Yesterday was exciting, not only was it grandson number one's birthday, but I also had two good pieces of news. In the afternoon, Mr J and I went to Bath to give my grandson his birthday gift. We gave him a selection of garden tools suitable for a five year old. My daughter and grandson are creating a small garden area for him to grow flowers and vegetables, so these should help him to create and look after his garden patch.
In the morning I received a message via Twitter (and if you don't follow me on Twitter, you can click on the button on the right to follow me), it was someone who lives reasonably locally asking whether they could come and volunteer on the smallholding.... well yes please! In exchange for a day of labouring, they'd like me to show them how we do everything here. Perfect swap, some physical help for those of us who struggle to get things done and an exchange of ideas.
This is really exciting for me, I am flattered that someone thinks our little smallholding is worth visiting to learn from and delighted that it is someone fairly local. Part of our plan when we moved in was to offer WOOFing opportunities, but I feel that we need to find a caravan or small wooden lodge for people to stay in if we want to do this, so a local resident who can visit for just a day or two without having to stay is the ideal start.
I've been thinking about sources of material for composting to help build our dreadfully poor soil. The compost heaps that I've been making are great and will certainly be useful for improving the quality of the sand and clay soil that we have here. The soil goes concrete hard in spring and at the moment (well over a week since it rained), it is cracked, looks baked, is pale and when I can scrape at the top of the soil, it becomes a dry, dusty powder. When it rains the soil becomes water logged and shows just how compacted it is. Neither of these situations are very good for growing luscious crops. So the answer is to add mulch, lots and lots of compost mulch, the ground is too hard to be able to dig it in, so placing it on top of the soil and letting the worms and microbes do what they do naturally is the best answer to the issue.
What I could really do with is a source of wood chips. We have enough space here to be able to leave large piles of wood chips to rot down and form lovely compost. I've contacted a couple of tree surgeons locally, but neither was terribly interested in bringing chipped trees. I can't find a municipal source (I know that in some places people can go and collect chipped trees for use in their gardens) and so I have had to think about other sources of materials for composting.
Yesterday I phoned a local small brewery to see whether I could have some spent hops and grain. The joy of talking to someone locally is that there is an instant connection because of proximity. I'm also keen to source local materials because there is less transporting. They explained that they currently give their spent hops and grains to another smallholder in the area, but that they would be happy to spread the love and they agreed to give us some spent hops and grain too. The brewery has to keep records of where its waste materials end up and there has to be traceability, so from their point of view a local smallholding is ideal. So now I am waiting for a text to say that they are brewing that day and then we'll need to drive to the brewery, which is just under two miles away, to collect the bags of spent grain and hops. Apparently each brew day will give us about half a bag of hops and seven bags of spent grain.
Spent hops and grain are green materials for the compost heap, rich in nitrogen and other minerals. I will need to make compost heaps by mixing the spent brewery grains with brown materials like sawdust, straw, wood chippings or dried leaves. Looking online, it seems that I will need to make a mixture of about one part spent grains to three parts brown material, so I had better speak to my neighbour and see if they have any more used wood shavings that I can have!
I will need to get the spent grains into compost piles pretty quickly, if I just leave them in a heap on their own after a couple of days they will start to ferment and smell nasty. So, it looks like I will need to find another source of brown material to mix with the spent grain. I am very excited at the prospect of being able to create large amounts of compost over the next few months and look forward to being able to improve the soil not only in the kitchen garden, but also the herbaceous border and shrubbery.
The other thing that I can do with fresh spent grain is to give some to the chickens. Not in vast quantities, but in small amounts to start with. I can offer them some grains in the field and allow them to scratch around to find them in their 'circle of love' - the name that we have given to the area we've made from straw bales and use to put the chicken's kitchen scraps, weeds, wood shavings etc. because the chickens love scratching about in it looking for tasty morsels.
So today, we are off to collect some more straw bales to use to mulch the vegetable beds and in readiness for the spent grains arriving next week.