Saturday 29 July 2017

Determination to grow Outdoor Girl

I would imagine that tomatoes are one of the most widely grown 'Grow Your Own' crops. There are a bewildering number of varieties to choose from and I grow a few, maybe trying out a new one or two each year. Some varieties come and go with the fashions. This might be because improved varieties come along in the incessant process of hybridisation in order to produce the perfect tomato or indeed to open up the market still further for seed companies. 

Quite a few years ago I started to grow Outdoor Girl on the allotment we then had. It was described as an old fashioned variety and one of those that had fallen out of favour. One of the reasons I grew it was that it was explicitly recommended, as the name suggests,  for growing outdoors. 

For me Outdoor Girl consistently proves it's worth for growing outdoors. It has unusual shaped leaves, less refined and looking more like potato plant leaves. This is not surprising insofar as the tomato and the potato are in the same plant genus: solanum. The fruits are medium sized and deep red like a snooker ball. They have a good taste in that they taste just how a tomato should taste. Those who grow their own will understand what I mean. Outdoor Girl is a strong growing plant with rich green leaves. It crops surprisingly early and will continue to crop prolifically right through to the first frosts. You get a lot of tomato for your time, effort and money. The photograph shows my first picking of 7.5 kg, picked on 21st of July. The next day 6kg of them became 12 jars of spicy tomato chutney. 

Tomato Outdoor Girl

The seeds were sown in the third week of March in modules. They were potted on into 3" pots at the end of April and moved from our well lit utility room to a cold frame and then hardened off to be planted out in the third week of May. I mentioned earlier that tomatoes are relatively easy crops to grow and can be tolerant of a bit of neglect. But they do so much better if they are treated well and checks to their growth are avoided. This means providing the newly germinated seeds with enough light to stop them getting etiolated (leggy); preventing the young plants from becoming root bound; ensuring that they do not dry out; taking the trouble to harden off so that they adapt well to outside conditions; and then planted out in well prepared soil.

Then there is the issue of care for the maturing plants. Here there is a bit of confusion with Outdoor Girl. Is it determinate or indeterminate? Tomato plants are generally grown as cordons (indeterminate) which means that a single stem is grown tied into a support and the side shoots are prevented from growing by regularly pinching them out. This results in better cropping as the plant puts its energy into fruit production rather than leafy growth. They can continue growing to an 'indeterminate' height so long as the conditions are right, hence their value for large scale commercial producers. The other main form of tomato plant is the bush variety (determinate) which are generally stronger growing plants and pinching out side shoots is not necessary. They grow as a bush to a 'determinate' height and then stop growing. The main stem will need some support but otherwise it can be left to get on with it. 

When I first started growing Outdoor Girl my old gardening books always referred to it as a bush variety and this is how I have always grown it. It can get a little scruffy and some pruning out of wayward stems is helpful but it has been such a good cropper I've continued to treat it in this way. Now I notice that many seed catalogues state it is a cordon variety, some say bush and some say it can be either. The Royal Horticultural Society, which one assumes is an authoritative voice, refer to Outdoor Girl as a cordon variety. [Incidentally, the RHS awarded it an AGM (Award of Garden Merit) in 1993, so that is an additional recommendation for growing this variety]. Ultimately I don't suppose it matters too much whether it is grown as a cordon or a bush because the end result is a lot of tomatoes either way.

Monday 24 July 2017

Pestilence and the gooseberry sawfly

We’ve had a reduced crop of gooseberries this year but it could have been far worse. The reason for this is the voracious appetite of the gooseberry sawfly (Nematus ribesii). Do not be misled by their small, innocuous appearance. The gooseberry sawfly caterpillar is a monster. Its a major pest. It can strip a gooseberry bush of its foliage in a day.  There is a place in the world for all of creation but so there is also the unfettered enjoyment of home grown gooseberries.
One of my gooseberry bushes was on the way to being stripped bare. Luckily the two neighbouring bushes appeared unaffected. Closer inspection revealed a small luminous green caterpillar with small brown spots, about one centimetre in length, happily munching away on the underside of a leaf. Then I spotted another, and another, and another... .  
The adult sawfly lays its eggs on the underside of the leaves usually at the base of the plant. This means they are likely to be unnoticed until the damage to foliage becomes overt.
Never one to use chemical interventions, the first step was to meticulously pick off each of the intruders I could find. Prickly work! Next a solution of soapy water was applied in a fine spray. I repeated this for the next four or five days (tedious but essential). The result was that after a week I could see no further sign of them. To my relief none of the neighbouring bushes had been affected. I gave it a good watering and feed in the form of pelleted chicken manure and although it looks a poor specimen new foliage has started to appear.

You have to remain vigilant as the sawfly reproduces rapidly and three generations can be produced during the course of the summer with the consequent risk of a re-infestation. Watch out for currant bushes also, as they like those too.

Friday 21 July 2017

Eggs from rescue hens?

The delight of collecting eggs from the hen houses each day never seems to diminish even after more than 15 years of keeping hens. In that time we have hardly ever needed to buy eggs. We get the freshest of eggs with beautiful orangey, creamy yolks. The hens get a free range lifestyle relatively safe from predators and allowed to live out their natural life-span. 

An additional attraction is keeping traditional breeds in their varied forms and colours, even if they are not the best of layers or the meatiest birds. There are plenty to choose from depending on what takes your fancy and this is particularly important, of course, for those in the world of poultry shows. Another mild thrill is if you have breeds that produce coloured eggs, like the blue eggs of our Cream Legbars. But for many smallholders utility often comes before looks and hybrid variations are more likely to be regarded as good enough.

We have a few traditional breeds but for regular egg production we mostly rely on rescued commercial hybrids - the ubiquitous common brown hens. When we collect the birds they are at the regulatory 72 weeks culling age and are a bit scruffy in looks and uncertain in manner with a seemingly bewildered look.

The advantages of rescued commercial hens is that they are very cheap to buy (sometimes by way of a 'donation'), they are already in lay and, although past their egg production peak, will have many more eggs to lay in the future. There is also the altruistic aspect of saving them from automatic culling after a short life of questionable welfare conditions. Or is there? 

Whilst the conditions in which commercial egg laying poultry have undoubtedly improved over the years and 'battery' farming is now outlawed, they are still often intensively reared sometimes on an industrial scale. When taking on hens from this environment it is certainly gratifying to see them feather up and gradually adopt natural chicken behaviour and even individual characters. 

From this... this

I am sure there are many who rescue hens who take them on largely as pets and any eggs are an added bonus. But if it is the eggs you are primarily interested in then it's a bit like American foreign policy. The US Government will intervene on ostensible humanitarian grounds but only if this coincides with furthering US foreign interests.

There is also the nagging reservation that the charitable organisations that arrange the re-homing pay the poultry egg producer for the hens. My understanding is that the price paid, albeit small, is more than they receive from the meat processors who otherwise absorb the vast majority of the 'spent' poultry. However, I don't believe that this has any influence on commercial producers using intensive systems for whom rescue charity acquisitions are a drop in the ocean. But it is right, though, to be mindful of why you are 'rescuing' as well as what you are rescuing the hens from. One final point, I never refer to the hens as 'my girls'. 

Wednesday 19 July 2017

The challenge of parsnips

There is always at least one crop that never seems to be successful people struggle with. For me this is parsnips. In our previous garden on the southern outskirts of Chelmsford in Essex we had very stoney soil which made growing root crops very difficult and I rather gave up on carrots and parsnips. Geological reasons were largely responsible for this.

Let me explain. We had previously lived nearby on lower ground where the soil was the typical clay soil found in much of Essex and the south east. Yet half a mile away up the hill, where we moved to, the soil was full of pebbles. Their origin was that they were river pebbles deposited by the River Thames when its course, during Pleistocene times about 450,000 years ago, was further north compared to today. Then the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine when Britain was still joined to the European continental landmass. The Anglian Glaciation (the furthest southern advance of the three principal ice ages) diverted the course of the Thames further south and a narrow band of river pebble deposits was left behind where eons later our garden was located. This is why I had no success with parsnips.

Where we now live we have sandy, virtually stoneless soil, potentially ideal for root crops. But in the home garden parsnips can still be a challenge. The reason for this is that, firstly, fresh seed is needed as parsnip seeds quickly lose their viability. Secondly, the seed takes several weeks to germinate. As with other root crops starting them off in modules for later planting out is not appropriate as this disturbs the tap root and increases the risk of forking. Several suggestions are proffered in the horticultural texts to 'mark the row' in the relatively lengthy interval between sowing and germination, such as mixing the seed with quick germinating radish. 

But the real difficulty is that unless you have absolutely clean soil, weed seeds get in on the act first and weeds will fill the row well in advance of any sign of the parsnips. Then it is a battle to keep on top of the weeds and at the same time avoiding inadvertently weeding out the emerging parsnips. 

Here is what I did this year in my determination to get a decent crop of parsnips. I waited until well into the warmer climes of April. Then I lined a plastic container with damp kitchen towel and on this sprinkled on a whole packet of parsnip seeds, making sure that they were well spread out and not touching. This was then covered with cling film to maintain a moist environment and placed on a window sill. After about 10 days the seed had uniformly germinated and a small comma of root emerged from each one. At this stage I 'planted' each seed in prepared ground 4" apart being careful not to break off the emerging root. The young parsnip leaves soon appeared above ground so competing weeds were far less of a problem and in addition no thinning was required and no wasted seed. By this time it was into May and the soil and weather had warmed so avoiding any check in growth due to low temperatures. I had the gratifying experience of a complete 20 foot row with no gaps. 

The carrots to the right are
doing quite well too.

Planting out individually each germinated seed was admittedly a little fiddly compared to  sprinkling seed along a row. However, the effort has been rewarded by a more certain outcome. I intend to repeat this method again next year. For now I'm looking forward to harvesting, for once, a decent crop of parsnips later in the year.

Monday 17 July 2017

The Soil

Anyone who gardens the same plot for any length of time acquires an intimate knowledge of their soil; where it dries out a bit quicker, more moisture retentive patches, the area that is a little more stoney. The condition of the soil becomes a pre-occupation and there is a concern with improving it whether it is the heaviest clay, shallow and stoney or light and sandy. We have a hungry, dry, sandy soil. An island of sand bordered by the familiar black fen peat evident just a mile away.

The last glacial incursion 10,000 years ago deposited glacial tills of sand and gravel from the melt water of the receding ice. It is these localised sandy deposits that form the soil on our smallholding. This deep sandy soil is easy to work but dries out very quickly. When I dig a hole for a fence post, at about 2 feet depth the soil turns to orange builders' sand. 

These conditions present some real challenges for crop growing. The local arable farmers grow wheat, sugar beet and potatoes. Not surprisingly, amenity turf is also cultivated on the flat fields close by. You don't see many acres of yellow oil seed rape which prefers heavier soil.

Fen Blow
The sandy top soil combined with the flat landscape gives rise to the phenomenon  of the 'Fen Blow' when high winds create a sand cloud dense enough to stop traffic. Farmers lose some of their top soil when this happens but crops can also be damaged by the abrasive action of the sand. They sometimes grow a cover crop, to protect the main crop, which they eventually spray off to minimise the risk of damage. Great arching sprays from the crop irrigators with water pumped from the nearest drain are deployed during the summer months.

The main way I manage the soil is by adding large quantities of bulky organic matter in the form of compost and manure. I'm now virtually self-sufficient in compost and manure because of the various livestock we keep. Our sandy soil can take as much compost as I can supply. The usual rules found in horticultural guides of manure-potatoes-brassicas-roots and manure again in the third year do not apply. Similarly, the practice often advocated of rough digging in the autumn leaving the winter frosts to break down the clods is irrelevant; we don't have clods. I manure all growing areas every year and some crops get an additional mulch. I also have to irrigate by way of a sprinkler for some of the plantings. In this way it is possible to be productive with most crops. You have to do the best with the soil you have got, or move house.

Saturday 15 July 2017

The Fens

We are at the southern edge of the Fens where the land merges with the Brecklands. The local landscape of the Fens is very different from the drama of the Cumbrian fells, the wildness of the Yorkshire dales or the lush rolling hills and valleys of the Devon countryside. The Fens includes south Lincolnshire, much of Cambridgeshire, parts of Norfolk and an area of west Suffolk where we are. The main characteristic of the area is its virtually uninterrupted flat landscape, much of it below sea level. It is traversed by four main rivers that flow into the Wash: the Nene and Great Ouse draining the middle fens and further north the Welland and the Witham. Connecting these rivers is an extensive network of drainage ditches, dykes, drains or lodes which keep the land drained. Some of the rivers have been re-channeled into straight, wider water courses. The process of drainage also resulted in rectilinear, mostly unfenced, fields and long straight roads familiar to those who know this part of East Anglia.

Baldwins lode which marks the southern edge of the Fens and which borders our smallholding. The photograph typifies the flat landscape and big skies so characteristic of the Fens.

There were some early attempts to drain parts of the Fens in Roman times and in the 15th century. However, it was after 1630 when Fen drainage took place on a large scale. This was instigated by the Duke of Bedford who recruited a number of investors (Gentleman Adventurers) to fund the works in return for allocations of the resulting land that had agricultural potential. They hired the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden who had experience of drainage schemes in the Netherlands. Two major drains were excavated at this time to drain water from Huntingdonshire to the Great Ouse and outflow into the North Sea at Kings Lynn. These were the Old Bedford River and twenty years later, in 1650, the New Bedford River (or Hundred Foot Drain). The idea was to create straight channels in place of a meandering river which could flood the surrounding land.
Windmills were used to pump the river and these were later replaced by steam pumps and latterly by diesel and electricity. The 19th Century saw a massive extension of drainage across the Fens to create today’s landscape.
One of the consequences of the land drainage is that the land has sunk. This is particularly evident in the peat areas. As the peat lands were drained the peat began to dry out and shrink in some areas by as much as forty feet. Land shrinkage has caused much of the Fen farmland to be below the level of the drainage channels and the drains are carried by embankments.
Contrary to what many people might  think, the Fens is not an area of marshy conditions any more but mostly fertile agricultural land because of this drainage. Bear in mind also that this is the driest part of the country. Large irrigation hoses drawing water from the drains to water crops are a common sight each summer.  
The Fens are noted for their peaty soils, but there are also extensive areas of clay and also sandy soils. The soil on which our smallholding lies, and which has a big influence on my own horticultural efforts, is what I will write about in the next post.

You can get an overview of your own local landscape in the National Area Character Profiles which make interesting reading if you are curious about local landscapes and how they came about.

Friday 14 July 2017

A brief introduction

By way of introduction, we have about four acres of land in West Suffolk on which we carry out our smallholding activities. Gardening has always been a central interest outside of professional life. Alongside the main focus on ‘ornamental gardening’, vegetable and fruit growing has also featured strongly, either within the garden or, for periods of time, in a nearby allotment. Also for many years, we have kept hens for eggs too.
Moving to a bigger space in a very agricultural area (almost exclusively arable crops) there was the opportunity for extending our interests into keeping livestock. I was experienced at growing our own vegetables and we have been self-sufficient in eggs for many years; why not also produce our own meat?  So this is what we have been doing too.
The motivations for being a smallholder are varied and potentially quite deep-seated, so more on this subject at a later date. Smallholding is often characterised (sometimes with a slight sneer it has to be said) as ‘doing a little bit of everything’. There is actually a good rationale for such an approach, which to some extent at least, we ascribe to.

Here, then, is a brief overview of what we are currently involved in.

There are two vegetable plots measuring 80’ x 20’ each.
Plus a large greenhouse for more tender crops. There is also a separate large raised bed nearer the house for salad crops. I always regard the vegetable and fruit growing, above everything else, as our core activity.

We keep a small flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep for lamb or, more likely, hogget and mutton. They are a self-shedding, primitive breed. You can see the tufts of wool that have come away in the photograph. Not much use for wool related crafts but good meat eating.

After growing on a couple of weaners for the freezer for a few years, we are now breeding our own registered pedigree British Saddleback pigs. The three weaners in the photograph are from a litter of twelve and are now fourteen weeks old.

Hens for eggs of course. There are a few fancy Cream Legbars and some Ixworths but they are otherwise mostly rescued commercial hybrids which can be a bit on the tatty side but eventually feather up quite well. When it comes to meat we mostly eat poultry. We have tried breeding our own traditional breeds but we now buy in day old commercial meat chicks, 20 at a time, and grow them on. Each year at the end of May or early June we also get a batch of Norfolk Black day old turkey poults and grow them on for Christmas.

We have bees for honey and maybe in the future wax products. They are immensely fascinating creatures with such seemingly complex life cycles and behaviour. Its great to see them up close and even better if you know what you are doing.

Herbs are important. I prefer to grow them in pots and containers rather than in a herb bed. It is much easier to manage them and of course locate them right near the kitchen door.

Some ornamental gardening still gets a look in.

Of course, underpinning all of this is the wide range of horticultural, animal husbandry and processing tasks that have to be undertaken day in and day out, but which might change with the seasons, around which life is organised. It is these that I will be largely writing about and reflecting upon.