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.

Thursday 19 October 2017

After Reading In A Letter Proposals For Building A Cottage

  After Reading In A Letter Proposals For Building A Cottage

    Beside a runnel build my shed,
    With stubbles cover'd o'er;
    Let broad oaks o'er its chimney spread,
    And grass-plats grace the door.

    The door may open with a string,
    So that it closes tight;
    And locks would be a wanted thing,
    To keep out thieves at night.

    A little garden, not too fine,
    Inclose with painted pales;
    And woodbines, round the cot to twine,
    Pin to the wall with nails.

    Let hazels grow, and spindling sedge,
    Bent bowering over-head;
    Dig old man's beard from woodland hedge,
    To twine a summer shade.

    Beside the threshold sods provide,
    And build a summer seat;
    Plant sweet-briar bushes by its side,
    And flowers that blossom sweet.

    I love the sparrow's ways to watch
    Upon the cotter's sheds,
    So here and there pull out the thatch,
    That they may hide their heads.

    And as the sweeping swallows stop
    Their flights along the green,
    Leave holes within the chimney-top
    To paste their nest between.

    Stick shelves and cupboards round the hut,
    In all the holes and nooks;
    Nor in the corner fail to put
    A cupboard for the books.

    Along the floor some sand I'll sift,
    To make it fit to live in;
    And then I'll thank ye for the gift,
    As something worth the giving.

John Clare (1793-1864)

I pass this tiny derelict cottage, a long way from anywhere, when out walking with the dog. I suppose its former inhabitants once had modest dreams for it too.

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Raddle day

Today was 'Raddle Day', raddle being the coloured dye smeared on the chest of rams so that they leave their mark on each of the ewes they tup. After spending the last 9 months apart from the ewes, with a castrated ram (or wether) for a companion, Davy our Wiltshire Horn ram, rejoined them. A new cycle begins again.

Blue this year
Davy, our Wiltshire Horn ram

Davy won't have to work too hard as he has only five breeding ewes to service. As soon as he was let into the field where they had been enjoying the fresh grass for the last couple of weeks his interest was aroused and he was primed ready to go. All being well we will have new lambs being born in about 145 days or so time. That will be from 4th March 2018 onwards. I'll leave the ram with the ewes for six weeks which means any lambs should have arrived by the middle of April. That's a relatively long period for such a small flock but I want to ensure all the ewes are serviced and it in any case suits us. 

We  hope that we get some twins this time round which was why we 'flushed' the ewes before the ram joined them. There's a big difference in outcome with twins compared to singles and anything above 100% will be a bonus. So that we have a better idea of what to expect, we will have the ewes scanned in the new year so that we have an increased degree of certainty. 

This year's lambs are growing well and remain in a separate pasture. The ewe lambs will add to our breeding stock next year. We have one ram lamb whose days are numbered.

Davy investigates

All of this is just the same processes as large flock holders carry out but without the high levels of intensity. All we can do now is let nature take its course.

Wednesday 4 October 2017

Apple pressing time

In the regular annual cycle on the smallholding it's apple pressing time again. This year we have had rather a poor crop from most of our apple trees. I suspect this is due to the long dry period we had in the spring which may have affected the fruit setting after pollination. There was no June drop as there was nothing to drop. Luckily enough we were able to supplement our supplies of apples from a smallholder friend who has an established apple orchard. The other day we went over to his and collected a large quantity of windfalls to bring home for processing. 

Some of the apples for pressing
Equipment set up

Yesterday afternoon was assigned for pressing the apples to extract the juice. They were roughly chopped, put through a scratter to mince them up and then the resulting pulp was pressed using a hand fruit press. The squeezed out pulp has been reserved as a treat for the pigs, hens and turkeys.

Scratter fixed to a stand with
built-in chopping board
Some of the finished

We strain the juice through a kitchen sieve then put it through some muslin when we bottle it. It's ready to drink with nothing extra added. For future consumption the bottles are then put in the freezer. This year we have attempted to pasteurise some of the juice filled bottles in the oven at its lowest setting for 30 minutes. The hope is that they will store well kept in a cool garage. We will see.

I also started off a demijohn of cider. I'll add to this after our next pressing session.

In total we produced about 15 litres of juice yesterday afternoon. We rewarded our labours by glugging back a glass of the freshly pressed apple juice which was exceedingly enjoyable and rich in flavour.

Sunday 1 October 2017


The question is sometimes asked by small scale pig keepers if it is possible to grow and mix your own pig feed because feeding a pig is rather costly compared to most other livestock. In the past, before the availability of commercial pig feed, keeping a pig to fatten was not that uncommon and people got by as far as feeding their pigs was concerned. A couple of things have changed. One is that there are restrictions on what you are legally allowed to feed pigs. Gone are the days of the swill bucket. No catering (i.e. kitchen) waste is allowed. (Rules might be different outside of the UK/EU). A second issue is that consumers much prefer leaner meat than days gone by and without careful dietary attention pigs, especially the traditional breeds which smallholders tend to keep, very easily run to fat. The fact of the matter is that commercially produced pig feed conveniently provides all the nutrients a pig needs and despite its rather unappetising appearance (to us) pigs undoubtedly love to eat it and in my experience prefer it to anything else that might might be on offer.

Pigs are determined foragers and will spend much of their waking hours nosing their way through the ground looking for food (at least pigs kept free range outdoors will). You can, of course, supplement a pig's diet with vegetable offerings from the plot and even replace some of the commercial feed. The usually quoted conversion ratio is 4lb of vegetables equate to 1lb of concentrate.

Mangelwurzels provide a useful supplement to a pig's regular diet and give them something they can get their teeth into. Mangelwurzel is not something you will generally find in the seed racks of garden centres or indeed in the catalogues of most of the mainstream seed suppliers. It has largely been grown as a fodder crop for cattle, sheep and pigs. Although it is edible and some people make beer from it I'm not sure that it would be worth giving space to it unless you have livestock given that there are other quality root vegetables such as parsnip, turnip and swede available. 


When the beet is cut open it has the crisp white texture of raddish. You can taste the sweetness if you fancy taking a bite yourself. Because of the relatively high sugar content I would be wary of making this the larger part of the diet of pigs and prefer to mix it with other vegetables and apples.

Mangelwurzels (also commonly known as 'mangolds' or, less commonly nowadays, the 'scarcity crop') originate from Germany. I first came across them when I was doing 'o' level history. During the Irish potato famine one English lordship brushed off any concern by recommending the Irish "should eat mangelwurzels instead". 

It was known as the scarcity crop on the basis that it reputedly grows where other crops struggle and is therefore available when all else fails. However, the term is likely to have arisen from a mis-translation from German. Mangel (which was transliterated into mangold) means 'leaf beet' but also means a 'lack of' or scarcity. Wurzel means root, so literally beet root rather than scarce root.

I have grown four 20' rows of mangelwurzels this year as a fodder crop. The variety is 'Brigadier' which I got from a farm seed supplier. They were sown in 3" pots in April and I planted them out at the end of May. Direct sowing in May is fine but this is my preferred method. They are slightly frost-tender but are otherwise a fairly robust crop. However, as is so often the case on my sandy soil, in dry periods the green leafy top growth does begin to wilt and so at such times it needs some additional irrigation. I noticed that the surrounding fields of sugar beet, a near relative and an important crop in these parts, were also being irrigated at the same time. 

The beet grows largely on top of the soil with a spray of chard-like leaves. As they can be spoiled by freezing conditions they can't be left in the ground until needed like parsnips. They need to be harvested before the frosts arrive and kept in cool frost free conditions. I store them in the garage and cover with an old sheet. I've used them for pigs but many report how much sheep enjoy them so I will try them with mangelwurzel's too as the winter takes hold.