Sunday, 25 September 2022

Show time

Yesterday I was privileged to be asked to judge the, albeit scaled down, Mildenhall Allotments Association annual show. Like a lot of small organisations it is still recovering from COVID. Nevertheless, it was a pleasurable afternoon and it was gratifying to see the fruits of participants' hard work after a difficult growing  season. Such enthusiasm too.

Today it was my turn to be a participant at the Fenland Growers Smallholders and Crafters Club produce show. Quite a wide range of classes, including crafts, photography, baking and preserves as well as fruit and vegetables. Some very impressive wool crafted creations particularly caught my eye, many of them from the wool of fleeces from the crafter's own sheep.

I entered the Green Vegetable Basket class but did not read the instructions properly. It actually meant literally the colour green not the wider concept of environmentally green. Still, I was generously awarded third prize (a dried poppy seed head - not the dried teasel seed head first prize I had set my sights on).

My vegetable basket entry

A rejoinder to the Rt Hon Jacob Rees Mogg

A rejoinder to the Rt Hon Jacob Rees Mogg and Prime Minister Liz Truss, three weeks into the new Government:-

Psalm 104

 Praise the Lord, my soul.

1 Lord my God, you are very great;

    you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

2 The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;

    he stretches out the heavens like a tent

3     and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.

He makes the clouds his chariot

    and rides on the wings of the wind.

4 He makes winds his messengers,[a]

    flames of fire his servants.

5 He set the earth on its foundations;

    it can never be moved.

6 You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;

    the waters stood above the mountains.

7 But at your rebuke the waters fled,

    at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;

8 they flowed over the mountains,

    they went down into the valleys,

    to the place you assigned for them.

9 You set a boundary they cannot cross;

    never again will they cover the earth.

10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines;

    it flows between the mountains.

11 They give water to all the beasts of the field;

    the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

12 The birds of the sky nest by the waters;

    they sing among the branches.

13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;

    the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.

14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,

    and plants for people to cultivate—

    bringing forth food from the earth:

15 wine that gladdens human hearts,

    oil to make their faces shine,

    and bread that sustains their hearts.

16 The trees of the Lord are well watered,

    the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

17 There the birds make their nests;

    the stork has its home in the junipers.

18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats;

    the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.

19 He made the moon to mark the seasons,

    and the sun knows when to go down.

20 You bring darkness, it becomes night,

    and all the beasts of the forest prowl.

21 The lions roar for their prey

    and seek their food from God.

22 The sun rises, and they steal away;

    they return and lie down in their dens.

23 Then people go out to their work,

    to their labor until evening.

24 How many are your works, Lord!

    In wisdom you made them all;

    the earth is full of your creatures.

25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,

    teeming with creatures beyond number—

    living things both large and small.

26 There the ships go to and fro,

    and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

27 All creatures look to you

    to give them their food at the proper time.

28 When you give it to them,

    they gather it up;

when you open your hand,

    they are satisfied with good things.

29 When you hide your face,

    they are terrified;

when you take away their breath,

    they die and return to the dust.

30 When you send your Spirit,

    they are created,

    and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;

    may the Lord rejoice in his works—

32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,

    who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

33 I will sing to the Lord all my life;

    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,

    as I rejoice in the Lord.

35 But may sinners vanish from the earth

    and the wicked be no more.


Job 38

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

2 “Who is this that obscures my plans

    with words without knowledge?

3 Brace yourself like a man;

    I will question you,

    and you shall answer me.

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

    Tell me, if you understand.

5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

    Who stretched a measuring line across it?

6 On what were its footings set,

    or who laid its cornerstone—

7 while the morning stars sang together

    and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?...

Friday, 23 September 2022

Avian flu 2022-2023

In the last few days there have been four separate recorded outbreaks of  the highly pathological H5N1 strain of avian flu in West Suffolk alone, in an area just north of Bury St Edmunds. This is getting rather close to home and we are not far out from the overlapping 10km surveillance zones imposed in each of the cases.

There have been regular cases throughout the UK during the Summer which is a new development. In the past few years as avian flu has gathered pace, we normally expect that the virus moves away with the over-wintering migrating birds that have largely been responsible for introducing the virus to the UK and Western Europe.

In the Netherlands, where they have in fact have had fewer cases than the UK, there has been much political concern to the extent that their Minister of Agriculture has recently resigned over the issue of avian flu. The Dutch Government had proposed banning  commercial poultry units in the vicinity of large expanses of open water. The Netherlands has large expanses of open water. Understandably poultry farmers there are upset.

One of the concerns that has arisen in the Netherlands, and no doubt here too, is that despite strict biosecurity measures the virus still finds its way in to poultry units. It appears that it doesn't take much for the virus to gain access and transmit. A trace of affected bird droppings finding its way in, drips of rainwater running off a roof through a gap, or the activities of rodents, appear to be able to circumvent the tightest of preventative measures.

What appears to be more prevalent this Summer, if I understand correctly, is that the avian flu virus is becoming endemic within indigenous wild bird populations, and there have been outbreaks among wild bird in nature reserves this Summer, for example. It is also known that the virus can infect mammals, including rats, which can contribute to spreading it around. There have also been cases of humans being infected. With COVID still prevalent and rising concern over Monkey Pox, the last thing we need is for another zoonotic epidemic. In the case of avian flu it is worth noting that, according to the Pirbright Institute, all four of the worldwide human influenza pandemics in the last 100 years originated from birds.

The general expectation is that there will be another avian flu lockdown and poultry keepers will need to keep their birds housed again over Winter. Over the Summer I have been steadily putting in place improved arrangements on our smallholding in anticipation to accommodate something in the region of 100 birds we currently keep. This should make life more comfortable and practical for the birds and for us should higher level restrictions be re-imposed.

However, the number of cases we are already experiencing in September, before the migratory season is fully underway, would usually be enough to trigger restrictions. Such nationwide restrictions have an economic impact so the current government's anti-regulatory stance and all-out striving for 'growth' could see a different policy approach. This might tip the scales away from containment (and dare I say public protection) in favour of economic outcomes. A tricky balancing act we have become familiar with in the last couple of years.  

Avian influenza virus, courtesy of Pirbright Institute.

Thursday, 22 September 2022

Better late than never...

We finally vaccinated this year's lambs this week. They get a second dose of vaccine in four weeks time.  There has been a national shortage of Heptavac, the vaccine generally used, due to supply problems (and we know what has been the main cause of that if we care to admit it). I had to put my name down on a waiting list for when new supplies came in. 

Heptavac provides protection against a range of soil-borne clostridial diseases, such as tetanus, and also pasteurellosis. The latter is the most frequent cause of premature death in sheep and results in acute respiratory disease. Adult sheep are given an annual booster shortly before lambing and some immunity from these diseases is passed on to their offspring. This residual protection generally lasts about three months, so we are passed that period already. 

All the sheep are looking healthy, however, and, despite the drought, the ewes have have come back into condition well. Because of the lack of grass, like many other livestock keepers, I have had to introduce hay much sooner than usual, plus a supplementary coarse feed each day.

After the lambs were injected I moved them onto a new field. Towards the end of August we had a day of heavy rain which lasted all day. We have had hardly any rain since but this was enough to get the grass growing again and it has come back better than I expected. The ewes and lambs now have some decent grass for the time being. The reason for waiting until now to move them is that they have some more nutritious feed in the lead up to tupping when the ram goes back in with the ewes at the end of October. 

The sheep are mostly ignoring the hay
now that they have some good grass,
except these two.

Friday, 16 September 2022

Telecommunications superhighway in rural areas

Open Reach are still working on the line to help get our internet service up and running again. After yesterday's efforts there seem to be some improvement at last. They are continuing to work on it to repair "historic faults" on the line. 

This is what our connection to the telephone system and the World Wide Web depends on. It is about 6 feet from the edge of an arable field with all the associated tractor cultivations - literally a 'landline':-

Monday, 12 September 2022

Life before the internet

It has been a full week now since we had a viable internet connection. Most of the time there has been no service and for the brief periods that a connection has re-appeared the signal has been weak. Hence I am typing this post as rapidly as I can and there is no accompanying photograph.

This has been highly inconvenient and shows how dependent we have become on the benefits of the internet for day to day functioning. Much of the administrative aspects of life are now conducted online and this situation is difficult to circumvent at short notice when the internet service suddenly disappears. The problem is with the line. That is the copper BT line - no cable around here. I gather Open Reach were carrying out a repair nearby and in the process damaged some wires. They are still working on rectifying it and have had to close the road a few times as a result.

Most will be very aware of the negative aspects on the internet and the digitalised world we now live in. But overall the benefits have been enormous. Two important benefits as far as I am concerned are the resulting democratisation of knowledge and the decentralisation of expertise. Of course both need some judicious consideration because there are drawbacks to both of these developments too. But, to give one small example, in my smallholding life there have been countless occasions when I have drawn on YouTube to find out how to deal with a problem or to go about a task. 

Of course the world is always changing but it is probably fair to say that the digital revolution has made change much more rapid than in the past. Here's a couple of  changes that spring to mind.

When I was an undergraduate at Nottingham University there was not a computer to be seen, except maybe in a science laboratory. Essays were hand written. But one of the biggest differences from today is that if you wanted to read a reference from an academic journal you had to seek it out in large bound books on the library shelves. If you wanted your own copy it meant queuing for the photocopier and having a enough supply of coins to feed the machine. The most outrageously selfish thing I came across was an article that had been torn out of the bound volume.

In the late 1980s, early in my mental health career, I worked for Barking and Dagenham Social Service Department as a Senior Specialist Practitioner in mental health. This was in the days when services were generic and area based rather focused on specific client groups. If we wrote an internal memo a hand written fair copy was taken to the typing pool and a day or two later a typed copy was returned which could then be put in to the internal post for circulation. The same process applied to external letters. These had to be written in the name of the Director of Social Services which resulted in a rather cumbersome third person style. A world away from emails and the velocity of communication we contend with nowadays.

The local authority was quaintly old fashioned. The staff restaurant was waitress service with waitresses wearing black dresses and white linen pinafores and matching lace headpiece. These were the days when it was possible to factor in a lunch break before professional life accelerated to the point that for me lunch breaks were squeezed out. This, too, can trace its origins to digitalisation.

A smallholding life is thankfully much slower. But I notice that even those who share their experiences of living off-grid seem to find it necessary to accommodate connectivity with the world wide web. I also wonder how things will be in the future when the cost of energy becomes permanently high (notwithstanding the current energy cost crisis) and even in advanced economies there will be an increasing need for frugality. Will digitalisation become even more or less important?

Friday, 9 September 2022

The queen bee

When I harvested some honey recently I also carried out a routine hive inspection, something that is carried out at regular intervals through the Summer. There are a number of things that are looked for to assess the progress of the hive and its overall health and wellbeing. One of the things observed for is the presence of the queen. In a full hive it is not always easy to find her. However, there are proxy indicators of her presence such as eggs or lava in the frame cells and 'capped brood', that is cells that have been capped within which the lava metamorphose into mature bees. These are all signs that the queen is quietly working away with commitment to the stability of the hive.

The queen is identifiable because she is distinctly larger than the mass of worker bees and very often one way of spotting her is that she will be surrounded by a crowd of retainers keeping her safe. The work of the hive is largely carried out by worker bees but the presence of the queen is critical and she is very much the focus of attention by the hive population. 

The queen emits pheromones, unseen signals of her presence. These play an essential role for the overall functioning of the hive and is the 'glue' that provides cohesion for the community of bees. If something happens to the queen bee, perhaps she has come to the end of her life, the pheromones disappear with her. The result of this is that the hive becomes very unsettled. It can have a de-stabilising effect and disturb the overall functioning of the hive. This will continue until a successor becomes established.

When carrying out a hive inspection, one other characteristic, therefore, is to observe for the overall temperament of the bees. Their behaviour gives in indication as to how settled they are in the hive.  I give a rating ranging  from 1 (calm) to 5 (agitated and angry). Hopefully the rating will come down again soon if it is assessed on the higher side.

Tuesday, 6 September 2022

Surprising Gala

We planted a Gala apple tree two years ago and although it is still diminutive and whippy it produced seven apples this year. When I tried one today it was crisp, sweet and surprisingly flavoursome.


I say "surprisingly" because Gala is such a ubiquitous apple, found virtually year round in supermarkets, but it is very hit and miss to find one that isn't rather bland in taste and texture. They are largely imported from New Zealand where they were originally bred. This means they have travelled some distance to reach supermarket shelves and they are often kept in cold storage to ripen before eventually being distributed. 

The big difference is being able to eat an apple straight from the tree. A very different experience altogether. So it is not necessarily the apple variety that is problematic but rather the system of production and food distribution. 

Gala apples were first cultivated in the 1930s and are a cross between Kidd's Orange Red and Golden Delicious. Kidd's Orange Red is a descendant of Cox's Orange Pippin so comes from a renowned pedigree. The colouring of Galas provides a clue to its origins. 

We are appreciative of the fact that we are able to grow and enjoy a number of different apples varieties here. But finding a local grower who has a farm shop or supplies locally so you can get the freshest apples in variety can be worth the effort. More than likely, in the future, it will become an increasing necessity anyway.

Saturday, 3 September 2022

Late honey

As I was walking past a mature ivy plant I heard an immense buzzing. The flowers of the ivy are just beginning to open and the ivy was covered in lots of honey bees working with their usual industry collecting nectar. In late Summer and early Autumn, before the weather turns cold, ivy is an important food source for bees. They need to ensure that they have enough honey reserves to see the colony through the Winter and other food sources are rapidly depleting. 

I was a bit late harvesting honey so I was quite conservative in how much I took this year. As we are currently down to one colony this only amounted to four full frames of capped honey. From these I extracted a modest 6lbs of honey. The bees have a full super still to draw upon.

A 1lb jar of 2022 honey

Friday, 2 September 2022

Innocent chick

Every morning and every afternoon for the last couple of weeks, when I walk past the shelter in which I store straw, a woodpigeon flies straight out and I have got used to ducking to avoid it. She has laid a couple of eggs on top of the stack of bales. I last took a look after she flew out the day before yesterday and there were still two eggs she was incubating. I thought I would take another look today and one of them had hatched. It looked enormous against its sibling-to-be, still encased in an egg.

In our open fronted barn and our straw shelter, a nesting pigeon is not an unusual occurrence. Other regular locations are deep within the wisteria climbing the front of our house, and in a dogwood hedge to the rear. We often see them drinking from the pond at the end of the patio. 

We have lots of pigeons around here and they feed well on the arable fields in late Summer. In the Spring and early Summer they target the brassicas in the vegetable plots, hence the lengths I have to go to provide crop protection. The pigeons are a frequent cause for complaint but coming across a nesting hen nurturing its chicks softens the heart and of course we have to forgive those who trespass against us.

Thursday, 1 September 2022

The sweetest sweetcorn

If there is one vegetable that exemplifies the oft-cited claim that home grown tastes better than shop bought, it is sweet corn. Freshly picked sweet corn, cooked without little delay is sweet and flavoursome. This is largely to do with the fact that once picked the sugars in the kernels start turning to starch. By the time sweet corn is picked transported packed and distributed to supermarkets much time has elapsed and with it the sweetness dissipating. We pick them just when we are ready to cook them. 

I grow a variety called Swift. It is reputedly an early variety but generally ripens for me during the second half of August. We are munching them regularly at this time. No need for butter or any condiments, plain boiled is flavoursome enough.

Extra cobs picked because we have guests.

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Dehydrating fruit

Now is the season of preserving fruitfulness. One of the ways of making harvests last and spread the fruits of your labour though the year is by applying different preserving methods to store produce. At this time of the year we make a lot of use of a dehydrator. There are lots of things you can use it for but we primarily use it for dehydrating plums and apples which are usually plentiful at this time of the year. 

There are recommendations about how long to put various fruit, vegetables and even meat to dehydrate but  trial and error produces the best results. We halve and de-stone plums and cut apples into slices and aim to dehydrate them to the point where they still retain a little chewiness. The process of dehydrating fruit results in a heightened intensity of flavour. 

You can add the dehydrated fruit to cooking or breakfast cereal but we mainly treat them as a snack. We like to think they are a healthy snack because no sugar or any other ingredients are added - just the fruit on its own.

A tray of apple dehydrated apple slices. The
dehydrator can accommodate 9 trays.

Plums and apples.  Several more jars of each to come.


Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Chillies and their accompaniments

Having long been accustomed to an oriental oriented diet chillies quite often feature so it makes sense to grow our own, which I do every year. They can be grown outdoors in a sunny spot but with a greenhouse or polytunnel you can get a reliable crop. The conditions this Summer have been particularly conducive for growing chillies. As indeed has been the case for other greenhouse crops. Aubergines, sweet peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes have all been bountiful this year. I began harvesting some of the chillies today.

This year I have grown Hot Mexican, Early Jalapeno, and Hungarian Hot Wax. The latter are relatively mild so are useful if you want a chilli flavour but not too spicey hot. Chillies do have a distinctive flavour - its not all about heat.

Chillies freeze well so they can be used as needed throughout the year. So many of our meal preparation starts with chopping up ginger, garlic and a chilli. If not the latter, then spring onions. In terms of growing your own, of these, ginger is the one which presents a problem. It is difficult to grow decent sized roots and to keep them going over Winter. It is a while since I last tried so plan to have another go. Its is becoming increasingly possible to consider growing more 'exotic' fruit and vegetables in the UK, alas, for all the wrong reasons.

Saturday, 27 August 2022

Orange, black and white hairy caterpillar

I was watering the plants I am growing on in the cold frame today and saw this colourful caterpillar on one of them. 

After examining photos online and reading about their habitat and lifecycle I have concluded it is the caterpillar of the Knot Grass Moth. Apparently quite common and widely distributed across the UK. It is very similar to the caterpillar of the Yellow Tail and the Brown Tail moths but all in all I am sticking with the Knot Grass Moth. But happy to be corrected.

The adult moths can be seen between May and July and there is a second brood in August and September which fits with the caterpillar found today. The caterpillar feeds on herbaceous plants so this one turned up trumps in my cold frame. 

The adult Knot Grass Moth looks like this (courtesy of

Thursday, 25 August 2022


This morning I had the seemingly novel experience of tending to the livestock and opening up the poultry houses accompanied by thunder, some amazing lightening and, most welcome of all, some heavy rain. I know some parts of the UK have already experienced this, but around here, apart from an hour long light shower one day last week, this is the first significant rain we have had for several months. The forecast is that it should continue for much of the day. There is hardly any breeze so the rain is falling straight down. I can see big puddles forming where the rain is not soaking in but hopefully, if the rain keeps up, it eventually will.

The pigs are normally ready and waiting for me first thing but today they were slow to emerge from their arks. They were clearly not as impressed with the weather conditions as I was. I took the opportunity to top up their straw bedding as I suspect it will be an indoors day for them today.

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Seasons running awry

Running a few errands, I nipped into a shop to buy a couple of gardening bits. The section of the shop normally displaying gardening tools and accessories was fully displaced by this:-

I know its a commonplace to bemoan the annual premature marketing of Christmassy products, but in August, when its 26 degrees centigrade and even Halloween barely on the horizon? 

We are all aware that the seasons are getting out of sync. but this one can't be anything to do with climate change.

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Common Burdock

When out walking in uncultivated areas or long grass, especially at this time of the year, there is a risk of burrs attaching themselves to your clothes. Socks are particularly vulnerable to them. The problem is that you cannot detach burrs without them leaving behind multiple splinters which have to be picked out one by one. Being long haired, our golden retriever often succumbs. 

This is exactly how it should work. Burrs are the seed heads of the burdock and they have evolved an efficient means of seed dispersal through animals (and humans) brushing up against them so that the individual seeds eventually get deposited some distance away from the parent plant.

Around here the Common Burdock (Arctium minus) is indeed very common, growing along the edges of drove ways as well as in rough grass. Before they turn to seed the flowers are quite attractive. They are thistle-like and in two tones of purple (another late Summer purple). 

Common Burdock. The flowers have just
gone over and the seed heads (burrs) have 
nearly ripened ready to catch a passing animal. 

Through history burdock has been ascribed many medicinal and nutritional benefits. Perhaps nowadays burdock is most famous for the invention of Velcro. Swiss engineer, George de Mestral (1907-1990) was intrigued by the way burrs clung to his dog, something which many of us have experienced, during a hunting trip in 1941. After examining the structure of burrs under a microscope he came up with the idea of the hook and loop fastener which he patented as Velcro.

Monday, 22 August 2022

Red Duke of York

With the fall in day time temperatures to a mere 25 degrees centigrade I took the opportunity to resume digging up the potato crop. I had previously unearthed two rows of Charlotte and two rows of Red Duke of York. Today, a third and final row of Red Duke of York. Six more rows of other varieties still to go.

The potato crop has been pretty good so far and we look to easily have enough to last through to next year's crop is ready. The photo below represents one row. There is a little bit of scab on some of the potatoes which is not unusual in drier soils. However, it is superficial and leaves no blemishes once peeled.

Red Duke of York is unusual in being a first early with red skin. It retains its red colour after cooking.  We don't generally eat them as 'new potatoes'. I have previously recommended Red Duke of York, as the best potato for roasting and indeed for chips (we have discovered the ingenious simplicity of 'air fryers' for the latter). They store very well too. As do Charlotte. 

I have never felt any desire to plant potatoes now and grow on in a protected environment to produce 'Christmas potatoes'. Ours are already waiting for this occasion.

Sunday, 21 August 2022

Late Summer purple

Whereas Spring is dominated by yellow, as we move into late Summer blues and purples come very much to the fore. This is true in gardens, where blues and purples, such as scabious, asters and, a particular favourite, verbena bonariensis, are often effectively contrasted with deep red, such as crocosmia 'Lucifer' or the burnt orange of rudbeckias. It is also true of wild flowers at this time of the year too. I recently extolled the beauty of harebells growing in drought-ridden grass. 

Dotted along the bankside of a dyke today could be seen clumps of purple loosestrife ((Lythrum salicana). Their purple spikes stood out among the reeds which characteristically grow along fen dykes. They looked very well situated without any need for the intervention of a garden designer.

Saturday, 20 August 2022

Plum tomatoes

Today's main harvest was the first pickings of San Marzano tomatoes which were grown outdoors. These are a plum tomato variety, similar to Roma, which have thick skins and lower water content but still have a sweetness. They are excellent for cooking with. We grow these primarily for passata, jars of which are being prepared as I write. We use this a fair bit in our cooking and its years since we last bought tinned tomatoes. The passata will store in jars for more than a year or two based on our experience. I also picked lots of basil which I grow in the greenhouse and is one of the ingredients that go into the passata. 

San Marzano tomatoes with
Sungold tomatoes alongside.

Friday, 19 August 2022

Black bullaces

Bullaces are small, 'wild' plums. They are much smaller than cultivated plums and more spherical than the oval of damsons, greengages or the related mirebelle plum, also often seen growing wild. When ripe the the black bullace is a deep wine red colour. This is also when they are sweet enough to eat raw. 

They are a sub-specious of prunus domestica from which the many plum cultivars, such as 'Victoria', are derived. There are different forms of bullace which varying colours but the common wild type is  the black bullace. 

In some of the drove paths I walk there are neglected stretches of old mixed hedging and it is in such settings that you are more likely to come across bullaces. Ever vigilant for such opportunities I saw a tree with uniformly ripe bullaces within arms length. The small haul made a contribution to a fruit salad later in the evening.

Thursday, 18 August 2022

Plums and what to do with them

Today's harvest is plums. Our elderly but esteemed plum tree (with have younger ones coming on) is absolutely laden this year. I picked this bowlful standing in the same spot. 

It seems to be a good year for established fruit trees. We look to be having bumper harvests for apples, walnuts and quince as well as plums. 

Pies and preserves for sure, but we will also dehydrate a lot of the plums, cut in halves and de-stoned, and store in large Kilner jars. Nothing needs to be added to them. Dehydrating them intensifies the flavour and they will store well into next year. They make a very tasty snack. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2022

A drought resistant crop

Our blackberries are cropping extremely well and today I picked another bowlful. The blackcurrants and gooseberries were reasonably abundant earlier in the summer, but the redcurrants, which crop a little later, were scorched in the hot sun. Having gone through weeks of hot dry weather (still no rain for us so far!) I was surprised to see so much ripe fruit on the blackberry bushes.

Blackberry bushes in the wild usually fruit well left to their own devices often in quite rough ground, and so maybe it should not be surprising. The advantage of growing cultivated blackberries at home is that you can get thornless varieties which makes picking them a more comfortable process. I tie in the stems to a stake and wire set up like raspberries which also makes the fruit more accessible. The fruits are also much larger than wild blackberries.

However, given that blackberries are generally freely available in the countryside and in parks (best to avoid roadside bushes) I wouldn't grow them at home unless I have the space to spare, which we are fortunate enough to have. On the other hand, if you have young  children in particular, it can be quite an adventure to go blackberry picking.

Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Sleeping under the stars

Still not a drop of rain so far here but we have tentative hopes for later today. The nights have been muggy and some choose to sleep out in the open to stay cool.

Monday, 15 August 2022

Ave Maria

I grow several Hostas, mainly in containers to better protect against snails, but also  some in a border. I like hostas for their bold leaves although their flowers are certainly a bonus. 

They are all beginning to look somewhat stressed this year because of the prolonged hot, dry conditions however much I try to keep them watered.

One Hosta in particular is noted for its fragrant, white flowers. This is Hosta plantaginea. This Hosta typically flowers in August and for this reason is sometimes also known as the Assumption Lily. 


Saturday, 13 August 2022

Another drought tolerant wild flower

There are patches of harebells here which are a regular Summer feature. This patch are growing out of the parched grass. The only difference is that they are much shorter compared to what they normally grow to. 


Friday, 12 August 2022

Crispy Suffolk

The BBC published this satellite image of England and Wales today on their website. Much of the East and Central England has turned brown and Suffolk and Norfolk look particularly crispy. Not surprising an official drought has been declared although different regional water companies will apply their own responses as they see fit. So far no hose pipe ban from Anglia Water. 

I am hearing  more and more stories of concern from farmers and the like about how their crops and livestock are being affected. I have seen quite a few herds of cattle and flocks of sheep gleaning what they can from fields where there is no green grass. We are feeding our small flock hay plus some coarse feed supplement. This morning I collected another load of hay which should be enough for the next 10-12 days.

The forecast is not looking very encouraging and there could be a knock-on effect into next year if we have another dry Spring or do not have some sustained rainfall i the Autumn and Winter. It is 32 degrees centigrade for us today and 34 degrees is predicted for tomorrow and Sunday. Along with a couple of others we had arranged to help another smallholder erect their new to them polytunnel on Sunday. It has been called off because of the weather. This was a wise decision but like mad dogs and Englishmen I had been prepared to go.

Thursday, 11 August 2022

Choosey chicken

We look to be having a very good crop of apples from our Blenheim Orange apple tree this year. A couple of times recently, however, we have noticed some rustling and pecking high up. One of the chickens has also noticed the apples and, ignoring the windfalls that  are freely available on the ground, prefers the choicer selection higher up.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

Swan family re-appears

It has been nearly eight weeks since I last saw sight of the swans with their signets. They have not been in their usual haunts. Then, this morning I found them not 20 yards from our front gate. They appeared to be taking advantage of the shade of a small clump of trees and shrubs in a dyke which then stretches out into open farm land. Pleasing to see that all eight of the original hatch were present. 

Thursday, 4 August 2022

The field to the rear

This is the view to the rear of our holding today. The farmer has just finished combining a field of rye. The straw bales are the large ones, about 2.4m in length and weigh about 500kg, often known as Hesston bales. The bales were in the process of being collected. They go to a nearby livestock farmer and eventually return sometime later as manure to be spread on the fields in the Winter.

There is not a day that I do not look across this field and watch it change through the seasons. In a month or two it will be brown and soon after that flush with fresh green.

Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Luxurious lilies

The water lilies in the pond are oblivious to the continuing drought. Any rain forecast is determined to by-pass us. Hopes were high on Sunday but they were not to be. In fact I was driving back home from Gedney Hill late afternoon and when I reached the Denver Sluice near Little Downham there was a heavy downpour, but when I reached home thirty minutes later not a drop had fallen where we live.

Back to the water lilies. They are only in their second full Summer and up to now there have been flowers but only in solitary succession. Today there were four flowers in full bloom simultaneously. They have such an elegant but geometric look which, along with their colouring, can't fail to catch the eye.

Water lily Nymphaea 'Charles De Meurville'

Incidentally, I have not been able to discover who Charles De Meurville was but do know that the particular lily cultivar named after him was developed in 1931 at the renowned Latour-Marliac nursery in France. It was founded in 1876 by Joseph Latour-Marliac (1830-1911). He was good friends with Claude Monet and it was from Latour-Marliac that Monet purchased a large supply of water lilies (and other plants) when he had his lake at Giverny built. This, of course, became the subject of his famous series of water lily paintings.

Claude Monet water lilies at Giverny

Saturday, 30 July 2022

Lady's Bedstraw

We had a light sprinkle of rain in the early hours on Wednesday morning but otherwise still no rain. Thats eight weeks for us here without rain of any substance. Bear in mind too that we had a dry Spring and April showers failed to materialise. It is not officially a drought but in practice it is for us. The heatwave Summer of 2018 was the last time it was this dry. We are  feeding the sheep hay and I know of a cattle farmer who is already feeding his herd silage which was intended to see them through the Winter. The lack of grass growth means that feed costs are going to go even higher for livestock farmers. All this will eventually lead to still higher prices for consumers. 

I came across another plant that seems to be coping very will with the droughty conditions. This is Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum) which forms a dense mat of spikey foliage from which frothy yellow flower panicles emerge.  Lady's Bedstraw is common in dry, sandy grassland and hedgerows. It can be a bit inconspicuous but at the moment vibrant green patches in sunburnt grass causes it to stand out a bit more than usual. 

Its called Lady's Bedstraw as it used to be added to straw-filled mattresses for adding fragrance, particularly for women who were due to give birth. According to Norse mythology it had a sedative effect which helped during labour. Frigg is the Norse goddess of married women and it is also known as Frigg's Grass. 

Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum)

An oasis in the burnt grass

Friday, 29 July 2022

Aubergines 2022

Our greenhouse crops are having a very good year with bumper harvests from the tomatoes, cucumbers and chillies. There are plenty of peppers on the way and aubergines too. I picked the first of the aubergines today from one of the plants that have been planted directly into the greenhouse bed and which are more advanced than the pot grown aubergines.

Aubergines need a longish growing season to give the fruits time enough to grow and ripen. This means sowing the seeds in early February and then looking after the seedlings until it is safe enough to plant them out into a greenhouse. I usually eventually pot them on to 8" pots and generally they do quite well like this, although you need to ensure that they are well watered and the pots don't dry out. In a heatwave that means at least twice a day watering. This year I also planted three plants into the greenhouse bed and they have got away more vigorously, perhaps because they have extra moisture and a bigger root run.

We rather like the way Sue, who leads a quiet life in Suffolk, prepared hers and will give that a try.

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Lunchtime treats

We have been despatching some ducks this week. One of our lunch time treats when we sort out chickens and ducks is to have their offal for lunch. Plucking ducks in particular is a bit of a tedious task so it helps to have something to look forward to. Quite often this is stir fried kidney and heart flavoured with some light soy, ginger, garlic and sweet chilli. It only take a couple of minutes to cook. 

Not everyone likes offal. I think I have mentioned before that I partly put this down to over cooked liver served up for school dinners in the past. Nowadays its difficult to find anyone who sells it; even in the traditional high street butcher offal has become pretty scarce. When you take a sheep or a pig to the abattoir you have to make a point of saying you want the offal back, too, otherwise they automatically bin it which is a bit of a waste. Setting aside the offal when despatching poultry at home is of course not a problem. 

Today it was the testicular option. A quick pan fry with salt and pepper served on home made toasted sourdough.  

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Small tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell butterflies are common to see in the Summer, and sometimes quite late into the Autumn. This one stayed sufficiently still for long enough whilst I fumbled around for my phone to take the picture below. They are surprisingly colourful when you get a chance to see them close up rather than just a quick glimpse as they flutter by. Look at the blue scallops on the bottom edge of the wings. This one was resting on some sandy soil where earlier some drips had escaped from a hose I was trailing around. 


Monday, 25 July 2022

Swallows - a second brood

At the end of June I mentioned that I had discovered a nest of swallow chicks in our barn. When I looked a week later the nest was empty and the chicks had presumably fledged. Finding the swallows nesting was a nice surprise. I thought that was it and hoped that they might return next Summer. 

Today when I went into the barn I saw two adult swallows flying in and out and heading for the same corner. I waited until both had flown out again and had a quick peek. Yes, some new eggs for a second brood. 

Friday, 22 July 2022

The resilient rock rose

A few of these flowers spring up each summer, which I think is the Common Rock Rose (Helianthemum nummularium). It grows in a rough bit of compacted, weedy grass where delivery drivers reverse on to and which I use as an occasional drop off point for any orders of concrete blocks, bulk bags of sand, timber and the like. The resilience of the Rock Rose is impressive. Even the recent blistering heat did not perturb them. The plants seem to thrive with these conditions rather than merely tolerate them.

Common Rock Rose - look how fresh the foliage is
despite the heat and drought conditions.

Thursday, 21 July 2022

New batch of chicks

We collected a new batch of twenty, day old chicks today to grow on for meat. We usually get a batch in the Spring and sometimes a second batch later in the year. We are sequencing this later for this year as it is likely to be better in terms of the annual distribution of workload. 

The poultry producer was on his regular delivery run and the handover was just off the Barton Mills roundabout on the A11 as he was on his way to Norwich. We'll meet there again in November.

We'll keep the chicks undercover in the workshop for four weeks, gradually weaning them off heat. By this time they will have feathered up and can be transferred to their outside house and run. They grow surprisingly quickly.

Hatched this morning. Back home and
about to be transferred to their
brooder pen.