Sunday 31 October 2021

A flower border from seed

Yesterday I described a new border in which 95% of the plants were bought seeds sown in March of this year and reached full flower by the summer. None of the plants were particularly unusual and are commonly available. This didn't matter because it was the overall effect that was important. 

There were two established perennials that were planted and could be considered feature plants. These were bold leaved hostas. I sowed some perennials which you can expect to flower in their first summer. This included verbena bonariensis and rudbeckia goldstrum.  I planted a hardy fuchsia, fuchsia genii for its golden leaves and red and purple flowers. Some summer flowering bulbs were also added. These included the deep red crocosmia lucifer, the red and white gladioli belinda which grows  to 2 feet and has relatively small flowers. 

One problem if you are sowing annuals with a colour scheme in mind is that many annuals are packed as mixed varieties. That's alright if the aim is to produce a 'riot of colour' but not if blocks of colour are required. This means searching out specific named varieties - a bit more expensive but worth searching for. Here is an incomplete list:-

Clarkia elegans
Cosmos 'gazebo red'
Cosmos 'sonata white'
chrysanthemum 'eastern star'
Calendula nova
Zinnia 'purple prince'
Nasturtium peach melba
Nasturtium 'india red'
Ageratum 'blue ball'
Marigold 'kees orange'
Nicotiana sylvestris
Antirrhinum 'appleblossom'
Antirrhinum 'chantilly white'
Ricinus Gibsonii

Nicotiana sylvestris, 4' high and in full
flower in July having been sown in March

Saturday 30 October 2021

Food for the soul

Our primary motivation and key priority on the smallholding is to produce as much of our own food as we can and we go some way in achieving this. However, instrumental tasks are not all; life needs to include an aesthetic dimension. One way of achieving this here is to give more focus on ornamental gardening which after all was my original route in to horticultural endeavours.

I've been thinking about creating a long border in the grass area at the back of our house for a while. I had in mind a mainly herbaceous border of perennials with few if any shrubs. A long flowering season, but reaching a peak in July and August and into September. I did not want to obscure the seasonal view of the fields beyond as viewed from the sitting room, so nothing much more than four or so feet in height. I envisaged a colour scheme made famous by that great gardener of the late 19th and early 20th century Gertrude Jekyll. She wrote a whole book on Colour in the Garden but broadly speaking advocated a border commencing with white and other 'cool' colours moving into various pastel shades and culminating in the middle of the border with 'hot' colours of orange and red and then back to pastel shades and cool colours. These were not strict rules to be followed  because occasionally breaking the rules increases the overall impact. It is also serves as a useful framework to thinking about plant selection and placement.

In the event I didn't quite achieve the colour scheme effect this year but will work on this more for next year. The border I created is 60 feet long and 6 feet deep and it would be quite expensive to plant up a space this large with perennials in one go. The solution was to grow virtually everything from seed. There were some perennials that I sowed which flowered in their first season. I also had a small number of perennials that I had been saving for the occasion, including two large hostas that had outgrown their pots. Nearly all the other plant were annuals which won't survive the winter. The annuals were sown in March and by mid summer were in full flower. The advantage of this was that I was able to achieve a full border in the first year, as well as being very cost effective. With the right choice of annuals you can achieve a similar effect to herbaceous perennials and avoid an institutional bedding plant effect. As time goes by I will add more perennials but annuals will always have a place. There are also one or two shrubs which can be treated like perennials. That is they can be cut right back in the winter and re-grow and flower in the summer. In this way they can be kept to a desired size and not outgrow their space. Hardy fuchsias work well with this approach. 

Overall, I was pleased with the result for the first year. In fact from cutting the first turf to reaching full flower took only about six months. I'll highlight some of the plants in another post, but for now here are some pictures.

The space in question in January 2021.
This was an area of rough grass just
beyond a patio and at a lower level.

February 2021. Turf removed and
the beds dug over. On the right is a
narrow bed along which supports 
were added for climbing plants. This 
had the additional function of forming
a divider to a small orchard to the right.

July 2021. Supports are in place for
climbers on the right. They are
alternating varieties of clematis and
climbing roses and will take longer to establish.

A closer view of the main border in July 2021

Friday 29 October 2021

Pig movements

Our British Saddleback pigs were all put in together and moved on to a rested paddock today. We have two sows and a boar at present. They will probably stay like this over winter but if all the three pig paddocks become water-logged, as has been the case for the last two winters, we now have space to bring them indoors until it dries out again. Hopefully we won't have to resort to this as Saddlebacks much prefer to be free-ranging and rooting about the soil. All being well one of the sows, who has been with the boar for a few weeks, will be in-pig and can be brought into the farrowing house when the time arrives in the new Year.

Thursday 28 October 2021

Liquid fertiliser


Lots of small jobs around the smallholding completed today. One of which was bottling up liquid manure for next year. I have a large lidded container in which I soak a pillowcase, like a giant teabag, containing a mixture of manure and comfrey leaves. This has been stewing since the Spring. I can retrieve the the bag as it is tied up with a length of baler twine which is fixed to a post adjacent to the container. 

I was able to fill eight 2 litre milk containers full. When it is used as a liquid fertilizer I dilute it roughly 1:10. It is obviously not scientifically formulated but I am sure makes a useful dietary supplement for greenhouse crops, container grown plants and, this summer, feeding a lawn. Its also a sustainable product re-circulating components from the holding. And its free.

I gave the lettuces (Little Gem) and spinach leaves growing in the greenhouse for winter harvesting a feed while I was at it too.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Crown Prince

 ...Speaking of pumpkins, we did not have a very good crop of gourds this year. I think this was partly due to the prolonged cold Spring, with frosts right into late May, followed by a period of dry weather. The late sowed gourds did not get away very well. We ended up with only a small number to harvest.

I normally just grow butternut squash, one variety of pumpkin and sometimes a mixture of ornamental smaller gourds for indoor decoration. Pumpkins are generally an easy crop to grow and there are plentiful varieties to choose from. They come in many shapes, sizes and colours. The big, carve-able orange varieties are readily available in October for Halloween if you are that way inclined as we witnessed yesterday. Where I am, betwixt the US airbases of Mildenhall and Lakenheath, many are indeed that way inclined. 

The one variety of pumpkin I grow is 'Crown Prince'. This is a large variety which has a distinctive pale blue-grey skin with a deep orange flesh. This contrast makes it doubly attractive in appearance. The flesh is also quite dense which contributes to its commendable cooking properties, holding its shaped well when baked. ‘Crown Prince’ is notably sweet in taste. 

‘Crown Prince’ can grow to 4-5 kg (8- 11 lbs) or more. It also has the virtue of storing very well. Given their size this is a useful quality to have since one will go a long way. Today we made soup from it which was vey tasty indeed.


Monday 25 October 2021

Choosing a pumpkin

My daughter and her two children are with us visiting from Galway, our first face-to-face contact since pre-pandemic. Today we visited the annual Pumpkin Patch event held by a neighbouring farmer. A 20 acre field full of mostly orange pumpkins and this is the one 4 year old Caiomhe (a bright young thing) decided to choose.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Bees flying

After a few days when the temperature had dropped, it picked up again today and the sun shone for several hours. This brought the bees out and I saw quite a few flying today. I've been feeding mine the last couple of weeks. For the bees out today the foraging opportunities are increasingly limited although ivy is still flowering and creating a buzz as you walk by.

Saturday 23 October 2021

Gate posts

Daughter Lucy and D-in-L Amy visiting this weekend so a perfect opportunity to press on and replace a rotten gate post. A few month's ago some of the posts that carry our electricity supply cables were replaced and the chap in charge was happy to leave the old posts for me. Our neighbouring farmer, who also bagged one, helped carry them into our property with his tractor. 

One of the posts I chained sawed into 8' lengths. I have already used one for a replacement gate post for a field gate. Today a second one was utilised in the same way. This involved digging a 3' 6" deep hole. I have had to use some cement because our soil is so sandy. Because they are old 'telegraph' poles they are soaked in creosote or oil and so I doubt rotting off will be a problem in the future.

The cut down telegraph pole in place with Lucy
looking on. You can see how sandy our sub-soil 
from the heap behind.

Friday 22 October 2021

More bulbs

I planted forty Japanese onion sets individually in 3" pots today to get them started. They will stay in a cold frame for a while and I'll plant them out when they have put on some growth. In the Spring more onions will follow. The aim is to produce enough onions (which we use a lot of) to see us through a whole year. Unless things go terribly wrong we are normally able to achieve this. One advantage of starting them in pots is that it overcomes the problem of birds pulling out the newly planted sets invariably resulting in gap in the rows.  

When I was in Wilko yesterday looking for some Hammarite paint I looked to see what bulbs they have left now that all the Halloween paraphernalia has overtaken much of the shelf space. I found some 'White Prince' tulips. I had a good spot in mind where they could go to form a bright spot in a north facing bed when they flower in late Spring. These went in today as well.

Thursday 21 October 2021

Heirloom shovel

Earlier in the year a shovel which I have been using for thirty years, and which belonged to my father for at least thirty years before that, broke. The shaft eventually gave way after much use over the years. Although I bought a replacement I still thought the old shovel was worth mending. 

As it happens, later in the year the shaft of a pitchfork snapped. This we had bought new a mere five years ago. However, it did mean a potential new handle for the shovel conveniently became available. When I had a bonfire last week I put the remains of the shovel in the fire to burn out the stump of the shaft stuck in the socket of the shovel. That worked very well. 

Today I finished the shovel's restoration. Some Hammarite for the metal shovel end and some wood preservative for the shaft, which also required a bit of re-shaping to fit snugly, and it is almost as good as new. As the replacement shaft came from a pitch fork I was also able to take advantage of the opportunity to make the shovel handle a little longer than standard to better suit my height. We are now a two-shovel household and good for another thirty years.  

Wednesday 20 October 2021

Some bulbs for Spring

There was torrential rain when I got up this morning and was doing the early morning tasks. A stiff breeze was blowing too. I was at our bottom boundary which is lined with tall, mature poplars. I heard  creaking and cracking sounds that lasted 5-10 seconds and I looked to see which tree was about to topple over. In the event a huge branch, 6 inches in diameter at its thickest and about 30 feet in length, crashed to the ground from high up, a few yards in front of me. More fence mending added to the list. 

Later in the day, the wind settled down and from time to time the sun came out. In fact the temperatures have been very mild the last few days and I saw bees flying today. It was an opportunity to plant some bulbs. I have established a new flower bed (more on this another time) and also a dividing line of climbing plants - clematis and climbing roses alternating for about a 40 foot stretch in a 2 foot wide strip. It was along here that the bulbs (tulips and daffodils) were planted. They had been ordered from Marshalls who were having a sale and arrived the day before.

The daffodils are Narcissus 'February Gold'. These are commonly available and I chose them because they are not too big and blousy but a little more refined than the ubiquitous King Alfred-types. They also flower quite early as their name implies. Having said that, these days all daffodils seem to flower very early. 

The tulips are in two shades of pink: Tulipa 'Don Quichotte' and Tulipa 'Lasting Love'. They should go well with the early flowering Clematis montana 'Rubens'. By the time they come into flower the undoubted delights of the bright yellows of early spring begin to wear off a bit.   

I also received some bulbs of Allium 'Summer Drummer'  which are intended for the new border. But this needs some winter clearing and tidying up first before they are planted so I potted them up individually and put them in a cold frame until I'm ready for them. 

N. February Gold'

T. 'Don Quichotte'

T. 'Lasting Love'

Tuesday 19 October 2021

Apple slices

I mentioned a couple of days ago that some of our apple harvest will be dried to produce fruity snacks or for something to add to the breakfast porridge. I suppose drying can be achieved on a very low oven but we have a dehydrator designed to do the job. This simply blows warm air through whatever you choose to utilise it for. It is easy, effective and very low energy. 

Lots of things can be dehydrated this way as a means of food preserving. We have only used it for various fruit. It works particularly well in our experience with plums (alas, virtually no harvest this year along with other stone fruit and nuts).

Apart from a means of storing a harvest for some considerable time, dehydration has the effect of producing a more concentrated flavour. Here is our first batch of apple slices, made with a dusting of cinnamon. The next batch is underway.


Monday 18 October 2021

Rams join the ewes today

Today was the day the rams are put in with the ewes. First all the ewes were rounded up into the barn. This was followed by a bit of wrestling to check their feet and give their hooves a trim. Then the sheep were sorted out into their respective grazing groups. 

Separate areas also had to be found for the two ewe lambs we are keeping for future breeding but are not ready to tup this year. And also for three intact ram lambs whose futures are less certain but at least two of whom are capable of tupping now. (The third is the rather diminutive orphan twin lamb whose mother rejected him at birth).

One hundred and forty-five days from today, give or take a few days, lambing should commence - that means from mid-March 2022 - so long as the rams perform as expected.

I did a bit of nettle strimming and general tidying up around the edges in some of the grazing areas, particularly in one of the fields that we are going to use as our turn out paddock when the new lambs arrive. The early autumn rain and mild temperatures have seen a flush of new grass in a field that has been vacant for the last six weeks or so and I want to reserve it and keep it rested from the sheep over winter for this purpose.

Here is a couple of photographs of the two ewe lambs who have to wait another year for their turn. They were born in March of this year and have grown pretty well and look to be good examples of Wiltshire Horn sheep.

Sunday 17 October 2021

Apples all picked

Our apple crop has been quite modest this year. Of the mature trees, the Laxton's Fortune (a smallish eater) did very well. But the Bramley and the James Grieve had very little to show for themselves. Today I picked all the remaining Blenheim Orange, one of our favourites, which fruited moderately well. There have not been enough apples to juice this year but we will have plenty to dehydrate to produce a very palatable snack as well as to continue to eat fresh for a while.

Blenheim Orange, would probably not make the 
grade for supermarkets but, in my view, one of the
tastiest of apples: very crisp, juicy and on the sharp side.

We have a number of other apple and pear trees that have been more recently planted but are not established enough to fruit in any quantity yet. The young Gala apple tree did, however, produce its first two apples this summer. They looked flawless on the tree and I was able to keep a check on them every day as I went about the daily tasks, waiting for the time when they were ripe for picking. One afternoon one of them was suddenly missing leaving a solitary apple. As we did not actually witness the apple being taken I would not name names of course. But we have our private suspicions.

Spice, our Golden Retriever, relaxing
(not far from the Gala apple tree).

Saturday 16 October 2021

A new ram

One of the reasons for no longer needing the services of Jacob our wether, of whom I wrote about yesterday, is that a few weeks ago we acquired a new ram, Barnabas. We have retained our established ram Abraham so they will be keeping each other company. We needed new blood in the flock as the younger ewes we have retained and grown on for breeding are Abraham's daughters. Our size of flock doesn't really warrant keeping two working rams. However, Abraham still has several more years left in him and Barnabas is as yet 'unproven'. 

Barnabas is a shearling ram, which is to say he has not reached the age for his first shearing, i.e. he was born in the spring of 2020 so is 18 months old. Ordinarily his first shearing would be next year. I say "ordinarily" because the breed of sheep we keep is Wiltshire Horn, noted for their self-shedding characteristic and their short fleece. He will shed this next summer.

Barnabas has settled in well and there has been no argy-bargy between the two rams. They currently also have some ram lambs with them, including the twin lamb who had been rejected by his mother when he was born last March. The latter is unfazed by the others who are all much bigger.

The rams and the ewes were in adjacent fields towards the end of the summer and Barnabas took it upon himself to jump the fence to join them. Luckily we were out and about at the time and spotted this incursion and brought him back straight away. I moved the rams to another field out of sight of the ewes. Barnabas will, however, have his opportunity any day now though.

Friday 15 October 2021

Mutton day

Although we had fish for dinner today (not home produced) it was still very much a meat day. We sent our wether off last week and this afternoon I went to collect it from our butcher. The wether, or castrated male sheep, acted as a companion to our ram so that at the times when the latter was separated from the ewes he would not be alone. We bred him about five years ago but it was now time for him to move on. 

You will be hard pressed to find mutton in a high street butcher, and of course impossible from supermarkets, which is a shame because it is a very tasty meat. Despite it being once regarded as one of the poorer cuts, now it seems to be available only from speciality outlets, and rather expensive too. The ideal age for mutton is usually regarded as about 3-4 years of age. As our wether was bit older than that we decided not to have him jointed but for diced mutton and minced mutton instead. 

I often cook mutton curry but curry is not the only option and it is as versatile as any other meat. And just as tender - there's no need to stew it for hours on end. 

Thursday 14 October 2021

Poplar leaf mould

As the task of clearing the vegetable plots continues I needed to find some more composting space to start a new compost heap. I have seven compost bays, each measuring about 5 or 6 feet square and they were all occupied. I emptied one of these that had just leaf mould in it. These were leaves collected up last autumn.

The books generally state that it takes two years for leaves to decompose to produce leaf mould, which is a highly valued soil conditioner. In practice I think the length of time needed depends on the leaves collected. In my case the leaves were almost entirely poplar tree leaves, from the trees that line one of our boundaries. Poplar leaves decompose relatively quickly, unlike say, oak leaves or beech leaves. This is because of the amount of lignin found in the leaves. Lignin is a polymer found in the cell walls of plants and adds structure and stiffness to the cells. Leaves with higher levels of lignin tend to be thicker and shiny.  The relatively flimsy poplar leaves have low levels of lignin so rot down more easily. You probably would need at least two years for oak leaves to decompose. 

My poplar leaves leaf mould was ready to go within the year. I had a decent size heap available once I emptied the compost bay and this will be spread over part of the vegetable bed, along with a lot more compost, during the autumn.

Wednesday 13 October 2021

Pig paddocks and spring garden

The main task today was to rotovate two of the pig paddock which are currently vacant. The last two winters have been decidedly wet and the likelihood is this will become more common. For some weeks at a time during the winter our pig paddocks have been under standing water, despite our sandy soil. Rotovating them is intended to help improve the drainage.

I also found time to plant a magnolia. For about three years lengthy sections of a storm-felled tree have been sitting in a pile in our front drive. They were too big to saw up for fire wood. Earlier in the year I got round to manhandling them to form a raised bed in one corner of the drive. The bed is shaped like a grand piano and is 10 feet wide at the front. I filled it with soil excavated from a pond I installed last summer. It was then mulched with a thick layer of wood chips I had to hand. Over the summer, as the soil settled, I topped up the bed with more woodchips. The result is that the soil underneath is rich in humous, deal for plants like magnolias.

The magnolia 'Fairy Cream' is the first plant to go in. I have some hellebores ready to plant which I have grown on for the last two years from self-seeded seedlings collected from a relative's garden. I'll add some bulbs too to create a predominantly early spring-flowering bed. 

Magnolia 'Fairy Cream' is new to me. It is evergreen and relatively compact, growing up to 2mx2m. The flowers look very impressive from the images I have seen. Something to look forward to.

I've included this photo just for the sunbeam


Tuesday 12 October 2021

Another gate

I called into Wickes today to see if I could find a ready-made wooden gate that was reasonably robust. I am making some alterations to one of the pig paddocks which includes a new access point. I was hoping to save a bit of time and effort. Wickes did have some gates of the right dimensions but they were £60 each. I came out empty-handed.

Back home I resorted to a more smallholderly solution, resigning myself to dismantling a pallet to produce the required timber. It didn't take as long as I thought and I was able to make up and fit the required gate during the afternoon. Luckily I also had some spare field gate hinges. The only cost was some screws.


A gate made up from pallet wood, measuring  
3'6" wide x 3" high

Monday 11 October 2021


I've not had a lot of success growing celeriac; they fail to bulb up. This year is better, although they are still a fairly modest size. The first two I picked today, pictured below, are about the size of tennis balls. They have the advantage of being able to sit in the ground over winter, and like parsnips, the taste is reputedly enhanced after being subject to frost.

For dinner I simply cooked the celeriac as mash. There are lots of complicated looking recipes for celeriac to be found online and like many workaday vegetables, when 'discovered' by chefs, can be subject to gentrification potentially putting a recipe out of reach of the average kitchen (we're clean out of truffle butter at the moment). Later in the week I will make remoulade made from raw grated celeriac and looks simple enough.

Sunday 10 October 2021


I visited a smallholding not far from us to look at how they manage their dairy goats, along with a few other smallholders. I like the idea of meeting much of our own dairy needs but we don't have enough land for cows. Just a thought and probably won't go beyond that, but interesting conversation all the same. These were British Alpines which are frequently recommended for their milk production qualities and whose milk is particularly good for for cheese-making.

Saturday 9 October 2021

Self-seeded lavender

The lavender photographed today and pictured below has been in flower continuously since the end of June which is pretty good going. What is particularly interesting about this plant is that it is self-seeded. I have grown lavender from cuttings before and I have grown them from seed from a bought packet. More often than not I have planted  mature lavender plants from a garden centre. I've not come across a self-seeded lavender before. 

I spotted the newly emerged growth back in March or April. It had self-seeded in some shingle that edged this bit of the patio. Beneath the shingle is concrete. Yet the lavender has been able to draw sufficient nutrient to not only grow but to flourish. This is despite the summer heatwave and prolonged dry spell we experienced. 

When I first noticed the lavender I was tempted to pot it up to grow on to plant in a border. I am glad I resisted this temptation and the decision to leave it to its own devices because it has done rather better than many border-planted lavenders that have been mollycoddled along. This one I have not fed, watered or otherwise interfered with. All I have done is admire it.

Friday 8 October 2021

Little Gem and winter harvests

Today I planted out in the greenhouse border Little Gem lettuce which I sowed a three weeks ago. They join spinach and pak choi, also recently planted out. Under the protection of the greenhouse, together they will provide us with fresh green leaves through the winter from November to March. I pick a few leaves from several plants as needed and fresh leaves will grow to replace them. They do remarkably well even in the cold of winter. There are some winter varieties of lettuce but I find Little Gem quite hardy, probably because it is compact and has quite robust leaves. The pak choi and spinach are also both reliable crops for growing and harvesting over the winter. In March both will insist on flowering and run out of steam. But by then we have early spring crops coming through.

Thursday 7 October 2021

Easy cheese

In between odd jobs today I finished off a cheese I had put into a press two days ago. Its an easy to make cheese that I do quite often, because its easy. Its a semi-hard cheese (or semi-soft, depending how you look at it). This time I added chopped cranberries for added zing. It does not have the depth of flavour that more sophisticated cheeses have, but for everyday wear its perfectly fine. And you can sample it as soon as it is made, which I did. It went very well with Janet's toasted sourdough bread for lunch.

Wednesday 6 October 2021


... Ah now, where was I? Oh yes...

Today I continued clearing the vegetable plots including the spent sweetcorn, or maize. We had a bumper crop this year, even though I sowed it later than usual. I couldn't get hold of the variety called 'Lark' and grew 'Goldcrest' instead which I had not grown before. I sowed them in modules and planted them out when they were about 4 inches high. 100% germination too. They took off quickly once in the ground and the plants grew to 8 feet in height. 

I planted out 56 plants in a block, each plant one foot apart in either direction. That many plants in just a four foot wide section of the plot. Nearly every plant produced two bright yellow cobs which were very sweet indeed. We were having one each most days, cooked more or less as soon as they were picked to retain the sweetness. Simply boiled for about 20 minutes. No salt nor butter, just the cob. We had them after dinner, where dessert normally goes (we rarely have dessert after dinner). Visitors went away with some too.

No more freshly picked sweetcorn until next summer. It was time to clear away the plants. Most of the corn seen in fields at this time of the year are combined for silage to feed cattle over the winter, or for bio-fuel. Or perhaps, as with the farmer up the road, a maize maze - part of his annual pumpkin patch event. Mine were destined for the compost heap. I chop up each of the stems into 3 inch lengths with secateurs before adding to the compost. (That's 56 plants at 8 feet in length, cut into 3 inch segments = 1792 secateur cuts, should you be interested). It only took an hour or so. Nothing new in mindfulness. The few missed cobs, past eating, were given to the chickens.

The stumps of the sweetcorn plants. Our ram
was looking on while I worked.