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!

Friday, 10 June 2016

Gluten Free Cinnamon Marble Cake

A few folks have requested the recipe for a GF cake that I posted a photo of on social media. I make all my cakes with the same basic recipe, purely because now I've worked out what works for me, there seems little point in messing with it. This cake is very sweet and if you prefer less sweetness, reduce or omit the sugar in the drizzling mixture.

Gluten Free Cinnamon Marble Cake

4oz organic salted butter
3oz unrefined caster sugar
2 large eggs
6oz finely ground cornmeal
1/2 level teaspoon xanthan gum
1 level teaspoon gluten free baking powder

For the marbling -
1oz organic salted butter
20g ground cinnamon powder

For drizzling (essential or the cake will be very dry) -
3oz icing sugar
7 fluid oz hot water
2 tablespoons lemon juice


Preheat the oven to 375F, 190C, 170 fan, gas mark 5.
Grease and line or flour a 9 inch round tin or flan dish.

Cream the butter and caster sugar, add the eggs and beat the mixture well to make a soft, almost runny mixture.
Add the cornmeal, xanthan gum and baking powder and combine well.
Add enough milk (a little at a time) to make the mixture soft and almost runny again.
Melt the butter for the marbling and stir in the cinnamon powder to form a thick paste.
Dot the paste (in four or five dots) over the top of the cake mixture and swirl the cinnamon mix through the cake mixture (do not stir in too much).
Pour into the prepared tin or dish and cook in the centre of the oven for 20 - 25 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean from the centre. The cake will be firmer than a Victoria sponge type cake and doesn't rise very much.
While cake is still hot and before turning it out of the tin, stir together icing sugar, water and lemon juice until icing sugar is mostly dissolved. Pour over the cake slowly and allow it to be absorbed into the cake.
Leave to cool before turning out (or just eat it hot!).
Once cool keep covered in cling film or bee wrap to keep moist.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Being resourceful

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.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Four and twenty black birds

Well, not actually all black birds and not baked in a pie. Our next batch of eggs to go into the incubator have arrived today and are now resting after their journey by post and in the morning they will be set into the new incubator that my daughter bought for us. So on 29th June we can expect our next brood of chicks to hatch.
We've bought a dozen eggs of white Jersey Giants (the same breed as Little White) and a dozen Australorp eggs. Australorps were bred in Australia as dual purpose birds, equally good for their eggs as the meat. They are friendly, hardy birds and ours should have rich black feathers. So we should be able to easily identify which chicks are which breed as they will be very different colours when they hatch. You can read a bit more about Australorp chickens here.

Big Red and Little White are now settled in their henhouse out in the chicken field. The older girls showed some curiosity when they first went into their nursery house and run, but since then seem to have ignored them most of the time. The cockerel occasionally throws a mini tantrum at them, but apart from that, they all seem to be rubbing along together. I may be saying something different in three weeks time when they are put into the big henhouse to sleep with the older ones and join the flock properly!

I've agreed with my friend Helen (Valerie Chicken) that she will have the cockerel in two or three weeks, when the little ones are ready to join the flock. She is looking for a cockerel to join the girls in her flock. The eggs in our incubator will be about to hatch and once the chicks are out of it, I can give it a clean and refill it with fertile eggs from our girls and the cockerel will have done his job here. The eggs will, of course, be hybrid chicks and will be purely meat birds that hopefully will supply us with food for the autumn. I am really not looking forward to the process of dispatching the chickens, but I am looking forward to a supply of organic meat that I know has had a good life.

The last three days have continued to be recovery days, I seem to be taking a long time to get over the two evenings out that we had the week before last. I have slept for periods each day and even when I've been out in the garden, I have taken it a bit more gently than usual (which is pretty gentle by most peoples' standards). Mr J remembered that last time I was this wobbly I was deficient in a vitamin or mineral, but neither of us can remember which one. To be on the safe side, yesterday he purchased some more of a variety of supplements that I have been taking for the last nine months and had either run out of them or were getting to the end of the bottles. Hopefully I will pick up again very soon, there is far too much going on in the garden to feel under the weather and I want to enjoy as much of it as I can from outside rather than looking through the windows.
Having said all of that, I'm not sitting around doing nothing all of the time. Over the last couple of days, I have planted some courgettes and herbs, together with some companion flowers. I am very keen to have plenty of flowering plants in the garden particularly because our neighbours took delivery of a swarm of bees about a fortnight ago and I want to support their foraging. The previous owners of our house planted some very lovely plants in the garden and I particularly like this corner by the front gate, the shades of purple tone really well together.
I've also turned the compost heap, from the left hand compost bay to the one on the right of it. I don't think I will have 3 week compost this time, but maybe that is because I haven't watered it as much. I have also added to the heap as I turned it, so there are now more grass clippings and more wood shavings in the heap than there were before. I've watered it once more and covered it and will leave it for a couple more weeks or so before inspecting it again.
We've started our first batch of homemade wine. I used to make a lot of wine, but haven't done so for well over a decade and I've never made elderflower wine, so that seemed a good place to start. I made up a sugar solution and added the other ingredients as per the recipe I've found.
I felt almost giddy with the scent of the flowers, it's a heady fragrance when you spend an hour or so pulling the little flowers off the stalks. The five gallon container is now sitting in the airing cupboard keeping warm to start the yeasts doing their magic. I'm a little concerned that it doesn't seem to be doing anything yet and tomorrow I will decide whether to add more (different) yeast or not. If all goes according to plan, we should have some nice elderflower wine ready for Christmas.
I had wanted to get the roofing felt onto the shed roof panels today, but that may have to wait until tomorrow. We are trying to get the roof onto the shed before the weather breaks and it's due to rain in light showers from late Wednesday night onwards, so no matter what, we will need to have that done by then or risk the inside of the shed getting very wet.
Perhaps I will feel up to stapling on roofing felt after a cuppa!