Tuesday 27 November 2018

Nearby heaps

In the field directly in front of the house the farmer has only just started harvesting the sugar beet. This heap is about 10 feet high. I remember when they were all seedlings. The beet will  be going to the sugar factory at Bury St Edmunds.

The next field along grew wheat this year. The farmer has been delivering great heaps of manure to be ploughed in to prepare this light, sandy soil for the next crop. This is one of several heaps dotted along the field margin. The straw from previous crops is used by a livestock farmer for bedding and this gets returned to the arable farm it came from with dung added. Full circle.

Here is a heap of wood chippings a nearby tree management company dropped off for me. I use it for the chicken runs. 

Friday 23 November 2018

Livestock review

With the fruit and vegetable plots bedded down under a generous layer of compost, fruit bushes pruned and mulched, and rows of remaining ‘winter crops’ tidied and to be harvested when needed, I’ll soon make a start on some regular maintenance tasks. Some stock fencing needs repairing, a field gatepost has to be replaced, the long boundary hedge of hawthorn and blackthorn will get its annual trim. The fruit trees will also need pruning. I’ll continue where I left off last winter doing some clearance in the southern woody boundary. In the process there’ll be wood for next winter. There’s also a couple of new projects on the holding l’ll be undertaking.

In the meantime here’s an overview of the livestock which governs much of my daily routine.

Our two Saddleback sows. I'm very much hoping
that the one on the left is pregnant having AI'd
her a few weeks ago. If so, she's due in February.

The Wiltshire Horn ewes are in with the ram.
When his work is done lambs should ensue
from mid-March through to mid-April.

We have meat chickens, meat ducks and turkeys
as short term residents which we grow on during 
the year. At this time we have turkeys still with us. 
These are Norfolk Blacks which we've had as day
 old poults  (twelve of them) back in May. Most of 
them have been been claimed for Christmas. 

We've got about 80 hens for eggs. They include
Ixworth, Cream Legbars, French Copper Marans
and some of mixed parentage. Most, however,
are ex-commercial hens which we acquire when
they are 72 weeks old but continue to provide a
steady supply of eggs. With the shorter daylight
hours egg laying is much reduced and demand 

outstrips supply. As soon as we are into the new 
year production will increase quite quickly as the 
days become gradually longer. They are 
remarkably light-sensitive.

With the colder conditions, the bees have hunkered
down for the winter. Hopefully, they will make it
though to next year. 

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Mist in the meadows

It’s more like November today. A cold, fine drizzle and yesterday’s blue is now grey and low. I’ll save hedge cutting for another day.

Mist in the meadows

The evening oer the meadow seems to stoop
More distant lessens the diminished spire
Mist in the hollows reaks and curdles up
Like fallen clouds that spread – and things retire
Less seen and less – the shepherd passes near
And little distant most grotesquely shades
As walking without legs – lost to his knees
As through the rawky creeping smoke he wades
Now half way up the arches disappear
And small the bits of sky that glimmer through
Then trees loose all but tops – I meet the fields
And now indistinctness passes bye
The shepherd all his length is seen again
And further on the village meets the eye.

John Clare

Saturday 17 November 2018

Reasons for growing Jerusalem artichokes

I rather like Jerusalem artichokes. They have a sweet, nutty taste and make a pleasant addition to your choice of root crop. At the moment, and through the winter, they are in plentiful supply if you happen to grow them. When they are needed, just fork a few of the tubers up. We boil them with their skins on. They should not be boiled too long as they turn mushy so you need to keep an eye on them and use a knife to check when they are soft enough to take off the heat. We also like to bake them with a coating of olive oil. 

Jerusalem artichokes have a reputation for producing certain anti-social digestive side-effects. There is a reason for this. They are composed of a different form of carbohydrate than potatoes. The carbohydrate in Jerusalem artichokes is in the form of inulin which is a type of starch that the body cannot digest but is metabolised by bacteria in the colon. Personally, I don’t experience this problem to any extent myself (but then I’m very similar to the Queen in many respects). Garden writer Alys Fowler, who says she tucks into lots of Jerusalem artichokes each winter, suggests that the way to obviate the problem is to eat small amounts and become gradually accustomed to them. 

Apart from their unique taste, Jerusalem artichokes are high in potassium and B vitamins as well as being a source of dietary fibre. Another reason for growing them is that they are vigorous growers and make a useful annual wind-breaking hedge (I know, ha ha). I grow mine along one end of a vegetable plot for this very reason.

Jerusalem artichokes are easy to grow. Plant tubers a foot apart about 4 inches deep. It helps if the soil is enriched so that you get larger tubers. They can grow about 10 feet during the summer, but I trim mine when they reach 6 feet to reduce the risk of wind rock pushing the stems askew. The leaves die off as winter approaches and the stems can then be cut down. It’s best to harvest as many of the tubers as you can so that the following year larger tubers result rather than an over abundance of small ones. There’ll always be enough left in the ground to regrow for the next season’s crop. 

If you’ve not tried them before then have ago, just go easy to begin with.

Monday 12 November 2018

Grow Your Own as therapy

Today, after some initial rain, it was relatively mild and at times sunny. In between routine tasks around the holding I spent time tidying the vegetable plots, including some easy weeding, in readiness for spreading compost. It was good to be outside. Pleasant? Definitely. Enjoyable? Actually, indeed it was. Therapeutic? In a general sense of increasing well-being, I'd go so far as to say 'yes' to that too. 

In my early days working in the mental health field, in a large mental hospital, some patients attended ‘horticultural therapy’. The hospital had a small market garden supplying other local hospitals with tomatoes and salad vegetables which the patients helped to cultivate. At the time there was a movement promoting the idea of horticultural therapy. The thinking behind it centred on the assumed benefits of regular constructive activity, instilling a sense of achievement, the rehabilitative potential of keeping to a normal work routine, working and interacting alongside others in a shared task, and the promotion of a sense of being a contributing member of society. The ideas behind the therapeutic benefits of horticulture have continued to develop and nowadays, with the demise of the long stay hospital patient, horticultural and gardening projects have moved to community settings where they increasingly flourish. 

For myself, a long-standing amateur gardener and subsequently a smallholder, I can certainly identify with the potential benefits of  physical work outside, and in engaging in horticulture specifically, on well-being. With a career as a mental health practitioner and academic, as well as being a smallholder, I’m naturally interested in this area of activity.

In recent years there has been accumulating research on the benefits of physical activity on mental health. The evidence indicates that the benefits apply to feelings of well-being in the general population as well as having a positive therapeutic impact on those with a specific clinical diagnosis such an anxiety disorder, depression and psychotic conditions like schizophrenia. 

The research appears to suggest that even a small amount of physical activity is beneficial if done on a regular basis, and that moderate activity has greater efficacy than vigorous activity. The type of activity undertaken does not seem to be critical but it helps if it is enjoyable. So if you are not keen on gyms, running, swimming, competitive sports and so on, then gardening, DIY projects and going for a walk can work well too. 

This might seem obvious but there are three points to bear in mind. Firstly, research has now generated a strong evidence base to support these claims. It’s more than just common sense or a reasonable hunch. 

Secondly, the relative benefits of physical activity on mental health have also become apparent. For example, for mild depression it has been found that physical activity is just as effective as anti-depressant medication or psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Thirdly, neurophysiological studies are providing biological evidence of some of the reasons why physical activity is beneficial for mental health. It has an effect on dopamine and serotonin. These are neurotransmitters that help regulate activity, motivation, mood and feelings of well-being. (Many commonly prescribed anti-depressant medications’ mode of action intervene in dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain). More recently it has been found that physical activity helps stimulate increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These are proteins which help sustain existing neurons and also generate new neuron growth thereby contributing to increased cognitive functioning and acting in those areas of the brain that influence mood. 

The benefits of growing your own are more than the produce itself and eating healthily. It potentially has an anti-depressant effect, it  can contribute to anxiety management, it can be a useful stress coping mechanism, it can help raise self-esteem, and possibly acts as a dementia inhibitor. I'll be having another dose tomorrow.

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Chopping, scratting and pressing

Today the weather has been mild and still. It was very pleasant to be outside; you could enjoy the visual and olfactory delights of autumn without getting cold or wet. It was perfect weather for apple pressing, part of our annual cycle of activities. In fact I find it to be one of the most satisfying of smallholding jobs with the added benefit of immediate rewards.

We've already pressed most of our crop of apples and some more from a friend's orchard. We have bottles of juice on the go, in the freezer, and some more juice transforming itself to cider. Today a non-smallholding friend came over to our place with some of his windfalls to take back home again as juice. We spent a couple of hours chopping, scratting and pressing. He did not know what varieties of apples they were but the apple to juice ratio was impressive, producing 14 litres (30 odd pints) of juice.

The pigs, hens and turkey's, of course, enjoyed a share of the apple mash, so nothing went to waste. 

Non-smallholding friend filling the scratter with roughly 
chopped apples to get them ready for pressing. The apples 
in the picture produced 14 litres of juice.

Monday 5 November 2018

Fallen stock

Today I had to arrange the collection of a ram lamb that had died yesterday evening, despite earlier veterinary intervention. All its vital signs were normal, as was a blood test. Worms (always high on the suspect list with sheep) were not an issue, and we are passed the time of year when fly strike is a concern. It was nevertheless out of sorts. It seemed to more or less stabalise but ultimately there followed a rather rapid deterioration. Its not clear what the problem was. Sheep can be like that.  

'Fallen stock' is the term used for livestock that die on the farm. It happens from time to time as a result of illness or culling at the end of its productive life. There are, as you might expect, rules and regulations regarding the disposal of fallen stock - you can't just bury them (as you might with a pet) or burn them.  

By and large, livestock are ordinarily required to be tagged with a flock or herd number and an individual number specific to the animal. A record should be maintained of their movements on and off the holding so that in theory every animal is traceable. These records will be looked at should you ever be inspected by APHA

The regulations are fairly rigorous but not onerous. This includes their disposal. Pigs, sheep and cattle have all been the source of significant disease outbreaks in times past and there is a consequent concern that diseased animals don't enter the food chain.

What this means is if you play by the rules (and I believe in this area you should)  if livestock die on your holding you still need to be able to account for it, including its proper disposal, with the appropriate paperwork to support it.

Fallen stock companies are licensed to carry out such disposals. I suppose they used to be called in, less regulated times, knacker's yards or the knacker man. As it happens the fallen stock company I've had to deal with, on two occasions now, is run by a woman. 

If you join the not-for-profit National Fallen Stock Company (NFSC), for a mere £10 you can be sent a list of local fallen stock companies and they also oversee payment and the administration of collection and disposal. 

A sad morning but part and parcel of smallholding.

Saturday 3 November 2018

Tucking up the asparagus for the winter

It’s worth spending time and effort with asparagus. It is a rather special crop to enjoy each year in late spring and early summer. Asparagus is also a ‘permanent crop’ and the asparagus bed will be in place for many years to enjoy. Its such a reliable vegetable. 

All this means the asparagus bed needs to be maintained well to keep the plants strong and productive. Part of this includes keeping the weeds at bay, above all preventing any pernicious weeds establishing themselves. It pays not to neglect the bed once the asparagus season comes to an end in June.

After a day of heavy rain, temporarily saturating our otherwise dry soil, it was time to prepare the asparagus bed for winter. The yellowing fronds were pruned down to the ground. Next the bed was weeded. This was easily accomplished with just a few annual weeds to pull out. The ridges along which the crowns were planted were renovated by drawing up fresh soil with a draw hoe. The vital addition, and main part of winter preparation, was applying a thick layer of bulky compost along each row. 

Finally, I used the roughly chopped up asparagus fronds as a mulch between the rows. This is an idea I picked up from one of Charles Dowding’s admirable No Dig You Tube videos. It is after all a no dig crop in essence. It seemed a good use of the asparagus prunings and will help contribute to suppressing any weeds that might otherwise take their chance popping up in the asparagus bed.

The cropping season (late April to early June) might seem a long way off, but good preparation at this time of the year will be heartily rewarded.

Friday 2 November 2018


An abundant crop of walnuts this year, probably benefiting from the long hot summer. We have a very large walnut tree, as high as a house. We also have a smaller tree about ten feet high. I’m not sure if it was planted or whether it has self seeded. The latter is very likely nearer the mark as we watch squirrels going back and forth along the fence line collecting the nuts and no doubt burying them for later. There’s plenty to go round for all of us.

We pickled some back in June when they were still green and before the shells become hard. They’re sitting in the cupboard preparing for Christmas 2019.

We have found that the best way of harvesting the mature walnuts is to collect them up as soon as possible after they drop. To this end, my wife Janet (a meticulous walnut collector) has been out collecting fresh falls of nuts twice a day for the last few weeks.

A large amount of nuts have been shelled, dried, and then placed into Kilner jars and stored in the fridge. We have dried them in a low oven but now use a dehydrator. Eventually walnuts, despite drying, are likely to turn rancid because of the constituent oil going off. In the past, shelled nuts kept at room temperature lasted until about January.  Unshelled walnuts kept in the garage were still okay when shelled in March.

Our walnut harvest has gone into ever popular coffee and walnut cake, of course. I also have a handful a day added to my morning porridge. Perhaps a few more later in the day when I get milk from the fridge. Maybe when I put the milk back, too.

This morning's portion

Another thing about walnut trees is that the smell of their leaves is one of the most glorious foliage smells to be found. It is most distinctive: citrusy and aromatic. Its enough to lift your spirits. It’s probably a bit late in the year now, but if your on familiar terms with a walnut tree, give the foliage a stroke next year.