Monday 25 September 2017

Potatoes I grew this year

I've just finished digging up all of the potato crop. We usually grow enough to last us through to the following year's new potatoes. I've found it fairly easy to be self-sufficient in potatoes so long as you plant enough, grow them well and store them in the right conditions.

I'm not particularly adventurous when it comes to potatoes. I don't feel any urge to grow new potatoes for Christmas Day, nor aspire to the earliest date possible for digging up new potatoes in spring  like restaurants flying over the new season Beaujolais Nouveau for the accolade of being the first to serve it. I treat them as the staples they are. All in good time.

There was a touch of blight late in the summer and as soon as I saw signs of this I cut off all the top growth. If you act quickly late attacks of blight are potentially less serious than early in the season as by this time the tubers are formed. Clearing the foliage completely can reduce the risk of transmission of the fungal infection (phytophthora infestans) down to the tubers themselves. The potatoes are fine staying in the ground for a few weeks after, and I had to delay harvesting in any case until some dry weather returned. When it came to harvesting there were just a few blight-affected potatoes near the surface but all the deeper ones were fine. Fortunately the affected potatoes, although partially blackened, had not progressed to the repellent mushy stage.

There are a bewildering range of potato varieties available to choose from. Here are the ones I grew this year:-

Arran Pilot. This is a first early potato and is a very tasty, waxy textured, 'new potato'. It reputedly does not store well, but that is not my experience. It is resistant to scab so the potatoes normally come up clean and unblemished. I find it crops really well in my dry soil conditions.

Red Duke of York. This is another first early. It is the first time I have grown this variety. It was recommended by a smallholder friend who has grown it for several years. Even though I've come to this potato rather late in the day, it being a 'heritage variety', it has been a revelation. It has attractive red skin and yellowish flesh. The big discovery for me though is that it makes excellent roast potatoes. In fact the best roast potatoes I've had. Ever. I'm told Red Duke of York stores well so l'm going to treat it like a main crop potato and will certainly be growing it again next year.

Red Duke of York

Desiree. A well known, established main crop variety. When I see them in the supermarket they seem a bit over priced to me. Desiree is always reliable and therefore worth growing. It also grows well in drier soils so suits my conditions well.

The ground where the potatoes grew this year is now clear in anticipation for next year's brassicas. 

Friday 22 September 2017

Going round in cycles

Today is the autumn equinox. The hours of daylight and darkness are equal but from here on after the nights will become increasingly longer than the days until the winter solstice on 21st December. Today marks a significant time in the yearly cycle. Much of my life is governed by cycles. The new year does not have great significance for me other than the novelty of the number moving on. I never trouble with new year resolutions. For me September has always been the time for new beginnings.

The view from my front window

Living in a temperate region means that inevitably we live, to some degree at least, by the seasons even if the seasons do not appear so pronounced as our childhood memories might recall. Much of my personal and professional life has been governed by the academic year where September marks the time for fresh starts. As a practising Roman Catholic (no need to be alarmed at the mention of religion) I'm also influenced by the cycles of the liturgical year: All Saints and All Souls (ditto those of Protestant persuasions); Christmas; Lent; Easter; Pentecost and so on.

Living in an agricultural area the farming year is very evident in the changing landscape and farming operations. Around here right now, ploughing the stubble following the wheat harvest. Soon, harvesting the sugar beet. Similarly, for keen gardeners and smallholders the year is inevitably governed by the changing seasons. By September much of the effort of the earlier part of the year has been rewarded with produce. The vegetable plot begins to wind down and already thoughts of the next year's growing season are imposing themselves and plans begin to be formulated. The same with livestock. This year's weaners, later in the autumn, will be 'sent off'. Preparations are made for tupping the ewes to produce a new generation of lambs the following spring. 

So as autumn officially commences I prepare a list of tasks to carry me through to the end of winter. I'll aim to work my way through them by February because I know that March onwards will be a frenetic time with sowing and planting as well as lambing and other livestock husbandry activities. There are many routine tasks at this stage of the annual cycle. Trimming the boundary hedges, clearing the vegetable plots, preparing next season's seed order, cleaning the greenhouse, stacking the fallen leaves, manuring, pruning, repairing fences. If this all sounds somewhat predictable, it is. That's what I rather like about the life I lead.

Tuesday 19 September 2017

Tomatoes I grew this year

The tomato plants are beginning to run out of steam now, although there are still some to harvest for the time being. There has been a good crop this year. We have enjoyed fresh home grown tomatoes since the middle of June and also have had plenty for soup, freezing and for turning into jars of passata - enough for using in cooking for the months ahead. 

Inevitably thoughts begin to turn to considering what to grow next year and what seeds to order. As far as tomatoes are concerned it is time to evaluate the varieties grown this year. 

I grew five varieties of tomato this year. Here are my thoughts:- 
Outdoor Girl. I wrote about this one a few weeks ago here. It is an old fashioned variety which, as its name suggests, grows very well outside. It's other great virtue is that it is a heavy cropper and fruits surprisingly early for an outdoor tomato. I'll grow this again next year for it's reliable heavy crop.

Outdoor Girl
Sungold. This is an orange cherry tomato. It is best grown indoors as a cordon variety but can grow okay outdoors in a decent summer. This is one of the sweetest tomatoes I've come across and I grow this every year. Next year will be no different.

Shirley. This is another old fashioned variety which produces traditional deep red billiard balls; the archetypal tomato. It is recommended for growing indoors but I find it does pretty well outside too in a sunny spot. I've been alternating Shirley with Alicante each year but I might try something completely different next year.

Roma. An attractive plum tomato with firm flesh which makes it ideal for cooking  and for making into sauces. I grew this for the first time this year. The seed catalogues describe it as semi-bush (semi-determinate for those with nerdish tendencies) but I found that Roma grows quite strongly and the bush got a little too scruffy for my liking, so I think I will grow it as a cordon next year.

Pear Drop. At a produce show last summer I saw some small bright yellow tomatoes in the shape of pear drops. I thought they would look very nice in a salad mixed with red cherry tomatoes. The seed catalogues advertised a variety called 'Pear Drop' which sounded self-explanatory. However, the fruits were indeed bright yellow but were not particularly pear shaped. More of an oblong. The taste was a little disappointing too with not much flavour. There is another  variety I've come across called 'Yellow Pear' and the images all show it with a distinctive pear shape, so I might give that a go instead. This is all for the sake of the appearance of a salad. But that is a good enough reason for me.

I grew this...

...but wanted this.


Wednesday 13 September 2017

Ashmeads Kernel

We don't have an enormous number of apple trees on our holding but certainly plenty enough for juicing, making cider and storing over winter for cooking. And of course, best of all, munching away at them fresh from the tree from late summer through to autumn as different varieties ripen in turn. Home grown apples (by home I mean UK) exemplify the idea of seasonality, and the season of apples is underway.

Apples are delicious to eat and are such an easy and bountiful crop to grow. They are truly a gift from God, or if you prefer Nature. But apples also demonstrate the ingenuity of humankind. Whilst some varieties are naturally occurring discoveries (most famously the Bramley Seedling) the majoirty have been carefully cultivated by enthusiastic breeders cross pollinating and selecting, patiently improving as they go.

Apples come in such an incredible diversity that the National Fruit Collection in Brogdale in Kent holds 2200 varieties, that is native varieties. You won't find many of these stocked by supermarkets. In fact according to DEFRA 70% of apples bought in the UK are imported. One result of this is that many traditional apple orchards have been grubbed up, unable to compete. This is a real shame because the exquisiteness of so many British apples varieties are unknown to most consumers. 

The varieties we have currently include Blenheim Orange, Lord Derby, Laxton's Fortune, James Grieve, and Bramley. These are all established trees which we inherited. Because we were unsure of the identity of all of these we took examples with us a couple of years ago on a visit to the annual Ely Apple Festival. The East of England Apples and Orchard Project usually have a stand there with a hundred or so varieties of apple on display, each neatly labelled. They also have on hand some apple experts who use their considerable knowledge to answer queries and to help identify apples and they readily confirmed the identity of ours.

One variety I was keen to add to our collection because it is my very favourite apple and of such outstanding flavour, was Ashmeads Kernel. Ashmeads Kernel is an old dessert variety reputedly produced by a Dr Ashmead in Gloucestershire in 1700. It has a more or less russet look but often with the addition of reddish stripes. It has a bit of sheen to it unlike the uniform matt finish of the archetypal russet apple Egremonts Russet. When picked ripe Ashmeads Kernel has a sweet but at the same time slightly acidic flavour and is also quite aromatic. It is crunchy and crisp in texture. It loses some of its acidity when stored. My salivary glands have been triggered into action as I write.

Ashmeads Kernel (Photo: National Fruit Collection, Brogdale)

Where we previously lived I used to buy Ashmeads Kernel when they came into season each year from a nearby farm shop which was an outlet for a small, long established, commercial orchard. They have a wide variety of apples for sale from their orchard as well as a range of other produce. Because I encourage people to try out and buy home grown apples, and because I was always impressed with this farm shop, I'm going to name them: Lathcoats Farm. If you live anywhere in the vicinity of Galleywood on the outskirts of Chelmsford, this time of the year is a great time to call in and sample something new.

Last spring I planted an Ashmeads Kernel tree in great anticipation of future enjoyment. However, a few weeks ago I noticed the leaves had all turned brown. Checking over the tree I discovered that a section of bark all round the young main stem had been stripped off and it was unsalvageable. Squirrels or a rabbit? So today I bought a replacement tree - plus some tree guards. 

Sunday 10 September 2017

Lemon verbena

Something I find a little shocking, should I happen to be in a supermarket in the lead up to Christmas, is seeing a small sprig of rosemary or sage in a cellophane wrapper for sell for £1.95 or more. These are such easy herbs to grow and, being perennial, by growing your own you will have not only a ready supply for many Christmases to come but for Easter and Thanksgiving too, or indeed for a meal at any time of the year.

I grow a number of herbs which by and large are ones we regularly use in the kitchen. As summer begins to slowly slip away many herb plants by this time of the year can begin to look rather shabby. This is one of the reasons I don't have a dedicated herb bed as by the end of the summer it has lost its freshness and can look somewhat drab. Because aesthetics are important as well as functionality I prefer to grow most of our herbs in pots where they can more easily be individually managed. Grown this way they can also be arranged to make an attractive garden feature. There are other benefits. Some herbs such as mint and thyme can spread rapidly and with vigour so that it is easy to lose control of them in a bed. Moreover, not all herbs like the same growing conditions. Herbs grown in pots can also be located near to the kitchen door so it is easy to step out and collect what you need at the time you need it. 

Herbs arranged in pots with lemon verbena on the far right

Although I've never set foot in Scarborough nor visited its fair, I do in fact grow parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. The latter in a range of varieties as well as the variegated forms of sage alongside the common sage which is so valuable for cooking with. Mint, oregano and bay also feature as well as a few others. Probably my favourite, though, is lemon verbena.

I have grown lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) for many years. It is to my mind the lemonest of all lemon-scented herbs and most days I feel compelled to rub a leaf to release the aroma. Lemon verbena has lanceolate, slightly rough leaves and for me grows to about 3 or 4 feet by the end of the summer. It holds it's thin stems upright and the leaves are spaced in such a way as to give it an airy, delicate look.

Lemon verbena is on the tender side and a protracted hard frost can kill it off. Most years, however, although the top half of each stem will die back new leaves will sprout lower down. You have to be patient as it is late to spring into new growth which could be into May. I usually take some soft wood cuttings at the end of the summer which I overwinter in the greenhouse. They take quite easily so replacement plants are always to hand and I usually end up giving a lot of them away to visitors.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) close up

Lemon verbena likes full sun and this helps make for the strongest lemon scent. However, unlike many other herbs which thrive in relatively dry, low nutrient environments, lemon verbena prefers richer conditions and regular watering.

In the kitchen lemon verbena has many uses. For example, it can be used to flavour lemon drizzle cakes, used in lemon chicken recipes and in salad dressings. But I most often use it to make lemon verbena tea. Simply pick about 10 or so leaves, tear in half and infuse in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. I use one of those tea pots with a built in infuser. Just the drink for a summer's day. Or indeed any day...

Friday 8 September 2017

Building a pole barn

When we moved here there was very little by way of outbuildings. The need for adequate under cover space on a smallholding is very important whether that is for storage, workshop activities or animal housing. Since we have been living on our holding I seem to have been constantly building things. One big (for me) project was building a timber pole barn to replace a dilapidated corrugated steel structure which had collapsed in on itself. 

Here's how I went about constructing a 9.4mx3.6m (about 31'x12')  pole barn from scratch without any previous building experience.

A pole barn, as its name suggests, uses vertical posts as the main supporting structure around which a framework is built. This one is fairly small as far as pole barns go but big enough for my purposes. One advantage is that the construction principles are relatively simple and it is possible with a bit of ingenuity to build it single-handed. If you have friends, all the better.

From this:-                                          To this:-

The first step was to clear the area and mark out the outline of the barn. This is best done using traditional batter boards to square the outline. These allow the guide strings to be adjusted along the horizontal strut. To ensure the outline is square make sure that the two diagonal lengths measured corner to corner are exactly the same.

I used 10 3.5m posts that were 7" x 5" in girth (excuse the mix of metric and imperial).  Six inch square would be more orthodox but these happen to be available at a good price at the timber yard I use. Each post was buried 3 feet deep. An alternative approach would be to build cement foundation piers and bolt the posts on to them. This has the advantage of minimising the risk of posts eventually rotting by keeping them out of contact with the ground. However, this would reduce lateral stability. The decision to bury the posts in this case was because of the sandy, free-draining soil I have making rotting less likely. I also noticed that the surviving posts from the old structure I dismantled had not rotted and these had been in place 40 or 50 years. As a precaution the section of the pressure treated posts in the ground was painted with tar. They were also placed on top of a bed of gravel and more was used to top up the post hole where the post entered the ground.

Horizontal 6" x 2" bracing timbers (called girts) were fixed around the outside of the posts. These provide lateral stability as well as supporting the outer cladding. The girts acting as the top rail at the front and the rear which support the rafters were fixed in place with 10" bolts. The top rails also provided the final height of the barn front and back. At this point I used a chain saw to take off the surplus lengths of the vertical posts. 

Further framing and the rafters were then added. The height of the barn is 2.4m sloping back to 2m.

Heavy duty feather edge cladding was used for the sides.

Purlins were fixed at 60cm intervals to the rafters. Corrugated steel sheets were used for the roof. They were fixed using 60mm Tek Screws for which you can get a screw bit for your electric drill. They go in easier if make a pilot hole with a nail and a hammer. Remember to screw them into the ridge of the corrugation, not the valley, so as to avoid leaks.

For the floor, as a cheaper alternative to cement, I used lump chalk compressed down with a whacker plate. I gather stables quite often use chalk floors as it is softer for horses' legs. I needed 7.4 tonnes of chalk creating an 8" layer which was compressed down to 6". (If you are interested, to get 7.4 tonnes of lump chalk from where it was dumped 100 yards to the barn took 45 barrow loads, 20 shovelfuls per barrow).

One end of the barn was sectioned off and doors added for storage space. The rest of the barn was kept open plan to maximise flexibility of use. I mainly use it for lambing and for storing hay.

Disclaimer - I have no building experience nor been trained in structural engineering. The above is a description of what I did and not necessarily recommendations.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Flushing the ewes

When we started to keep sheep we immediately became acutely concerned about the condition of our grass. Good grazing is a prerequisite for well conditioned sheep. Meeting their grazing needs can be quite a challenge if you have limited grazing. We have just about three acres available for grazing across three (at a stretch, four) stock fenced areas to play with. 

An additional problem with limited grazing is the increased likelihood of worm problems which need to be monitored and appropriate preventative interventions applied. On top of this our dry sandy soil means that the quality of the grass is not so lush perhaps as wetter parts of the country. There was a bit of concern earlier in the summer following a very dry spring when the grass in our main grazing field did not put on as good a growth as usual and was grazed down sooner than expected. A further issue is that our ram, Davy, along with his companion wether (a castrated ram), needs to be kept in a separate area for part of the year which takes up additional grazing  space.

On the other hand we don't have problems with waterlogged fields or poaching which can result in miserable conditions for sheep and which can have a serious impact on pasture quality. As with any other sheep keeper, whatever the size of their flock, we have to be aware of overall stock levels. 

Our flock of (currently) 11 sheep in total are carefully rotated around the available grazing during the year in a more or less planned way. The aim is to give time for pastures to recover and provide a fresh re-growth of grass to use later. For example, I keep one field free over autumn and winter which I use as a turn out field in the spring for the ewes and new born lambs to get a good start with the most nutritious grass (and consequently milk quality) which is particularly important for young lambs.

Today I moved all the ewes and this year's lambs to new grass. I had been holding this move off despite the fact that I had begun to provide some hay because their current pasture had been grazed down. The purpose of this move is primarily to 'flush' the ewes ready for tupping in October when the ram will join them. The rather wetter second half of the summer has resulted in some good re-growth and, even if I say so myself, some appetising looking grass. As soon as the field gate was opened the sheep made a determined dash for their new paradise and spent the rest of the afternoon with their heads down. 

The idea behind flushing is that by providing good quality grazing or supplementary feeding prior to tupping it not only brings ewes back up to condition, particularly those still a bit on the slim side as the summer grazing runs thin, but also increases ovulation and hence the greater likelihood of producing twins. I am mindful of the fact that the breeding ewes tupped last year each only produced a single lamb and that this was without having taken any particular pre-natal measures. So it will be interesting to see what happens next spring.

Some of the ewes before being
moved to fresh grazing
Our ram Davy waiting patiently
for October

Friday 1 September 2017

First steps in motherhood

The 1st of September brings new life to the holding. One hundred and fifteen days after artificially inseminating one of our British Saddleback sows she farrowed during the night remarkably and precisely on schedule. We have produced two litters this year using AI from two different sows. Today's litter was 7 in number (plus 1 still born).

Mum doing what she knows best

Pigs need very little, if any, obstetric intervention being quite self-sufficient giving birth. Of course being in attendance is still helpful. The later born piglets have a long way to travel along the birth canal and might need help to start breathing. It is a good idea to wipe away any membrane and sticky fluid from new born piglets to ensure their airways are clear. Spraying each end of their trailing umbilical chord with iodine is a sensible precaution against infection.

The big concern is the risk of mum lying down and squashing one of her offspring and being on hand in the first few hours can help prevent this. It is also useful to try and ensure each piglet, including the less assertive, suckle and get the all important colostrum. The natural instincts of the sow and of the piglets normally manage the situation well but some oversight can help minimise losses or other potential problems.

It is interesting to observe how the sow adjusts to motherhood in the first few hours. The sow who farrowed during the night was a first time mum. When the first piglet was born she stood up and looked quite puzzled by this small creature that suddenly appeared scampering around her legs. There was a similar reaction when the second piglet shortly followed. Eventually mum realised that the little piglets that kept appearing were something to do with her and the responsibilities of motherhood began to take over. 

New born piglets don't realise at first that it is to their advantage to get right out of the way when mum lies down, although this is something they soon pick up on over the first day or two. Watching mum last night she exhibited typical behaviour. She would stand against the farrowing house wall and gradually slide her back down against the wall giving time for the piglets to be edged out of the away by her vast abdomen. Once down she shuffled over a little more to expose all her teats which the piglets were clamouring to latch on to. The whole movement was done with some delicacy and was accompanied by a distinctive grunting noise which sows reserve for calling their piglets. She will repeat this on a regular basis now as young piglets need frequent feeding.

The piglets are tiny but quickly grow and develop and will be weaned by 8 weeks of age when they will leave the farrowing house for the big wide world outside. By that time mum will be relieved to be independent of them.