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