Saturday, 11 June 2016

Not quite the last straw

I feel like I should apologise to straw, I have underrated it for far too long. Since moving here I have come to understand just how useful it can be. We use it as bedding for the chickens and ducks, to create walls to section off areas for the chickens, for mulching, for covering pathways and for making compost.

Yesterday was a busy, but fun-filled and satisfying day. After feeding the birds and mucking out their houses, I continued weeding the herbaceous border and I am so pleased that I let the weeds grow to see what was growing in the land. By seeing what weeds grow, I can start to assess the condition of the soil and I also wanted to see if there were any seeds of hidden gems in the soil. And what I discovered was that there were lots and lots of field poppy seeds just waiting for the right conditions to germinate and flower. The first of the cheerful red flowers with their delicate petals opened yesterday morning, so I have weeded around the poppies and hopefully the plants will self-seed all through the herbaceous border.
The potatoes growing in the old tractor tyres are coming on very well, so I topped up the growing material to the rim of the tyre. This would be called earthing up, if I had any earth to use that is! With a lack of fertile, useable soil in the garden, I decided to use wood chippings that are partially broken down. I watered it well to moisten all the chippings.

Inside the house, a little bit of tidying and sorting was followed by baking a Cinnamon Marble Cake (click on the link for the recipe) and checking on the progress of the Elderflower Wine that is quietly fermenting in a five gallon bucket in the kitchen and on the water in the incubator which is now on day 4 of incubating our next batch of eggs. Both Mr J and I have commented about how much nicer it is with our new incubator to not need to be turning the eggs every few hours as it has an automated turning facility. I don't think my daughter knows just what a fabulous present she bought for us.

As rain had been forecast for the afternoon we were keen to get the roof onto the shed to prevent the internal walls from getting soaked. So while Mr J tacked the first strip of roofing felt onto one side of the roof, I started to strip the old felting off the second side. It became clear that the second side of the roof needed more than just a fresh layer of waterproof roofing felt, one of the internal struts was rotten and about half of the roof's wood (that the felting is fixed to) would need replacing.
We had so much to do yesterday that we realised that we weren't going to get the repairs done as well as the other jobs, so with the help of a neighbour we lifted the one side of the roof into place. We then covered the shed with a tarpaulin to prevent the rain from getting in through the open side.
 Then we headed off to the farm shop and filled the van with straw bales once again. We can fit eight bales into the van, it makes the journey home is rather smelly and dusty, but it doesn't take too long. This morning I have discovered a much closer farm that sells straw and hay, so we will explore that one next time we need to buy more straw.

After that we ate a late lunch of a cheese salad made with lettuce, herb fennel and mint picked from the garden with homemade elderflower cordial and cake. It's great that we are starting to eat produce from the garden and I feel like our plans and hard work are really starting to show results now.

Later in the afternoon we went to the local brewery to collect our first batch of spent hops and grain. Good grief, the bags of grain were heavy. The brewer helped us loads the bags into the van, but he won't always be there so Mr J and I will have to summon up big muscles when that happens.
When we got home, we emptied part of each bag into the wheelbarrow and emptied the van half a bag at a time and created two piles of used grain in the garden.
One smaller pile (two and a half bags of grains seen above) in a space between the herbaceous border and kitchen garden and one large pile near the compost bins (four and a half bags of grains). I mixed one bale of straw with the smaller pile and heaped it up to create a large pile leaving the larger pile of grains so that I could tackle that this morning. When we have some more topsoil (hopefully at the start of next week) I will cover the smaller heap in soil to keep the moisture in and add some bacteria and I'll leave it for a couple of months or so to rot down.

The bag of hops will be put directly onto the soil in the raised vegetable beds and should break down readily while feeding the soil and improving its structure.

I mulched the tractor tyres that have the potatoes growing in them with straw to keep the moisture in and to raise the level of the 'earthing up'. As the wood chips and straw settle in the tyres I will add another layer of straw and keep it topped up.

This morning after I'd let the chickens and ducks out of their houses and mucked them out, I started to make a compost heap with the large pile of spent brewery grains. Using wedges of straw about three or four inches thick I lined the sides of a compost bay and put a layer of loose and fluffy straw on the base.
I did this because I understand the smell of composting spent grain can be pretty pongy and the straw casing should help to contain it. I then made a lasagne style heap inside the straw casing.

A layer about two inches thick of the spent grains was followed by three or four inches of fluffed out straw. At the top of the heap I added a thick layer of straw as a lid.
I really like the way this looks, it reminds me of a summer pudding, the contents hidden away. And, despite the straw that it poking out of the sides, I think it looks rather neat too. All of this covering things with straw  gave me an idea.
So I topped the previous compost pile with some straw too. There are steady plumes of steam rising from it especially from the aeration holes that I've made in it, to allow more oxygen into the heap. When I first turned this pile earlier in the week (and added some more freshly cut grass clippings into it) it came to the top of the blue pallet that you can see on the left, so it's shrunken down by a good six to eight inches in that time. I imagine that is this due to compaction rather than the materials breaking down (although that would be very nice). The heat of the compost pile can be felt at the top of the pile and it's almost uncomfortable to put my hand into the pile. The ideal composting temperature is somewhere in the region of 140 - 150 degrees F, I don't have a compost thermometer, but one may well feature heavily on my Christmas wishlist.

We've had a constructive couple of days and we both needed a bit of a break from the non-stop shovelling of materials around the smallholding so I was quietly pleased when it started to rain at lunchtime and had the perfect excuse to come inside and curl up in front of the telly. Shortly after putting on a DVD, I fell asleep and slept deeply for a couple of hours - bliss!


  1. Make sure you keep it moist. My father in law once had a ton of hop waste delivered—a lot of it blew away! And a word to the wise...take care with wood chippings. If they're not rotted down well enough already, they'll rob nutrients from the soil as they decay. Mulching is *always* a good idea, though. I love reading your blog.

    1. Thank you for your kind words Christina, I put the hops on top of the soil to start with but have now started to dig it in to the soil because, yes, it was blowing around. I had planned to have huge piles of wood chippings to rot down over the next couple of years, but as I am struggling to find them, I'll have a rethink for something else that we can use instead.


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