (albeit on 3 legs), when she saw Sam with ewe nuts. She also didn’t have the tell tale acetone smelling breath. So we weren’t too worried about TLD. TLD is a metabolic disease that can affect pregnant sheep. Basically, the lambs take so much nutrition that the ewe starts breaking down her own supplies, if this happens too much she can effectively get poisoned by the ketones and it can lead to death if not treated quickly. The vet was very nice and when he heard where we were he said he could actually meet us in a local supermarket car park to give us the meds, a 20 minute journey instead of an hour.

Whilst I rushed off to Asda, Sam fixed the Honda (dead battery and relentless car alarm) and headed off to get some straw in case we needed to bring her in. We needed to get the straw anyway, ready for lambing, but thought we had a few weeks. I have to admit it felt very odd pulling up in the car park and standing next to the vet as he drew up the meds with shoppers driving past but it made things so much easier.

Back home and we gave her the meds. There wasn’t much improvement at first but after a few hours she was limping less. We caught her the next morning and she seemed just as bad. I decided to check between her toes in case anything was stuck there. I had been so appalled by the state of her hoof that I hadn’t thought to check the day before. There was indeed a piece of hoof stuck diagonally between her toes. It could have broken off there as the hoof wall broke away or it could have been she stepped on it after I had clipped it. I’ll be picking up any hoof cuttings in future! She got another spray and release. By that evening she was looking a bit better thankfully.

Now that we had a good store of straw we used 4 bales and an old garden table to make a goose nest box. April has been getting overly broody and sent poor Barbara out to nest in the dirt. We are hoping this impromptu nest box will give her somewhere dry and clean to lay. I was getting worried about April as she had spent 3 days on the nest without laying an egg and was no longer taking feed and water breaks so we pushed her off and locked her out. It seems to have broken her broodiness but she has also stopped laying *Sigh*. They are on the last couple days of worming so hopefully when we let them out on Monday she will come back in to lay.

The makeshift goose nest box

When we realised we weren’t going away for the weekend we made some impromptu plans for Sunday. We had been planning on taking Chi to a few places whilst away and as that wouldn’t happen we wanted to make it up to her (even though she didn’t know about them). We decided to go to Hamerton Zoo, which isn’t too far from us. We checked on Aeryn first and she was much improved, a bit of a limp, back to how she had been on Friday. We still penned her and sprayed the feet though. We had a lovely time at the zoo and when we got back and checked her again she was walking fine. If it wasn’t for the slightly blue legs and close scrutiny, you wouldn’t have known she had an issue so we didn’t give her the added stress of another catching. Hopefully this means it wasn’t foot rot, and just a secondary infection but we will remain vigilant.

Right Sam has today off and we have the vet coming for our yearly check, worming and heptavac and 2 sheep to move across the road so I better get off the computer and onto the land! (EDIT: This was actually written on Monday morning but it has taken me this long to get the pictures in!)

Dans

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Busy bees

Well this weekend it was Mother’s day and Sam’s birthday but that didn’t mean a restful weekend!

It started on Friday evening when we caught up the sheep ready to move them to some fresh grass. We took the opportunity to do a body condition score (BCS) on them. This is basically feeling their backs over the hip area to assess how bony or fatty they are. This gives you an idea of how they are doing and what feeding they need. Especially Arya who we know is carrying twins as this can put quite a strain on her body. We also took some poo samples so we can check the worm burden of the sheep.

Checking Arha’s BCS

Saturday wasn’t too bad, a trip to B&Q to pick up some supplies and had a quick lunch out so we could get straight to work at home. First job was a delivery of manure. I’m trying desperately to improve our soil so some free organic matter seems like a good bet. It’s horse manure though so a bit weedy but we don’t have cow manure in great quantities in this area.

The manure delivery

Next was the usual jobs around the holding, including cleaning out the chickens. We’ve been having a slight problem with mice. Our house is filled with lovely deep bed of chopped straw for the chickens to jump off the perches onto. Unfortunately, this winter mice have decided it’s a great place to live. First it was two nesting which we cleared out. Then about a month later we had a young family which we also cleared out. And now a month or so later we have had 1 in there which I cleared out Saturday. I basically move all the additional things in the hen house (plastic nest boxes and a wooden step for the hens to reach the higher nest boxes) and chase out the mice. It seems to work as they stay away for so long, but I think we need to look into some traps if it persists.

The inside of our hen house (although the food is no longer kept in there)

Then I decided to brush off my very rusty skills to do a faecal egg count (FEC) on the samples we gathered on Friday. This tells us what eggs are being shed by the ewes and if they need worming. It was a nice low count of about 150 eggs per gram (epg), which wouldn’t be anything to worry about. However, I found a single Nematodirus egg. This is a type of worm that can be quite bad for lambs to get so the ewes will need to be treated in the next coming weeks.

The Nematodirus egg

Sunday, the day of rest right? Especially as it’s Mother’s day and a birthday? Well I was up at 8:30am and Sam stayed in bed until about 9:30am with Chi. Then it was all go again. The guy who owns the 0.5acre plot across the road has said we can graze the sheep there. It’s quite overgrown at the moment and the grass won’t be very nutritious so we’re going to send Anya and Aelin over there as they shouldn’t be pregnant and are being a bit of a nuisance to the others. But there is a pile of rubble at the back and the guy goes in regularly to get bits from his storage container so we’ve bought heras panels so that they sheep are safe and he can get to his stuff. They arrived bright and early so that was the first job.

Our next job was to finish marking out the berry patch. We marked out the blueberry row a little while ago and got some planted. We marked out the rest of the spots and cleared more of the area but there’s more moss and grass to clear and then of course the bushes to plant but I can do that on my own. Thankfully of the 31 fruit bushes we bought at our local garden centre it looks like 30 have made it through the winter and are budding. I’m holding out hope for the last one but we will see. They varied in price from 50p to £2 so pretty good value.

Next we had an impromptu chicken rescue. Aurora had got into the goose area and one of them went for her, judging by the squawking and honking I heard. I ran over to check she was ok and found her on the other side of the fence, on the bank of the drainage ditch that runs along our smallholding. There’s chicken wire along the bottom so she would have had to fly back over. I ended up climbing over the fence and trying to catch her on a steep bank. That was not fun but we got her back safe and sound.

No rest for the wicked, a quick drink of squash and we were back to work. We pulled back the weed proof fabric that we spread over the intended veg bed. It was much better than it had been but some bits were still growing. We dug out some of the bigger stronger tufts of grass, raked the area to be somewhat level, flattened out the fabric and marked out the veg beds. We’ll plant through the fabric this year, then in the winter we will pull it back again, mark out the beds top with well rotted manure. Or at least that is the plan. We’ll see how it goes.

The clocks going forward meant that it was still light out so we headed across the road to start putting up the heras panels. We managed about half before Chi woke up and we had to head in for dinner whilst Sam saw to the animals.

For the last job of the day Sam went to get a combination of Chinese and Indian for dinner whilst I baked him a birthday cake. It was an experimental apple and redcurrant cake. I thought I used enough redcurrants but they are quite subtle so I think I’ll double amount next time.

With all the stuff getting done, the plants growing, the buds on all the trees, the sheep getting bigger and all the eggs rolling in it really feels like the year is turning.

Dans

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Snippity snip

I think I have mentioned our many fruit trees before. We have 3 cooking apple, 4 eating apple, 3 pear, 3 plum, 2 greengage, a mirabelle and at least 4 cherry plum. Having all of these mature trees here has meant an abundance of fruit, which has been awesome. The downside is that all trees need maintenance and from what we can see these trees have been neglected for many years. We’ve been clearing away dropped and diseased fruit, brambles around them and the chickens have done a very good job of clearing the grass around the base. All of that should help but what the trees really need is a prune.

Pruning sounds simple enough, cut some bits off and voila, but I’ve actually been really scared of it. If you do it at the wrong time of year you can leave the tree susceptible to disease and poor growth, if you cut too much off it can turn into a spikey hedgehog throwing up loads of new shoots and the very idea of cutting off branches that would have given me fruit later feels like throwing the fruit away. So why do it? The current state of the apple trees means that the fruit is actually lying on the floor while it is still on the branches. We made some supports last year which helped a bit but a lot got damaged and more were eaten by the chickens. When branches are criss-crossing each other they rub which can damage the bark and leave the tree open to disease. Branches that are all close together means less airflow through the tree and again leads to disease. All the trees in the garden have had some instances of brown rot which is a fungal disease, more airflow should help us fight it.

This past weekend we finally took the plunge. I have the Fruit Tree Handbook by Ben Pike which talks about pruning in general and in relation to restoring older or neglected trees. We had a quick read, not as in depth as I would have liked but that comes with trying to do anything with a toddler, and decided to start with the Beauty of Bath eating apple tree. It looks to us like a previous owner actually trained the tree to grow it’s branches downwards, they bend down at quite the angle. Unfortunately that means a mass of braches and loads of apples on the floor. They’ve done this with two of the cooking apples aswell. The book said to take off no more than 20% in the first year and to look at restoration as a several year project so that is what we did. The pictures aren’t great but I can certainly see a difference. I just hope we didn’t take too much off.

Next I had a go at our russet apple tree, we don’t know what type of russet it is, but it produces small tasty apples so we like it. They worked really well dried last year. The tree itself is very small and tucked behind the Beauty of Bath and under our largest Cherry Plum. I only took a few branches off of this, mostly where they were tangled with the Beauty of Bath or where they were crossing themselves.

The next tangle was our 3rd eating apple tree, we have no idea what type it is so we call it Eating Apple (EA) 1, and one of the cooking apple trees called Cooking Apple (CA) 1 (I just went anti-clockwise around the garden). I had to tackle them together as they are that tangled that you can’t really tell one from the other at the moment. I started on the eating apple side and did my best to free it from the cooking apple. Again we liked the taste of these apples and they came in earlier than the other eating apples so more of them would be good. Unfortunately, due to the crowding and an awful problem with coddling moth I think we got 2 apples from this tree last year, the rest were inaccessible, infected with brown rot or riddled. I am hoping that if we can get to it this year, and get the chickens access to scratch around the base, then we can reduce the coddling moth and airflow will help with the rot. We only managed to tackle CA 1 in as far as it was encroaching on EA 1 as it started getting late and my confidence had grown to the point that we decided it probably didn’t need to be a two person job.

A lot of the jobs around our smallholding are split into one person or two person jobs. One person jobs I try and do during the week with Chi, unless I don’t have the skills to do them, in which case it goes on Sam’s list if he does. The two people jobs, because it is a bigger job, needs more hands or I am just not confident doing it on my own, wait until a weekend, evening or Sam has a day off. I am getting a bit more confident at trying some jobs on my own but I was really worried about taking too much off the trees and just cannot judge if a pile of twigs is 20% of a tree or not!

The prunings from Beauty of bath. 20% of the tree???

Once I had a vauge idea though, we decided I could probably manage on my own (Sam had spent most of the pruning time fixing a broken tap so we finally have water in the back garden again – oh and entertaining Chi). We then turned to another fruit tree related 2 person job, planning out the orchard. We have planted 4 fruit trees in the orchard so far. We weren’t very sure about spacings so we went with 4m around each tree. Those trees were penned off with chicken wire to keep the geese away and mulched with old hay to keep the grass down around them. Sam and I worked at getting some bamboo canes in to mark out where the rest of trees will go until it got so dark we couldn’t actually see the bamboo canes. Now I have a new one person job, dig holes for the trees! We bought 8 trees when our garden centre was having a clear out. They are older trees, probably not in the best of health and I am pretty sure 1 is dead (possibly more after having spent the autumn and winter in the polytunnel) but they were stupidly cheap (£2-5) so we will give them a go. I’m not sure what the geese will think when they go back in and find even more trees in thier area!

Now I just need to prune CA1, CA2, the three pear trees and EA2. At least we will have plenty of kindling for next winter’s fires!

Dans

Just a little leek

Well when we set up the first veg bed back in January last year, I was very eager to get planting. So eager that I looked at what seeds I had that could be planted that early and went mad on them. As such we ended up with a lot of white onions (not too bad apart from the fact we pretty much only eat red onion) and a ton of leeks.

Now I love a good chicken, bacon and leek pie and was interested in finding other ways I might like it. I didn’t realise until after I planted them that Sam isn’t keen on them at all. Of course, once the excitement of my first planting waned, my attention got caught on other things. We ended up with 3 rows of leeks that hadn’t been thinned, sown so tightly that if you tried to pull one you got about 5!

Once Nov rolled round I needed to find a way to cook and eat all these leeks despite me being the only one who likes them. I’m firmly of the ‘if we grow it we eat it’ mentality, trying to waste as little as possible. I may just have to have a bit of a longer think before I plant things next year. My first experiment was to chuck some leeks in the roasting pan. When I do tatties I add in red onion and garlic half way through anyway, and leek is related so that’ll work right? Well it did, and Sam even liked it to boot! Roast tatties with garlic, red onion and leek are now a staple with our roasts. It also works well in my modified bubble and squeak.

I’m not entirely sure Chi is liking them but she is going through a phase of rejecting certain textures, she had been a big fan of cooked onion but has gone right off it. She is however fully embracing the food preparation. I’d been giving her pieces of garlic to peel when I’m doing meal prep, she just needs you to loosen the skin and she does the rest. I gave her a leek the other day and she loved peeling it, even though it was taller than her!

Start them young!
Start them young!

With Sam on board for roast leek I decided to brave a chicken, bacon and leek in a creamy sauce with pasta. It is horribly unhealthy for the amount of dairy in the sauce but it’s had a big thumbs up from most people (a friend who doesn’t like leek at all wasn’t very keen) and is now Sam’s request for me to cook when we have people over, with my apple and pear crumble for dessert. I’ll pop the recipe at the end of this post.

Noms

I’m starting to see a seasonal flow to my cooking. Before the smallholding we would eat pretty much the same meals all year round. In spring we had a lot of goose egg omelettes. Then in early summer egg and chips from our chicken or goose eggs and our tatties was a staple. As the polytunnel really started producing I ventured into ratatouille. Sam has labelled my chicken, bacon and leek my autumn meal. It’s not quite as home grown as the others but I’m starting to really look at what we are growing and cook that with bought foods that compliment it. I used to buy peppers and mushrooms year round, but even once the polytunnel has stopped producing them I’m still not buying them, I’m switching our meals to more seasonal. It’s exactly what I wanted to happen and it feels so wonderful.

The pinnacle for me, food wise, of this year has to be our Samhain dinner. For those who don’t know Samhain is a pagan festival that falls on Halloween. My general celebration is to do a pumpkin (or failing that a tea light in a lantern) to guide any spirits home, then cook a nice meal and eat it with some wine and a spare place set at the table for any spirits who wish to join. After the meal I libate (leave as an offering outside) some food and wine for the spirits. I spend much of the day thinking of those who have gone before (ancestors and friends) and those who are yet to come. I also view it as my new year.

Pumpkin!
Pumpkin!

Every Samhain I try and cook something really homely, if I can with as much of our home grown food as possible. Sam came home this year to a carved pumpkin and a roast dinner being laid on the table. He knew the pumpkin was ours, and the chicken as we had killed two of Aino’s cockerel chicks the day before. As he tucked in he asked about the origin of various foods and in the end I said it’s all ours, right down to the wine we were drinking. That really was a satisfying meal, roast chicken, roast tatties, roast onion, roast garlic, roast leeks, roast pumpkin, roast carrots and fried chard washed down with plum wine and followed by an apple and pear crumble for dessert.

Plus we had passed what I thought would be our hardest challenge. Could we see something born, care for it, kill it and then eat it? If we can’t the whole lifestyle falls apart and I would have had to seriously think about eating meat, but we passed and knowing the animals had had a good life made it all the more satisfying. There’s still somethings I’d like to change (a better broody coop and a much bigger teenage run area) but I am happy with the lives our animals are living.

Right I promised you a recipe for the chicken, bacon and leek. The creamy sauce is adapted from this recipe.

Everything prepped for a tasty meal
  • 5 chicken thighs (cut into strips or chunks)
  • 1 pack of bacon (cut into cubes)
  • 1 bulb of garlic (cut all but 1 clove into thirds, finely dice the last one and put with the cheese)
  • 3 medium leeks (chopped)
  • 2 red onions (diced)
  • 150g mature cheddar cheese (grated)
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 200ml single cream

This goes a lot better if you do all your prep first, it’s a 3 pans going at once meal (4 if you’re doing pasta, more if other veg)

Pop your butter in a small pan and melt on a low heat.

Put a splash of vegetable oil into a saute pan and cook the garlic until you can slightly smell it/it starts to brown.

Add the chicken to the saute pan and cook.

Pop the bacon in a frying pan and cook, trying to break the cubes up as much as possible.

Your butter should have melted now, pour in your cream and raise the temperature to bring it to a simmer. Then let simmer for 5 mins. Try not to let it boil.

The chicken should be pretty done and the bacon done by the time the cream is simmering. Add the cooked bacon, the onion and leek to the saute pan .

Once the sauce is simmering add in the cheese and garlic and stir quickly to ensure it all melts.

If things have gone smoothly your sauce will be ready before the leek and onion are soft so you can just pop it to the side.

Once the leek and onion are soft in the saute pan pour your sauce over and stir everything together.

Serve with rice or pasta and some veg. We did home grown corn on the cob the other day which was tasty. I’m also tempted to do some mashed potatoes and make it into a pie but I haven’t braved that yet – pies are scary.

Enjoy and don’t think of the calories!

Dans

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Parenthood and smallholding

I remember back when we were still in the early days of planning for smallholding, reading everything we could, and spending a lot of time on The Accidental Smallholder (TAS) forums. One of my many questions there was about babies and smallholding, would I be mad to start both at the same time?

In my utter inexperienced view I figured I would be pregnant and be working away at the land and whatever house we were renovating until the late stages. Then, as new born babies sleep a lot, I would continue working on things after baby was born but with baby asleep in a sling or pushchair. As baby got older I’d just use a play pen or something wherever we are to keep baby contained and occupied. Then when I have a toddler I’d incorporate them into what I was doing and all would be fine and dandy.

Oh how differently things turned out. I got quite bad SPD during the pregnancy which had me on crutches from 20 weeks. It took me a fair while to be able to move freely after the birth, talking 4 or 5 months before I could move like I could pre-pregnancy. My new born did sleep a lot, but on me and we didn’t get along with the whole baby wearing. I did manage to get her down in the pushchair but only for a single 2 hour nap a day. During the summer I used those two hours well, working away on some project while she dozed. If she woke mid-project I’d often try and carry on whilst holding her.

All hands on deck - even if you only have one free!
All hands on deck – even if you only have one free!

As she got older and was tottering about I tried the whole play pen but my Chi is very *ahem* strong willed and independent, she needs to be doing what you are doing and doesn’t like to settle for pretend ‘baby’ things when you are doing the real thing. Apparently very similar to me as a baby… Unfortunately, she isn’t quite at the stage of being helpful. We did manage to get her picking red tomatoes, but she had a tendency to throw them into the basket, and she would stay in one spot, pick the red ones, then the orangey ones and then start on the greens unless you quickly diverted her attention to a new patch of reds.

Picking red tomatoes
Picking red tomatoes

Don’t get me wrong, starting this smallholding with Chi has made it so very special. It’s an amazing feeling to see your 12 month old watering the veg beds, your 13 month picking tomatoes, your 15 month old digging for potatoes and your 17 month old sorting through the windfall apples and pears. She even baaas at the sheep now. Seeing her interacting with the animals and land, knowing the food she is eating is fresh and seeing her get involved with preparing the food (she can now peel leeks and garlic) makes me think ‘Yes, this is why we are doing this, this is what it is for.’.

Washing the harvesting baskets
Washing the harvesting baskets

But, and there is always a but after a ‘don’t get me wrong’, sometimes I do think we were mad to do smallholding and starting a family at the same time. The past week Chi has been down with the flu which has gone to her chest. I’ve been keeping her in and looking out the window wistfully at the apples on the floor, the shed that needs work, and (when I do a quick morning or night run) the beds in the polytunnel that need sorting.  I tried taking her out the other day for her nap and she just kept being woken up by a coughing fit, only seems to be sleeping at the moment whilst lying on me.

It’s not just when she is ill either, sometimes she is just too inquisitive to take out when she is wide awake. I can’t have her running around in the goose area whilst I’m tackling the brambles that are swamping their house and she gets too frustrated awake in the pushchair. Or it’s raining and no matter what rainsuit I buy she always seems to be soaking if we go out in the rain. Or, as has been the case the last few weeks, it is just too dark. I felt really disheartened the other week as Sam had the day off and we prepared the polytunnel for the tup. We were really getting into the swing of things and making progress. We were about to start another job but we checked the time. Half an hour until sunset, time to have one of us do the night run for the animals and then we head in. 3:30pm. If we didn’t have Chi with us we would have got the lights out and worked in the polytunnel after the night run but just no can do with Chi.

Apparently not waterproof
Apparently not waterproof

Tonight I’m feeling slightly disheartened again. We have to drive up North, over to Sheffield way, to collect the tup tomorrow (so late I know). Sam made the suggestion that I should stay with Chi. It’ll be 3 hours there, load him up and do the paper work, then 3 hours back, unload him and get him settled. Chi is still ill and grumpy and crying over everything. 6 hours in a car seat, eating lunch in the car, will not be pleasant for her, or for us. I feel like I should be there, I have been talking with the guy to arrange this hire, I’m the one who wants us to have sheep, I’m the more physically able. But it’s not in Chi’s best interest, so I will stay, do what I can here and have a cup of tea and dinner ready for Sam when he gets home.

I was reading an article in Country Smallholding the other day about a family that are doing flowers on their smallholding. They had started with animals but it was too much work with young children. The lady said that when they are both in nursery/school she might get the animals back. It reminded me again about thinking we must be mad to try and do it with Chi and be thinking about baby #2 at some point. It would all be so much easier if we didn’t have Chi, if we had set everything up before her, or waited until she was older to set things up. But writing this post and looking through the pictures of her on the smallholding I don’t think we are mad. We’ve made it harder for ourselves for sure. It certainly isn’t as easy and rosey as I expected, but seeing it all through her eyes, seeing her interact with it all makes the delay in getting everything done worth it. I’m still banking on her being really useful in getting things done in a couple of months though!

Up close with the sheep
Up close with the sheep

Dans

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Apples and pears

Well in my last post I said I’d tackle the apples and pears the next day, suffice to say that turned into the next week or two! The job still isn’t done though, the apples are resisting coming off the tree, at least the ones I can reach, but yet still falling to the floor in the masses! At least the pears are completely done.

The pear tidy up was daunting, There were so many on the floor. Pretty much all of the Conference pears were no good, they were cut or eaten in some way, some had started to rot but they still needed to be cleared up. I roped Chi in to help, she was very good at picking up the bad ones and carrying them off to the bucket for me. As a bonus it tired her out enough to fall asleep whilst eating a pear I picked from the tree.

The Williams pears were much more worthwhile. They are harder so a lot less had been damaged by falling. The ones that were damaged quite often had a split in them from the force of falling off. We did a little experiment with some of these and turned them into pear juice. This is something I’ve wanted to for a while but we didn’t actually realise we had a juicer until Sam stumbled across it in the stuff that is still waiting to be unpacked.

Just a little windfall
Just a little windfall

The juicer was quite small though and I had to cube the pears so that they would fit into the hole on the top. That was horribly time consuming. Then one of the hooks to hold it all together fell apart, the plastic must have been made brittle from age and being stored outside. Despite that we got some nice juice out of it, certainly a way to use the more worse for wear windfalls. I did a brief google on preserving pear juice but the best I found only gives you two weeks. We did it (heating juice to 80C for 20mins then pouring into sterile bottles) but I’d like to get longer storage if we did larger quantities. I’m tempted by the proper pasteurisers too. The juice was really tasty though and we didn’t add any sugar, just a bit of lemon juice to stop the colour change (it didn’t work). I don’t actually have a picture of the finished juice though!

 

I’ve been making my usual host of crumbles, apple and plum, apple and pear as well apple, pear and raspberry and I think I’ll be experimenting with adding in other red fruit from the freezer as I quite like the colour change. I’ve tried to mix things up a bit as well though. Last year when we got lots of pears I printed off a recipe for a pear pancake and a pear tart. I tried both of them. I’m not 100% sure that my baking skills are up to scratch though. My pear pancake was more of a pear on a bed on baked custard and my tart was like a very dense sponge cake. It was so awful I didn’t even take a picture, although I did eat it all! I need to find more easy baking ideas for pears (and apples). If you have any favourite recipes let me know!

Pear pancake
Pear pancake

I’m also hoping to make a dent on the pear haul by trying pear wine again this year. It went horribly wrong last year and we binned the lot. I’m gonna try again with vitamin b and citric acid added and cross everything. The problem is that we have so many chopped up pears in the freezer still from last year and I’m just not getting through them with my baking. A few that I gathered 3 weeks ago have gone bad and  I don’t want this haul to do the same.

Pear and apple haul
Pear and apple haul

As I said the apples are still going. I’ve pretty much only focused on the cooking apples, and cooking apple tree #1 has barely fruited this year which had made it more manageable. We have 3 different eating apples in fruit at the moment though and again I’m nowhere near being on top of those. We’ll put some cooking apples to wine next week when the fermenters are free again but I really should do something with the eating apples. We did do dried apple rings with the Beauty of Bath apples so I might do that with the other eating apples, get more use out of the dehydrator too.

I’m currently eyeing up some crushers and presses which have a black friday offer on and I’m sorely tempted. The one thing I do want to do is some apple sauce, I still can’t believe that with all the apples we had last year, and all that are still in the freezer, I’m still buying Tesco applesauce!

Dans

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Smallholding and ‘life’

Life has a way of getting in the way of living sometimes. You don’t speak to friends and when you do you apologise because ‘life’ got in the way. With having a little person around 24/7 and a husband who works full time I often find that ‘life’ is getting in the way of smallholding. We try and limit our trips away and make sure we have a few weekends a month to get on with the tasks.

This autumn though ‘life’ hit us hard. My stepfather, Paul, died suddenly. I knew he wouldn’t live forever but I thought we had at least another 10 years. He had been instrumental in my life, he even bought our smallholding for us whilst we sold our previous house, thankfully we paid him back in full a few months ago. My family was hit hard by his loss and as he died abroad the burial proceedings were drawn out. It ended up being a month from his death to his funeral. In that month I was home maybe 2 or 3 days a week, the rest of the time spent with my mum in London. Sam was home a bit more but for the majority of the time we got sitters in.

In terms of the smallholding it wasn’t what I wanted at all, every time we’ve been away previously we’ve had someone staying over. The sitters were coming in for the morning and night runs, checking up on the animals and doing food and water. When I was home I would do the cleaning out of houses, water buckets and some harvesting.

Literally just before we found out about Paul I’d been really happy about how we were doing on the holding. My vet friend Cassie had been over for a weekend and showed us how to trim the sheep’s feet, we’d put up the first of 2 fences to subdivide the sheep field and I was filled with that feeling of pride you get when you see your holding through someone else’s eyes. It felt like we were finally getting on track, I had some things to plant in the polytunnel, our local garden centre was selling old stock of organic manure dirt cheap and a trip with the trailer was planned and the apple and pear harvest were approaching. Life was good. I came in to do dinner and Sam did the night run, as he stepped in the door the phone rang and the world fell apart for me.

On the times we came back to the smallholding we did what we could but you could literally see things falling apart. The first time back after a week away the polytunnel was heaving with fruit flies all over the tomatoes and the peppers, the onions that I thought were ok still in the ground had started to sprout green stems again, the fruit trees we’d impulse bought in  our garden centre’s sale were looking worse for wear, the felt roof of the goose shed Paul had helped us build was flapping in the wind and I didn’t have the energy to make the calls needed about our incoming ram lamb.

I felt awful about it. Paul had been so proud about what we were doing, he’d boasted to people at my daughter’s birthday in June that nothing goes to waste here, but things were. All in all the smallholding survived. The animals were ok. I guess that goes to show that whatever is happening life does go on, and that my gold standard of care for the animals can slip in emergencies without the world ending for them.

Now we are back, have been for about 2 weeks, and we are ‘cracking on’ as he would say. We’ve done the second fence in the sheep field so we now have 3 areas to rotate around. The buying of the ram lamb has been replaced with the hire of 3 year old tup as the owner isn’t sure the ram lamb is up to the job, we’ll buy him in the spring and not use him on his half sisters. We are trying to get on top of the apples and pears but a lot have been lost. We did two large batches of pear wine (neither worked) and 2 batches of apple wine (both very tasty) last year. This year I don’t think we will have enough fruit for wine. We also stored cooking apples through until the new year but we currently have about 3 that are ok to store. Tomorrow we are back out on the land so we’ll be focusing on apples and pears, hopefully I’m just underestimating numbers.

I guess I’m feeling disheartened by the loss that I have seen around the holding in the last month. Or maybe that’s part of the depressed stage of grief. I keep reminding myself that what happened was rare and in such times as ‘life’ gets in the way in such a massive way things will slip. I learnt a few lessons:

~ The smallholding can be managed in the short term by someone coming in morning and night.

~ ‘Life’ will get in the way sometimes, and that is ok.

~ Life is too short – I think we will be going on holiday more than I had originally thought.

~ I do want to do this – sometimes I have thought that smallholding isn’t working but I want to succeed at this. Paul put effort into helping me get into this way of life and was proud of my achievements so far. I want to keep making him proud.

Maybe this is more a personal post than a smallholding post but I am sure this will happen, and indeed has happened, to other smallholders. Before it did I wouldn’t have thought it would be possible for me to be there for my family whilst I had the holding to look after but it can be done, sometimes ‘life’ is important enough that you have to allow it to get in the way.

Hopefully more smallholdery posts soon.

Dans

Goose house in the making
Goose house in the making