Friday, 22 April 2016

Food and shelter in the garden

Yesterday proved to be much more productive than I had expected it to be. I was rather tired after the activities of the last few days, so had thought that yesterday would be a very gentle, quiet, resting day. But over a cuppa Mr J and I discussed what we needed to do in the next few days and found that we were both spurred on to tackle a task or two.

You know that situation when you want to do something, but at least three other things need to be done before you can tackle the one you want to do? Well, that's where we are. There always seems to be half a dozen tasks to be done before the one we have on our minds.

We have a rat family living under some pallets on which we keep the firewood and we need to get rid of them. We've bought an electric rat trap which apparently works quickly and with minimal pain to the rats. All you do is put it down with some bait in it for a few days so that the rats get used to feeding from it and then after a few days, turn it on and zap, one less rat! So, that's the theory. In reality, the rats aren't the least bit interested in it, they can be seen scuttling back and forth to the chicken feeder, helping themselves to a neat source of food.

So I thought if we removed the chicken's feeders from the stable (which has become the chicken condo), the rats would become hungry enough to start taking the food offered in the trap. However, moving the chicken food outside into the field means that it is open to the elements and will get soggy in the first rainfall, turn into mush. So the obvious answer was to create a feeding station shelter.
We headed outside and rummaged in the old piggery to see what we could find that may be of use. We had success with some treated wood post off-cuts and a small sheet of marine ply. After careful planning (read as trial and error) and changing my mind about the design several times, Mr J cut the posts to length and screwed the legs to the marine ply. Job done!

Once we'd put the chicken feeder underneath it, the girls took no time to inspect their new feeding station and give it their approval.

Mr J and I had also discussed where we would site the reclaimed shed that will become the new larger chicken house. It became clear that the best place was behind the chicken condo to the side of (what will eventually be) the garden room. This placed it part of the way across the space where the double size compost bin sits. In one of those 'we can just' conversations, we agreed to reduce the size of the compost bin by using any compost that was ready to go onto the garden and turning the compost heap once again into a single pallet size compost bin.

I did the easy job of partly dismantling the large compost bin and moving the ready to use compost into bags ready to take to the vegetable garden.

Mr J, I think, got the short straw and shifted the best part of a cubic metre of partially decomposed compost into the far end of the large compost bin. This compost heap comprised mostly brown material and was rotting down quite slowly, so we took the opportunity to create layers of the existing compost and some of the grass clippings to add nitrogen to the mixture, heat up the compost pile and hopefully speed up the decomposition process. We watered the heap between layers to ensure a good moisture level and covered the pile with a couple of old rugs to help keep the heat in.
This morning I have been out to have a quick look at the compost heap and it has settled already. The top layer (which was one the bottom yesterday) looks very close to being ready to use and if I am stuck for compost to add to the raised beds, I will raid the top of this compost heap.
Now we enough space to lay the base for the chicken shed. Next week we will be collecting some reclaimed paving slabs to use to make a flat base and luckily we have found some sand in a dustbin and in a couple of bags in the piggeries. I think there may also be a half bag of cement in there too, so we will be able to settle the paving slabs on a sand base.

Last night I was given some great advice by folks via Twitter about the best kind of mixture to use to settle the slabs on. So I think we will aim for 5 parts sand to 1 part cement in a mostly dry mix (apparently only just a little water is needed). But that's the chicken shed project and is for another day. It's now time to turn the eggs in the incubator again, make a cuppa and settle on the sofa as today will definitely be a rest day.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Making the Soft Fruit Garden

Looking out of the kitchen windows this morning, I could almost convince myself that a mature and beautiful garden was hidden behind the fence, and one day there will be. Part of the joy of creating a new garden is that the possibilities are almost endless and depending on the state of one's bank balance, that can happen fairly quickly or as in our case, just a little bit at a time over a long period.

While Mr J did some work in his study first thing today, I pottered in the vegetable garden. I planted a row of broad beans that had been started in the greenhouse. I've never grown them before as I really don't like them, but Mr J does and so that is a good enough reason for me to give them another chance and of course, if I still don't like them, I can freeze any surplus in single portions or dry them to rehydrate in the depths of winter for him to enjoy out of season.
Oriental Poppy Royal Wedding, like these ones from Dobbies
In the perennial border I planted three oriental poppies that Mr J bought for me from a local shop that had reduced them from £3 each to 49p (a bargain if they grow well - or at all!). I love these big, blousy flowers that shine for a fleeting day or two before the petals fall and they start to make attractive seed pods.

After 5 months of working on the house, yard, chicken condo, perennial flower bed, shrubbery and vegetable garden, we finally started work on the soft fruit garden today. A couple of months ago I started to dig a bed to mark out where the soft fruit garden was going to be and since then it's sat, untouched and ignored. Far from the soil breaking down into a friable crumb as it was exposed to the weather, all that happened was that the clods of soil became as hard as concrete hard blocks.
So this morning I took the trusty spade to it and started to break the hard blocks up and make it more useable. Once it was in a more crumbly state, Mr J brought barrow loads of compost, from the first compost heap that we made, to enrich the soil and give it a better structure. The soil at this end of the paddock is in much better condition than that near the house, but still it needed a fair amount of compost to give it some body and add some nutrients too.
With the first bed prepared, we soaked the large pots of raspberry canes that we lifted from Mr J's mother's garden last year and started to plant up the bed. I've planted twelve autumn fruiting raspberry plants in this bed, we have about eighty plants so I think that I may need to plant an additional row along the middle of the bed too, but for now I will see how we get on.
After a quick break for a cuppa we started digging out the next bed for raspberries. We were about half way through the process of lifting the grass and turning over the soil when I suddenly realised how hungry I was. So, we have left the second raspberry bed as is and headed indoor for a late lunch and will continue with it tomorrow.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Cut and compost again

Yesterday was grass cutting day in our corner of Wales. Our neighbours obviously thought so too as we could hear lawn mowers being used on the other side of the hedges and fields. Mr J got out our trusty lawn mower (which is far too small for the task really) and headed towards the paddock which we are slowly turning into our fruit and vegetable garden. In the meantime the ducks use this area to forage for nice things to eat and so, we don't want to let the grass grow too long.

Having a fresh batch of grass clippings meant that I could make another compost heap. I've been collecting the wood shavings, straw and poultry manure from the chicken and duck house together with finely chopped kitchen waste in readiness for having more green material to make a new compost heap.
As Mr J mowed the grass, he put the clippings into a pile and I raked the area for grass left behind by the mower. It didn't take very long before we had a decent size pile of grass cuttings. I put a layer of straw and wood shavings in the base of the wire hoop made from pig netting, then a layer of grass. Next I added a layer of partially rotted animal manure and wood shavings that I had mucked out of the stable earlier in the year, topped with some more grass. On top of that went some garden soil to add the essential microbes, bacteria and fungus to aid the breaking down of the grass and brown matter.
Between each layer I soaked the heap with water to ensure that the compost heap would rot down well. And as with previous compost heaps, we will turn it regularly to mix the contents and to add air into the heap. 

This was as much as I could do yesterday, so today I will continue to layer grass, partially composted manure, straw and garden soil on to the heap and water well between each layer. I will also sprinkle on some wood ash from the wood burners and shredded paper and cardboard that has been saved in the recycling bins. Then I will cover it with some pieces of old carpet that have been saved for the purpose to keep the heat in.

The amount that we have in the heap at the moment is approximately the size of the heap that I put into the green compost cone a week or so ago. The new heap should end up about twice the size it is now and if there is still some grass left over from this mowing I will keep it in a separate pile. Then I will mix in poultry bedding and manure as I clean out the chicken and duck houses each day until there is a decent size heap in a 50/50 green and brown mix and I can cover that and leave it to rot down too.
We hope to source some more used pallets so that we can make solid structures for the compost heaps on this side of the garden. They work very well on other side of the garden in the chicken's field, allowing us to pile one cubic metre of composting material into each bin. I would also like to find some more of the compost cone bins because, although they don't hold as much as a pallet bin, I can move them more easily around the garden when I want to create a compost heap in another area. To this end, I am checking Gumtree and FreeCycle daily for any that are being offered free of charge.

Over the next few days, Mr J will tackle cutting the grass in the chicken's field and the front garden, which will add to the grass cuttings pile. Actually, it will more than double it. This means that I should be able to create two or three more large compost piles that can rot down over the summer and go into the raised beds in the autumn.

The soil in the paddock is rather poor despite having been home to alpacas and a pony with the last owners of our house. I would have expected the manure from these animals to have improved the soil over the last four years, but it is mostly a very sandy, poor quality soil that has been highly compacted under the animals feet. It will take several years and a large amount of well rotted compost to improve the soil to a rich and fertile one.

It's time to put the kettle on before I head out into the garden.