You may have noticed that we’ve been rather quiet over the last few months. As my due date got closer I really went into nesting and birth preparation mode. It was quite odd seeing the different fruits come into season and not harvesting them. August should have been filled with harvesting and preserving but instead instead it saw me growing in size, decreasing in mobility, organising and reading. I have to admit to feeling a bit jealous of everyone else’s harvest posts, and even my own from previous years.
We did manage to harvest a little from the land, the beauty of bath apples were first, the wasps got to a fair few but we still got a few bottles of juice from them. We harvested, quartered, froze and then juiced when we had time (and my nephew’s help). It worked well.
The tomatoes were next, not as good a harvest as last year by far, we lost a lot, especially the cherry tomatoes, but we did get a few jars of passata. I also finally processed the last of last year’s toms so my passata stores are looking healthy again.
We had our first experience of blossom end rot with the toms. This was our first year with raised beds but also our first heat wave year. I am hoping that if we add some more nutrients to the soil and keep steady with our watering next year, then we won’t see it again.
One thing that benefited from the heat wave was our attempt at melons. We got a few good size, really tasty cantaloupe melons. I’m really keen to try these again and see what we get when we put some effort in to them. We got a couple aubergines and sweet peppers too.
We lost a lot of the cooking apples and pears as well. The apples were a smaller harvest anyway as one tree barely fruited but the pear trees were laden. We did manage to have our first attempt at pear juice and have enough harvested Williams pears to do some dried pear.
We always knew this year wouldn’t be great in terms of the smallholding, my body doesn’t do pregnancy well and we ended up with an emergency C-section which put me out of action for far longer than I had hoped. We had a go at planting, harvesting and preserving but kept our expectations low.
On the upside we now have our not so little boy. I have just about recovered from the section enough to get back to work on the smallholding. It’s been a little forced as Sam broke his foot last week. It does feel good to be back to doing lots (when baby allows of course) and I’m feeling very motivated to get this place back on track.
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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!
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!
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.
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.
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.’.
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.
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!
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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.
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!
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.
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!
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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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.