Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Our house from a distance

This is the view of our house from across the neighbouring fields on the last day of 2019. You can just make out the house behind the trees on the right of the photograph.


The drain or dyke is Baldwins Lode (lode is an Anglo Saxon word for a watercourse). Baldwins Lode is quite modest compared to some of the Fen drains or dykes but plays an important role locally for drainage and irrigation. The Internal Drainage Board have recently dredged the lode. The bankside reeds have been mowed as part of the work.

The field on the left is still covered in stubble from the wheat harvested last August. Sugar beet grew on the field to the right and has only just been harvested and collected.  

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Walnuts, pickled and otherwise

We have a substantial walnut tree which crops abundantly, though not every year. The main way we take advantage of this largess is to store the nuts in the garage and periodically shell batches of them, enough to fill a jar. This keeps me going with a small handful added to my porridge every morning from September to March, as well as for cake decorating and the like. 

The shelled walnuts need to be kept in the fridge otherwise the oil in the nuts will eventually turn rancid. We have tried other ways to store walnuts, including drying in a low oven and using a dehydrator but this way seems to work best. 

The other thing we do is to pickle walnuts, a traditional Christmas-time accompaniment. Angela, the noted designer of Nativity play costumes, among many other accomplishments, spotted pickled walnuts among my list of preserves yesterday, and asked how to pickle them. Here is what we do which works very well for us. We can't remember where we sourced the recipe but we can vouch for its efficacy.

The key thing is to use immature walnut fruits that are still green, before the hard nut has developed. For us this is sometime in June. A pin can be used to test to see if the inside is still soft. 

Ingredients

  • 225g salt
  • 1 litre malt vinegar
  • 500g brown sugar
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp black peppercorns
  • 1 tbsp fresh grated ginger


Method

  1. Prick the walnuts with a fork and cover with water and the salt.
  2. Leave for a week, then drain and renew with a fresh brine solution for another week.
  3. Drain the walnuts and lay out on trays in a dry, airy place. After a few days they will have turned black.
  4. Combine the remaining ingredients in a saucepan. Bring them to the boil, add the walnuts and simmer for 15 minutes. Cool and spoon the nuts into large jars and cover with the liquid.
  5. Leave for a year. 
A jar of pickled walnuts opened today





Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Drawing on reserves

This year we have had some poor crops (apples), some crop failures (carrots), some seasonal bonanzas (asparagus and grapes) as well as a wide range of produce we can nearly always rely on. Not all of it is suitable for storage or preserving.

Here is what we are still harvesting:-
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Parsnips
- Spinach
- Leeks
- Celery
- Red cabbage
- Eggs

This is what we have stored:-
- Potatoes
- Onions
- Garlic
- Borlotti beans
- Walnuts

From the freezer:-
- Cauliflower
- French Beans
- Runner beans
- Peppers
- Chilli
- Raspberries
- Blackberries
- Black currants
- Red currants
- Plums

Some of the products from preserving:-
- Jams
- Chutneys
- Honey
- Passata
- Pickled walnuts
- Dried plums
- Apple juice
- Elderflower cordial
- Cider

Home grown meat from the freezer
- Pork
- Lamb
- Mutton
- Chicken
- Duck
- Turkey

Friday, 6 December 2019

Beet heaps

December view. Across the road one heap came and went and another has appeared. I can see it from where I am sitting. Trucks will be going back and forth next week to take it to Bury St Edmunds. There are still fields yet to be harvested so I suspect there is still more to come.


Saturday, 23 November 2019

Knitters and knitting

My mother, who died last year. was a prodigious knitter, in quantity, quality and velocity. We all benefited from her productivity usually in the form of pullovers (bear in mind there are ten of us). My mother then moved on to knitting countless baby cardigans as well as baptisimal shawls for the grandchildren and great grand children that inevitably followed. She seemed to barely have to look at what she was doing as her needles clicked away and the yarn ball shrank. 

I don't remember a time when she did not have a knitting project underway. A particularly poignant moment when helping my sisters clear her flat after she died was finding a half-finished baby cardigan in her knitting bag next to the armchair she sat in. One of my sisters said she would finish it off.

It is perhaps to be expected, therefore, that I have some admiration for knitters. In many ways it is a craft that sits well with smallholding and self-sufficiency. I know some smallholders that keep sheep and clean, card and spin the wool sheared from their own sheep flock, and of course knit with it. Knitting from scratch. That particularly impresses me.

We recently went to a birthday celebration for a smallholder friend in a village hall. We only knew one other person there. After the remains of the food (all home cooked of course) was cleared, the tables were set up and about a dozen or so, mainly but not exclusively women, got out their wool and fabric projects and spent the rest of the afternoon working on them: spinning, knitting, tapestry, weaving and lace-making. It was enjoyable looking on and chatting with them, as well as admiring their skill.

What this is all leading up to is that I have recently ventured into the mysteries of knitting myself. I knitted quite a few practice squares first and, when I eventually worked out why I was always ending up with more stitches on the needle than I started with, it was time for my first project. Inevitably a scarf - an uncomplicated rectangle. With great powers of concentration, a protracted delay when a few rows in succession produced too many mistakes to hide or ignore, and help from an experienced knitter to sort that bit out (thank you Anne), I completed the item. The wool (sorry, yarn) was more or less randomly selected but I will put more thought into the next piece of work. The only problem is the next step up from a scarf seems to me quite a big step so I've yet to decide what this might be.






Friday, 22 November 2019

A trip to Attleborough means one thing...

One of our ram lambs died during the night. It had not shown any signs of sickness. However, he was distinctly undersized, half that of most of  the other lambs born this year. He was quite timid and readily gave way to the other sheep at the trough whenever supplementary feed was provided. He was a single, born to a first time mother who was not very maternal. I think this got him off to a poor start nutritionally in his first few weeks. He had to be separated out at one point and given additional feed without competition from the rest of the flock to help build him up and he responded well to this. The last few weeks, since the ram went in with the ewes, he was with two ewe lambs who are not being bred from this year, so he had company.

Anyway, he was the reason for the 30 minute drive along the A11 to Attleborough to a 'fallen stock company' otherwise known as the knacker. Its the second time we have delivered a lamb carcass there. We used the same company to despatch and take away a lame sow a couple of years ago.  

When it comes to disposing of sheep that have died 'on farm' there are legal requirements and the process has to be documented. You can't (or shouldn't) just bury it in a spare corner.  It's also a legal requirement to maintain livestock details on a holding register so that in theory every animal can be accounted for. Hence the need for a Movement Licence every time an animal moves to or from the holding. In addition, each December sheep keepers (and goat keepers) have to complete a census return of the number of animals on their holding. When it comes to cattle each animal has an individual passport where essential information is recorded and accompanies any cattle movements. 

The arrangements for sheep and cattle are fairly stringent because of some serious disease outbreaks that have taken place in the past which had enormous economic (and personal) consequences nationally. As a means of protecting the food chain it is not foolproof as evidenced by the horsemeat scandal in mainstream supermarket meat products a couple of years ago. 

If I am subjected to a farm inspection I will at least be able to provide documentary evidence for the legitimate means of disposal of the lamb in question. Hence today's trip to Attleborough


Thursday, 14 November 2019

Cornish and Lloyd Ltd

The neighbouring farmer not uncommonly leaves equipment by the side of a field when he is mid-task. From the window where I am now sitting I can see a 'Cambridge' roller used for levelling the earth and breaking down clods. It's also sometimes used after seed drilling to firm the soil. This one has not got the full width of rollers attached so I think he was using it around the grass  field  margins to flatten the mole hills and even out the tractor ruts.






Embossed on the side of the roller is 'Cornish and Lloyd Ltd, Bury St Edmunds'. Bury St Edmunds is about 16 miles away. Cornish and Lloyd had an iron foundry in Bury St Edmunds manufacturing heavy agricultural equipment. It was established by John Cornish who had moved his foundry from Swaffham in Norfolk to Bury in 1840. The foundry was located in Risbygate Street from 1865 and was eventually demolished in the 1970s. A B&Q diy store now stands in its place.The company became Cornish and Lloyd in the 1890s and continued under that name until the foundry was taken over by Dalgety in 1961. 

The farm is a third generation family arable farm. The second generation farmer is not far off 100 and from time to time takes a drive around the fields. I joke with him whether he is checking up on his boy (who is nearly 70). I wonder if the roller had been bought new? Whatever the case it has seen in many seasons of harvests and been around these fields an  uncountable number of times. 

Sunday, 10 November 2019

A moment before dusk

We have a mature Cotinus coggygria just outside our back door. I am not certain of the cultivar but suspect it is 'Royal Purple'. It is a widely available shrub but is nevertheless impressive. The leaves are oval in shape and dark red or purple in colour. Mixed with suitable companions, such as the yellow leaved evergreen Choisya ternata 'Sundance' or perhaps Alchemilla mollis at its foot, the purple leaved forms of Cotinus add stature to the border. 

Cotinus is a deciduous shrub that is late to come into leaf in the spring. The numerous tiny flowers that form billowing clusters give it its common name of 'smoke bush'. However, if you are happy to forgo these and have the courage to hard prune it, the Cotinus will produce much larger leaves. 

What caught my eye this afternoon, however, is a particular quality of the Cotinus which provides an extra moment of micro-joy. This is when sunlight shines through the translucent leaves; its worth stopping a moment to have a look. At this time of year the leaves are turning from purple to autumnal flame-coloured hues. As I passed, on my way to fill up a watering can, I noticed the late afternoon sunlight radiating through the cotinus leaves. The effect at this time of year is accentuated. 

The photographs from my phone don't quite capture the intensity of the experience but they might be enough to whet your appetite to stop and look should you happen to be passing a Cotinus bush one autumn afternoon when the sun is going down.  



                                                                    





Friday, 8 November 2019

What did the leaf say to the tree?

I had just finished some jobs outside: collecting the morning's freshly laid eggs, replenishing the straw in the pig arks, checking the sow we think might be pregnant, feeding the ewes hopefully gestating next year's lambs, harvesting a cabbage for dinner. 

I sat on a seat to take a break, and for the moment. It was a mild, still morning and, absorbing the view, noticed the green shoots of the winter wheat in the farmer's field opposite just coming through the brown soil. A future harvest to look forward to, of hope and expectancy.

I also watched the leaves slowly falling from the branches of the towering poplar trees that line our boundary (where "yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang"). As there was no perceptible breeze, it seemed as if each leaf chose its own moment to fall.




Another thought. Having worked for some years in the mental health field I've perhaps known more than the usual number of people who have taken their own life. One person who came to mind was, in fact, another mental health professional whose sudden departure took everyone by surprise, including their own distraught family. Even among those who had been known to mental health services in the previous 12 months, only around one third of suicide attempts, when evaluated, are regarded as having been predictable; two-thirds are not. In any case, a completed suicide nearly always invokes a sense of shock among those who know (and indeed some who don't know) the individual concerned.


The feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that accompany serious depression; certainly. Or escape from the torment of psychosis; regrettably all too frequent. Occasionally a trigger event. But sometimes someone's suicide, on the face of it, is not always fathomable. Nevertheless, e
ven the very leaves of a tree are numbered. 



A Parting Leaf to the Tree

You did not notice my life crinkling at the edges,

The rich green slowly sapping away.
We once provided succour for each other, 
Until I felt there was no return.

I went unheeded amid the safety of your canopy

But now could hide no more.
An imperceptible barrier between us grew;
Was it for my protection or for you?

Still I clung fast even as I faded,

As my hold slowly degraded.
I wasn’t pushed; I dropped quietly away.
I felt my time had come.

©  Notes from a Suffolk Smallholding



 

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Knobbly delights

We have been regularly eating the strangely named, and even stranger looking, Pink Fir Apple potatoes in recent weeks. We had a very good crop of potatoes this year, Pink Fir Apple included. It is some years since I last grew them and I have to say I had forgotten how excellent a potato it is.

I have not been able to elicit much information about their origins except that they were probably first introduced from France in about 1850. Although in recent years in the UK there has been increased interest in growing them, on the whole they are not that common. You would be hard pressed to find them in the shops and if you do I suspect it would be at a premium price as a 'speciality' food. 

The fact is they are just as easy to grow as any other potato. They have a low resistance to blight but scab is much less of a concern, which suits our dryer growing conditions well. Their top growth gets a bit taller than other potatoes and is likely to flop but that won't affect the growing tubers.

One of the reasons why they are not commonly grown is, I'm sure, their propensity to deviate from the expected cigar shape (as depicted in the seed catalogues) to something quite knobbly, reminiscent of root ginger. I assume this characteristic makes them a challenge for anyone trying to grow them on an agricultural scale using mechanised harvesting. 

However, in the kitchen their knobbliness is not really a practical problem because it is unnecessary to peel them. They can be cooked and eaten with their skins on as you might with 'new' potatoes. Indeed, Pink Fir Apple are recommended as a late maturing salad potato and for good reasons. Their skin has a pink tinge  and the flesh is buttery yellow, waxy and dense. They hold their shape and structure well after boiling. Most importantly, they are very tasty too. We eat them plain boiled with a little butter and maybe a light sprinkle of herbs. 

If you have not tried them before and have the space, Pink Fir Apple are certainly worth growing.

Pink Fir Apple potato. They are not always as knobbly as this

Monday, 4 November 2019

Last of the aubergines

I cleared the greenhouse a couple of weeks ago, removing the tomato and cucumber plants which had virtually all run out of steam. The remaining peppers and chillies were picked. All that remained, other than a few bunches of grapes, was one aubergine plant that still had some fruit on it. With a run of frosty mornings following some mild temperatures, it was time for it to be composted too and the last of the aubergines picked.

Aubergines usually do quite well for me. They need a relatively long growing season to give time for the fruit to develop. This can make them tricky to grow as this normally involves sowing them early (beginning of March for me) which means keeping them indoors until the weather warms up enough to safely transfer them to the greenhouse. Aubergine seedlings prefer warmer temperatures compared to their tomato equivalents and they dislike soggy compost so careful watering is needed. If such checks to their growth can be avoided they normally thrive pretty well in the greenhouse or polytunnel once established.

The variety I grew this year was supposedly 'Long Purple' but they looked a bit skinny to me. There are a few long thin aubergine varieties available and I wonder if they were one of those. Nevertheless, they tasted fine. Being late in the season the skins were tougher than those picked in the summer but they went well added to a curry.



Sunday, 27 October 2019

Its That time of year...


The clocks have gone back one hour and it was dark by 5pm today. Some of the daily routine smallholding tasks have to be brought forward. 

We also had a frost first thing this morning, the second of the season. At last a sunny dry day, though, and its looks like this will continue for a few more days at least. It will shortly be November already. Time does seem to speed on ever faster as Sue who lives a quiet life in Suffolk pointed out yesterday.

As the seasons move on, its time for another poem. As you might expect with Shakespeare, this one is not really about autumn, but rather love and death.

Sonnet 73 William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Not to plan ram

Our plan for lambing next spring was to time table it for April, a couple of weeks later than this year. This would mean putting the ram in with the ewes at the beginning of November. The benefit would be an increased likelihood for lambing in finer weather which suits me as well as the young lambs. It would also give a little extra time for the new grass to grow before the lambs arrive.

Its possible to schedule lambing in this way because the gestation period for sheep averages 147 days and they generally lamb within just a few days either side of this. It is then a simple matter of counting back to decide when to put the ram with the ewes. This can be very convenient. For example, a smallholder friend and his wife are teachers so they time their ewes to lamb during the Easter holidays.

Yes, this is very convenient. Except when the ram has other ideas. Last week when we went to feed the sheep we went to the field where our ram Abraham (Abe) has been ensconced quite happily with his companion wether. He was nowhere to seen. I looked over to the next field where the ewes were, and there he was in amongst them. Abe had decided to jump the gun as well as jump the fence.

Attempts to separate him and get him back to his own space proved fruitless so the decision was made (in effect Abe) to bring lambing forward. We had to extract two of this year's ewe lambs, as we don't want  to breed from them in their first year, which was an easier task. 

So the ram and the ewes are together and all seem quite happy with the arrangement. Lets hope for a clement spring next March

Abraham


  

Friday, 18 October 2019

The bright side of rain

Its been raining here virtually every day for the last couple of weeks and we have had the relatively unusual experience of continuous rain the whole day once or twice. More like Bantry Bay than droughty East Anglia.

Its been a bit tricky for local farmers who have potatoes to harvest as well as preparing the ground for winter wheat. Fortunately, the light soils here mean that the arable fields dry fairly quickly once the rain stops.

Our livestock are not overly enamoured by the conditions, but because the temperatures have been largely mild the grazing grass has continued to grow which is what I like to see.

The wet, mild weather has been just the thing for fungi, though. Here are some that are all within 50 feet of our back door. I don't know the identities of all of them, but shaggy inkcap and honey fungus are in amongst them.









Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Smug lunch

Many of our meals  are cooked from scratch from produce we have have grown or raised ourselves. Probably most, actually. There is no doubt that being able to do so is very satisfying. Not just from a sense of personal achievement and a desire to be as self-provisioning as we can, but also from all the benefits that flow from home grown produce: taste, variety, freshness, no additives or chemical applications, animal welfare and so on.

Today's lunch was a case in point. Spicy tomato soup with ricotta cheese, along with some home made whole meal bread. Alright, there was also salt and pepper which we bought. And the bread flour. The milk for the cheese was from a supermarket. Reasons not to be too smug about it. 

But then it was also our own time and labour that went into it - quite a bit in fact.  







Monday, 7 October 2019

The brothers Laxton

We have had a very poor crop of apples this year from the nine or ten different varieties we grow. The exception, for reasons I cannot fully discern, is Laxton's Fortune. This has done rather well and today I picked most of the remaining apples left on the tree. 

The last of the Laxton's Fortune

Laxton's Fortune, introduced in 1931 having first been raised in 1904, has in its parentage Cox's Orange Pippin. That is to say, a really good pedigree, so no wonder it is an apple with many fine characteristics

We have to thank the Laxton brothers, Edward (1869-1951) and William (1866-1923) for Laxton's Fortune and quite a few other 'heritage' varieties of apples and fruits. Their father, Thomas, who was originally a lawyer, started a nursery business in Bedford. He was a pioneer in using a systematic approach to  fruit tree breeding by selecting the best characteristics to produce improved fruit varieties. Interestingly, Thomas corresponded with Charles Darwin which is probably indicative of the scientific approach he adopted. 

The Laxton brothers developed the nursery and were prominent Edwardian horticulturalists. Among the many apples they introduced, aside from Laxton's Fortune, were Laxton's Superb, Laxton's Pearmain, and Lord Lambourne

Edward was awarded an MBE for his contribution to horticulture. Edward Laxton's son inherited the business but sadly decided to close it down in 1957. An important source of some distinguished British apple varieties is now no more but the fruit of this work lives on in many garden's (including ours) today.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Black Hamburg

One of this year's great successes has been the grape vine in the greenhouse. Over the last few years I have been carefully training two main stems growing along the greenhouse roof in parallel lines. Last summer it had completed the 16' length of the roof. 

Over winter the regular pruning regime has been to cut all the side shoots back to one or two buds and any unwanted stems were also removed. During the current growing season some of the bunches of fruit that were forming were thinned out (you need to be steely firm here) so that the retained ones had more room and were more or less evenly space out. The growing tips of new side shoots were also pinched out.

The result has been an amazing crop of grapes conveniently hanging down from the greenhouse roof for ease of picking. We have been munching bunches of grapes on a virtually daily basis and continue to do so, and any visitors have also gone away with a complimentary bunch or two.  If I had anticipated such a bounteous harvest of grapes I  might have invested in a steam juicer, not being much of a brewer, for future consumption. As it is we are for the time being indulging in a 'luxury' crop. 

The variety is a well-known one: Black Hamburg. It is a reliable dessert grape and I can testify to its sweetness. I might also add that grapes (and indeed tomatoes) taste much better at room temperature rather than chilled from a refrigerator. In fact, once I have finished the daily task of watering  I generally sit down on a nearby bench with a freshly picked bunch of grapes from the warmth of the greenhouse and stare around me for a bit.


Black Hamburg is widely available. I got mine
from Victoriana nurseries



Thursday, 3 October 2019

The accidental potato grower

As the main growing season slowly winds down it is as well to reflect on what grew well and what was less successful. Compared to last year’s extended drought, this year produced overall more favourable weather conditions. The early summer rain was a big help even though it was quite dry for the second half of the summer.

A notable success for us this year has been potatoes. Last year aside, we usually get a reasonable crop given our dry sandy soil. This year, however, has seen our best yields by far. Not only that, the potatoes have been of a decent size with far fewer small or marble-sized tubers that will cause a nuisance in the plot next year if you don't spot them. The potatoes have also been coming up clean with very little scab, usually associated with dry conditions. Thankfully, no sign of any blight either.

The weather conditions were probably influential for the potato harvest this year. But I also think that the annual application of large quantities of compost each year has been gradually improving this virtually clayless soil and its moisture holding ability.

We have grown more potatoes than usual this year. This is partly in compensation for last year’s poor crop. But it is also because when I went to the garden centre seeking a particular variety of seed potatoes (Kestrel needed for a growing comparison exercise with some vegetable growing friends) I inadvertently picked up the wrong ones. Twice! On two successive visits. To be fair it was before I had a cataract treated. They were the two Maris varieties. In the end I grew the following potatoes:- 

• Red Duke of York (First early)
• Charlotte (Second early)
• Kestrel (Second early)
• Picasso (Main crop)
• King Edward (Main crop)
• Pink Fir Apple (Heritage salad variety)
• Maris Bard (First early)
• Maris Piper (Main crop)

That’s thirteen 20’ rows of potatoes in total, four more than originally intended.

All of the varieties have grown well. One of the accidentally purchased varieties, Maris Bard, which I had not previously grown, did particularly well. It turns out it reputedly has drought-resistant properties which suits my conditions well. I'm going to include this on the list next year.

The potatoes I grew are all established varieties and several of them are often recommended. But if I was constrained to grow just one variety then it would have to be Charlotte. For me this is a singularly outstanding potato.

All the potatoes, once harvested, have had a period of drying off and are now stored in paper sacks (re-cycled sheep feed bags) in the workshop. They should see us through until next year’s earlies are ready.


Pink Fir Apple. Many are put off by the typical knobbly
growth of this heritage variety but it is not necessary to
peel them. There is a recent trendiness for Pink Fir Apple,
but they are not just for readers of broadsheet newspapers
and colour supplements.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Favourite apples

In this post I am wading into potentially controversial territory—best apple varieties. Everyone’s top ten list will inevitably be different. There are some factors to consider when choosing apple trees to plant: growth habit, local climate, soil to some extent, appearance. But perhaps over-riding these is the eating experience: taste, flavour, crunchiness, juiciness. This is highly subjective and influenced by individual preferences. But also by the timeliness of picking the apple (early in its season or later on) and the interval between picking and eating. For example, if you prefer a slightly more tart flavour then picking early might be preferred. Also, some apples are at their best eaten as soon after picking as possible and don’t store well.

It has to be said that for many people their experience of apple varieties is limited because supermarkets stock only a very limited range, often imported varieties. This is where smallholders and gardeners with enough space have the advantage. They often go in for planting lots of trees and will seek out different varieties, many of which the supermarkets ignore. 

There is another factor to consider here. There are nearly 2000 UK apple varieties. An individual can only become familiar with a fraction of these. Luckily, establishments like Brogdale, home to the National Fruit Collection, bears the larger weight of responsibility for maintaining our heritage varieties
(www.https://www.brogdalecollections.org/ ).

Having provided all these qualifications, here’s my list (not in rank order).
1. Cox’s Orange Pippin — Perhaps the most famous dessert apple. It has a distinctive flavour, juicy and with a good crunch. Supermarket ones, I think, are stored too long to get them at their best. Not so easy to grow, preferring a heavy soil.
2. Ashmead’s Kernel — Crispy and strong flavour. I prefer them picked early when they are still a little tart.
3. Sparten — Crispy, juicy and sweet. They also have an attractive red skin which makes them look like the apple the wicked queen offers to Snow White. Sometimes they can be on the smaller side if the tree is cropping very heavily.
4. Blenheim Orange — The apple tree we had in our garden when growing up produced largish apples. They were juicy, crunchy and tart (if not sour). As children we enjoyed them immensely and never found another apple to match. That is until I came across Blenheim Orange. This is regarded as dual purpose, good for cooking and as a dessert. It also stores very well and we often have supplies to draw upon until the following March. I wonder if this was the one we had in our garden.
5. Egremont Russet — Not everyone likes the denser flesh of russet apples but I do. It is dense and has a noticeably aromatic flavour.
6. Darcy Spice — With russet tendencies, this is an apple with hardish flesh but still juicy. It originates from Tolleshunt Darcy near Maldon in Essex.
7. Discovery — Another Essex apple. Known for being one of the first to crop, like many earlies it doesn't store well so eat them as they come.
8. Bramley — The famous cooker with a famous history. The original tree from a chance seedling is still standing (just) in Southwell, Nottingham-shire. They should be light green with red blush stripes rather than the uniform shiny green that the shops often sell.
9. Laxton’s Superb — A bit like a Cox. It is a later cropper which adds to its positive attributes.
10. James Grieve — A reputation for not storing well. This apple is outstanding early season, eaten straight off the tree.

Ask me next month and this list might be different as yours might be too.


Darcy Spice Photo: from the Web site of the admirable
Lathcoats Farm orchard and farm shop, Galleywood
Chelmsford who grow and sell a wide variety of apples and more
http://www.eapples.co.uk 

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Goodbye Ermine

Ermine was the eldest of our breeding sow’s, a pedigree British Saddleback with a long back. She gave us one litter but then subsequently failed to get pregnant. We concluded she must have become infertile. With pigs this will almost certainly be the case if there is too long a gap since their last pregnancy. An annual litter is perhaps the most you might get away with.

Keeping an adult pig with no return is an expensive business (none of our livestock are kept as pets) so, alas, it was time for her to go. 

Our usual abattoir, small and friendly, has closed down, an all too frequent fate of small, local abattoirs who find the slaughter business increasingly uneconomic to remain viable. The one we used is also a locally acclaimed butcher so they are still otherwise in business. The irony is that small abattoirs find the animal welfare regulations too costly to keep up with and implement, especially if they have been long established and the buildings ageing. But one consequence of their diminishing numbers is that livestock have to be transported far longer distances and often to larger operators that maybe have a less personal touch.

For Ermine this meant a trip to Eye in mid-Suffolk. This is an abattoir we have been quite happy with so far, but they don’t do the butchering. Her carcass was then delivered to Bramfield in East Suffolk from where we picked up the finished meat. She was too old for pork joints so we now have significant quantities of sausages, mince, sausage meat and diced pork from the best bits. 

Ermine with nephew and hen


Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Return of the flock

The ewes and lambs have returned from a two month sojourn on a friend's smallholding. This has given a chance for our grazing to have rest and help improve the pasture. In their absence I have harrowed, over-seeded and mown. The main field had been manured by the flock early spring and the welcome downpours we have had this summer have broken it down and washed it in. No need for artificial fertiliser. They have some good grass to see them through late summer. This will help grow the lambs on and improve the condition of the ewes ready for tupping in the autumn, especially now that the lambs have been weaned.

Return of the Flock, Leren by Anton Mauve, 1838-88

In practice their return was not quite so romantic: two
20 minute trips with the trailer and an extra hour
coaxing, chasing and finally rugby tackling the last lamb. 



Thursday, 1 August 2019

Harebell

Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) flourish here. They like dry sandy, undisturbed ground, but certainly not damp conditions. The thin arching stems and small blue bells look quite delicate. In illustrations fairy’s are often depicted under a harebell. In fact the harebell is a robust plant, withstanding drought and competing vegetation. A welcome sight from mid-July through to September. 


Harebells along a fence line untouched by the sheep

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

In the market for gilts

Not high finance but pigs. A few weeks ago I wrote about our run of bad luck with recent attempts at artificial insemination which led to the acquisition of a new young boar. He has settled in well and got to work with one of our existing sows more or less straight away. I'm counting on him to do a better job than me.

Because of the ever-lengthening interval since her last pregnancy, we fear that our second sow has become infertile. This often happens if a sow is not regularly 'in pig'. Hence the decision to buy in some new breeding stock.

After a search we came across two six month old gilts (that is a female pig that has not yet had a litter). We travelled to the other side of the land of roundabouts in Milton Keynes and brought home these rather attractive young ladies - sisters.





Tuesday, 23 July 2019

From the cutting garden

A selection of cut flowers picked today.



Antirrhinum - Simple but tasteful.
1000 seeds in a 50p packet

Gladioli - They can be a bit blowsey and
ostentatious but this variety is attractive. A line
of corms planted a couple of years ago  and more
or less left to their own devices. They reliably pop
up every year.

Gazania 'Purple Prince' - I think they look
in a flower bed rather than a vase. Or maybe
something else should join them?

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Summer greenhouse


The summer greenhouse gets regular attention: daily watering; pinching out tomato plant side shoots; tying in cucumber and tomato stems as they head towards the roof; supporting pepper and aubergine plants as their fruit swell, making the plants top heavy. I find aubergines and peppers grow better for me in 8” or 9” pots; tomatoes, cucumber and melons are planted into the greenhouse border. 

Yesterday I thinned out some of the bunches of grapes, still green, which conveniently hang from parallel stems trained along the roof. It looks like a good crop this year. The variety is the well known dessert grape, Black Hamburg. 

There are automatic watering systems available whose main advantage is if you are away for a day or two. I’m not keen on overhead watering as tomato and aubergine plants are not keen on regular soaking of their foliage. There is also the risk of scorching as the water droplets act like mini magnifying glasses. A system of drip hoses feeding each pot or leaky hoses for the greenhouse beds are alternatives. 

However, I’m more than happy hand watering from a hose to the base of each plant, and as required to each pot. Regular, even watering for tomatoes in particular is important to avoid blossom end rot on the one hand, or their skin splitting on the other. The former results from under-watering and the latter from irregular watering leading to rapid expansion of the growing fruits.

I count to twenty for each plant. In my 16’x8’ greenhouse this year I have 12 tomato plants, 6 cucumber plants and 6 melon plants. That’s 8 minutes of watering the greenhouse border plants and maybe an additional 2 minutes watering the aubergine and pepper plant pots. On very hot days I might do this twice in one day.

We have started to harvest tomatoes and cucumbers on a daily basis so every visit has a reward.

















Monday, 1 July 2019

Viper's Bugloss

The last couple of weeks have seen a profusion of viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) spring up. Their deep blue flowers catch the eye especially with a background of green grass. If you look closely you will see long red stamens emerging from the blue petals. They thrive in disturbed, dry sandy soil so it’s no surprise to find them on the field margins in this area.

Bugloss is apparently derived from Greek for ox tongue and the rough hairy leaves are, I suppose, suggestive of this. The seeds resemble adder's head, whilst other references state viper's bugloss can be used to treat adder bites. Its probably wiser to go to A&E for emergency treatment should this remote occurrence happen to you.

The bees are very keen on bugloss and it is in fact related to borage which is often grown with bees in mind.




Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Prickwillow

Smallholder friends who live in the Cambridgeshire village of Prickwillow have lent us the use of their field for grazing our sheep for a few weeks.  The sheep are benefitting from fresh grass and it gives our own fields, still not fully recovered from last summer’s drought, a rest. I’ve taken the opportunity to harrow our fields and over seed some bare patches. The recent heavy rain has helped to work the sheep manure into the ground and there is some encouraging re-growth for when the flock returns.

Our Wiltshire Horn sheep, Prickwillow. These are a
self-shedding breed and some have only partially completed
the process. Note the tufts of wool scattering the grass.

Prickwillow is about 20 minutes distant, on the way to Ely, and I make a daily trip to check on the sheep. The village is surrounded by vast flat fen fields with arable and salad crops growing in the black peaty soil. The fields are below sea level and as you drive towards the village there is a 15 foot grass embankment along the road side on top of which flows the River Lark. 

The former vicarage illustrates the problem of soil shrinkage with the draining of the fens. It was originally built with two steps leading up to the front door. Over the years nine more have been added as the surrounding ground has sunk. 

The Drainage Museum is located in Prickwillow. Here you can find out more about the network of fen drains and pumping stations. It houses some of the old engines that did the pumping, without which Prickwillow would be another Atlantis.

Despite being a small village, Prickwillow seems to have an active community of artists. One evidence of this is the regular conscription of the village phone box for art’s sake. It has been an art studio, a gallery and a prop for different art works. Here are some of its many guises:-

  
 


None of this will interest my sheep, but they are nevertheless enjoying the grass.