Tuesday 31 March 2020

Fleeting perfection

We've been picking tulips from our cutting garden, the one flower that we have available there at this time of the year. Tulips are not the best flowers for cutting as they don't seem to last very long in the vase before they go over as the ones here are beginning to.

But it is important to enjoy fleeting moments of perfection. It is also an excuse to post another of Shakespeare's sonnets (which is not really about horticulture despite the first couple of lines).

Sonnet 15

When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check'd even by the selfsame sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

Friday 27 March 2020

Premier greens

At the beginning of January I mentioned that I had planted out a late sowing of pak choi in the greenhouse. We have been eating the mature plants for a couple of weeks now and there is still plenty more to come. However, we will have to finish them off soon as I will be needing the greenhouse space for summer crops. For me pak choi is the premier leafy green vegetable and well worth growing. 

One pak choi plant picked for today's dinner in an
admittedly somewhat posed picture. You can see in the
colander that the plants are beginning to flower. It all
goes into the wok. 

Aside from the pak choi, I picked the last three red cabbages which have stood well in the ground over the winter. These were finely chopped and put in the freezer after a rapid blanch. The last of the  leeks and celery have just been
finished but we still have some parsnips in the ground. And of course potatoes and onions in storage which will see us through to this year's crops.

Saturday 21 March 2020

Bacteria rather than viruses

Today I turned my attention away from viruses back to bacteria, penecillium roqueforti to be specific. For the last few months I have been trying to get to grips with cheese making. I have made some cottage cheese and ricotta-type cheese which are easy enough, but I wanted to throw myself in at the deep-end and focus more on complex cheeses. 

Like many practical skills the only way to learn effectively is by doing it. The smallholding club I belong to has a cheese making interest group. There are varying degrees of experience within the small handful of aspiring cheese makers in the group. We are all essentially novices or 'advanced beginners' engaged in mutual learning. But because the process can be lengthy, cheese making is inevitably a largely solitary activity at the domestic level.

Apart from the soft cheeses, goats milk Wensleydale and a Stilton-type cheese have been gratifying successes. I have some 'Cheddar' currently maturing so judgement is still a couple of months away to try the first one. 

Today I have been making another Stilton and I will be more than happy to reproduce the last effort. This is where the penecillium roqueforti comes in, for this is what produces the green veining.   Because conditions are difficult to control and standardise in making cheese at home the outcome is likely to be more variable than commercially produced cheese. If the final product is tasty then this is not a problem and in fact makes it more interesting. 

Stilton in the making, using a home made press

After pressing but before maturing.
About 4" x 3" in dimension

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Sheep Don't You Know the Road

Lambing continues. One breech delivery that was not progressing and which needed untangling internally before pulling the single lamb out. The lamb seemed fine once it got its breath. Other than this the other deliveries have gone smoothly. So far 8 lambs from 5 ewes; three more to go. The sheep seem to know what they are doing.

Thursday 5 March 2020

Lambing 2020 off to a good start

The first of this year's lambs arrived yesterday evening. None of the ewes appeared to be in labour as darkness fell but when I went to check on them around 9pm there were two twin ram lambs standing together in the middle of the barn with ewes looking on. It was easy to spot who the mother was and the three of them were penned up together so that they could get on with bonding. 

The mother had already cleaned them up and the afterbirth had also been fully delivered. Not much for me to do other than spray iodine on their navels, checking each of the two ewe's teats were producing milk and direct the lambs in their general direction. The ewe and two lambs had a matching number 1 sprayed on them so that eventually it will be clear which lamb belongs to which ewe when they are let out to the turnout paddock.

At this point it is best to leave them alone to work things out for themselves but to return for a periodic check to be sure that the lambs are suckling. The all-important thing is that they suckle within the first 6 hours to ensure they have their share of the high nutrient and protective antibodies of colostrum. This makes for a long night but when matters go smoothly as Nature planned, it is a reassuring feeling.  

Monday 2 March 2020

Motherly instincts

One of the new gilts we acquired last summer farrowed last night, producing a modest but healthy litter of seven piglets. Well done, too, to our young boar Alfie for his first litter.

Pigs being so large, and piglets being so small, means that generally there are few obstetric issues, certainly far less than with sheep. It makes sense, however, to keep a supervisory eye over proceedings but there is little need to intervene. This amounts to wiping any mucous and membrane from the mouth and nose of the new born piglet, snipping off most of their trailing umbilicus and giving the remainder a spray of iodine. Then point them in the direction of a teat.

It is fascinating to watch the behaviour of the sow, or in this case gilt as it was her first pregnancy. Its always slightly nerve racking looking on expecting a tiny piglet to get squashed. 

With first timers, from my observations, there is an initial seeming perplexity on the part of the pig when a piglet arrives and is scrambling around her legs. After a few more arrivals mum appears to realise they she has some responsibility for  these miniature pigs and begins to take ownership.

She soon lies on her side to allow them to suckle whilst delivering the rest of the litter, although she will stand up at intermittent intervals. This is often after a new piglet is delivered and the action of standing up breaks the umbilical chord. Then comes the process of lying down again with her growing brood milling around her feet.

One of the most remarkable things is how the new mother deploys a technique to avoid crushing her off-spring. First she makes a rapid low grunting call to signal to the litter. Then she leans against the farrowing house wall and slowly slides her back down, lowering herself to the ground. As she does so the piglets gradually retreat backwards out of the way of her great bulk. Mum then shuffles herself over a bit more so that her teats are exposed and the piglets scramble to latch on. 

Normally when you feed a pig they are entirely focused on consumption and focus completely on this task until all the food is gone; there is no interrupting them. This morning when she came for her food her litter was behind her and after every few mouthfuls she return to her litter to check on them before resuming her feeding.

New born piglets have only one aim: to search out for a teat a suck on it as if their life depends on it. In fact it does. If you move them aside, for example under a heat lamp, they are immediately determined to get back to mum to suckle. 

Its best not to handle the piglets too much at this stage in any case as they will let out a high pitch squeal which will immediately alarm mum and her protective instincts are triggered. Best let her get on with it if there are no problems.

All of this and much more comes naturally to the new mother. This is both amazing and, for me, exceedingly helpful.

The scramble. The eldest of these piglets
 its just 
a couple of hours.