Wednesday 27 December 2017

In defence of bureaucracy

There's a fair amount of paperwork that goes with being a smallholder, at least there is if you keep livestock. In fact the requirements are the same whatever size of livestock operation you operate. 

A County Parish Holding (CPH) number needs to be applied for where animals are kept. Each type of livestock has to be registered with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). An annual census of sheep and goats, if you keep them, is required to be returned. A livestock register should be maintained and tagging details recorded so that each animal is traceable. Each animal movement on and off your holding has to be recorded and a movement licence completed. All medications administered have to be recorded in a medicines register, and lots more. There are also a whole range of regulatory requirements that should be adhered to. If you undertake any activities at a commercial level then further regulations and guidance come into play.

If you don't know what the requirements are it can seem a little overwhelming. I’ve met several farmers who decided to give up keeping livestock on their mixed farms because of the paperwork requirements. It also helps to explain the disappearance of so many of the smaller abattoirs.

I can understand farmers, after a hard days work outside, finding the paperwork side of things rather tedious. Others complain that it all seems unnecessary. It does not take long before the 'bureaucracy gone mad' position is put forward.

Despite all this, and the occasional puzzling regulatory anomalies one comes across, I would have reservations about any ideas of a wholesale sweeping away of  regulations and record keeping. The reason behind them is the welfare of animals and also of consumers. While it's tempting to feel that the extent of the regulations is over the top, it has to be remembered that there have been outbreaks in recent years of disease or threats of disease that have been very serious if not catastrophic. Even in recent weeks there has been yet another food scandal involving a major meat processor which supplies the big supermarkets. In an unregulated system such consequences of the tendency to cut corners are likely to become endemic. 

This is not to say that efforts should not be made to improve the regulations (including removing those that are unnecessary or anomalous or overly pedantic) to ensure they are fit for purpose. Many of the regulations are made with large scale producers and processors in mind and don't always quite fit for the smallholder. Some of the regulations around home slaughter, for example, don't all make sense. After all, one of the arguments for smallholding is that livestock can be better cared for in a smaller operation.

One of the fears of Brexit is that in the process of securing alternative trade deals there will be a scrapping or drastic reduction of regulations under pressure to create a ‘level playing field’ with new trade partners. The risk is that this will undermine the relatively higher animal welfare standards maintained in the UK. 

There will always be a tension between animal welfare and profit or cost effectiveness, but it is right to give preferential bias to the former over the latter. Even if that means forgoing three frozen chickens for a tenner. 

Monday 25 December 2017

Piglets with too much space

Despite their reputation, and the resulting turns of phrase adopted in common parlance, pigs are in fact surprisingly clean animals. Generally they choose not to defaecate where they sleep and eat. I would feel quite comfortable lying in their ark as the bedding usually remains clean and dry and only needs changing, or rather topping up, ocassionally. I suspect young pigs learn the correct protocol for pooing at a young age from their mothers before they are weaned. 

However, this can sometimes go wrong. I moved 5 (male) piglets from the farrowing house to an outside paddock with a new pig ark for their housing. I acquired a large ark measuring 8' x 8' which is a lot of floor space for five piglets. Pigs generally like to sleep side by side and piglets often in one big heap. This way they keep warm however cold it might be. It also means that their sleeping quarters do not have to be as big as you might expect. Bigger is not always better.

Whether these piglets didn't pay enough attention to their mother when they were with her, or whether it's just because they're boys, some of them are a bit lazy and have been pooing in the ark. I’ve not previously encountered this problem. 

The fact of the matter is that this ark is too big for them. There is enough space for them to poo in one corner and for them to sleep in the opposite corner where it remains clean and dry. Having to clean out a low roofed ark on a regular basis because of this is a nuisance to say the least.

The solution was to reduce the floor space. I put a line of straw bales along each side and along the back wall. This leaves them a much smaller area in the middle where they can continue to huddle but with no space to poo. They have to go outside of the ark to keep their sleeping area clean. This has had an immediate positive effect with the ark remaining clean and dry. As they grow I can easily remove the bales.

Smallholding involves a lot of problem-solving as you go along, and you learn to expect the unexpected.

Bales used to reduce floor area
Inspecting the changes

Wednesday 20 December 2017

Beans for beans

Even when the weather is inclement during the winter months there's always at the very least routine smallholding jobs to do outside each day, especially if you keep livestock. However, when conditions are bad and with limited daylight hours, inevitably more time is spent indoors. Now is the time to formulate plans for the spring and summer. Keen vegetable growers will be compiling their seed order. What needs to be replenished? What new varieties will be tried out in the forthcoming year?

Today, prompted by stew for dinner, I've been thinking about beans. In the UK the emphasis tends to be on growing beans for their pods. The challenge is choosing the best varieties and picking them whilst they are still tender. French beans, broad beans and runner beans spring to mind. I grow these in moderate quantities and they are picked and consumed as they ripen. Broad beans and French beans are good for freezing to use later. We don't find runner beans do so well when frozen. 

However, John, a smallholder friend and keen vegetable grower, is a great advocate of growing beans for, well, the beans. They can be dried, stored and then used for cooking in their own right. Perhaps added to winter stews or maybe for bean salads. This is in fact a good, if indeed not better, reason for growing runner beans. When the summer glut and other competing vegetables makes the novelty of fresh, crunchy runner bean pods finally wear off, leave them on the plant to dry out and harvest the beans later.

There are a range of other beans that can be grown in this way, some of which are not only tasty but are also attractive in appearance. Borlotti beans are a good example; both the pods and the beans themselves. John has introduced to me to the Giant Bean. These plants produce enormous beans, twice the size of a runner bean. They are just as easy to grow and are a great addition to a stew.

Borlotti bean

Dwarf French bean 'Yin Yang'
Giant bean & borlotti ben

Incidentally, now is the time to save your cardboard toilet roll inserts. Beans like a deep root run, and if you prefer to sow your bean seeds indoors and then plant out, rather than sow directly, then toilet rolls are ideal. There are purpose designed root trainers that can be purchased but they can be on the costly side, particularly if you grow lots of beans. The whole toilet roll can be planted out too, so avoiding root disturbance. It will rot away in due course.

So here is what I'm planning to grow in 2018:-

  • Climbing borlotti bean usually sold as lingua di fucou
  • Greek Gigantes bean
  • Climbing French bean 'Cobra'
  • Dwarf French bean 'Yin yang'
  • Broad beans 'Aquadulce Claudia' and also 'The Sutton'
  • Runner bean 'Scarlet Emperor'

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Simon & Garfunkel mix

If you grow parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme you are quite at liberty to feel a little smug right now. These herbs tend to be mobilised at this time of the year for understandable reasons and generally fresh herbs make a difference. Because people like to make a special effort with Christmas season meals, the supermarkets stock up at this time more than usual. In Tesco today (who were themselves fairly smug once) small sprigs were on sale for 70p. 

Sage, rosemary and thyme are easy to grow shrubs and require little attention. I grow mine in containers. Rosemary is easy to propagate by placing a sprig in a jar of water and when it roots (it will) potting it up. Sage cuttings are best taken in late spring and inserted into a pot of compost. The same with thyme, but even easier is to buy a small plant and once it's established break off some bits with roots attached and pot them up. Parsley involves a bit more effort as it involves sowing seeds in pots and and pricking out when they germinate. This year I grew Italian flat leafed parsley which has survived the recent frosts. It has a strong flavour.

Of course there are lots of other herbs to grow but these are stalwarts in the kitchen and to be able to step outside the door to pick your own adds to the delight of the meal as well as the flavour.

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Avian flu update

It's one year ago today that H5N8 avian flu restrictions were imposed on all UK poultry keepers whether large scale commercial enterprises or those keeping a couple of hens in their back garden. The restrictions were eventually lifted at the end of February this year. 

One of the most irksome aspect of the restrictions, for those that troubled themselves to apply them, was the requirement to keep birds indoors or, if that was not possible, to net run areas to ensure wild birds had no access to poultry. This generally meant poultry had a much smaller area to range, whether indoors or outdoors, and consequently greater effort was needed to keep their housing and run areas clean. For commercial free range poultry keepers there was potential loss of the 'free range' appellation and the premium price at which their eggs sold. Eggs were re-labelled 'barn produced'. 

Fortunately, so far there have been only limited avian flu outbreaks in Europe this winter even though the wild bird migratory season is well underway. DEFRA's Animal and Plant Health Agency, in their latest update, report incidences of avian flu in wild birds in Germany, wild birds and poultry in Italy and in a poultry in Bulgaria. No outbreaks in the UK to date. With any luck we will be able to avoid the experience of last winter.

I have previously written of some preparations  I undertook last summer so that I can restrict our 40 or so birds to a fully enclosed area in a trice should I need to. Hopefully, this won't be necessary. I have, however, continued with additional bio-security precautions, such as keeping food and water covered and having a disinfectant foot bath at the entrance to the chicken enclosure.

So far so good.

Saturday 2 December 2017

Unexpected death

It's often said that sheep have a death wish and if there is a disease to catch they will. Whilst this is an exaggeration there is no doubt that sheep keepers do have to contend with a lot of health and welfare issues, and to be constantly vigilant for any signs of illness. They have to know their flock. Because sheep can be adept at hiding sickness, as a protection from predation, small changes in behaviour can be a sign that something is wrong and therefore worth investigating.

Those who keep sheep will be familiar with routine preventative treatments and times when sheep health becomes vulnerable: birthing problems, vaccinations against clostridial diseases, worming treatments, hoof care, protecting against fly strike and so on.

Our Wiltshire Horn sheep are a primitive breed and generally have robust health. However, we seem to have had more than our fair share of health concerns this year. Wiltshire Horns are a short coated, self-shedding breed which much reduces the risk of fly strike, which is an annual worry for sheep keepers. If this is caught in time it can be treated successfully, but if the tell tale signs are missed then it often results in an unpleasant death with maggots eating away at the sheep's flesh. 

Despite the reduced risk of fly strike with Wiltshire Horns we had a lamb who succumbed unusually late in the year, in mid-September. This was after a bout of humid and mild weather which were ideal conditions for the culprit blue bottle and green bottle flies to lay their eggs. Fortunately, the fly strike was seen early enough, treated successfully and the lamb recovered.

However, this week we had a poorly ram lamb who died. It had been a bit 'off' for a few days with some mild diarrhoea. I treated all the lambs, currently separated from the breeding ewes and ram, with a worming drench. The ram lamb seemed to pick up a day or two later and then, rather unexpectedly, I saw it flat out in the field. It was still alive but quite weak. I called the vet out who arrived within the hour but the lamb died as the vet was treating it. It is not clear what the diagnosis was but there were signs and symptoms of an infection and it was quite dehydrated. The other lambs seem fine. 

Our sheep are not pets but are kept for their meat. Nevertheless, there is still a sense of loss having engineered the lamb's conception and overseen its birth and early development. It's natural to wonder what else could have been done. The reality is in this case, probably not much.

The ram lamb last March

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Talking in their sleep

We've recently had a couple of hard frosts, leaving the fields crisp and white and the taps frozen. It meant cold fingers when tending to the livestock first thing in the morning and filling the water troughs a bit more of an irksome task than usual. Now is the time the sheep become distinctly more interested in the hay put out for them. It looks like we are in for another cold spell towards the end of the week.

Although plants that are on the tender side that have not been given any protection will now start to suffer there are some benefits of a hard frost. In fact mild winters, which are increasingly more common, are concerning for gardeners. For those with heavy soil the action of frost helps to break down soil clumps after winter digging. Frost helps to eliminate many pests such as aphids and white fly; the fewer that survive the winter the better. Blackspot and fungal canker diseases can also be killed off after a protracted period of cold weather. Some seeds, notably those of hardy perennials, need a period of cold ('cold stratification') to break their dormancy in order to germinate. Garlic needs a cold spell to help induce the bulbs to form cloves. Brussel sprouts and parsnips reputedly improve their flavour having been frosted. 

So all is not lost. Speaking of which, here's a poem by the American poet Edith Matilda Thomas.

Talking in their sleep

“You think I am dead,”
The apple tree said,
“Because I have never a leaf to show—
Because I stoop,
And my branches droop,
And the dull gray mosses over me grow!
But I’m still alive in trunk and shoot;
The buds of next May
I fold away—
But I pity the withered grass at my root.”

"You think I am dead,”
The quick grass said,
“Because I have parted with stem and blade!
But under the ground
I am safe and sound
With the snow’s thick blanket over me laid.
I’m all alive, and ready to shoot,
Should the spring of the year
Come dancing here—
But I pity the flower without branch or root.”

"You think I am dead,”
A soft voice said,
“Because not a branch or root I own.
I never have died, but close I hide
In a plumy seed that the wind has sown.
Patient I wait through the long winter hours;
You will see me again—
I shall laugh at you then,
Out of the eyes of a hundred flowers.”

Edith M. Thomas (1854-1925)

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Cheaper than carpets

Quite some years ago when we moved from a flat to our first house we acquired a tiny garden. Despite being a small plot something still had to be done with it and so my initial interest in gardening was triggered. As I have a tendency towards an 'all or nothing' approach, I threw myself into developing the knowledge, skills and, dare I say, artistic temperament that goes with being an enthusiastic amateur horticulturalist.

One thing I did was to read widely the works of well known gardeners. Some historic, such as Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, some before my time, such as Vita Sackville West and Majorie Fish (We Made a Garden is one of my favourite garden books), and  others more contemporary, in particular Christopher Lloyd, Rosemary Verey and Beth Chatto. Alongside my reading I visited theirs and others' gardens. I joined the RHS and visited Wisley and attended the Chelsea Flower Show each year on members' day. We lived very close to Hyde Hall Gardens and started to visit it when it was still in private ownership and continued to do so after the RHS acquired it.

Vita Sackville West who established
Sissinghurst garden with
her husband Harold Nicholson
Marjorie Fish who gardened
at East Lambrook Manor

The late Christopher Lloyd of
Great Dixter, and one of the most
interesting and enjoyable garden writers
Beth Chatto whose garden at
Elmstead Market is also home to her
famed nursery. She still gardens aged 94.

The first 'famous' garden I visited was Beth Chatto's at Elmstead Market near Colchester. This experience made a very strong impression on me. The only gardens I had seen up to this point were the average town or suburban garden with narrow borders along the fences and a rectangular lawn in the middle and planted with a relatively limited range of common plants, mainly shrubs and annuals. Here I was confronted with deep, richly planted borders and island beds with not a trace of soil on display. It was full of plants I was then unfamiliar with including many perennials and grasses. There was a satisfying mixture of form, flowers and foliage and complementary colours. I had never appreciated what might be possible.

A small part of Beth Chatto's garden

With a growing family we looked for a bigger house and a key criteria was a much larger garden. We moved to a house with a decent sized garden which was "laid to lawn" as the estate agents have it. For me this meant a blank canvas and I could begin a garden from scratch. Gradually much of the turf was stripped away to be replaced by borders. A pond was added, not for fish, but to grow water plants, and a small bog garden established for moisture-loving plants. I also took on an allotment so that vegetable growing went on in parallel with 'ornamental' gardening. Reading and visiting gardens are important aids but you only really learn by doing and through this building up experience and practical knowledge.

At one point I felt confident enough to seriously consider opening my garden to the public under the National Gardens Scheme with its famous Yellow Book. But life was just too busy with work and children to see it through.

Partly as a respite from a busy professional life I decided to undertake a course which had nothing to do with work, so I did the RHS General Certificate in Horticulture at nearby Writtle College. This was a part time evening course over eighteen months. We were lucky enough to have as our tutor for that year-and-a-half Christine Walkden who now features regularly on TV presenting her own gardening programmes as well as being a Gardeners Question Time panelist on Radio Four.

Christine Walkden

Christine, with her common sense and down to earth approach (in both senses) is a real counterbalance to some of the 'posh' gardens and gardening writers I had become imbued with. A bit of a culture shock perhaps for the one or two 'ladies who lunch' who were also on the course. I'm not surprised that one of her books is titled No Nonsense GardeningI remember once someone complaining about the cost of planting up a new bed and Christine's response in her distinct Lancashire accent was "well it's cheaper than carpets per square foot". We learnt an immense amount from Christine and, swot that I am, I passed with a distinction.

How you see Christine on TV is how I found her in real life. She speaks naturally, without the usual cadences of the professional TV presenter. She is a passionate hands on gardener first and foremost.

I enjoy the creative challenge of ornamental gardening and garden design but over time vegetable and fruit growing took an increasingly prominent role. We found space for hens for eggs in the garden, and the satisfaction derived from self-provisioning grew in importance. When we moved to our current place a few years ago, with its much larger space, the opportunity to develop this much further presented itself. Although we now keep a range of livestock and are virtually self-sufficient in meat, vegetable and fruit growing remains at the core of what we do.

So our journey to smallholding was not really a sudden leap into the unknown, but rather, in many ways, a natural progression from what we had been doing already. The real lifestyle change came about when I gave up full time employment to free up the time to work the holding. It is hard work and keeps me busy but I no longer have to do everything at breakneck speed to fit it all in, and in the winter months I get to see and enjoy it in daylight hours.

Thursday 9 November 2017

Pigs: not just a pretty face

I spent some time with our latest litter of young pedigree Saddleback weaners today who are still confined to the farrowing house but are shortly going to be moved into a paddock. They displayed lots of curiosity, nibbling anything within reach: broom, dustpan, a bucket, my boots, all in quick succession as they became available and subsequently moved out of reach. I had to keep my feet moving.

Pigs have a reputation for being intelligent animals. It is no coincidence that George Orwell identified the pigs as the leaders of the livestock revolt at Manor Farm. The fact that they claimed that two plus two equals five was a sophisticated ruse, not a miscalculation. From my own observations I think I would have to agree and this is also borne out in research that has been undertaken on pig behaviour. 

Pigs are cognitively complex animals, on a par with dogs and some primates. I have witnessed problem solving behaviour in my own pigs. For example, once when an icy breeze was blowing the pigs built up a straw barrier outside of the open entrance to their ark to keep the wind out. Anyone who has kept pigs will have noticed distinct and individual personality traits. Pigs are also social animals (one reason why you should never rear one pig on its own). I find that sibling pigs will spend most of their time together, staying close to each other. 

Pigs  are also very playful. I've seen weaners running up and down the paddock after each other as if they are playing chase. Pigs appear to be able to learn from each other. Certainly piglets learn from their mothers, for example, that the right thing to do is poo outside of the ark, not in. Pigs have been found to be able to prioritise memories which can lead them to anticipate positive experiences and to use avoidance behaviour associated with past negative experiences. One of our pigs will run to the drinking trough 3 or 4 times when feeding. Sometimes, when the trough is empty, I've seen her turn back to rejoin the others but if she sees me at that point getting hold of the hose she will change her mind again knowing that the trough is about to be re-filled with water.

These are all salutary considerations if you keep pigs and are concerned to do your best for their welfare in their time with you.

Aside from their psychological capacities, there is one behaviour pigs display that is also very characteristic. Pigs have voracious appetites and when food is put before them they have an absolute and single minded focus on devouring it to depletion; nothing else matters. They lose all interest in current affairs, deliberating on the meaning of life or reciting the times tables. Their table manners leave something to be desired too. They especially like the otherwise unappetising looking sow pencils. When I've fed the pigs apples or vegetables at the same time as their commercial feed they will always comprehensively scoff the latter before they turn to the vegetables. 

Their focused concentration at feeding times does have its advantages. This is the time to slap mark them or insert a tag or give an injection. Virtually nothing will distract them.

One of our Saddleback pigs devouring its feed

Saturday 4 November 2017

Putting the asparagus to bed

I've just put my asparagus to bed for the winter. When we first moved here three years ago I planted two twenty  foot rows and so we were able to cut and enjoy our first decent crop this year. Not content with this I added three additional rows last spring to extend the bed. My investment for the future. 

I regard asparagus as one of the elite vegetables to grow at home. To me it has a unique flavour, best unsullied by over-complicated recipes. At the same time it only has a relatively short cropping season and also requires patience and some labour to grow successfully. I've grown asparagus in the past and so was keen to establish a new bed here. 

I planned the additional rows last year. Because asparagus is effectively a permanent crop the area in which they are to grow needs to be well prepared. In particular, any pernicious weeds have to be eliminated and the soil enriched. Last autumn I dug over the bed, weeding as I went. Then I dug in some well rotted manure and this was covered with a heavy duty black plastic sheet. When this was removed the following April it revealed a weed free, rich soil. 

The year old crowns arrived by post and the next day they were planted and watered in. I grow two varieties: Backlim and Gijnlim, both F1 hybridsAll that was left to do was to keep the bed weeded during the summer to allow the young shoots to grow without competition and gradually build up the root stock for stronger growth next year.

The time to sort the bed out ready for winter is when the asparagus fronds which have been allowed to grow over the summer turn yellow, and preferably before they start toppling over in the wind as this might cause them to break off and damage the crown. I cut them down to 2 inch stalks. I like to keep a bit of stalk to mark the plants and so help minimise the risk of damaging the root stocks as I carry out a thorough weeding. Weeding the asparagus bed really needs to be carried out by hand. The danger of using a hoe is that the thick shallow roots can easily be broken off as they lie not far below the surface. Once the weeding is done, on went a layer of composted manure which will gradually work itself into the soil over winter.

If you enjoy asparagus as much as I do it really is worth the time and effort it takes to produce a regular crop. Asparagus is quintessentially a seasonal crop, only available in April and May followed by a long patient wait until the next year. Like corn-on-the-cob, asparagus is best cooked and eaten fresh, as soon as it is picked. I know that nowadays you can buy asparagus virtually any time you like from a supermarket but I urge resisting any temptation to do so. Firstly, there is a special delight in savouring a vegetable or fruit when it is in season, and only when it's in season. Let the anticipation build. Secondly, imported asparagus will never compare with your own home grown freshly picked asparagus, or failing that, British grown in season asparagus, purchased maybe a day after it's been picked. If you are fortunate enough to have a local grower then it will probably have been picked the same morning. In the spring you might find early season asparagus from Spain, but the vast quantity of imported asparagus found in UK supermarkets comes from Peru, 6000 miles away. Whether you accept the evidence on global warming or not, that represents a big carbon footprint.

So if you have asparagus aspirations, now is the time to start preparing your bed and ordering your crowns for delivery next spring. You should be able to start cropping in 2020. 

Delayed gratification

Tuesday 31 October 2017

Raised beds are not the only way

Some years ago when I first took on an allotment most of the long rectangular plots on the site were cultivated in a traditional way with straight rows and relatively wide planting distances. The crops were, by and large, annually confined to the common staples characteristic of a traditional British diet: "Florence fennel? What the bloody 'ell is that when it's at home?" 

But the allotmenteers knew how to maintain a productive plot and grow admirable vegetables, some of which featured in the annual village horticultural show. They were doing exactly what their fathers had done before them. The men (they were nearly all men) had names like Alf, Reg, Bert and Ron. Some of them even rode to their plots on an emblematic heavy black bicycle. One or two wore a jacket and tie as they worked their plot, Percy Thrower style. Even if in reality they weren't all elderly, they seemed it. They were, however, generally welcoming at the appearance of a youthful new plot holder, but I suspect at the same time they were wondering how long I, with my white collar hands, would stick at it.

Percy Thrower, at one time probably the
most well known gardener in Britain

At this time my vegetable growing interests were enthused by a TV series 'All Muck and Magic' which attempted to disseminate ideas around an organic approach to gardening. Some of the programme presenters went on to take senior roles with the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), first set up by an early advocate of organic gardening Lawrence Hills, and which is now known as Garden Organic. They have demonstration organic gardens at Ryton near Coventry which are definitely worth a visit. Another of the presenters, Sue Stickland, has a regular column in Home Farmer magazine where she shares her wealth of practical experience as former head gardener at Ryton Gardens. 

I got to know about the value of copious compost, deep bed gardening, no dig approaches, making use of weed suppressing cardboard and old carpets, block planting, non-chemical approaches to pest control, using raised beds and lots more. These ideas all influenced my early vegetable growing practices.

Latterly, however, I've tended to revert in some ways to more traditional practices (without the chemicals needless to say). More 'allotment style'. I like to space my onions, for example, so that I can hoe between them. Straight rows I find are easier to keep weeded so I need space between the rows, although I keep this as narrow as my current state of nimbleness allows. I put large amounts of manure and compost into my sandy soil but I don't have enough to provide the minimum 2" mulch over the whole of my two allotment sized plots. In recent years there has been a fashion for petite vegetables which favours extra close planting but I'm happy with a normal sized cauliflower and give them the space they deserve. Many organic gardening principles I still adhere to, of course. One thing I've dispensed with, though, is raised beds.

Raised beds are an approach which nowadays is almost presented as the default approach to vegetable growing, not just in lifestyle magazines and TV programmes, but some gardening magazines too. I don't believe that they are always the best approach. Some soils can dry out quickly in a raised bed. Constructing the edging for raised beds can be expensive. It might also involve having to buy in additional top soil to raise the bed. They can also be a bit restrictive in growing space particularly for those crops, such as potatoes and brassicas, that need a lot of room. They can be potentially limiting for those aiming for self-sufficiency.

However, in particular conditions and circumstances raised beds can be of undoubted value. At the risk of contradicting myself, here are some of the reasons where I think raised beds are a good idea:-

  • Where the soil is thin or stoney, perhaps in areas of rocky terrain.
  • Where the soil is especially heavy and prone to water logging.
  • Where only a small area for growing is available and intensive use of space required.
  • Where time is limited as raised beds can reduce the amount of weeding and watering required and are generally easier to manage. When I was professionally at my busiest and the children were younger I gave up the allotment and used raised beds in the garden for this very reason. I could get a lot done with a raised bed in 30 minutes at the end of a long day at work.

To be fair these conditions are quite commonly encountered, but if you have the space and decent enough soil I don't see any reason for thinking raised beds are the automatic choice for growing vegetables successfully. Ultimately, though, it is down to preference and whatever approach works best for you. But my vegetable plots these days will probably not raise any eyebrows with Alf, Reg, Bert and Ron.

Saturday 28 October 2017

Popular poplar?

In contrast to the last week or so, today was a lot cooler with a chilly breeze and so we put the wood burner on late afternoon. We are self-sufficient in wood supplies because we have a thin strip of woodland along one of our boundaries. This was originally a line of poplars, planted presumably as a wind break as is so often seen on farmland. Poplar trees readily sucker and, in among the mature trees, younger trees are growing as well as other brush. Their suckering habit results in lots of saplings springing up, sometimes quite a distance from the mother tree, which can be a bit of a nuisance. Despite it being a fast growing tree, for this reason it would not be my first choice for boundary planting. 

Poplar boundary photographed in winter

The poplars are quite old and every now and then when we have storm strength winds one sometimes goes down. The last time this happened was with Storm Doris last February. One of the trees fell into the neighbouring farmer's winter wheat field; that is the direction the prevailing winds take them. I collected up as much as I could using a chain saw, but the farmer had to use his tractor to pull the main trunk clear as it formed a bridge over a 20 foot wide drainage ditch, which separates his land from ours, beyond the line of trees. We then both went to work with chain saws and the tree was trailered back to our place to sort out, saw and split.

Poplar does not make for the best fire wood because it is fast growing and so not very dense. It gives off a lot of heat but it burns through quite quickly. However, it is free and there's enough to see me out, so I'm not complaining. I usually also have a some prunings of hazel, rose wood and apple too, with the latter giving off a nice scent. 

Wood shelter fully stocked

Some rhyming guidance from the Scout Association:-

These hardwoods burn well and slowly,
Ash, beech, hawthorn, oak and holly.
Softwoods flare up quick and fine,
Birch, fir, hazel, larch and pine.
Elm and willow you'll regret
Chestnut green and sycamore wet.

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Mild autumn: the good, the bad, and the ugly

The weather our way today has been a sunny 17C and so far it has been a distinctly mild autumn. Possibly not one Keats would recognise. The peripheral breezes of Storm Brian have also moved on too. 

Ladybirds are abundant and cluster around fence posts looking for a hidy-hole to over-winter. Ladybirds are gardeners' friends because, among other things, their larvae are voracious consumers of aphids so I'm always pleased to see them about.

Ladybirds are out in force
I think this might be a harlequin ladybird 
which is not so good news

There are red admiral butterflies about as well as tortoiseshells. Bees from the hives were flying too. More surprising perhaps at this time of year, and certainly less welcome, is that when I was picking some kale leaves the plants were covered in cabbage white butterfly caterpillars munching merrily away. It's about time we had a hard frost to restore the balance. 

Cabbage white caterpillar on a kale leaf

Incidentally, a phenomenon that I've noticed since living in this part of Suffolk is that the warmest time of the day, during the summer at least, is generally 4 or 5pm rather than in the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest. I'm not sure why this is. Maybe it is the dry sandy soil warming up and radiating the heat out from the arable fields surrounding us.

Another consequence of the mild weather is that weeds are continuing to spring up, so today I've been out with the hoe to keep on top of them. I also took advantage of the pleasant conditions to finish pruning the fruit bushes and tying in next year's fruiting canes of the thornless blackberries. I attended to the raspberries a couple of weeks ago. All the fruit beds have had a thick layer of a manure mulch added.

Things might feel different when the clocks revert to GMT at the weekend. No doubt we will have our fair share of frost, wind, rain and maybe even snow in due course. Things can change quickly and a sudden sharp frost can cause the leaves, still in the main riding high, to descend in great heaps. 

Friday 20 October 2017

How many gates have you got?

I remember a couple of years ago Sue, who now resides in The Cottage at the End of the Lane, when she still lived on a smallholding, mentioned that she possessed around 30 buckets. This was not, I assume, the result of an obsessive compulsive tendency but rather they served different practical purposes around the smallholding. I can understand this as I have a fair few buckets myself. 

In the same vein I thought I would have a count up of how many gates we have. What prompted this thought is that I've constructed, in the spirit of self-provisioning, quite a number of gates myself and a couple of weeks ago I had to quickly make another one. Davy, our Wiltshire Horn ram, was becoming a little feisty as his hormone levels were rising shortly before he was allowed to re-join the ewes. He kept head butting the gate in question and eventually broke it into pieces. It was quite an important gate because it led into the vegetable growing area and could have resulted in a big feast for Davy but not for us. The replacement gate I made was much more robust in its construction and I hope Davy-proof.

Some of our gates:-

Standard 10' field gate
4' access gate


Self built 8' field gate
Self-built 6' gate to vegetable plots,
replacing the one Davy demolished

Anyhow, we currently have 23 gates on our 4 acre holding. I'm not counting doors into outbuildings or animal housing of course. This sounds a lot but we have not excessively sub-divided the land which essentially comprises three grazing fields plus a few smaller areas for other functions. However, if you keep livestock an ongoing concern is to keep them secure for their own well-being and away from areas that are out of bounds for ours. 

The importance of shutting gates becomes ingrained and forgetting to do so results in a lesson quickly learned. Having to round up sheep, for example, and persuade them back to where they should be is a time consuming nuisance when there are other things to do. Never make the mistake of thinking "it doesn't matter because I'll be coming back this way in a few seconds". You notice something else needs attending to, and then another thing, and then you go a different route. And just as you sit down later for a cup of tea you see through the kitchen window a flock of hens raking up the flower beds and wonder how they got there. If you open a gate, shut it again straight away.

If you are walking in the countryside, do remember to shut any gates you go through.