Saturday, 25 June 2016

Abundant garden, the value of growing our own Part One

Part One - The Finances
Sometimes I wonder whether we'd be better off just buying all our food at a supermarket and then I remember that even if we could source all the chicken, duck, fruit and vegetables that we'd like, organically grown, that they would still have miles to travel to reach the kitchen and we'd lose some of the vitamins and minerals that we'll be accessing by the ground to table journey being just a few yards. And we've chosen to use as few food miles as we can. So wherever possible, when we have to buy, we are buying from local producers, local farmers and local suppliers.

Now I'm not being unrealistic here, there are some things that I just can't provide from our plot. We can't grow our own bananas or olives and while pineapples are possible, they are probably not cost effective given the amount of space and heat that they'd need to grow well (given that I'd eat one or two a week if I had the chance!). Lots of herbs can be grown, but many spices can't. We don't have enough space for pigs, sheep and cows. So I know that if we are going to eat the foods we like to eat (and because we both have food sensitivities, that we can eat) we will have to buy from shops, farmer's markets and stores.

We could for example, just buy in all the organic produce instead of growing it, but it would be beyond our current budget. If I got a job to pay for half of the food, it would need to be one that was completely flexible over my hours of work and where would I find an employer who would be happy for me to stop and have a three hour sleep in the middle of the morning because I have worn myself out or start work at 4.30am because I am up or work at 10 at night on a Sunday? By working on our smallholding, at my own pace and in my own time frame, I can contribute to our family finances by reducing the amount that we need to spend each week whilst also, and more importantly, taking more control of the quality of the food we eat.

Not only are we growing food for ourselves (and to some extent my daughter and sister), but also for the chickens. By supplementing the bought in organic chicken food, we can reduce those costs too. So I've planted kale (which neither of us like very much), sunflowers, spinach and other winter hardy greens that can either we can eat or can be given to the chickens. I hope that the chickens like plums and damsons as we have half a dozen large trees in the garden and although Mr J and I like plums, there is a limit to the number of plum crumbles, jars of jam, brown sauce and sticky plum sauce that two people can eat in a year.

So earlier in the week, as a brief exercise and not at all in a scientific manner, I hopped onto the internet and did a mock online order of our average weekly shop of chicken, fruit and vegetables, only the ones that we are growing, to discover how much it would cost if we purchased all of those organic foods online. Once the basket got to £100 I stopped because without a doubt, growing in our own garden is worth it.

This year, our first year on the smallholding, was always going to be a hectic and not totally productive one. Often, when I'd like to be tending the garden, there are other jobs that need doing which are setting up tasks rather than productive tasks. For example, Mr J and I have spent around fifteen hours this week preparing the second half of the roof for the shed and putting in the floor of the shed. This is time that I could have spent tackling the area behind the piggeries, to make use of the highly fertile but weed choked soil there. I know that there will always be tasks that take me away from the food production, but our first year or two are likely to have more these structural type tasks than later years will.

The other task that has surprised me with the length of time that it requires, is learning. I spend two to three hours a day reading, researching online, processing the information I've read, making notes and keeping records. Although I have been gardening for over thirty years, there are many fruit and vegetables that I've never bothered growing as I didn't have the space to grow them or they were so cheap in the shops that it didn't seem worth it. Now that we are eating organic produce and we have plenty of space, everything seems worth growing and so I am finding out just how much I don't know!  Neither of us have kept chickens or ducks before so everything about them is new to us. It took a few months to feel confident handling the chickens and to start recognising their behaviour patterns and I am sure that learning about them will be a lifelong experience. We don't handle the ducks at all, unless it's absolutely necessary for their safety or health. They hadn't been handled when we got them as adults and they get very upset when they are handled, so respecting that they aren't comfortable with us touching them, we give them a wide berth unless it cannot be avoided.

The 'having a few chickens' idea started out as just that, we thought it would be nice to have a few chickens around and to have fresh eggs. As our confidence grew, we realised that there was a source of almost free food that we would be foolish not to make use of. But it's a different mind set, needing a different approach and making the transition from a few pet chickens who, as a side benefit, lay lovely fresh eggs to raising birds for meat has been every bit as hard as I thought it might be. There are some chickens that are pets, Jack and Diesel for example, who came to us from my daughter's home are very much pets. Even though they are getting less productive as egg layers, they will have a home with us until they die of natural causes. Big Red was our first born chick and although not a pet as such, it will be a very emotional day should we need to dispatch him and I have a big soft spot Little White who hatched a few hours after Big Red. 

By the time we got the Cream Legbar chickens we had already decided not to keep more hens as pets and so they were not named and were given a collective name, the highly imaginative 'The Legbars'. Interestingly, when I put coloured rings on their legs and they could suddenly be identified individually, it became more difficult not to think of them as little individuals. They are, however, with us for a reason.
We want blue eggs and once The Legbars become less productive they will become table birds. When we first tried blue shelled eggs from the supermarket we were surprised at just how rich yolks were and decided that we wanted these from our own hens. As we've become more experienced, we've realised that any of our birds' eggs will have rich, deep yellow yolks because they are being fed good quality food and free range all the time, giving them access to fresh air and grass each day, all day. As they have only recently started laying, they will have a couple more years living in the field and enjoying doing what chickens do naturally before 'that' time comes. But this raises another dilemma for us, we can't wait for over two years to put meat on our table, so the decision was made to raise our own meat birds and the clutch of eggs from which Big Red and Little White were hatched were supposed to be our first meat birds. Well, that was a failure because only those two little chicks hatched and we grew very fond of them.

Our next batch also failed, the incubator's heater broke one night and left our eggs cold and dead. So, our third attempt to raise meat birds is almost at hatching stage. The eggs are due to hatch in three days time. Hopefully this time we will have enough birds hatching that we don't get attached to them. We know what we are doing a little more now and we've made the decision to not have them in a pen in the kitchen for the first couple of weeks. They will live in the boot room for a week, then they will be transferred to the chicken condo until they are a month or so old and no longer need a heated brooder before moving to their own outdoor house and pen. This distancing of the chickens will, I hope, help us to feel more detached whilst still being able to offer them the good life that we think they deserve before I dispatch them in a few months time.
Once this most recent batch of eggs have hatched, I will clean the incubator and put in some more chicken eggs and some duck eggs. These have been laid by the ducks with no names (that I call Frederick and Mrs Warne). They were sold to us as Aylesbury ducks, but I am not convinced that they are pure breeds. They are however, big healthy birds and I can see no reason that the eggs should not be fertile and it would be a valuable source of protein if we manage to raise some successfully. My brother-in-law has requested a duck for their Christmas lunch, should the hatching be successful. It's not so much the hatching that worries me, but whether I can butcher them once we have fluffy little ducklings around the smallholding!
The kitchen garden is just starting to provide us with some food. We have been eating the first lettuces and herbs and this morning I checked to see how the broad beans are developing. I picked the largest pod and popped it open to find these little beans nestled inside. They really aren't much bigger than garden peas, but still, I am going to enjoy that I have grown something new and in a couple more weeks we should be able to start harvesting them.
There are some plants in the kitchen garden that have failed. My first sowing of spinach didn't grow beyond three inches high before starting to go to seed, so I think that they didn't get enough water, or perhaps I left them too long before planting them out or it is the result of the poor soil quality in the garden. The second sowing are now two inches high, I have planted them out more quickly, given them more space and in enriched soil, so I hope that they grow better. Some, like the cannellini beans, have been devoured by slugs despite going into the garden each morning to collect and dispose of all the slugs that I can find. We aren't using any chemical pest control, so my options are to have beer traps, barriers or hand removing them. I have been hand removing them, but think that a few beer traps would also be a good idea.
This weekend we will be taking our now regular trip to the garden centre to see if they have any cardboard boxes that we can have to use in the garden. Hopefully today we will finish the shed that will become the new chicken house with enough space for about 36 - 40 chickens, I will be preparing the incubator for hatching on Tuesday, finish making the latest compost heap with the spent grain collected from the local brewery a couple of days ago and complete creating the next raised bed. But first, as always, it's time for a cuppa!

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