Wednesday 29 April 2020

Corvid not Covid

On my way back from feeding the orphan lamb today I saw this young crow that looked a bit lost and maybe is an orphan too. It did not flinch even when I went up close. Unfortunately, if it survives, it is going to be a potential nuisance. On several occasions in the past we have had chicks, ducklings and even fully grown hens taken or picked clean to the bones by crows. Lambs are at risk at this time of year too.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Potting compost conundrum

With the Covid-19 lockdown I've found it difficult to get hold of sowing and potting compost. My pre-lockdown supplies have been used up. Because I mostly sow in modules and trays and then pot on rather than  sow direct I tend to get through a fair amount of compost. And of course now is peak time for propogation.

The garden centres and nurseries are all closed. The supermarkets I've have been to in recent weeks, on the odd occasion I have done a bit of shopping, are not selling it, or it is otherwise snapped up, perhaps by the same people who buy up all the flour. I quite often get compost from Lidl because it is cheap and also peat-free. I'm not sure if they had any, but there was a monumental queue to get in when I went by the other day and I couldn't bear the thought of more of my life slipping away if I joined it. It would also warrant thinking up some 'necessities' to buy which I had just purchased elsewhere. So for practical, moral and life affirming reasons, and needless to say, the health of the nation, I carried on home. 

Consequently I resolved to make my own potting compost. I have done so before but this time it was not a self-sufficient nicety but something that had become more or less essential. For the first time ever I welcomed the sight of some fresh mole hills - about 4 or 5. I scooped up enough to fill a wheelbarrow. Moles do an amazing job of sifting the topsoil to leave a neat heap with a nice, even crumb size. The next stop was my 'special reserve' compost made in the green composting bins. This is well rotted and weed seed free. I  sieved it to remove lumpy bits and to produce a finer texture and then mixed with some of the mole hill soil.

For the potting compost I used a 1-4 mix of molehill soil to compost. The important thing for potting compost is that it is both free-draining and at the same time is able to hold some mositure. Young seedlings or plants easily rot off if the compost is too wet and claggy. As soon as they have established themselves with a good root system they will be planted out.

For the sowing compost I used a 1-3 soil to compost mix. Sowing  compost does not need to be nutrient rich as most of the nutrients a germinating seed requires is in the seed itself. What is more important is for the sowing compost to be sufficiently fine-textured so that small seeds remain in close contact with the sowing medium. This is more readily achieved with a higher soil content. Once the seeds have geminated they can be pricked out or potted on to to a richer mix when the first true leaves are produced. I'll see how it goes and make adjustments if needed for future mixes.

I now have a supply of home made sowing and potting compost that will keep me going for a while. I am pleased with the results and my thoughts have already turned to next year and ways of escalating home production of potting compost significantly.

A sample of the home produced sieved compost mixed with
a bit of molehill soil for potting compost.

Friday 17 April 2020

Weather wishes

Our Blenheim Orange, the most mature of our apple trees, is now in full bloom. We wish to avoid hard frosts right now. Or any very windy conditions. The apple and pear crops were poor in 2019 and we look for this year to make amends. 

With the sheep rotating around the grazing fields, after our so far dry spring, we wish for some steady rain. If that can be repeated so that there is a good soaking about once every ten days, that will be most welcome. And also for the temperatures to be in the high teens or low twenties, and not fall much below 10 degrees centigrade overnight. This will help enormously with the grass re-growth as well as the crops gradually filling up the vegetable plots. 

Always looking forward. How quickly the bewailing of the constant winter rain has been forgotten. In the event we take what comes.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Cries of a lamb

Unless you have tendencies towards a psychopathic personality disorder or some other condition that inhibits feelings of empathy you are sure to agree that that there are few things more cute than a young lamb. In a similar vein the cries of a lamb, even more so a solitary orphan lamb, can pull on the heart strings.

When a friend called in a few weeks ago for eggs (she is a mother of three young children) she heard the plaintive bleating of our orphaned lamb which, being only a few days old, was being kept in our utlity room. She had that uneasy agitation women often report experiencing (and perhaps men too) at the sound of a crying baby. 

The lamb is now out in the field with the other lambs and ewes but is being bottle fed. The trouble is that when she catches sight of you she calls out continuously. We try to take a different route to avoid this, not unlike creeping up and down stairs when the children were babies and had finally settled to sleep.

If you keep livestock you get to know the various types of calls they make and can usually dicipher whether it is in distress and warrants immediate investigation or not. For example, the cry of a lamb that has temporarily lost sight of its mother compared to a lamb that has got itself stuck in the stock fencing. 

Today the orphan lamb was crying out as we were doing jobs outside. It was more attention seeking (understandable perhaps in a baby)  than a sign of being in difficulties. For Janet, though, it evoked that agitated feeling that persisted until it became unbearable. Not from irritation but from a strong maternal response. "It feels like she is going to make me leak milk" she said as she 'threw in the trowel' and retreated indoors. (I didn't say anything to this but, even though I'm no Zacharias, I momentarily pondered these words in my heart).

The lamb is eating more grass now so we are reducing the number of bottle feeds. It looks healthy and strong so it should grow into a fine ewe.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Seasonal diet

The very first spears of the season. Asparagus will now regularly feature in our diet for at least the next six weeks. After that we'll wait again until 2021. From West Suffolk, not Peru.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Fresh pillow case

In a few weeks time the greenhouse will be filling up with fast growing, high yielding fruiting vegetable plants such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Container grown plants will also be springing to life. Both will benefit from regular feeding to get the best from them.

The conventional solution is tomato feed but for those who like to adopt a more self-sufficient and 'lighter earth' touch, making your own manure tea is the long established route.

Having needed to repair a leak in the container I use, I took the opportunity to refresh my set up. So this morning I filled a fresh pillow case (the selection of which had been fully approved) with some newly deposited sheep manure. Because the lactating ewes are currently being fed a coarse feed supplement their poo is not yet in the form of Maltesers but rather larger lumps which are ideal for the purpose. Generous bunches of nettles were also added. Nettles are high in nitrogen and their roots delve quite deep, drawing up minerals and other sub-soil nurients. The comfrey plants, grown for the purpose, have not yet leafed up, so they will be used later in the season. 

The bag was tied up and left to soak in a large lidded container of water. Because I happen to have some around, a couple of litres of pig uirne was also added to the mix, but this is by no means essential.

In a few weeks I'll fill some empty milk cartons with the brew and add about 1:10 ratio to a watering can of water to provide a weekly feed for those plants that would benefit.

It is not a case of 'the more the merrier', though, because for some fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers it is possible to overfeed with too much nitrogen and the outcome is leafy growth at the expense of fruit formation. This is not so much of an issue for plants such a hostas, grown for their foliage. 

This resulting liquid fertiliser is not, of course, scientifically fomulated as you would get from shop bought fertiliser. But then the uptake of nutrients, whatever it states on the bottle, will vary according to the growing conditions the plant finds itself in.  The main thing is that the 'Big Three' nutrients (NPK) are available to supply the plant: nitrogen (for leafy growth); phosphorus (for fruit formation); and potassium for plant processes, in particular photosynthesis. Plant physiologists might not agree, but for those growing their own this is quite adequate and I have no complaints about my yields or the quality of produce.

Some feel that growing plants 'hard' (that is a judicious and conservative approach to feeding and watering) results in more flavoursome fruit. I'd agree with that. That dosen't mean starving them, however. Its the difference between the ubiquitous imported Spanish greenhouse tomatoes and home grown ones. If you have tried both you will know what I mean. 

Pillow case and contents put to soak

Lid shut - it will be needed


Monday 13 April 2020

The not so common King Edward

The first earlies and second earlies are already in, and today I started planting out the maincrop. We still have 2019 potatoes in storage and they should see us through until this year's start being  harvested. Its worth noting that the variety that has stored best (out of several types I grew last year) is the King Edward and they remain in excellent condition. 

The King Edward is, of course, a famous variety and if you asked riders of the Clapham omnibus to name a potato variety the chances are they would name this one. These days they are far less likely to be eating them, however. Despite their commendable culinary attributes they are not a particularly high yielding potato so they are not the variety favoured by farmers. Or should I say supermarkets?

Most consumers will get their potatoes from the supermarket with whom farmers have contracts. The table below, published by AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board), shows the top ten most widely planted potatoes in Great Britain in 2019. (It would be interesting to compare a similar list for amatuer and other small scale growers).

It seems odd that the once almost obiquitous King Edward is becoming a 'speciality' variety which, if you don't grow them yourself, you might have to search out.

Their kitchen-worthiness and their good storage charcteristics are reasons why I will grow King Edwards again this year. I normally grow at least one other maincrop and this year I will be growing one I've not tried before - Pink Gypsey - as well as Pink Fir Apple.

I'm always interested in the origins of notable fruit and vegetable varieties. If you had assumed that the King Edward, which dates from around 1902, was named after King Edward VII you would be correct. Royal approval for the name was sought and was forthcoming.

In the The History and Social Influence of the Potato by Redliffe N. Salaman (1949),  the following information is provided about the origins of the King Edward:-

"The variety 'King Edward VII', whose parentage is unknown, was raised by a gardener in Northumberland who called his seedling 'Fellside Hero'. From Northumberland it passed into the possession of a grower in Snaith, Yorkshire, who brought it to the notice of a Manchester potato merchant. The latter could make no immediate use of it and gave his tubers to Mr J. Butler of Scotter [in Lincolnshire], who eventually bought all the stocks that were in the hands of the Yorkshire grower. Mr Butler grew on, until he had 50 acres of the variety in hand. On the advice of a Mr Paxton, potato merchant of Manchester, he rechristened the potato 'King Edward', and placed his stocks on the market in 1910 at £12.10s. a ton. This variety is to-day the most popular in England, and commands the highest prices on account of its excellent cooking qualities. This account, which I derived from Mr Butler himself, illustrates not only the spirit of the period then drawing to an end, but the fact that the producer of potato varieties is the last to reap any reward. Bred by an amatuer, chance dictated its birth, a native flair its survival, and the juggling of names its successful debut".

King Edwards with the characteristic red blush


Monday 6 April 2020

Bee feed

With the sun out and the daytime temperatures a little warmer dandelions have opened up in large numbers. So long as they avoid the ornamental spaces they don't trouble me too much. At this time of the year they are a valuable source of nectar for bees, particularly in these arable lands where the range of forage is relatively limited. No oil seed rape is grown in these parts.

Our bees have become very active in the last few days and it is reassuring seeing them busy flying about the hives as I am aware of people I know losing colonies, possibly because of the unduly wet winter. Cold, bees can cope with but not damp.  

The bees have been fed fondant over the winter which they have gradually nibbled away at. This week I changed to a syrup solution to tide them over until they re-build their reserves during the spring. 

The hive stand for one of the hives was bowing in the middle causing the hive to be askew. This is not helpful because it means the frames will be hanging at the wrong angle too in the boxes and are more likely to become glued together. There is also the risk of the whole thing collapsing later in the summer with the weight of honey in the supers. So early one frosty morning, before the bees became active, I quickly replaced the stand with another that was placed ready to use. When I lifted the hive it was much lighter than I expected which indicated that the honey reserves must be quite depleted. All the more reason to provide some supplementary feeding.

We have some warm days forecast for this week so this will provide an opportunity to do the first full inspection of the year. 

Saturday 4 April 2020

Lamb update

Seven of our breeding ewes have lambed so far with 10 lambs between them. There is one more ewe to go and although she looks pregnant she seems some way off giving birth. She must have played hard-to-get when the ram was in with them last autumn.

One lamb I had to deliver was breech and legs all-a-tangle. Sadly the ewe, which was our oldest in the flock, did not survive beyond the next day having needed to be put to sleep by the vet. This left us with an orphan ewe lamb which requires bottle feeding four times per day. We kept it in our utility room for the first week as the overnight temperatures were below freezing most days and she had no mother to keep her warm. She is out in the field with all the others now but follows me around close on my heels if I am out there with them.

Today the sun is out and temperatures are beginning to feel more spring-like at last, and right now the ewes and their lambs are dotted around in their family groups. Later this afternoon the lambs will have a burst of energy and run and jump around together in a big group. I'm hoping our orphan lamb will begin to join in too.

Bottle fed four times a day
Some of the lambs out in the sun with their mothers
The orphan spotted me across the vegetable plot and started
calling out to me. I was on my way to feed her in any case.