Friday, 20 May 2016

Breaking down and building up

I got up at silly o'clock again this morning to find that the eggs in the incubator were cold. Not just a bit cool but stone cold, it appeared that the incubator's heating element had broken at some point in the night. I struggled with all sorts of emotions about this, I went through upset, tearful and irritated to accepting that there was nothing I could do to change what had happened and that we would work out a way get a new incubator and start again with a fresh batch of eggs. The silly thing is that I felt I had let Mr J down, even though I had no influence over the incubator breaking down. Having undertaken to try to produce as much of our food as we can, we had a loose plan of building up our flock of chickens to the point where it would be self-sustaining. And, although this is only a small set back, I felt miffed that it wasn't all going as well as it would in my imagination.

So we did what we always do in this kind of situation, we talked through our options and looked for a positive and for what we'd learnt from the failure of the incubator.

After breakfast we headed off to the local town to do a supermarket shop. I started to feel decidedly unwell while we were shopping so on our return I went to bed for a few hours to sleep. When I woke up in the middle of the afternoon I felt much improved although still a bit fragile, and headed outside to see what I could manage to do with the rest of the day.

The raised beds we have put into the kitchen garden are currently four inches deep and our plan is to raise them to eight inches over the next couple of years. To grow parsnips this year, I think we need to have a deep bed so that they can develop long roots, I don't mind if we have short carrots, but parsnips are my favourite vegetable, so I'd like them to have a good root run. This means that at least one of the beds needs to be deeper this year. Looking around at the materials that we have on the smallholding, I realised that we had quite a few broken pallets and the dismantled packing cases that we picked up last week. So I asked Mr J to cut the wood into 8 - 9 inch lengths that I could stand up on the inside of one of the raised beds to make the sides higher allowing us to fill the bed to a depth of 8 inches. They didn't need to be fixed into place as the soil would hold them in place, so this seemed to be a relatively easy answer to the deep bed requirement.
I like the way the height of the wood pieces changes, it reminds me of the seaside for some reason. We realised that we may not have quite enough wood to finish the job, so had another look around at what we might be able to use and Mr J spotted a couple of drawers from an old wardrobe. He dismantled the drawers and we used the front, sides, back and base of each drawer around the edge of bed. It's now quirky, if not downright silly, but I am really pleased with the result.

With thanks to the chickens for doing such a good job at scratching through the material mucked out of the stable back in December and January, this raised bed now has around 7 inches of light and fluffy compost in it and is ready to have some top soil mixed into it and the parsnip seeds sown. I am hoping that I haven't left it too late before planting for the seeds to germinate this season.

Our smallholding is neither glamorous, nor pristine, but it is functional and probably most importantly for us, it's a lot of fun!

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Hatching plans

It's been a mixed bag of activity over the last three days. Mr J has completed the shredding of the Leylandii hedge off-cuts and I've continued to make the pallet fence around the kitchen garden.

On Tuesday morning we had to go to the local town to do things like banking and pick up some supplies, but on the way home we called in at our village pub. Not because either of us wanted to a drink or to eat, but because one of our neighbours told us that they had seen several pallets at the back of the pub. So I popped inside and asked the landlord if they needed the pallets and if not, could we have them. To my delight the pallets were available for us to have. So we piled seven pallets into the back of the van and made our way home again. After that we went to the garden centre to buy a few eight foot bamboo canes and some small bags of topsoil to allow me to create pockets to plant in amongst the (vast amount) of compost that we have used to fill the raised beds.

I put the canes into the super-quick raised bed that I made from filling cardboard boxes (read more about it here), ready to plant the runner beans plants that I started in modules in the greenhouse.

Wednesday morning I spent a lovely half an hour planting the runner beans out and then surrounding the bed, on the most windy side, with wind reducing netting. I'm growing White Lady and Flavourstar, which are both white flowered varieties.
We've been struggling with find a way to keep the ducks food dry from the rain and we've decided to build a feeding station, similar to the one we made for the chickens, but in the meantime I wanted a way to keep the rain away. So I used an empty milk carton and cut a hole in the side of it, which the ducks seem to like and I like too. I think that the duck has finished laying for the year, or has slowed down as we haven't seen an egg for the last couple of days.
As I've had a couple of nights of poor sleep, my days have been punctuated with naps, which probably don't help me to sleep the next night, but like many people would, I struggle to get through the day when I've had poor quality sleep and then got up at four in the morning. Anyway, this means that I have done several smaller tasks, but nothing that required sustained energy or enthusiasm.

I have been fascinated by the speed at which the chicks are growing. My guess is that Big Red is a male and Little White is female, although time will tell. They have been enjoying time outside, but I am hesitant to leave them out for too long when it's windy as they don't have a mother hen to snuggle under if they get cold.

So, this morning after they had devoured a dandelion breakfast, they went outside for about an hour and a half. As they sky got cloudier and the air cooler, I took them back inside. They have been registering their objections ever since, Little White has a particularly loud and shrill tweet. If you can't view the video above, it can be found on youtube here.

The chicks should be off the heat and ready to move to their own special pen in the chicken condo by the time they are four weeks old. This will just give us time to disinfect the box that they are in now in readiness for the next batch of chicks that are due to hatch at the end of the month. I am hoping that we have a male chick from this next batch of eggs, that way we will have a couple of cockerels to pay attention to both the Cream Legbars and hybrids and also to the Jersey Giants. As we don't have plans to sell the birds or their eggs for hatching at the moment, it doesn't matter which cockerel paid attention to which hen, it would just give us a supply of fertile eggs for continuing the flock.

We eat quite a lot of chicken, so I think we would probably want the equivalent of two or three birds per fortnight and if we had a broody hen to care for the eggs and chicks, that would be ideal. But these are all hopes for the future, at the moment we are buying in fertile eggs, using an incubator and caring for them ourselves. It's really not too much work, other than ensuring that we remember to turn their eggs regularly and the chicks are just a delight to watch so they don't feel like any work at all.

Today we have tidied up the last bits of wood from the hedge cutting. The larger stems (that we cut the branches off and shredded) have now been chopped up to go into the wood store area to dry out before winter.

I've planted out some cabbages that I started in modules in the greenhouse. They are January King variety like these ones from The Organic Gardening Catalogue. They have gone into the same bed that I planted the first batch of purple sprouting broccoli into a couple of weeks ago (or it could be kale, I can't remember without going to look at the label). The straw mulching has kept the soil moist and I was pleased with the texture of the soil which comprises homemade compost and the very poor soil that we've dug from a heap in the paddock. To my surprise it felt like it had some body to it, without being sticky like clay would be.


We've screwed together one more raised bed frame from pieces that we had already prepared, carried it to the vegetable garden and lowered it onto the thick card layer that I'd placed on the ground a few days ago. I'd also taken several barrow loads of compost from the chicken's area and piled it onto the cardboard, so all that is left is for us to add some soil to the bed and it will be ready to plant up too.

We made a start on the base for the second hand shed that will be the new chicken shed. We have a few paving slabs (that we sourced second hand), so using a long batten of wood and the spirit level attempted to make a flat base for the wooden frame on to which the shed will be built. The process was slowed considerably by eight little helpers who felt the need to scratch about and peck beneath each slab as we lifted them to reposition them, but we think we have now managed to put down enough level paving slabs to build the wooden base frame. The shed will replace these two small chicken houses which will free them to be moved and used for broody hens or chicks before they are large enough to be in with the flock.
We were delighted to find that a third Cream Legbar has now started laying. They are still laying very small eggs, but there were enough of them for us both to have a blue egg omelette for breakfast. It took four of the little eggs to make what would be a two egg omelette if we were using Diesel's eggs.

Last night I enjoyed watching Doncaster Knights v Bristol Rugby on TV. It was on a pay for channel (both Mr J and I refuse to pay for umpty-um channels that we are unlikely to watch when there is an utterly superb television service that we already pay a television licence for), so begrudgingly I paid for the one day pass, so that I could watch two hours of television.
I am very disappointed that I haven't been well enough to go to a single match this season. Having worked for Bristol Rugby for the previous couple of seasons, I rarely missed a match as I worked on match-days running the junior fan-zone area. However, I will be going to the final match of the season next week, hobbling around with my walking stick, because I am hoping that this will be the year that Bristol Rugby get promoted once again to the Premiership. Obviously it won't be the same this year - being part of the operational staff team and on the pitchside for the matches has a completely different feeling to sitting in the stands and watching it. But it was great last night to watch the lads that I've got to know over the previous few years perform so well in the first leg of the finals. Next week, Lucie and I will join around 16,000 people at Ashton Gate Stadium to watch both teams battle it out for a place in the Premiership. I've been lucky enough to have been employed to do some really amazing work, but I think that my time at Bristol Rugby was probably the happiest paid employment that I've had. For me it doesn't beat being self-employed, but it was a pretty close second.
Creating a smallholding is hard work, probably much harder than it would have been twenty years ago, as we are both older, achier and more tired. My body conspires to ensure that everything is a lot of effort including the basics like walking or bending and I spend swathes of the day in pain, but I love it (being on the smallholding, not the pain!). I like the fresh air, the feeling of being in touch with nature, of working with it, of being part of something bigger and of the continuous potential for learning yet more. We have both been on not-so-much a learning curve than a crash course in everything homesteading! For two fifty-something year olds, who have spent much of our lives working in offices, I am rather proud of just how much we have already achieved and am delighted at our 'we can do that' attitude.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Fences, hedges, paths and structures

It's been a bit hectic here, but what a difference a few days can make. There have been some major changes on the smallholding and I feel that all of them are for the better. The weather has warmed up and although the nights are still a little cool, the days are warm enough for short sleeves, in fact Sunday ended up rather hot. 

The chicks are growing steadily, their little wing feathers are almost completely formed and Mr J and I decided that it was time to create a larger box for them to live in and to move it out of the kitchen into the boot room. So Mr J popped to the local DIY store and bought some melamine boards for us to use to create a better chick house. At 100 cms long, 57cms wide and 53cms high it is twice the size of the first box that they had.
Once their inside accommodation was sorted, I turned my attention to giving them some space outside to run around in. I am keen that they feel the grass under their feet and fresh air as soon as they can. If they were being raised by a mother hen, she would have had the chicks out on grass by now, to scratch and explore.
So using some panels that my daughter gave me when we got the henhouse from her and cable ties, I put together a very basic run for them. We added their food and water and a small box with sawdust in it, so that they had something familiar to sleep in if they wanted to get warm and an old cotton rug over one end to provide shelter from the sun and also the breeze. The chicks had a whale of a time, quickly starting to scratch about and search for good things to eat. Little White has a particular passion for dandelion leaves which she tackled with vigour and obvious delight.
We quickly came to realise that this run design was not the best and that the chicks would be better with something with vertical sides rather than the ark design. So yesterday I took this run apart and reconfigured the panels to make (what we think is) a rather clever run that can be divided into two or not depending on whether we have one batch of chicks or two. The central panel on the top is fixed into place on one side (the left side in this photo), but not the other side which allows us to divide the two halves without any problems. The top panels on each end are 'hinged' to allow for access into the run. We have bought bolt locks to put on the side panels at the central join. Again this will allow us to separate or keep secure the two halves of the run.
Of course, the two little chicks probably noticed no difference, they just enjoyed the grass beneath their feet, the sunshine and fresh air.
Over the last few weeks, we have been collecting unwanted pallets from here, there and anywhere that they were available, so that I can start to build a fence around the vegetable garden. The first few panels were put up earlier in the week and I have continued to add to them during the last few days. I also created some composting areas along the back of the fence having realised that I use less pallets if I make the fence a dual purpose one, utilising the back of the fence as the back panels of compost bins or bays.
Our neighbour kindly donated several large bags of used wood shavings and chicken manure that otherwise, he was going to take to the local recycling tip. I was delighted to have an influx and now, constant source of additional material for the compost heaps.

So without delay, I got on with making the next compost heap. First I put a layer of straw in the base,
then added a layer of grass,
 and a layer of wood shavings,
Luckily Mr J was using a strimmer to shorten the grass that had grown too long to be useful for the chickens (who had taken to playing hide and seek in it), so I had a fresh supply of green material to use.
 Another layer of grass, watered well,
And then a layer of newspaper and chicken manure from the base of our neighbour's chicken house and then I added a front to the compost heap using part of a packing case. This was more to stop the ducks going into the pile and rummaging around than to keep the pile from spilling out.
I will continue to alternate layers of grass, wood shavings, then more grass, watering very well between each layer being added. A layer of earth and one of the last of remains of the last heap should add the essential bacteria needed to make this heap into rich compost fairly quickly. As long as we keep watering it well  I am hoping that this will be ready to use in about three weeks - optimistic I know, but having already make 3 week compost, I'd like to do it again.

As I type this blog, I can hear the chicks three rooms away, cheeping merrily away, perhaps hinting that they'd like to be out in the fresh air again, but as it's still cool outside, they will have to wait a little longer.

It seems that we got into our stride with tackling some fairly big tasks over the last week, as the garden seems to have come on in leaps and bounds. I laid down a thick layer of unbleached paper and added compost over the top of it to create the next vegetable bed and covered the last bed in straw, so that it is now ready to be planted with onions (started in modules in the greenhouse).
Our neighbour came round to help us cut back the hedge which had started blocking the view and the light of each of the three houses along our little lane. Armed with loppers, saws, hedge trimmers, ladders, chipper and safety equipment, Mr J and the neighbour took about four or five feet off the hedge and it now looks fabulous.
We now had a pretty large pile of Leylandii to dispose of. So Mr J spent most of the afternoon shredding it, while I used the loppers to remove the smaller branches from the trunks that were too large to go into the shredder and taking away the shredding material.
This shredded tree was not going to go to waste, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. I piled it up on the pathways between the vegetable beds where it should dry out and slowly break down over the next couple of years. Once it's broken down, I can add it to the compost heap or directly onto the beds. I am not adding it now, as I seem to remember reading that it could burn the plants as it's breaking down.
Between the beds, it is forming a thick, weed suppressing layer and smells rather nice as I walk on it.
Over the next few days Mr J will continue to cut the grass and as he does, I will create more compost heaps. We now have six of the vegetable beds created, but there are plenty more that need to made for us to get all the young plants that we have into the ground. I am so pleased that we won't have to create vegetable and fruit beds every year and that next year we will only need to add more composted material to the existing beds.

We still have an issue with one of the chickens pecking and eating eggs, so I ordered some coloured leg rings to put on the girls to help us identify the culprit. Yesterday morning, one of the Cream Legbar girls was behaving rather oddly. I sat quietly in the chicken field to watch what was going on and this particular girl was systematically walking between one henhouse and the next, going in, scratching around in the straw, pecking and then leaving for the other house, and in a few moments, would be out again and returning to the first. Mr J joined me in watching what was going on and quickly saw this girl pecking hard at the china eggs we have in the nesting boxes (to encourage the young birds to lay). Without delay, I removed this bird and put her into isolation, this morning I am going to sit in the chicken field once again and watch to see if any eggs get pecked. If they do, then the isolated bird can return to the flock and the offender take her place. If there are no pecked eggs today, then sadly we have a hard decision to make about the isolated one. So I think it's time to make a cuppa, find a book and go to sit in a field with a small flock of chickens.