Saturday 27 November 2021

Moving the sheep

With an eye on today's wether forecast I decided to move the sheep around first thing this morning. At first light it was frosty but still and dry. I amalgamated the small sub-groups of sheep into two: ewes in one field and rams in another. Our two breeding rams have been with the ewes for five weeks and hopefully have done what is expected of them. We might scan them otherwise we will have to wait until the end of March/beginning of April to find out. The two rams were joined by our three remaining ram lambs, whilst the adult ewes were joined by two ewe lambs who will be kept for future breeding.

The process of sorting the flock involved a number of different manoeuvres to ensure that everyone ended up in the correct location and without any chasing around or inappropriate interest by any of the rams with the ewe lambs who are not intended for breeding this year. It also meant dismantling a temporary stretch of electric fencing and collecting up and storing the sheep hurdles. All went smoothly and the task was complete by 9am.

About 10am the expected change in the weather arrived - the worst sort of weather for being outdoors: very cold, very windy and continuous rain for the rest of the day. Fortunately for us, unpleasant as the weather was, we avoided the destructive winds of Storm Arwen that those in the North and in Scotland have experienced today.

Wiltshire Horn ewes, heads down
early this morning

Wednesday 24 November 2021

The Great Confinement

The Government have this evening announced the legal requirement to house all captive birds from 00:01 on 29th November. This is in addition to a range of biosecurity requirements already in place. Given the increasing frequency of recorded cases each day of Avian 'Flu (a notifiable disease) this has come as no surprise. The nearest case to where we are, so far, is Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, about 50 miles away.  

In anticipation of today's announcement I have been spending the last few days preparing. The main task has been to put in place a temporary structure for the ducks. A couple of weeks ago I bought a roll of scaffolding mesh to provide a 'roof' over their run area. This is complete and the only question is whether it can stand a heavy fall of snow should we have one. 

It meets the requirement to contain the birds but also to prevent any wild birds from having any contact with them. Migratory birds and gulls are the chief concern, and are the main source of transmission, but any bird is susceptible. 

The chickens and turkeys each have their separate spaces and arrangements for their confinement were already in place. 

Sunday 21 November 2021

The turn of spinach

We have plenty of this year's crops of vegetables stored in the freezer as well as vegetables like potatoes and onions which are stored dry, plus other crops still in the ground that can be harvested as required. This should see us through the winter okay. But it is nice to have access to fresh salad greens too. We have already had regular pickings from lettuce and pak choi from the greenhouse. Today it was the turn of spinach. I planted out in the greenhouse border about thirty plants grown from seed and these are ready to start harvesting. I pick one or two leaves from each plant at a time. This way they should keep cropping right through to March.

Friday 19 November 2021

Walnut tree leaves on parade

Our chicken run for the laying hens is quite substantial. If the hens choose to they have access to our pasture fields too, and some do. Those chickens that take the trouble to wander further afield are mostly the ones who have cottoned on to the fact that the sheep get a regular supplement of coarse feed each day and so take the opportunity to help themselves side-by-side with the sheep.

 We also have a large fenced and fully netted area, in which are situated the hen houses, which we call the 'inner run'. This is where the chickens will be confined to if a 'lockdown' becomes a requirement for avian flu prevention.  In the last couple of days several new outbreaks have been detected. My prediction is that the instruction to confine birds will be announced shortly and this will come into effect at the beginning of December. This will take us up to the beginning of April as a cut off date for free range labelling by commercial egg producers. By this time, as I suggested a couple of days ago, the hope would be that it will be possible to lift any restrictions.

Anyway, in anticipation of this, I've been putting a few more things in place in readiness. When going about this task, I took the photograph below which struck me as an interesting view of our netted area. The netted roof is made up of 10mm squares. But the fallen leaves from the overhanging walnut tree still found their way to hang in a strangely uniform manner.

Thursday 18 November 2021

Sorting out the blackberry canes

 I cut out down the blackberry canes today and tied in this year's new ones. Another winter job completed. 

Blackberry picking in late summer is an annual ritual for many. It is a pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon in the outdoors and there is a certain satisfaction in foraging food for free. Perhaps you have a favourite spot where you can usually be sure of good pickings. Blackberry plants are prodigious growers and abundant fruiters; there is bound to be somewhere to pick them not too far off.

Is it worth, therefore, growing blackberries at home? I would say yes, but only if you have growing space to spare — there are probably other berry fruits that come higher up the priority list if space is limited.

There are a number of benefits in growing your own blackberries. Modern cultivated varieties produce larger fruits, they can thrive in all but shallow chalky soils and they tolerate shade pretty well. Perhaps the biggest advantage of home grown blackberries is that there are now several thornless varieties available which can save your hands and arms from scratches and, if you train them, this makes the berries much more accessible compared to the inevitable over-stretching for a choice fruit in a wild blackberry clump. Blackberry bushes are also very attractive to bees and as they flower relatively late compared to most other berry fruits (May onwards) this is another good reason for growing them.

Although not so vigorous as wild blackberry bushes, cultivars can readily grow multiple eight feet (2.4m) stems in a summer season and can potentially take up a lot of space. One plant is probably enough for most  people, and being self-fertile a solitary plant will fruit perfectly well.

Most blackberry cultivars produce the majority of their fruit on year old canes, so the new canes thrown up in one summer need to be tied in ready for the following summer and the old canes which have fruited should be pruned out at ground level. This is what I was doing today.

As they are vigorous plants  it is important to keep on top of the pruning and training otherwise you will end up with a demoralising thicket. We have three plants, planted in a row six feet apart. The support structure consists of four sturdy 7’  posts along the row with horizontal strands of wire set 12” apart. The canes are tied to the support wires in an arc like fashion when the canes are still supple enough to bend.  Any weak canes are cut out as are any growing away from the line and finally any excess canes. As the new canes are tied in they can be evenly spaced along the support structure. I’ve used free standing posts but the same approach against a wall or fence will be fine too.

There are not too many disease or pest issues with blackberry plants. They are tough reliable plants. One thing to look out for, though, is the occasional stem growing out from the roots which have reverted to type and are extremely prickly (and so readily identifiable).  These need to be removed as soon as they are spotted otherwise they will eventually develop into a wild bramble bush. I wear thick gloves and pull them out so that they are detached at source. If they are just cut with secateurs they are likely to re-grow.

There are lots of things blackberries can be used for in the kitchen including desserts and cordials. But if you have a surplus they can be frozen on baking trays and then bagged up for future use. They retain their shape and structure very well when defrosted. We had a big crop this year so have plenty stashed away in the freezer.

Blackberries with grapes on the side

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Avian influenza update

So far there have been at least eight recorded outbreaks of the highly pathological strain of avian influenza H5N1 in the UK in the last three weeks. But in the last couple of days my phone has been pinging with text message updates from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) with increased frequency. A week or so ago Great Britain was declared a 'Prevention Zone' meaning strict bio-security precautions should be put in place by everyone who keeps captive birds, whether commercial premises or in your back yard. Where there have been outbreaks the source premises have had to have all their birds culled. Obviously a  massive concern for commercial producers. Surrounding premises within a 3k and 10k radius also have very stringent restrictions imposed.

Its early days yet and we can expect more, perhaps quite a few more, outbreaks as we head further into the winter. The likelihood, if this is the case, is that there will be a requirement to keep all birds housed. We have contingency plans for this eventuality.

There is a particular problem for businesses which market their poultry meat or their eggs as 'free range', which of course attracts a premium price. The definition of 'free range' is in practice somewhat limited (even more so under US regulations) and might surprise those who deliberately seek out free range poultry and eggs for animal welfare reasons. But that is another story. Last year, under avian influenza requirements, if birds were housed for up to 16 weeks businesses could still label their eggs free range. Beyond 16 weeks they had to be designated 'barn raised'. This 16 week period might be the determining factor as to when to declare a housing order, and indeed when it is lifted. Bear in mind that the migratory season for wild birds, which are largely responsible for spreading the virus, is generally around March when it might be possible to lift restrictions. I think it was mid-February last time.

We will have to wait and see what transpires and what any future requirements might be. As for today, all our poultry were indoors and shut up at 16:42. 

Today's rising moon taken at 16:42 hours, slightly
before the official sunset time. It is not quite a
full moon. That will be in two days time.

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Last of the walnuts (from 2020)

The last of the 2020 walnut crop has finally been consumed. They have lasted just about one year and now for while there will be no walnuts to add to my morning porridge. As someone quite content with routine I have had porridge for breakfast virtually every day for maybe thirty years. I don't tire of it, and in any case breakfast is not a meal I linger over; its not a banquet, after all. And in the past, when I had workaholic tendencies, speed was the essence first thing in the morning. 

We have a very large mature walnut tree and last year there was an enormous crop. Large enough for the squirrels to help themselves but leaving plenty for us. However, this tree, like many fruit trees but especially apples and pears, has become biennial bearing. That is, it produces a big crop followed by a very small crop. This year there were hardly any walnuts to be had. The problem is that when a fruit tree produces a very large crop it uses up much of the energy needed to produce new fruit buds for the following year's crop. After 'resting' for a year (or sometimes longer) the tree recovers and builds up the reserves to blossom and set fruit for another very big crop. 

The initial cause of biennial fruiting could be hard frosts one year when in full bloom preventing fruit from setting. The energy saved from fruit formation is channelled to forming fruit buds for the future instead. The same effect can also result because of a prolonged drought. Either way the pattern is set for future years. The risk can be reduced by taking out half the flower buds when in flower to induce a smaller crop. This takes a steely determination, though. Judicious pruning which removes a good proportion of fruiting buds is another approach. Both approaches are not viable options for our enormous walnut tree, however.  We have to let Nature take its course and accept whatever comes our way and be grateful for that, large or small.

In the meantime, instead of walnuts, I add to my morning porridge a handful of apple slices from this year's crop which we de-hydrated. They are stored handily in large airtight Kilner jars ready for use.

Monday 15 November 2021

Lingering blooms

Today was a grey, damp November day in which most of the time I was outside I was going back and forth with a wheelbarrow from the compost heaps to the vegetable plot. It seemed to get dark earlier than expected. The chickens always take themselves in at dusk and all I have to do is close the doors to their coops. Today I shut them up at 4:36pm - my practical indicator of the changing day length through the year.

In the gloom of the afternoon I noticed a shrub rose with a couple of flowers still lingering. I don't know the name of this rose but during the summer it is totally covered in small 2" blooms. But it was heartening to see just the odd one or two flowers hanging in there.


Sunday 14 November 2021

Archway to Eden

Yesterday I made a start on coppicing a mature willow tree we have. I do it every couple of years and the amount of growth that arises from the bare stump is a source of amazement. The longest stems are well over 20' in length.

Looking at the prunings today, the obvious thing to do was to construct an arch. The location I had in mind was the gap between the line of climbers, separating out the new flower garden, and a shed. This could create in time a floral entrance to our small orchard area where I also have plans for a wild flower garden. 

The nearest climber to the proposed archway is a clematis montana 'rubens', newly planted last spring but which has the vigour to climb the arch and beyond, in due course, onto the roof of the shed.

Making the arch did not involve the dexterity nor finesse of the willow weaving demonstration I attended last weekend, but it was a productive use of the willow prunings. Here is the finished archway. It didn't take long, and all for free!

The curves of the uprights were their natural growth - no bending necessary. The apex of the arch is about 8' high and the width is about 5'. The shape of the arch made me think of the Eye of the Needle but access should be considerably easier.

Friday 12 November 2021

"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf’s a flower"

I made a brief visit to Mildenhall and there was a stunning Ginko biloba tree, on the corner, just by the zebra crossing, across the road from Wilko. All its leaves were bright yellow - its transitory autumnal apparel. For most of the rest of the year the leaves are a dull green and the tree probably goes unnoticed. The big clue to its identity is the unusual fan shape of its leaves.

Ginko biloba leaf, bright yellow for a week
or two in autumn but a plain green for the
rest of the year. Such a distinctive shape.

Its not a classic year, I don't think, for autumn colours but the leaves have hung on a bit longer here because it has not been very windy and there has been hardly any frosts. The leaves are making their way down now but I won't start raking them up until they have all fallen - I only want to do the job once. I am not too fussed about fallen leaves but there are some area where they form a thick blanket and cover the grass where the sheep graze. This is where I concentrate my efforts. The raked up leaves produce wonderful compost in time so it is doubly worth the effort.

There are some delightful autumn colours around, nevertheless. One particular highlight which reliably stands out each autumn is a Cotinus 'Royal Purple'  a short distance from our kitchen window, pictured below.

The title quote is sometimes banded about at this time of year although not to the same extent as the mellow fruitfulness-es. It comes from Albert Camus in his rather bleak play The Misunderstanding. On its own it is beautifully apt for autumn. However, within the context of the play it is not simply a poetic observation of autumn leaves but an oblique reference to false appearances and deceit - as you might expect from Camus. 

Thursday 11 November 2021

Inspecting the sprouts

With the temperatures falling, and not having seen sight of any cabbage white butterflies recently, I decided to take off the net cloches from the brussell sprout plants. They look to be growing well. They were planted out a little later than planned so are a little behind. However, on inspecting them there are plenty of sprouts coming through. Christmas dinner is shaping up. The variety is Maxima which I have not grown before but they look good so far.

I've pruned off the cabbage-like growth
at the top of each plant to divert energy
into the sprouts.

Wednesday 10 November 2021

The Great Mulch

The annual ritual has commenced.  As the last two posts indicate the process has already started. Today, and probably right through to the end of November, the main activity is to mulch all the vegetable beds and the flower beds with a good 3 - 4 inches of compost. I don't dig it in; just spread it on the surface to protect, condition and feed the soil, as well as  keep weeds at bay over winter. 

Every growing area gets the same treatment irrespective of any crop rotation. Our sandy soil is able to absorb as much organic matter as it can take. My estimate is that I will be shifting, notwithstanding any intervening orthopaedic issues, something approaching 4 tonnes of well rotted manure and compost using a shovel and a wheelbarrow. 

I am fortunate in that I am able to produce this much compost from the land we have. There is a continual process of re-cycling where the outputs become inputs. It is not an entirely self-sustaining system because the hay for the sheep and the straw for the pigs' bedding, which represent important inputs, are imported from outside. However, it all either gets composted or is transformed into fertiliser for the grazing fields.

Mulching has to fit around the routine tasks and other things that might need to be done, but will be eventually completed bit-by-bit.

Tuesday 9 November 2021

Putting the gladioli to bed

Next to the asparagus bed is a small area designated the cutting garden. Here I grow some annuals specifically for cutting to bring into the house. Included is a row of gladioli which come up regularly each year. The corms have been bulking up, too, so that they provide a good supply of fresh gladioli blooms during the summer. I have two varieties here whose names I can't remember but they can be enjoyed just as much without knowing what they called. They are a bit too flamboyant for the border but perfect for picking and they create quite an impression indoors in a vase.

I treated the gladioli bed in the same way as the asparagus yesterday. The layer of compost mulch should keep them snug over winter. On this somewhat grey November day with darkness falling by 4:45 pm, here is a reminder of summers past and yet to come.

Monday 8 November 2021

Giving back to the asparagus

Asparagus is a very generous vegetable. After a slow start we had a big crop in the end with a relentless production of spears. In fact, each year we do very well from the asparagus bed. The general reckoning is that it will keep going for a good twenty years.

In return to its continual giving, it is also necessary to give back. This means not being greedy and by the end of June cease cropping and allowing the new asparagus spears to continue to grow. Their green ferny growth through the summer is where they will get their energy for next year's crop. A feed would help too during the growing season. I gave mine one good watering of my home made fertiliser to help them on their way.

Today it was time to cut down the yellowing ferns, give the bed a thorough weeding and finally mulch with some good quality home produced compost. It can then be left for a well earned rest over the winter until the new asparagus season begins next April.

Sunday 7 November 2021

Willow weaving

Today I attended a willow weaving demonstration hosted by Fenland Growers, Smallholders and Crafters and presented by Deb Hart ( Deb is an experienced and skilful willow weaver and has produced work from larger than life willow sculptures and installation art down to small baskets. Some of her work was commissioned for the grounds of stately homes, parklands and the Chelsea Flower Show. 

Willow is something close to home for many smallholders as it has so many practical uses. Working with willow is not an area I have ventured into although we do have a range of baskets and containers that we use all the time. Skilled handicrafts always impress me and basketry has an ancient history behind it.

Here are just a few of the items Deb brought along as examples of her work. The colourful bag is actually made from garden string. In fact she had examples of hand weaving using a range of different fibres and plant material.

I have previously had a go at producing cordage from nettles which can be worked up to small baskets among other things. I might have another go after today.

Saturday 6 November 2021

Taking stock of the flock.

The rams have been in with the ewes for just over two weeks, so two more weeks to go. We  can therefore expect to be lambing from mid-March. Time-limiting the period the ram is with the ewes means that lambing should be complete within a four week period.  

Of the lambs born this year we have retained two ewe lambs for future breeding. We don't breed from them in their first year even if they have grown well, as indeed the two ewe lambs in question have.  

Two ewe lambs born in March this year who will join
or breeding stock next year.

Towards the end of the summer we sold on a couple of our older ewes. One younger ewe, who proved not to be very maternal towards her lambs two years running, we have culled. One of her twin lambs this year she totally rejected and it had to be bottle fed. Given her history it would have been inappropriate to continue breeding from her. There are a number of shearling ewes who will be breeding for the first time this year. 

Our Wiltshire Horn flock look in good condition so hopefully all will be well with them over winter. The grass is no longer showing much new growth and they are now beginning to eat more hay.

Friday 5 November 2021


The hawthorn hedge plants arrived today. I soaked them in a bucket of water for a couple of hours and then planted them out. The top third was pruned off to reduce the chances of wind rock and also to help promote bushing out when they come into growth next Spring.

Back to Michael and Denise to collect some more surplus perennials. I was especially pleased to procure a yellow form of crocosmia. I already have the deep red C.'Lucifer'. One of the good things about crocosmia is that they are very eye-catching but don't take up too much space. Unless, that is, you grow the naturalised orangey-red form commonly known as montbretia. Very pretty on the roadside verges along the lanes of Devon and Cornwall but a bit too invasive for the garden.

Crocosmia 'Sunglow' is what I hope will
emerge from the soil next summer.

Thursday 4 November 2021

The virus is back

Avian influenza has returned again already this winter. There have been three notified outbreaks of the highly pathogenic form H5N1 in the UK to date and as of 5pm yesterday the whole of Great Britain has been declared a Prevention Zone. This means all bird and poultry keepers, whether commercial or 'backyard' keepers have to implement strict biosecurity measures. 

The main source of avian flu is from wild birds and now that the migration season is under way the potential for transmitting the virus has increased, including infecting captive birds. The outbreaks so far have been in Worcestershire, Wrexham in Wales and Angus in Scotland. The East of England is a vulnerable area as for many birds the East coast is an important migration route and there are also quite a few wetlands which act as stopping off points or winter quarters for some species.

As far as the biosecurity requirements are concerned we have these more or less in place already. It becomes more problematic if control measures are increased and birds are required to be housed, as was the case last winter. I suspect the control order to house birds will follow in due course. 

Lavender pekin bantams who are 14 weeks 
old and seem happy with their housing

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Frosty morning

Today there was a a frost. There was actually a tinge of a frost yesterday but this morning the grazing fields were whitened out. With the clocks going back last weekend winter feels like it is well on the way and the days doing the early morning tasks in a T-shirt are well behind us for now.

The parts of the vegetable beds that have not yet been cleared and the flower borders have been in steady decline but frosty conditions accelerate the process. Today more clearance in the vegetable beds was undertaken, in particular the Jerusalem artichokes. This effectively forms a dense 7 foot high and 20 feet in length protective hedge across the top end of one of the vegetable plots during the summer. The easiest way to cut it down to the ground is to use a hedge trimmer. It takes longer to clear the stalks as these are cut up before I add them to the compost heap. Over the winter we can dig up the tubers for dinner whenever we fancy. There will always be plenty left behind for next year's growth.


Tuesday 2 November 2021

Everyone who knocks will have the door opened

Having mentioned here recently how I intend to  gradually increase the number of herbaceous perennials in my new flower border rather than rely almost entirely on annuals, out of the blue, I was contacted by friends Michael and Denise who live nearby and are very keen gardeners. They have a two acre garden which they have been developing for the last 18 or so years. They are replanting some of their borders and have plants to spare. Would I like some? 

I've collected some established clumps of several plants. These I have divided and saved the strongest looking plants. I am not ready to replant them in my border so I have lined them out in one of the vegetable beds as a temporary home. Here is what I have collected so far:-

Salvia 'Amistad'



Iris sibirica

Aster novi-belgii

Rudbeckia hirta

Monday 1 November 2021

Hedge prep

I'm going to plant a new hedge and so today I prepared the ground in readiness. It is going to be 20 feet long and will divide the patio area from the new flower garden, eventually replacing a wire fence. It will be kept to a maximum four feet in height so as not to obscure the view beyond from the vantage point of the patio which is on a higher level.

Patience is needed to wait for young hedging plants to actually become a hedge so it helps to get them off to a good start by preparing the soil well. This might not be practical for a long farm field boundary but on a garden scale its a different matter. When the bare rooted plants are delivered it is also helpful for the ground to be ready so that they can be planted more or less straight away.

I've decided on ordinary hawthorn. It is often tempting to choose an evergreen hedge for 'all year interest' but I think a deciduous hedge can be more interesting as it marks the changing seasons. The twiggy black skeletal framework over winter is attractive in itself and the new leaf buds opening n Spring gladden the heart. Hawthorn is also more in keeping with our rural or agricultural setting. Nothing wrong with box or yew where a more formal look is desired of course.

The gate into the chicken run was moved 
to the right to accommodate the future