Category Archives: Growing

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

 

Preserving tomatoes

Well it’s harvest time and with that comes preserving time. I’ve not had much experience preserving foods, freezing, turning into wine a single go at red onion chutney and hawberry sauce is the extent of my dabbling. That needs to change now that I am smallholder. We want to still be eating our home grown foods deep into winter.

We had a little go at pickling cucumbers but then I didn’t feed the plants and the harvest wasn’t great so that was 3 or 4 jars that were only set to last a couple weeks in the fridge. Not going to see us through winter there.

Then the tomato harvest came in and it was truly a glut. The first wave was about 12kg of tomatoes (two different salad types and one cherry) and Sam reckoned that would be about a quarter of it. We needed to get preserving and fast!

Our first tomato harvest
Our first tomato harvest

The cherry tomatoes went into the dehydrator and turned into a very tasty treat that I didn’t even know I liked. I think sundried tomatoes in oil put me off of the idea of dried tomatoes and I’d never been a fan of dried fruit. The smell that filled the room whilst the dehydrator was running was divine and we soon found that the end product was quite addictive.

Drying cherry tomatoes
Drying cherry tomatoes

We still had the salad tomatoes to deal with though. In hindsight most of our tomato consumption is in the form of sauces, both for cooking and condiments. With that in mind we should have gone for very fleshy tomatoes rather than about 15 salad tomato plants. We will learn for next year! We decided to still try and make passata despite our poor choice in variety. After all there was no way we could eat that quantity of tomatoes fresh and we aren’t set up to sell at the gate yet.

We had two methods to try. The first was out of the River Cottage book. Basically chop your toms in half, stick them in an oven for an hour, press through a sieve or passata maker (we didn’t even know these existed), bring to the boil and bottle. The second was from an Italian friend of mine, Cassie. Pop your toms into boiling water to split the skin then peel (a lot easier than it sounds), chuck them in a pot and cook until it’s at the thickness you want then bottle or push through sieve and bottle.

We tried both methods and, although the River Cottage was less labour intensive to start, the pushing through the sieve took a lot of time and effort and I don’t think it was very efficient. We did get a beautiful thick sauce though, maybe more paste than passata. Would be a great base for ketchup, which is another thing I am hoping to make.

The Cassie method was daunting but I actually really enjoyed skinning the tomatoes. The boiling down took forever, was on the hob for most of the day before it got to the right thickness and by that point I couldn’t be bothered with the sieve. It was bottled seeds and all but actually makes  really good base for sauces, I’ve used a couple already. Despite peeling the tomatoes and the length of time it takes to cook it actually feels like a less labour intensive method because you just leave it be for a lot of the time.

We have since harvested 3 more batches of tomatoes and the Cassie method has been the one we stuck with, until the most recent batch. We decided we like making and cooking with passata so much that we should buy a passata machine. We switched back to the River Cottage method and ran the toms through the passata machine when they came out of the oven. Thick seed free sauce that was quite quick to make. I’ll probably do a batch or two each year the Cassie method as I think having the seeds in worked really well for ratatouille, which we eat a lot at the moment thanks to our abundant courgette and aubergine plants!

Passata machine in action
Passata machine in action

So we can now add dried cherry toms and passata to our list of preservation methods conquered. I am hoping to have a go at ketchup as well, but for now I’ll be satisfied that we have coped with our first real glut!

Dans

We’re still here

Well it has been a long time since I last checked in with you but there’s been good reason. For valentines day my true love bought me a website! I’m not very good with websites, and an 8 month old makes everything take 3 times as long but we are up and running at www.sixoaks.co.uk so you can read all about us over there!

Don’t worry I haven’t just been sitting on the laptop, we’ve been very busy outside too. First we had a wonderful weekend with some friends we hadn’t seen in a long time. In true smallholder style we put our guests to work and planted those fruit trees in our new ‘orchard’ and netted it off ready for the goose move.

Netting to keep the geese in
Netting to keep the geese in

We took a day trip up to Sheffield to check out our potential new sheep. Leaving the chickens and the geese for a day was a little nerve wracking but it was worth it to check the sheep out and see someone else’s set up. The more smallholdings we see the more ideas it gives us and the more confidence it gives me. No-one’s smallholding has the perfect conditions for everything.

Some of these girls will form our new flock
Some of these girls will form our new flock

We then had the regular helpers, Lis and Kay, over to set up protection around the new trees, move the geese into the ‘orchard’ (that was fun!) and clear the last of the chicken wire from the sheep field ready for their arrival. Somehow we managed to take no pictures at all that weekend.

Next up was the actual arrival of our six sheep and the vet visit (vaccination, worming and faecal sampling), which all went surprisingly smoothly. They are a bit timid and skinny, but they should get used to us and fatten up on the grass. We now have the task of working out who will stay and who will go for meat.

We have sheepsies!
We have sheepsies!

That weekend also saw the building of the goose shed (finally!). They have straw in there and some grit and layers pellets but they are spending most of their time outside, still laying outside and I haven’t tried shutting them in yet. Getting the shed up with the geese still in the area with my step-dad and nephew was a bit daunting but they kept their distance in the end.

Goose house in the making
Goose house in the making

The most recent developments have been the turning out of the sheep (which included one very short escape run by one of the sheep), the introduction of rubber eggs to try and get the hens to lay in the nest boxes and getting some more veggies planted.

Nomming on the grass
Nomming on the grass

Our next projects are fencing off a new area for the geese as they are running short of grass, building a rain shelter for the sheep and looking into drainage options. It’s been raining all day today and we really are starting to look like we have several ponds :-/ We should now have all our livestock for this year, except for a tup and maybe a wether this autumn. Oh and maybe some more hens (still plenty of space in the hen house) and some goslings if I let April sit hmmmm…..

Dans

Chicken huts, veg beds and goose eggs

It’s been a long two weeks since my last update.

The first week not much happened. I succeeded in day to day care of our animals, the geese (April, May and June) and the cockerel (Casey). We discovered our limitations as a weekend went by without much progress due to Sam having a sore foot and Chi being very clingy with teething. We did however get our first egg from May (which made a very yolky scrambled egg), realised that June is in fact a boy who is now renamed Jules, got the hen house a bit more set up and saw the first seedlings peeking through the soil (radishes). I also made some progress with the geese, no longer having them try to bite me every time I go anywhere near them.

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Our first egg

This past weekend we really buckled down though. There were two main priorities, 1) move a builders bag of soil into the polytunnel and 2) prep the hen house for the girls. We did a pretty good job at meeting both of those. On Saturday we had the wonderful Lis over  and made short work of the soil. The second veg bed in the polytunnel isn’t quite a no-dig as I forked the surface a little just to break up the crust. I’m much happier with this soil than the last batch though, we didn’t find a single bit of glass in there. It’s now all levelled out and waiting to be planted in. I also cleared some more of the chicken wire from the sheep field, getting ready for the arrival of sheep.

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Our not quite no-dig second veg bed

Sunday was all hands on deck. We had another volunteer friend over, Kay, as well as her parents in the afternoon. Together we stripped the old roof off the hen house, treated some rotten bits and got a new roof on. We also got the feeder and drinker hanging, sanded the perches to give a bit of a rounded edge and installed a nest box. Thanks to the help of Kay’s dad we also got some more fence posts hammered into the sheep field.

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

As if that all wasn’t enough, over the course of this week we’ve installed a pop hole in the hen house, made a makeshift shelter for the geese in the sheep field (there’s a shed on the way for them), had two more eggs, planted some fruit bushes, started making the outside veg beds and marked out an area (our mini orchard) for the geese to move into this weekend. Oh and we’ve arranged to buy some sheep at the end of the month. It really does feel like all things go at the moment, unsurprisingly we’ve been in bed quite a bit before midnight this week!

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Final touches on the roof before we lost the light

Hopefully I’ll be able to update a bit more often than once every two or three weeks.

Dans

 

Finally here

Ok so we have been here since August but with a baby getting set up has been slow. So slow that I have had this tab open to write this post for nearly a week…

Our journey to smallholding probably began when we moved to our first house in Scotland and started a fruit and veg garden. Self-sufficiency became an interest, wanting to know where our food was coming from, and after a bit we began to dream about our next house, one we would move to once I had finished the studies that had brought us to Scotland.

We have lived all over the UK and whilst I have a fondness for the North West we searched everywhere for the right place, with viewings in Scotland, Wales and England. Six years later we found this place, 2.5 acres of flat, fairly good grazing, with some impressive polytunnels and established fruit trees in Lincolnshire. It was less land than the 10 acres we had dreamed of, and it borders a well trafficked road, but the house wasn’t in disrepair and I was heavily pregnant so we went for it and moved in when our daughter was 10 weeks old, late August.

I had so many plans. We would do any repairs needed to the fencing, buy a 4×4 and a trailer and get the sheep in autumn so they could keep the grass down. We’d also get some veg beds made in the polytunnel and outside in time to get autumn garlic and onions in. Oh and we’ll paint the inside of the house. Oh and chickens, yes we could get some chickens if we’re quick and do it before the light stops them laying. And of course we’ll get some hedges and fruit bushes and fruit trees planted in Jan.

I don’t think we would have done all that even if we didn’t have a house to unpack, my husband had a full time job, I was recovering from severe SPD from the pregnancy (only just off the crutches when we did the move) and recovering from a c-section, oh yes and the small matter of a baby!

To top things off when we got here the fruit trees were dropping their fruit and I’m of the waste-not-want-not mentality. Plums and apples and pears kept us busy well into November. I don’t think I’ve eaten so many apple crumbles in my life! We made 5 gallons of apple wine, 10 gallons of pear wine (5 of Williams, 5 of Conference), 5 gallons of plum wine and 5 gallons of spiced apple. We still have a freezer full of fruit and there are apples stored for me to process!

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One day’s harvest in Sept, with the help of child labour in the form of my niece and nephew

As such we are still knocking fence posts in where there are rotten ones in the sheep field (only one long side left to do!). Still clearing brambles and tall grasses and saplings to actually get to the fence on the boundary side of the sheep field. This past weekend we did make progress on the growing front though, we started on the veg beds in the polytunnel. We now have a 6x1m bed that we’ve chucked some seeds in and the outline for a second bed. The grand plan is to have 6 beds in that one polytunnel. We’re trying no dig, although I’m not sure how well that will work. Will post in detail about it later.

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First no-dig veg bed in the polytunnel, all planted up.

We also made progress on the livestock. Our neighbour moved and gave us his geese and abandoned his cockerel so we took him in too. We now have April, May and June (who I suspect is John) our 2015 born Toulouse geese, as well as Casey our cockerel of unknown breed and age, but I think is quite young.

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The girls, April, May and June.

We managed in true smallholder style to knock up a chicken hut from an old shed in the back garden and things we had lying around. It must be pretty alright as Casey took himself to bed the first night it was done. Need to get some nest boxes, a pop hole and better ventilation before we can get the hens but I’m pretty chuffed with it. We also need to get a shelter sorted for the geese.

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Casey sunning himself in front of his house.

 

We aren’t doing things perfectly, I’m not sure there are any smallholders that do but we are getting there, fumbling our way through. I’m sure we’ll make a lot of mistakes and in years to come I’ll read this back and think ‘why oh why did you do that’, but we will keep trying and we will keep animal welfare as our #1 priority.

I’ve said we a lot in this post. The team behind Six Oaks consists of me (Dans), my husband Sam, baby Chi and our incredibly helpful volunteer Lis (without whom I think we would have only managed half the things we have so far!). If you’re interested in smallholding without a smallholding check out her blog smallholdingbyproxy.

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The Six Oaks team

 

Right as the baby is sleeping I better get myself to bed, I’ve got a chicken to let out early in the morning and some geese to attend to! Hopefully there will be more posts from me soon.

Dans