Saturday, 4 June 2016

Permaculture, potatoes and pumpkins

The more I learn about permaculture the more it makes sense for what we are hoping to achieve here at home. Over the last couple of days I have made use of the excellent scratching job that the chickens have done near their houses.
In early winter, not long after we moved in, I piled a large amount of wood shavings, hay and manure in what became the chicken field. They have spent the last few months scratching through the heap, leaving their droppings on it and turning the heap over and over. The vast majority of the light and fluffy compost has now been used in the raised beds, which left us with an area that we know has been well composted and should be full of nutrients. So, it doesn't seem to make sense to leave it to grow back as grass or worse still, super-charged weeds and to that end, yesterday I sectioned it off from the chickens using four feet bamboo canes and some chicken wire.
I've planted it with Maris Piper seed potatoes, I have no idea if it's too late to plant them as I've never grown potatoes before, but it will be interesting to find out later in the year how they have done. Having watered them in well, I then covered the area with straw as a mulch to help reduce weed growth and in the next few days I will plant a few squash plants through the straw into the soil beneath. This should make this nutrient rich area a highly productive one.
 Back in the kitchen garden proper, I've been working on the next raised bed. Earlier in the week I part filled some more cardboard boxes with top soil and homemade compost and yesterday I divided the soil mixture even further so that there was just a small amount in each of the 16 boxes that make up a raised bed.
We then went to my sister's home to collect some more composted bark that she has had in a field for a couple of years and doesn't need. I topped up each of the cardboard boxes with this composted bark and mixed it in well with the topsoil and our homemade compost.
This morning I have planted one seed potato in the corner of each box and a squash plant in centre of each box. So in this bed there is a mixture of Maris Piper potatoes, both green and yellow courgettes, yellow and white patty pans, butternut squash and pumpkins. The latter two I have planted at the ends of the beds so that they have room to run riot along pathways.

Yet again, I have no idea how the plants will do in this growing medium, it certainly isn't soil as I'd normally think of it, but as long as there are enough nutrients in it and as long as I can add to the soil mix to increase the nutrient levels if I need to for this year, then that will do me.

These boxes will be watered well and then mulched with straw to keep the moisture in and suppress weed growth. At the end of the growing season, all the plants will be cut down and either left in place to rot down or added to the compost heap and the soil will be given a good layer of compost from the oldest heaps to improve the soil and build up the level of soil in each bed.

Building a new vegetable garden is an interesting process. Almost all of the ideas that I had when we put in the offer on the house (but before we moved in) have been laid aside because the soil is so poor and having lived here for a while, I am more aware of the local weather conditions, which areas are more shady and which just get baked by sun and dried by the wind coming up from the estuary. What is being created is actually so much nicer and more fun to work in than the kitchen garden space I had imagined.

I'm learning all the time, I spend a while each morning reading and watching informative videos and just as importantly, I spend some time thinking about how the information that I'm gathering can be applied to our garden and still have it look as attractive as I'd like it to be.

I am delighted that the seed potatoes I planted in old tractor tyres last month are now growing. I've started to top up the soil level in the tyres and as we collect more well rotted compost from my sister's home and our next compost heap is ready, I will add more.

This evening we were supposed to be going to see the Stereophonics in Cardiff, I have been looking forward to it for months. I had tickets for their last tour but wasn't well enough to go, actually at that time I couldn't get out of bed, let alone be up and about or dancing. So I was delighted to have tickets for tonight's gig and sensibly I had bought seated tickets so that I didn't overdo it and have to leave early. Well it seems my body is conspiring against me because shortly after planting a few seed potatoes and squash plants this morning, I started feeling unwell and have spent most of the day on sofa, either asleep or feeling very weak. Hey-ho, that's the way it goes sometimes. And, so the tickets weren't wasted, we have given them to our neighbours who are delighted to have an unexpected evening out. Because I don't feel up to venturing out, I intend to spend the evening watching more videos and reading about organic gardening and about permaculture.

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Thursday, 2 June 2016

Thoughtful Thursday

Yesterday evening, after a lot of planning, Mr J and I (with help from our neighbour) bolted together the body of the second-hand shed. This will be the new chicken shed (a chick shack) to replace the mini village of small chicken houses that they currently use.

The small houses will not go to waste, far from it, they will become home to chicks and young birds until they are large enough to join the flock and can be used if we need to isolate a chicken due to broodiness, ill-health or if they are a new arrival that needs to be kept separate for a while.


This morning we had a visit from Anna, whom I have known since 1979 when I met her at the college we both attended. Anna and I have been firm friends ever since and although we don't see each other very often, we always meet up when we can and about ten years ago I went to stay with her for a week or so. When we were 18 years old, Anna moved to Australia. She only went for a year, to gain some catering experience and see another culture, but she decided that she loved it there and made her home on the other side of the world. She lives on the beautiful island of Tasmania and my memories of it are of clean air, good quality light and a very relaxed feel. We have one of those friendships that has little communication between visits, but then we pick up where we left off as though it was only yesterday that we last saw each other. I treasure our friendship.

After Anna had left I pottered in the garden for a while and as it was starting to get very warm outside, I headed to the shady area next to the piggeries. This back garden area is shaded by several very large sycamore trees and we have left the grass to grow long except for a couple of pathways through it which Mr J cut for ease of getting around. I enjoy the way the grass moves in the wind and the seed heads sit like a frothy foam above the rich green grass stalks. The previous owners had planted lots of flowering plants and herbs in this area and bit by bit I have been moving them to other areas of the garden. Today I spotted this lovely combination hiding amongst the tall grass. The sage has huge golden-green leaves and the grey leaves of the Nepeta contrast nicely with its purple flowers.
I spent quite a while watching the wind move the grass and listening to the birds singing. I think it's really important that we take the time to enjoy our environment and I probably don't do it often enough. Mr J and I are so lucky to have found this beautiful place and even more fortunate to have been able to make it our home.

While I'm walking around the garden I always keep a watchful eye for seedlings and young plants that have self-seeded. These voluntary plants are starting to form the basis of a hedge along the last stretch of fencing that doesn't have a hedge yet. Today I found a couple of hornbeam seedlings that have seeded themselves from the hedge that surrounds the back garden. In the next few days, I will move them to the other side of the smallholding where I have started the hedge with some willow, small conifers and honeysuckles. To this I will add the four small trees that my daughter gave me for Mother's Day earlier in the year, a couple of sycamore seedlings (which are around a foot high at the moment) and a horse chestnut seedling given to us by my daughter's father-in-law. I've potted up some tiny hawthorn trees, but will let them grow for another year or so before planting them into the hedge. I also plan to take cuttings from the young hedge that I put around two-thirds of the paddock in the early spring. Then I can add wild rose and dog rose to the final stretch of hedge.

My friends and family are being very generous in giving us plants for the garden and now our neighbours have invited me to have a look around their garden to see if there is anything I'd like cuttings or divisions of. It won't take long for the shrubbery and herbaceous border to fill up and fill out. The vegetable and fruit garden are also being planted with gifted plants. Loganberries, oca, herbs and seeds have been given and we have repaid some of folks' kindness by giving them eggs and the promise of jams and chutneys once the plants have grown.

By the greenhouse I've checked on the courgettes that I gave some nettle tonic to and they seem to have improved already, so this morning I watered the courgettes that are planted in the garden with the tonic mixture and hopefully in a few days they will have picked up too. I haven't noticed any flying insects in the greenhouse and there is also very little breeze in there, so I think I will need to hand pollinate the tomato flowers this evening to ensure that we get a good crop of tomatoes this year.

On Tuesday, while we were out and about, Mr J and I called at the garden centre and bought a triple blade hoe. So shortly I'm going back out to the garden to tackle some of the weeds in the herbaceous border, but first, as always, I'll make a cuppa.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Long lasting gift of flowers

Fragrant deep pink red rose
I first started to enjoy gardening when I was about 22, when my son was just a year old and, as a gift from my parents, the garden of my rented flat was tidied up and made suitable for a small child to play in. It was then, with the encouragement of Geoff Hamilton each Friday night, that I first started to experiment with taking cuttings. Soon I tried taking them of all sorts of plants, cuttings that friends and family had given me, little pieces snapped off bushes over-hanging pavements (don't tell anyone!) and cuttings from plants in my garden.

It was a few years before I realised that there was another great source of material to take cuttings from - bouquets and bunches of flowers.
Gift bouquet of flowers from my friend
So, nowadays, whenever I am given flowers, like I was last week by my friend Cath, I have a look to see if there are any flowers that I would like to have in the garden and whether they have enough material for me to take cuttings.

Yesterday, when the roses were past their best, but not entirely dried and dead, I prepared the roses for taking cuttings. Actually, that's a rather glamorous way of saying I pulled them out of the vase starting with the yellow ones.
Yellow rose from my bouquet of flowers
 Using a sharp knife, I cut the flowers off just above the top set of leaves and trimmed the base the of stem to just below a leaf node. I also removed extra leaves leaving just three to five on each stem, so as not to stress the cuttings while they are forming roots. Then I put the cuttings into an old milk bottle, which allows a long length of stem to sit in water, and labelled each milk bottle so I'd know which was pinky red (and very fragrant) and yellow and placed them on the kitchen windowsill.
They will stay there and I'll top up the water as necessary for the next few months. They should form fragile little roots and towards autumn I will carefully plant them into compost and transfer them to the greenhouse for the winter, before planting them into the garden next spring.

They won't all take root and they won't all survive, but some should and what an easy way to boost the flower collection in the garden, without any cost and most of all, I think this is a lovely way to continue enjoying a gift long after the original bouquet is on the compost heap.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Tempus fugit

Some days I wonder how the day slips by so quickly. Yesterday was one of those days, I had breakfast and blinked and then it was lunchtime and before I could look, it was half eight at night. I was tired all day, my eyes were hurting before breakfast time and probably I should have gone to have a sleep, but I didn't. I am so excited about each new day at the moment that I want to make the most of it.

In the morning, I laid some more cardboard onto the grass between raised beds and started to cover it with conifer tree shreddings. The pile of shredded conifer had dried out on the top, but was full of grey dust in the centre, so I stopped moving it until I had suitable protection over my nose and mouth.
I am just a little concerned that the dust is some sort of spore that wouldn't be a good idea to breathe in. When I showed it to Mr J he commented that it almost looks like ash, so now I wonder whether the pile had heated up to an extent that it burnt on the inside of the heap, leaving the outside dried but not burnt.

In the vegetable bed that was created by placing top soil onto cardboard without wooden sides or cardboard box edges, I mixed in light and fluffy composted wood shavings and hay that came from the stable and the chickens have scratched through. I raked it level and then realised that it was much deeper than it needs to be, so scraped off about three inches of soil and put it into cardboard boxes that we got from the garden centre on Saturday. This means that I can also start to plant in another bed. We will eventually put wooden edges around all of the raised beds, but for speed, we are creating beds using cardboard laid flat on the ground and also filling cardboard boxes. Read about our cardboard box raised beds here.

Anyway, having sorted out the bed I started to plant it. Two double rows of mangetout plants with a row of seeds of spring onions and flax (for the flowers) between them. Two wide drills of organic pea seeds, four rows of carrot seeds and three of cornflowers and finally 6 fennel bulb plants. I still have space for one row of seeds and for two plants, but I haven't decided what I want to put into these spaces yet.
The boxes with some top soil in them are placed to create another bed and today I plan to add some homemade compost to them to enrich the soil and give it some water retention property and then to plant butternut squash, courgettes or patty pan into them.

We realised that it's time to visit my sister's home once again and collect some more of the bark chippings that she has stored (and is delighted that we want to take) and some more of the horse manure compost that has been rotting for about four or five years and is now rich black, fine and crumbly compost. No matter how many compost bins I have on the go, I simply cannot make it in great enough volume for the garden at the moment. Once we have got through this first year here, I should be able to make enough compost. Our neighbour has kindly agreed to keep donating the used wood shavings and straw from his chicken houses and we have the contents of our chicken houses to provide plenty of brown material and the green material will come from grass clippings and green waste from the flower and vegetable garden. And, once all the raised beds are made, we will only need to top dress them with a couple of inches of compost and then mulch each year rather than needing to fill raised beds. Going to my sister's home would have to happen another day as yesterday was disappearing fast.

I've noticed that several of the plants that I've grown from seed are starting to look very pale and I suspect that they are lacking nutrients. The soil on our smallholding is of very poor quality and although we can build up the nutrient levels over time, these poor plants need a tonic now. So, looking around the smallholding there are a few things that I can make a tonic from. I have some calcium that was extracted from egg shells to make it into a form that is readily available for the plants to take up and there are some stinging nettles. So it will be a quick stinging nettle tea tonic for the plants today.

Mr J and I started taking the second hand shed (that we bought about a month or so ago) to the chickens' field. These jobs always take longer then expected and, even though I am getting better at changing my expectations, I still get incredibly frustrated that we can't do as much in any one day as my imagination tells me that we can. If only my imagination could put up sheds and create raised beds! So with some careful measuring and basic maths we calculated the length of 2 x 4 battens that we would need to build a base for the shed. We want to raise the shed off the floor a little.

We had already laid and levelled some paving slabs for the battens to sit on and Mr J has now cut the lengths of wood that we'll fixed into a simple frame with a couple of cross braces on which to sit the shed and place the shed floor. Before we could carry the shed sides around to the field, we needed to remove nails and panel pins from the inside of the shed walls and repair along the base of one panel that was much more rotten and damaged than we had initially thought. Mr J went to the local DIY store and bought a couple of lengths of 2 x 2 to use to repair the damaged shed wall frame and once the shed is up, he will replace some of the weatherboarding to make the shed warm, dry and secure again.

So, we have the shed walls next to the place where the shed is going to be, but the wind had started to pick up and we were exhausted so have delayed putting the shed together until we have a less blowy day and possibly until we have friends here to help put it together. Actually, the whole process would have been much faster if I had been laughing less, so much time was taken up by fits of the giggles that it slow us down. I love that Mr J and I get on so well, that we can laugh together, at each other and with each other.

In the evening, I watered the vegetable garden and all the plants in and around the greenhouse. Watering can after watering can was used in the greenhouse, each can filled from the water butts, so the greenhouse plants are getting rainwater. The kitchen garden vegetables are, at the moment, watered using the standpipe in the field, but once we have put up some guttering on the barn, I hope to be able to use rainwater in the kitchen garden too. 

This morning the wind is still blowing enough that we don't think we'd be able to put the shed, and I'm tired again, so I've made some nettle tonic for the plants and am taking it very gently today. This afternoon we have to go to the local hospital for x-rays of my ankles (to rule out osteoarthritis) and we intend to pop into the garden centre as we are passing. Although most of the beds are mulched so they don't need weeding, the perennial border is in desperate need of proper attention and the beds that aren't mulched may need weeding, so we thought we'd invest in a long handled hoe. But all that will have to wait, for now I'm going to have a snooze on the sofa.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Recovering days and Elderflower Cordial recipe

After my night out on Wednesday, I knew that Thursday would have to be a gentle day. In the end I slept for over four hours in the afternoon, but felt refreshed and recovered after the much needed restorative sleep.

Even a gentle day requires some basic tasks to be done, the chicken houses need cleaning out (a task that I do daily with a deep clean weekly), plants in and around the greenhouse need watering and weeds need lifting as and when we see them and (yuk!) the continuing treatment of the new rooster's legs needed attending to. They already look much improved and the poor little chap can't help that his legs are in a grim state.

The girls continue to be less than impressed with him and I have noticed that even Jack (who is usually super-keen for the attention of a gentleman bird) is declining his advances. One of our neighbour's chickens however is eager to meet him and Friday afternoon, she wandered into our yard and made a bee-line for the field. Blocked from reaching him by the large fence and gate leading into the chicken's field, she mournfully wandered around our back garden until the neighbour and Mr J gently guided her home again.

I've also continued to move compost from the oldest heap in the chicken's field to the raised beds in the kitchen garden, just doing a little at a time so that I didn't overdo it. I'm finding it very difficult to pace myself slowly to conserve my energy because I am so excited about creating our kitchen garden, about developing the perennial bed and giving the whole place our own stamp.

The postman  has delivered some citric acid, which I had ordered online after a failure to find it locally. Neither the village chemist or the two in the local town stocked it, one told Mr J that they had stopped stocking it after it had been discovered that someone was 'abusing' it. This caused much merriment in our home, what on earth was someone doing to it, calling it names, hitting it? Obviously, it is actually a serious thing if someone was using it for illegal purposes, but the 'someone was abusing it' statement tickled us.

Anyway, the reason I wanted the citric acid was simple, I wanted to make some Elderflower Cordial and while I have found lots of different recipes that include and don't include citric acid, I decided to include it. So, Saturday while the sun was warming the elderflowers on the tree, I picked the open flower heads and took them inside to prepare them. The cordial smells lovely and tastes even nicer. I have filled a couple of bottles with the cordial to keep in the fridge. The remainder of the cordial has been put into ice cube trays in the freezer and then when we want a drink, it will just be a matter of popping one cordial cube into a glass and topping up the glass with water.

I watched several 'how to' videos about making elderflower cordial and all of them baffled me in one way or another. Mostly because they all talked about keeping out of the mixture anything that may make it taste bitter and then they promptly included the very things they said to avoid! So this recipe is the one I've used taking elements of several other recipes that I've read and seen.

Elderflower Cordial

25 to 30 heads of elderflowers, collected on a warm or hot day when the flowers are fully open (beware - the pollen may get all over your clothes!)
1kg unrefined sugar (caster or granulated)
1ltr water just off the boil
1/2 ltr cold water
50g citric acid
One unwaxed lemon

Prepare the flowers by shaking them gently to remove any insects, check them over and remove any brown bits and unopened flower buds. Remove the flowers from the stems using a fork, pick out as many of the flower stalks as possible, leaving just the tiny, fragrant flowers.

Put the sugar into a large glass or earthenware bowl and add the hot water, stir using a wooden spoon to help dissolve the sugar, then add the cold water to help cool the mixture.

Add the citric acid and finely grated zest of one lemon and stir in gently.

Remove all the pith and cut the ends from the lemon and discard. Then slice the fruit and add it to the mixture.

Add the elderflowers and stir gently again ensuring all the flowers are moistened. Cover and leave to 'steep' or 'mash' for 24 hours.

The next day, strain the mixture through a fine muslin cloth to remove all the flowers and lemon from the cordial and bottle and keep in the fridge or freeze.

- - -
So, Friday evening Mr J and I went to Hay Festival in Hay on Wye to see David Gilmour (of Pink Floyd fame) and Polly Samson (his wife and an author) talk about their song writing partnership and the process that they use to write songs. This outing was my birthday gift to Mr J and I wasn't really expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, so that was just a bonus! Hay Festival offers a wide variety of events and although I haven't been very often, I've really enjoyed it when I have. It runs this year until 5th June.

On our journey to and from Hay on Wye, Mr J and I talked about our options for chicken rearing. We have ordered some hatching eggs of White Jersey Giants (like 'Little White') and some Australorp hens, which are black feathered, fast growing dual purpose birds and will be ideal as meat birds. I'd had a long talk with Merv, the gentleman who had supplied us with the Cream Legbar chickens, the cockerel (that passed away) and a second hand brooder for the chicks. Merv suggested a couple of different breeds that we might want to consider as meat birds and most importantly, which ones in his opinion, were less good. I value his opinion, he has a wealth of knowledge about chickens and I am keen to learn as much as I can from someone with experience. This, I hope, will help us avoid making too many mistakes.

Merv kindly offered us a young cockerel to replace the Cream Legbar (CLB) that died. We are keeping the CLB chickens to supply us with eggs as we both particularly like the blue shelled eggs that they lay. A cockerel would not only allow us to increase the CLB flock but to offer fertile eggs for others to hatch.

We could then also have a small flock of Australorp birds to supply us with meat. Once we have a few eggs hatched we can select the best of the cockerels to keep for breeding more meat birds and any other cockerels can go into the pot.

The white Jersey Giants will, we hope, form a small flock. I had located a second seller of hatching eggs of these birds so the bloodlines should be different enough to allow us to breed from them too.

We could then also have a further small flock of hybrid birds to supply us with more eggs and meat. So we think we have a plan. Three or four small flocks run in different areas of the chicken field and back garden. It will require us to fence off areas for each breed and supply each area with a suitable henhouse, but we can do this fairly easily.

The next thing to think about is how we will feed all these chickens as to make them economically viable, we can't feed them solely on organic layer's pellets. So the plan is to assign an area in each sectioned off part of the field and back garden to grow additional greens for the chickens to eat. We have plenty of seed and seedlings that we can plant now in preparation for the birds moving into their areas. Then as we feed the birds each day, we can use some of the greens that are growing in their area to supplement the layer's pellets. At the start of each season we can let the birds in to the small growing area to clear the soil of weeds and uneaten veg and section off a different part of their enclosure to grow in for the next year. The birds will have scratched over and fertilised the new area during the previous year making the ground rich and ready for planting. These are simple and basic permaculture principles, which we believe will work for us.
Saturday morning we went to the garden centre, pretty much as it opened to look for scrap wood (as they have a pile of wood that is free to take away) and for cardboard boxes. There was no wood that would be useful to us, but we struck gold on the cardboard box front. These larger boxes are not much use to people purchasing a few plants and the staff at the garden centre were very happy for us to take these away. I think that the early Saturday slot may have to become a regular feature for us while we are still laying out the kitchen garden.


Each raised bed and every pathway has a cardboard layer beneath it to help kill off the grass, The cardboard rots down over time, feeding the worms in the ground and then eventually feeding the soil. Creating the kitchen garden is being done on a very tight budget. Having purchased the wood lengths from a reclamation site, the cardboard, compost and path coverings need to be acquired free of charge. So, the cardboard is coming from the garden centre, my friends, neighbours and family and just about anywhere where we can find free cardboard boxes, the path coverings are chipped conifer trees from our garden and my sister's home, and the compost is being made in large amounts just as fast as I can gather the materials to make it. Having bought in one ton of top soil, I think we may need to buy in some more to complete filling the raised beds.
So, the compost making continues, I now have 5 compost bays to use, I'm using one to store chipped conifers until I've laid down the cardboard boxes for some of the pathways. One contains wood shavings, newspaper and chicken manure from my neighbour's chicken shed. One has the start of the next compost heap and one is empty at the moment. The other one has the last compost heap that I made on 16th May.

I added some more layers to it yesterday and then noticed that the bottom of the compost is starting to look brown, so perhaps I will have made three week compost again. It is now a relatively simple affair to put a three to four inch layer of straw in the base of a compost bay and add layers of green and brown materials. Each time Mr J cuts some grass I add it to a heap in layers, alternating with a layer of the wood shavings from those stored in one of the bays. This hot composting makes for fast compost, but I am slightly concerned by the lack of worms in most areas of the garden, a slow compost would give the worms a chance to breed. feed and multiply again.

Yesterday afternoon my daughter and her family came to visit bringing with them some cardboard boxes and three bin liners of grass cuttings. Some mothers like flowers or chocolate (and I like these too) and other mothers get excited about cardboard and grass clippings. Grandson number one helped me to pick more elderflower heads to prepare to make some elderflower wine while my daughter, her partner and grandson number two were settled on a blanket in the front garden. He and I talked about bugs, butterflies and stinging nettles and how to tell if a flower is open or still in bud. He also had a ride around on his tractor and his father took him around to inspect all his favourite birds. Jack (the hybrid chicken) was his when they lived at my daughter's house, so he is always keen to see how she is and he seems delighted that Big Red is Jack's offspring.

It's bank holiday Monday today and as seems to be a tradition, the weather is not as warm as it has been for the last few days. There is however, still plenty to be getting on with, so before I head out into the garden, I think it must be time for a cuppa.