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