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



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. ).

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