Saturday 31 December 2022

The Ship of the Fens

 This is a magnificent photograph taken of Ely Cathedral today, the last day of 2022, by photographer John Millward whose permission I have to reproduce it here. It is one of the most stunning images of Ely Cathedral I have seen.

Friday 30 December 2022

Feeding hungry soil

One of my annual tasks, which I like to complete before the end of the year, is mulching the vegetable and fruit plots. This involves wheel-barrowing about four cubic metres of compost and spreading a 4" layer across the two 20' x 80' vegetable plots. I don't dig it in, just let it naturally incorporate itself into the soil over the next few weeks and months. Being on hungry sandy soil it can take as much organic matter as can be applied. 

I still have another bay of compost, that is another cubic metre, ready for the flower beds in early Spring. This needs to be spread with a bit more finesse. I also have two bins of my 'special reserve' compost saved for the greenhouse beds. This is a richer compost where I have been more selective as to what I add to it. There is also a compost bay of spent straw previously used for livestock bedding which is on a slow burn. Straw is slower to rot down unless there is a large amount of manure incorporated into it as you would have from mucking out cattle sheds, for example. 

In early Autumn I put fresh manure (bagged up into a pillowcase) to soak in the liquid manure barrel for feeding the greenhouse plants and flower containers during the Summer.

All-in-all, I estimate I produce about five tonnes of compost each year, guessing that each cubic metre of fully rotted down compost is about one tonne. About the same as the one tonne bulk sacks you can order from DIY supplies. All of the compost is generated from within the smallholding and so goes around in an organic cycle.

Monday 26 December 2022

The peace of wild things

The Peace of Wild Things         by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief.  I come into the presence  of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Thursday 22 December 2022

Some thoughts on growing runner beans

With the passing of the Winter Solstice thoughts naturally turn to collating next season's seed order. Actually, I had to call into Wilkos yesterday and it was apparent, with Christmas nearly out of the way for the retail-minded, their new seed delivery was now on display. Wilko sell their seeds very cheaply compared to the more august seed companies. They might not stock particular sought after varieties but for vegetable seed staples they're fine: Cauliflower 'All the Year Round', Parsnips 'White Gem'; Cabbage 'Greyhound'; Leeks 'Musselburgh'; Onion Spring  'White Lisbon'; Sweet Corn 'Swift'; Broad Bean 'The Sutton'; Climbing French Bean 'Blue Lake'; Dwarf French Bean 'Ferrari'; Courgette; Butternut Squash. All purchased for £1 each. I'll make up the rest of the vegetable and flower seed order, which require greater deliberation, from the seed companies.

However, when it comes to that stalwart of the vegetable plot, runner beans, I'm considering, for the first time in perhaps three decades, not growing them in 2023. I like runner beans, especially when picked in their prime. For me, the variety 'White Lady' is the best. Runner beans can be a prolific crop so freezing them for use during the Winter is a sensible thing to do. They taste fine and are a useful back-up, but there is no denying that there is some loss in flavour. 

The problem is that when runner beans are at their best and growing aplenty there are lots of other fresh green vegetables competing for space on the plate. And as much as I like runner beans I think French beans have the edge. I also think the latter freeze better too.

This Summer I deliberately left more of the runner beans than usual unpicked. I picked them late when the seeds had developed. After leaving them to dry out I harvested the beans. These will be used for chilli con carne, adding to stews and for mixed bean salads. I grow other types of bean for the same purpose so maybe this is a reason for growing runner beans with intentionality. There is plenty of time to change my mind, of course, as I have lots of saved seeds.

Saturday 17 December 2022

Frosty scenes

Its been a bit of a slog with the routine smallholding tasks during this extended period of frozen conditions. There has been no respite as the sub-zero temperatures persist during the day. Everything takes so much longer, particularly in re-filling drinking troughs and poultry drinkers. 

On the plus side the days have been virtually windless and the crisp air is quite nice to be in, especially on those days when the sun has come out. The frost has been so heavy it looks like it has snowed and the whiteness provides quite an attractive view. It helps that there has been little need to venture out beyond the holding apart from walks around the neighbouring fields.

The forecast is for the weather to change after the weekend with rain and milder temperatures on the way. I rather hope the temperatures do not rise too much and that the rain is not too heavy. Here are some photographs of some frosty scenes.


Saturday 10 December 2022

An unexpected sight on a freezing December morning

Early this morning I made a bonfire to clear the mountain of prunings, bits of rotten wood and un-reusable timber which has accumulated since last Winter. Although it was freezing temperatures, it was otherwise ideal conditions with only the slightest of breezes taking any smoke across the fields away from the house and the road.

As I grabbed the next armful of brush wood from the heap to my surprise there was a peacock butterfly which flapped its wings when I disturbed it but did not take off in flight. 

Some butterflies do hibernate over Winter, peacocks among them. They produce the first generation of butterflies in the following Spring and early Summer. That is one reason why peacock butterflies are one of the earliest  butterflies to see in the year in England.  Nevertheless, given the freezing temperatures over the last few days and that we are well into December, it was an unexpected sight. I wonder if the warmth of the nearby bonfire woke it up.

I carried the piece of wood it was settled on and placed it in a protective area in the barn. It will now have to do its best to survive the Winter.


Friday 9 December 2022

Quiet night thoughts

The combination of bright moonlight and frosty weather which I mentioned yesterday, and which is the theme for the next few days at least, is a pretext for reproducing here probably one of the most famous Tang Dynasty poems, by Li Bai (701-762). Tang poets frequently drew on the natural environment for inspiration and metaphoric reference. This poem is a little melancholic in tone. Its worth knowing that the moon in Chinese culture represents, among other things, family reunion.

Quiet Night Thoughts by Li Bai

In front of the bed there is bright moonlight

It seems like there is frost on the ground

I raise my head and gaze at the bright moon

I lower my head and think of my home town

Thursday 8 December 2022

Breaking the ice

When we have hard frosts, especially if they are protracted, as is the case with the current forecast, it impacts quite a bit on the daily routine on the smallholding. Last night temperatures fell to -6 degrees and rose to 1 degree during the day. However, the frost persisted on the grazing fields all day. This morning there were isolated green patches where each of the sheep had lain overnight. 

It was back to freezing fingers. All the water troughs, poultry drinkers and the pool for the ducks were frozen as were the outside taps and hoses. This meant breaking the ice and filling up watering cans indoors to top up where needed and to de-ice the drinkers. 

With the grass frosted all day the sheep eat through their hay much more quickly. I give the pigs extra feed as they need additional energy to keep warm. The livestock don't seem to be troubled by very cold weather so long as it is not windy as well. Chickens are extremely hardy and overnight they still generate a lot of heat when they are huddled together in their housing. The turkeys rarely venture into their housing and prefer to perch outside overnight whatever the weather. I have installed a long perch in their run for this very purpose.

A long hard frost is good for the vegetable plots. It helps kill off any annual weeds as well as soil pathogens. Some vegetables benefit from frost too. Brussel sprouts and parsnips are said to be sweeter if they have experienced some frost. Freezing also prompts garlic bulbs to begin dividing into cloves. 

The clear skies that accompany cold, frosty weather meant that their was another cracking full moon to see at dusk when it is low in the sky.

Frosty fields

Wednesday 30 November 2022

Poplars at dusk

The light at dusk, just before it gets properly dark, is sometimes quite eye-catching. This is a fairly busy time of the day for me on the smallholding but not so pressing as to prevent one from taking in the sights. Tonight it was the black tracery of the poplar trees against the blue-grey sky in the fading light. It looked so fine.

We have a long double line of poplars on our rear boundary, by all accounts planted more than sixty years ago. I have mixed feeling towards them. They do provided a wooded area which has its own interest, but the problem with poplar trees is that they are persistent in sending out vigorous suckers which can be problematic. Their shallow but extensive roots suck the moisture out of the soil. If left to their own devices they will quickly colonise the surrounding ground. However, today the poplars went up in my estimation.

Monday 28 November 2022

English Pastoral

English Pastoral: An Inheritance, by James Rebanks, is a compelling book for anyone interested in post-war agricultural developments and in some of the ways it has gone wrong. Or, in fact, anyone interested in where our food comes from. There are increasing numbers of farmers who are attempting a rebalancing of their practices in the form of, for example, regenerative farming, James Rebanks among them. Rebanks' account is particularly interesting because, not only does he write well, he anchors it in the story of his own farm through three generations. He also draws on his observations of other local farms and farms much further afield.. 

The farm in question is a small Lakeland hill farm where he rears Herdwick sheep and Belted Galloway cattle. It was his grandfather's farm. His father farmed a separate farm nearby but after his death James continued to farm on his grandfather's farm. His grandfather was his mentor and teacher. An early reminiscence was sitting on the tractor with his grandfather as he went through the cycle of field operations for growing a grain crop and the young Rebanks is fascinated by the seagulls rising and falling “in hungry tumbling waves” behind them:-

"I sat in the back of that tractor, with the old man in front of me, and for the first time in my life thought about who we were and what the field was, and the relationship between the gulls and the plough. I was a boy living through the last days of an ancient farming world".

In his account Rebanks tells of his early embarrassment about his father's outdated farming practices, the lack of modern equipment and its tenuous finances. Later, he and his father start to use more modern approaches. However, doubts crept in for both of them. Many years after his grandfather's death, Rebanks and his father are passing a neighbouring farm and notice that behind the plough there is not a single gull following the tractor. A sure sign there are no worms in the soil. This observation and how it has come about sums up the central concern of English Pastoral.

The book tracks his own changes of view towards farming and also the tensions of being a farmer in the modern world. He critiques the post-war development of industrial farming with its loss of small family farms, the degradation of the soil (agriculture's key asset), the problematic wholesale use of of artificial fertilisers, the ripping out of hedgerows to accommodate ever bigger machinery,  and the resulting impact on wildlife. The disappearance of once abundant curlews feature strongly in his mind.

Supermarkets and ordinary consumers are included in his critique too. People are so divorced from the land they have little idea of where their food comes from or how it arrives at their table. He also points out that in the 1950s, on average, 35% of household income was spent on food, whereas now it is only 10%.  Food is cheap, perhaps too cheap. The economic might of the big supermarkets are seen as major culprits in the overall picture.

A series of illuminating experiences changes Rebanks' views from the need to 'modernise' and he has subsequently adopted regenerative approaches to farming. He has also planted 12,000 trees, allowed for some wild areas and has altered the course of a previously straightened stream in order to slow down the flow. Curlews have returned. Rebanks is not an environmental idealist, however. He discusses the complexities of agriculture and food production and some of the inherent conflicts, for example, between the profitability of farming and the price of food and responsible stewardship of the land.

As a smallholder focused primarily on producing our own food, I identify with much of what Rebanks has to say. And I feel that increasingly people who are not farmers or smallholders or gardeners do too. It is noteworthy that this book was a bestseller (as was his earlier book A Shepherd's Life). 

I would like to finish up by adding my public thanks to those expressed privately to the reader of this blog who was so kind and thoughtful to seek out and send me a copy of this book after it had been recommended by a  commentator in a previous post. It was a very good thing to do. 

Saturday 26 November 2022

A beech hedge

We were away for three days during the week. Our first overnight excursion away from the holding since pre-COVID, in fact for about four years. 

I had ordered some bare-rooted hedging plants and they arrived far sooner than anticipated, late afternoon the day before we departed. The ground was already prepared and a planting line in place so I managed to plant them at first light on the morning before we left. They would probably have been okay for two or three days but they and I would be happier if they were planted straight away.

The hedge borders the newly sown lawn on one side and what will be a path on the other side. It will screen off the enclosed poultry runs. It is sixty feet in length so I ordered thirty hedging plants, planted two feet apart. 

I eventually chose beech hedging. This will provide a dense green backdrop during the Summer and the brown leaves, which are held on through much of the Winter, will give that Autumnal look for which beech is often noted for. 

I have left enough space to accommodate the hedge eventually growing to four feet in width and I'll probably keep it to a height of five or six feet. Hopefully, it will not be too many years before it  reaches these proportions.   

The hedging plants are 2-3 feet tall. The grass was 
sown on 3rd November and is establishing very well.
The fence on the right will eventually be taken down.

Monday 21 November 2022


I was struck by this photograph of Earth sent back by the NASA spacecraft Artemis as it orbited the Moon. From about 240,000 miles away the small dot which is us is so distinctive in its blue-ness even at such a distance. This is, of course, the thin fragile atmospheric layer that has allowed life on Earth to flourish for so many millions of years. We are the generation that seem intent on squandering it.

NASA photograph of Earth viewed from the Moon 

Saturday 19 November 2022

An unusual egg

In these times of reported shortages we are collecting plenty of eggs each day, enough still for us and for our regular clientele. Among the eggs today was a rather unusual egg similar to one laid two days ago. Over the years we have seen different deformities in chicken eggs. Tiny 'fairy' eggs, over-sized eggs, misshapen eggs and eggs with wrinkled shells. They are normally a sign of stress or are produced by an aging hen. Double yokers are not unusual too. A double yoker occurs when two ova are released and they become encapsulated in a single egg.  

The egg today was massive - 178g. When it was cracked open, inside was the expected yoke and egg white but in addition a fully formed normal sized egg with a hardened shell. The day before yesterday we had a similar one weighing 132g.

Eggs usually take 24-26 hours to form once the ovum (which becomes the yoke) is released from the ovary. On its journey through the oviduct the white of the egg is added, then further along the membrane layers are formed and then the shell, which hardens off before the egg is eventually laid. 

In this instance, and the same two days ago, I can only surmise that a normal egg was fully formed but remained in the oviduct without being laid. The next egg formation process began and caught up with the first egg and the shell was formed around the whole lot and then this went on to be laid. 

I am not sure which hen was responsible but none seem to be showing signs of trauma from the experience.

Thursday 17 November 2022

Signet update

Today was grey, wet, cold and windy. Archetypal November in contrast to the mild days of late. Yesterday the sun came out for a time and so I was able to look around rather than have my head down and shoulders hunched when walking the dog.

I came across the pair of swans and their signets I have posted about a few times this year in a nearby dyke. I saw the eggs in the nest, the signets sitting on mum's back when they were a day or two old, and a few times later in the Summer as they grew. There were eight originally but yesterday there were only four. It might be that they are reaching the age when they strike out independently, but predation is just as likely. One hopes, at least, that they avoid avian flu. It was good to see them, much larger now and with white feathers beginning to come through.

One of the four remaining signets

Wednesday 16 November 2022

Despatch day

Today we had chicken livers and hearts for lunch which is a sure indicator that we have been despatching more of the latest batch of broiler hens. We bought 20 x day old chicks in the Summer (actually there were 21 when we counted them at home when placing them in the brooder pen). Three more to do which we will finish tomorrow. This will vacate the chicken coop and run we use for this purpose until the next batch sometime in the Spring. We also have a freezer well stocked with chicken meat.

It’s tempting these days to get defensive about this aspect of our lives. But we are smallholders producing nearly all our own food and we eat meat, so to us it is a perfectly sensible thing to do. So I don’t intend to present it’s defence here other than to say that although it’s not a task I particularly relish, I do get satisfaction from doing it well. It is something I’ve become quite skilled at.

Here’s what I do with the chicken livers and hearts. The livers are cut into bite sized pieces. The hearts are cut in half long ways. This ensures that they cook at the same rate. I chop a spring onion, a clove of garlic and grate a small piece of ginger. In a pan or wok on a high heat all can be stir fried together. When the offal is browned all over I add a dash of soy sauce and some sweet chilli sauce. The latter adds some mild spice but also some sweetness to counterbalance the liver. Let it cook for a couple of minutes, but keep stirring. The key thing is not to overcook so as to toughen and dry out the liver but at the same time ensure it is cooked through. The result is some very tender and tasty liver. The hearts will have a firmer texture which goes well with the softer liver. In all it takes just a few minutes to prepare and cook. I serve it on Janet’s toasted sourdough bread with a fried egg. Worth a try if you have residual reservations about eating liver.  

Monday 14 November 2022

Rams say goodbye to the ewes

Today the rams were separated from the breeding ewes having spent 28 days together to do what is expected of them. The average gestation period  for sheep is 147 days so the anticipated date of the first lamb arriving is 12th March and the date of the last lamb to arrive is 10th April, but potentially up to 5 or so days either side of these dates.

For the time being the two rams and the ram lambs are together in one field and the ewes and ewe lambs in another. There is always a little argy-bargy between the rams when they come back together again, and some bleating from the ewe lambs, but all will settle down in a day or two. Another stage in the annual shepherd's calendar complete.

Ewe lambs before the move

Sunday 13 November 2022

A shimmer of green

Anyone who has sown seeds before, whether a novice gardener or with years of experience, will be familiar with the feeling of hopeful expectation followed by a mild flutter of delight when the seeds germinate and tiny green shoots poke out of the soil or compost. This has certainly been the case for me when I sowed a new lawn ten days ago. The feeling was accentuated because I was sowing a 25m x 4m area of lawn and also taking a gamble in sowing much later in the year than advisable. I was counting on the mild weather persisting and the claim that the variety of seed I had ordered can germinate at lower temperatures. If the seed failed to take I would have to wait until next March or April before I could try again. It would also mean a  further outlay of £35 for more seed, admittedly a snip compared to the cost of a couple of pallets of turf for an immediate and certain result.

I pass the new lawn area several times a day but I deliberately tried to avert my eyes each time under the watched pot principle. This afternoon, however, when I made a sideways glance, I saw a slight shimmer of green which was not previously evident. Closer inspection revealed fresh green shoots of grass coming up nicely. Fortunately the seed has fallen on rich soil and so should multiply a hundred fold.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Gazing at the moon

At this time of the year, when I am finishing up routine afternoon livestock-related tasks, it is already beginning to get dark. Looking across the neighbouring field today I saw an enormous moon rising. It was almost golden. I believe, in fact, yesterday was a full moon but this looked full enough for me. It is at times like this that I wish I possessed a real camera (and maybe some photography skills too) rather than making a passing shot with my phone. So the photo here does not fully capture how stunning the Moon looked today.

The Moon, 9th November 2022

Instead, here is a poem from the Tang Dynasty by Zhang Jiuling (678-740). The Chinese attach much symbolism to the Moon, more so than the Sun. After Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, the Mid- Autumn Festival, which includes the sharing of Mooncakes, is their most important celebration of the year. The poem conveys the constancy of the Moon amidst whatever life might bring. For those who are separated they can gaze at the same Moon wherever they are.

Gazing at the Moon, Longing from Afar by Zhang Jiuling

The moon, grown full now over the sea,

Brightening the whole of Heaven,

Brings to separated hearts,

The long thoughtfulness of night.

It is no darker though I blow out my candle.

It is no warmer though I put on my coat.

So I leave my message with the moon

And turn to my bed, hoping for dreams.

Monday 7 November 2022

The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks

Our nearest town is Mildenhall, which is actually a very small town, where we visit for various necessary errands. A notable feature is the substantial parish church of St Mary's in the High Street. The oldest part of the church dates from the 13th Century. I have often visited the church but over the last year or so I have gone in for about half an hour every six weeks. This is when Janet goes to the nearby hairdresser to have her regular hair trim, so I have time to kill. The reason for going to the church is that they have a book corner and in amongst the biblical commentaries I came across James Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District. I am about half through. I use a small chicken feather which I found in my pocket for a book mark and replace the book in the same position at the end of a lower shelf where it can be easily located for the next installment to read. I hope that the church helpers are not too thorough in tidying the book shelves. I could easily seek out my own copy but I am happy to read it slowly. I normally have two books on the go, a downstairs book and an upstairs book at bedtime, and this happens to be a third for a different location.

The Shepherd's Life is a fascinating account of hill farming in the Lake District but it has lots of interesting and insightful reflections on aspects of life generally. It conveys a great sense of time and place. Rebanks notes how his annual calendar of shepherding tasks is identical to his father and his father before that. In fact shepherds in Anglo-Saxon times would have been just as familiar with the same process of gathering from the hills with dogs (or hefting as they have it in those parts), lambing, shearing, foot trimming, feeding, dagging; little has changed. On a smaller scale this is what we do too except on our lowland holding we do not have to trouble with the complexities of the heft. 

There is such an intimate relationship with the land and the many unfenced acres they graze. It also only works because of close collaboration with neighbouring farmers who graze the same hills and carry out the same activities. 

Lambing time next, which I will read about in December.

St Mary's church, Mildenhall where I read and think
about shepherds.

Thursday 3 November 2022

Sowing a new lawn

With the hens confined by avian flu regulations, which will certainly last until  at least next April or May if not for even longer, the large area in which they previously ranged is currently vacant. It used to be grass but sixty or more chickens soon scratch it clear of vegetation. Whilst the area is free I plan some alterations which include re-seeding part of it to return it to grass. 

The space I want to re-seed is approximately 25 meters by 4 meters. The chickens have effectively dug it over and in doing so levelled the ground. They have also de-weeded and manured it. All I have had to do by way of preparation is to collect up fallen twigs and branches and rake up leaves and other debris. In the process I created a fine tilth for sowing the grass seed in. 

Grass seed generally requires temperatures of about 9 - 12 degrees centigrade to geminate. September and early October is usually a good time to sow grass whilst the soil retains some warmth and is moist from Autumn rains. I could not take advantage of that window of opportunity, however, because I had to wait for the walnut harvesting to be completed as this involved tramping around the target area everyday. Although we are now into November the temperatures are still holding up and according to the forecast this looks to continue for the next couple of weeks. 

In any case, I ordered some grass seed from a grass seed merchant which reputedly germinates at lower temperatures (as low as 5 degrees centigrade). I ordered the grass seed yesterday around mid-day and it arrived this morning. After lunch I sowed it, barely 24 hours after ordering it. I ordered 5kg which was just enough for the area to be sowed. It conveniently rained all morning before brightening up so the ground was suitably moistened ready for the grass seed. 

All I have to do now is to wait, and remember not to walk on it.

Tuesday 1 November 2022

Nasturtiums choose their moment

Two years ago I sowed some annual nasturtiums for the new long border and they flowered well. Nasturtiums are usually reliable self-seeders but are easy to pull out if they spring up where you don't want them so that they don't get out of hand. However, with the Summer drought they did not reappear this year. But with the mild temperatures we have been experiencing, and with the addition of some rain, clumps of nasturtiums have suddenly provided some sunny bright patches. 

I had sowed two varieties: N.'Peach Melba' and N.'Empress of India'. I am pleased to see their return even if its now November and much of the rest of the border is receding. Having allowed the Summer to pass them by, they are now ignoring the pull to mellow fruitfulness.

Nasturtium 'Peach Melba'

Nasturtium 'Empress of India'

Saturday 29 October 2022

Fen bog oak table, Ely Cathedral

We often go to Ely for shopping and related tasks, but this week we were meeting friends, visiting from Harold Wood on the Essex/London border, for lunch. This provided another opportunity to spend time in the wonder that is Ely Cathedral. On this occasion we saw the black bog oak table that was built especially for the Queen's Jubilee this year. It stretches for a full 13 meters in length.

Bog oaks are a familiar phenomenon to those who live in or know the Fens. You can sometimes see them placed on field edges as you drive by arable fields. Black bog oaks are essentially fossilised trees that have been preserved in the acid, waterlogged marshes from 5000 years or more ago. As the Fens have been drained, resulting in the peat shrinking, bog oaks come to the surface. They have been a common source of fire wood for local inhabitants. For arable farmers they can be problematic and have to be dug out, once by hand, now using tractors. Sometimes dynamite has been used to blow them up to help with the removal of the very largest bog oaks.

In 2012, at Wissington Fen, South West Norfolk, between Ely and Downham Market, a bog oak was found which was a spectacular 13.2 meters in length. Not only that, the trunk was more or less uniform in diameter and also straight. Perfect for a table top 13 meters long. 

This black bog oak was milled into planks, five of which were used to make the Jubilee Table. The bog oak wood is about twice the age of Stone Henge. It is a very impressive sight in Ely Cathedral. There can't be many buildings that would be able to accommodate it.



Thursday 27 October 2022

Common beauty

In odd rough patches and uncultivated corners one plant seems to shine out at this time. This is the white dead nettle (Lamium album). It is very common but easily ignored. In fact, during much of the year I regularly weed it out from among the fruit bushes and elsewhere. It is not where I want it to be. It can be a little invasive, too, and has proved virtually impossible to eradicate from the strawberry bed once it took hold in unguarded moments.

However, if white dead nettles are allowed to grow where they present no conflicts they are actually very attractive plants when in full bloom. This is certainly the case now and their creamy-white flowers catch the eye, particularly on dull, overcast days. 

Tuesday 25 October 2022


Buzzards are a very common sight here. Most days, when the weather is not inclement, I see them. They are around the whole year so I presume they nest in the various tree breaks and spinneys that are dotted around. Their persistent cat-like call is unmistakable and alerts you to their presence. On a sunny Autumn day like today I see them soaring on the thermals in wide circles against a blue sky. Buzzards don't seem to soar particularly high from what I have observed, so you can usually get a good view of them. They only seem to flap their wings when they break from their circular flight and head for the trees.

No doubt there is plenty of food opportunities for them in our smallholding and the surrounding fields. They seem to be thriving here and it is reassuring to see such a large bird of prey locally resident.  

Photo courtesy of

Sunday 23 October 2022

Camellia flower buds

We have an established (but not very large) camellia growing against a wall. In the Spring, usually early March, it is dotted with pink flowers. I don't think it is the widely grown and reliable Camellia williamsii 'Donation'. The flowers are smaller and a darker pink. There is, in fact, a variety called C.'Shocking Pink'. Perhaps that is what it is.

The williamsii varieties are hardy enough for the UK so the fact that it flowers so early in the year is not usually a problem. However, the advice is not to grow it on an East-facing boundary because the rising early morning sun following a frost can spoil the flowers.

When I passed the camellia yesterday I noticed quite a few flower buds which are full of promise for next Spring. They develop during the Summer and overwinter protected in the leaf axils, patiently waiting for their moment to flourish the following year. Hydrangeas, among others, follow the same pattern.

Established plants should be able to look after themselves, but given our camellia is planted between patio paving and a wall, during the second half of the Summer I like to give a few waterings to help flower bud formation. As camellias prefer a slightly acid to neutral soil, I use rainwater from a nearby water-but, although this year this source dried up because of the drought and I had to resort to the tap.

Friday 21 October 2022

The leaves have yet to fall

The last couple of days have been classic Keatsian. It is only just beginning to get light when I do the early morning round tending to the livestock and it is distinctly cooler first thing. The leaves still cling on and are only just beginning to fall, but we have had no strong winds yet, nor frosts, to send them on their way. The morning dew lingers depending on whether the sun comes out later in the day. The season of wellington boots. 

Some regular Autumn jobs have been accomplished: sorting the sheep and putting in the tup; confining the poultry (surely now a regular task); trimming the boundary hedge; tidying the vegetable beds ready for their Winter compost blanket; starting off some Winter crops in the greenhouse; much late harvesting and preserving. There is lots more to do but without the sense of Spring and Summer-time urgency.

Yesterday I picked all of the remaining Bramley apples and also the Blenheim Orange. The latter is quite a large tree so this involved standing on tip toes on the top of a step ladder to reach the not so low hanging fruit. There was a rather large rosy apple high up where it had been exposed to the sunshine, but too far out of reach to pick. This morning it was on the ground having dropped of its own accord. Bruised, alas, but large enough to still make use of.

Anchors amidst the turbulence.

Rosa rugosa hips in a nearby trackway

Thursday 20 October 2022

Making walnuts last

We are blessed to have an enormous walnut tree on our property which this year produced a very large crop. Its tempting to think that this was the result of the long dry Summer. That might have contributed to it but the reality is that the walnut tree follows a pattern of biennial cropping. Every other year there is a big crop.

We make a lot of use of the walnuts. When they are still green in June we make pickled walnuts. In their mature abundance, which they reach at this time of the year, some are used to add to various cake recipes. But mostly we have the luxury of a handful of walnuts, or more, every day. I add them to my morning porridge, plus dipping in to a bowl in the kitchen when I pass by.

It is fair to say that Janet is the overseer of our annual walnut harvest and through trial and error has worked out the best way, in our experience, to ensure that they remain edible well into next year. She also has the resolution to prepare them ready for consumption, the nutcrackers never far off.

What we have found works best is to collect up the freshly dropped walnuts each morning and each afternoon. They are too high up to pick off the tree. A breezy day is a source of excitement. Collecting those nuts that have only just dropped appears to be important. The walnuts are then rattled about in a garden sieve to remove any soil, debris or husk remnants and then placed into stackable vegetable trays. This year we have collected ten of the trays in the picture below. These are stored in a cool garage. If they are stored in an environment that is too warm they are likely to turn moldy. 

The walnuts are then only cracked open and the kernel removed as needed at periodic intervals, a bowlful at a time. We have found that drying them, which is often recommended, is counterproductive. Also the shelled nuts will store in a fridge for a few weeks but eventually they will go off as the oil in the walnuts will turn them rancid. So, leaving the walnuts in their shells until needed seems to work best. 

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Avian flu - its not looking good

Avian flu is continuing its relentless course and is expected to intensify still further as the Winter migratory bird season gets underway. The Defra map shows why a regional housing order has been put in place for Norfolk, Suffolk and some of Essex. Each ring represents an individual outbreak. The outer rings represent a 10km Surveillance Zone around an outbreak and the inner ring a 3km Protection Zone. There is a dense cluster around Attleborough where there is a concentration of commercial poultry units. Many thousands of birds have had to be culled. 

Apart form the legal requirement to house captive birds there are a range of biosecurity and record keeping measures that also have to be adhered to with more stringent ones for the inner zone. 

Its not looking good for the poultry industry nor poultry keepers generally. Nor indeed for wild bird populations.

Sunday 16 October 2022

Rams come into their own

Today was the day earmarked for putting the rams with the ewes. This involved a bit of sorting out, so the first task was to get all the ewes and lambs into the barn. Our two rams have been grazing in a separate field.

Once in the barn the younger ram was allowed out and the older ram stayed put. He also need his hooves trimmed - a tricky job on your own as he is a strong lad. Job done. Next the first group of breeding ewes were let out of the barn to join the older ram. This was followed by the second set of ewes who were let out to join the younger ram and then led to their field. 

There were two other small groups that had to have their own separate sections. These were three ram lambs and five ewe lambs  (plus an older ewe we are not breeding from) respectively. The latter had an episode of mastitis when she lambed this year and it is very likely that the affected teat is now non-functional. She still managed to rear two healthy twin lambs but it is not a good idea to put her nor any potential twin lambs at risk if she were allowed to lamb next Spring.

Having four groupings in this way is a little complicated. I had to ensure the correct ewes were with the right ram. Feeding and watering them each day will also be a bit involved. However, this will only be for four weeks after which we will separate them into two groups: boys and girls. Restricting the tupping period to four weeks will allow us to know more or less exactly when lambing will be completed as well as confining the process to a four week period. 

There are a couple of reasons for the four groupings. One is that our abattoir of choice is fully booked until January so we have more lambs than usual to carry through to next year. The second reason is that we are running with two rams. This might appear excessive for the number of breeding ewes we have but we want to generate two bloodlines which will have some advantages for future breeding. This is probably the last year for breeding, at least with our flock, for the older ram but his blood line will live on from his progeny.

Ewes and lambs about to be gathered in



Thursday 13 October 2022

Jupiter in the October night sky

Every evening over the last week or so, when I shut up the poultry after dark, there is a very bright 'star' in the sky. It is in fact the planet Jupiter. After the moon, which was a full moon on the 9th, Jupiter is by far the brightest thing visible in the evening night sky at the moment. 

I gather Jupiter is at its closest to the Earth for 70 years, a mere 367 million miles away. Even if you have no chickens to shut up, if you look south east and quite high in the sky you cannot miss it.   

Jupiter by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, August 2022 

Monday 10 October 2022

Polytunnel puzzle

Yesterday I joined three smallholder friends to help another smallholder couple put up a polytunnel they had been given. They live in a remote location in the Fens, a couple of miles along a track from Prickwillow, a village not far from Ely. We were blessed with some fine Autumn weather and, crucially, no wind.

The polytunnel was secondhand and in bits with no instructions. That did not deter us and we eventually worked out how to put it together with no parts left over. We had feared some components might be missing among the heap of tubes and fixings, but this proved not to be the case. The plastic cover was noticeably  past its prime but still serviceable for at least another season once a couple of holes were patched over with some spare plastic and gaffer tape.

Our reward was an enjoyable time with others who have a shared outlook, and a very appetising home cooked lunch. 

Sunday 9 October 2022

Avian flu in Norfolk and Suffolk

Yesterday we were notified that an avian flu housing order has now been announced as of this Wednesday. It was not unexpected. At the moment it applies just to Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Essex. I suspect a national lockdown for all poultry and captive birds will follow in due course. 

East Anglia has been particularly badly affected by on-going incidents of avian flu through the Summer, especially around Attleborough, where there is a concentration of commercial poultry units, and in an area a little north of Bury St Edmunds. In both locations there have been multiple cases in the last couple of weeks.

There appears to be mounting concern within Defra, as well as the poultry industry, that we are now having year round cases of avian flu rather than being confined to the migratory Winter months. It has now become endemic among our native birds which seems to account for the persistence of the disease. I gather large numbers of swans have recently died along the River Stour in Sudbury. This makes it rather problematic in respect of long term control and management and any other potential knock on consequences.

I note that some experts point to the problem of disease 'spillover' from highly concentrated poultry production units, many of which house tens of thousands of birds.

Here, we anticipated a poultry lockdown this Winter and so during the Summer I have been making preparations to improve our lockdown arrangements. This has involved roofing over a substantial area of a fenced run in place of netting. The surrounding 6 foot chain linked fence has been overlaid with wire mesh (25mm is the maximum gauge allowed under the regulations). The main benefit of a solid roof is that it keeps the area dry and ensures food and water is under cover. So, although they have a decent amount of space, the chickens will not be able to free-range. I have also carried out the improvements so as to be able to keep different types of poultry (in our case hens, ducks and turkeys) separate, which is also a regulatory requirement.

The housing order is also accompanied by a number of bio-security requirements and record keeping. These are legal requirements and because of the much heightened level of concern about avian flu, I suspect that there will be more energy given over to inspections compared to previous years. 

Saturday 8 October 2022

More on the new Government's climate policy

Graham Stuart MP, Minister of State for Climate:-

Following the issue of 100 new licences for oil and gas exploration off the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coast, it is "actually good for the environment".

Marcus Aurelius, former Roman Emperor, philosopher and Stoic:-

"If it is not right, don't do it. If it is not true, don't say it".

Thursday 6 October 2022

Preparing for leafy greens over Winter

I have some Tatsoi and Winter Gem lettuce ready to plant out once the greenhouse border has been prepared. Today, a little later than intended, I sowed in modules Chinese cabbage 'Wong Bok', Little Gem Lettuce and Cos lettuce. I have not grown Cos lettuce nor Chinese cabbage as Winter crops before so it will be interesting to see how they do under cover at this time of the year. 

I have grown Chinese cabbage as a late Summer crop in the past and it tolerated cold and a degree of Autumn frost but by that time they were well established plants. The ones I grew this Summer were only partially successful because of the dry conditions and although we were able to pick some leaves they did not heart up.

We grow Cos lettuce because it makes a good substitute for pak choi and Chinese cabbage for stir frying in oyster sauce because the leaves are sufficiently robust to cook this way. In fact we had some this evening with our dinner.

Little Gem Lettuce from last Winter which
helped keep us in fresh greens through to March.

Monday 3 October 2022

Border troubles

With the Summer drought it was a challenge trying to keep the long border going this year. This was its second year and it did not meet the expectations of at least matching its inaugural year, even with regular watering.


Flowers went over more quickly than usual and it was difficult to keep up with the dead-heading which is usually needed to prolong flowering periods. There were too many days when the sun blazed so hot that wilting, scorching and running to seed overcame many plants. 

Some of the tender annuals did well and the late Summer/early Autumn flowers, also, after some rain and cooler weather eventually arrived. With the border in rapid decline there are still flowers to pick for the house. 

Sunday 2 October 2022

Last of the peppers

I have been gradually clearing the greenhouse as plants run out of steam. Today I picked all the remaining sweet peppers so that they won't be lost in any cold spells. There are still some aubergines but they don't look to be growing any larger. There are also a few tomatoes coming through still. 

At some point soon I will clear the lot as I will want the space for some winter crops. I will need to freshen up the beds, once cleared, by giving them a good soaking and then incorporating some quality compost I hold back in reserve for this very purpose. I'll give the glass a quick clean, too, to improve light levels as the days shorten and turn grey. 

Last of this year's peppers. One refused to turn red.

Saturday 1 October 2022


Quince trees are known for being tolerant of dry conditions and this seem to be the case with our tree. It has produced a fine crop of quince fruit which are turning from green to golden yellow which means that they will soon be ready for picking. This is not surprising given that they originate from the Caucasus region. Quince also produce very attractive white flowers with a pink flush early in Spring. They need cold conditions to produce flowers. Unlike our apricot tree which flowered well but failed to fruit because of late frosts, the quince tree was untroubled.

Quinces are known for being hard and very tart so not to be eaten straight from the tree however inviting they appear.  A bit of processing is needed before they can be deemed edible and I suppose for this reason they are not popular fruits here. We have previously used them as an added ingredient to apple crumble which adds a fragrant flavour. We have also had them baked. 

The oft recommended way to use quince is to make quince 'cheese' which is a firm, sliceable fruit jelly. In Portugal quince is called marmelo, and was used as the original marmalade. In Spain quince cheese is known as  membrillo and is very popular there. We are going to have a go making quince cheese this year and  will report back later as to how we get on.

Friday 30 September 2022

Taking down a trellis

It has been rather chilly first thing in the morning lately and today there was a damp mist to emphasise the arrival of autumn. The memories of the excessive heat of a few weeks ago are beginning to fade.

The drought has taken its toll on some of the crops in the vegetable plots. Some never really got fully underway, such as celery which really does benefit from moist soil. Others, such as courgettes, ran out of steam quicker than usual. Salady things struggled to get established but, now with cooler conditions and some rain, we have a fine row of Cos lettuce. Runner and French beans have finally responded to the late rain and are now providing a belated harvest. On the other hand, the tender greenhouse crops have thrived very well indeed.

The last week or two I have been clearing away some of the spent vegetable plants, digging up the remainder of the potatoes and pruning out fruited canes. A gradual process of decline and dismantling but with thoughts of the next growing season in mind.

The noted Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu captured this cycle of life in one of his poems:-

Taking Down a Trellis   by Du Fu (712-770)

The sticks I tied already wither and fall,

The gourd leaves are getting sparse and thin.

It's lucky that the white flowers fully grew,

You have to help the green vines fade away.

There's no end to the sound of insects in autumn,

Whatever's in the minds of the sparrows at dusk?

Now, the world is one of cold and waste;

Human life has its beginning too.