Tag Archives: Fruit trees

Scaling back

Well you may remember a couple of months I was saying how hard we were finding everything at the moment. My hips were starting to go, I was banned from lifting due to pregnancy, Sam’s knee was still very much out of use after the cellulitis and due to his disability he does a lot of smallholding activities kneeling so that he has a stable base, the weather was awful with everything flooding and the grass not growing and it all just felt a bit overwhelming.

We did send the geese to the freezer after that. The combination of no eggs being laid, running out of grass for them and extra work for Sam when he was already stretched thin, just proved too much. In hindsight I realise I should have either had them jointed or put them up for sale before sending them to the abattoir but hindsight is 20:20. Instead they are in the freezer and will get eaten at some big gatherings through the year. I do really miss having the geese around but in actual fact it has been a blessing, it did relieve the pressure and allowed us to look at the orchard again. The chickens now have safe free roaming of the smallholding and can forage in the orchard, we’ve also set up the broody nursery in there. I noticed a lot of ants and thus aphids on the young fruit trees in there so we will be pulling up our chicken wire ‘goose excluders’ that we have set up around the trees so that the chickens can do a good job scratching around those trunks for ants and other grubs. I like to think we will have geese again but if we do we’ll be changing our management to have them following the sheep grazing.

A fair amount of roast goose in our future

The other area we have scaled back is the growing. I wanted to grow something this year, maybe not expand on last year but still be growing as I loved eating our home grown passata for several months and would like to do it again. Unfortunately we also decided to work on raising the beds and having the chickens free ranging meant that they were straight into the polytunnel to have dust baths in our beds. As a result of that, and general disorganisation combined with a strong urge to nest meaning I wasn’t sowing seeds until very late, we have only just got our first plants into the polytunnel. Some netting over the unused doors has been a successful short term measure to keep the chickens out but the polytunnel cool enough. We still have nothing outside and we only have 2 veg beds raised in the polytunnel. The growing is most certainly scaled back this year.

All of this may be for the best though. The baby is due in August which is our peak harvest season in the polytunnel. We are unlikely to be able to do much in the way of food processing this year and no matter what we do the plum, apple and pear trees will be dropping their fruit on us which will likely mostly go straight into the freezer. Not growing as much and focusing on the infrastructure should hopefully set us for a good growing season next year. At least that is what I keep saying to myself when I see how empty the polytunnel and outdoor beds are! I am hoping that by this time next year we will have a covered fruit cage with planted bushes (that will mostly be 3 years old and thus should be in good production), 5 raised beds in the polytunnel and possibly the citrus trees planted, internal netted doors on the polytunnel and the 5 raised beds outside.

Sam working on raised beds

Reading a smallholding magazine the other week (likely a back issue as I’m a bit behind) there was an article by the author of Doing It In Wellies (a book I really really want to read). She spoke about getting the smallholding and jumping into everything and forgetting the why of it all because you were too busy trying to survive it. That really resonated with me. She said how they pulled some bits back and stopped to smell the roses and how that really helped them refocus the activities.

Sam and I got into smallholding for several reasons. The first was my health at the time, the PhD had worn me into the ground and down a few layers. We thought a slower pace of life, without as much of the pressure(!) might be helpful. I could do lots on my good days and less on the bad days. For the most part that has worked. Smallholding can be very stressful. There’s never enough hours in the day to get things done. Trying to make a business out of that makes it harder, there isn’t just the physical acts of smallholding and record keeping for animals, there’s also things like this blog, website design and management, courses to do to get the various food safety requirements, endless research, balancing books etc. Then add in the stress of pests, disease and never ending maintenance that any smallholding needs and there is the potential for stress. Throw full time motherhood into the mix and you’d start to question if a PhD might be a relaxing break! But in all honesty nothing I’ve experienced touches the PhD for stress, all the stress related illness I suffered from have disappeared. I am pretty much medication free now, just a vitamin D supplement. I’ve also lost a good 10kg and have put on a lot of muscle. I’m healthier than I have been in a long while and I have the smallholding to thank for that. Job #1 done!

Our second reason was Chi, we wanted her to know where her food comes from. Not just know where but to see it come from there, to understand the process, to know it well enough that she can do it herself. She makes cakes and custard with me, she has watched me kill and pluck and gut chickens, she’s seen me salting sheepskins, seen the wool being sheared, washed, carded and spun. We have picked apples off the tree and pressed them into juice. As her memory gets longer she will start to see and learn the process of growing, of the seeds we sow and plant and water then harvest and compost. She is learning so much and the beauty is she doesn’t know that she is. It isn’t a special trip out or an episode of a show, this is simply her life and I love it. Job #2 done.

The first taste

We wanted to know the history of our food, that the animals had a good life and the crops hadn’t been saturated in pesticides. We aren’t as self sufficient as we would like, I would love a goat or two to produce milk for us as we still buy a lot of dairy. I’d also like pigs for meat and at the very least a local known source of beef, but we have a small acreage and we are doing what we can with what we have. I think the dream of a bit more land will always be with me but we are doing well in lamb (well mutton), fruit and veg, eggs and pork sourced from other smallholders. So job #3 is in pretty good standing too.

Lastly we wanted to enjoy things. This is where we are lacking a bit. We work a lot on the smallholding, we put a lot of hours into getting the place up and running, especially Sam working a full time job and then doing work on the smallholding. Sometimes I think we work so hard on it all and don’t actually enjoy it. I think that is where we got to earlier in the year. Lots of work and very little enjoyment. We’ve got a table set up in the garden for BBQs and have had more this year than the other years previously. We are getting some more garden furniture to dot around so that we can sit and rest between jobs and enjoy things rather than lugging our 2 chairs back and forth over the smallholding.

A rare break to enjoy the weather and spin some wool

I am hoping that this year we will get more of the infrastructure done and build on enjoying the smallholding next year. Wish us luck!

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

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

 

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

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.

IMAG5567
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