Thursday, 16 June 2016

Morning celebration in the kitchen garden

First thing this morning I took a long, hard look at the garden and I am really pleased with how it is progressing. So, here's a picture-filled catch up of what's been going on.
Yesterday I started another compost bay as we'd been given several more large bags of spent brewer's grain and hops and if the grain isn't covered fairly quickly it gets jolly smelly and unpleasant. I used three pallets tied together with baling twine, the back pallet is part of the fence that I am constructing right around the kitchen garden, the pallets that become the sides of the compost bay offer stability to the fence, which we need because this site is exposed. My hope is that composting and water collection bays along the lengths of the garden will help not only to protect the fence, but also offer protection for the crops within the garden.
I then lined the pallet with straw and began created the compost heap with layers of straw, spent grain, annual weeds, chicken and duck manure and a little compost from a heap that I made a couple of weeks or so ago, to add micro-organisms.
This is the heap that I turned last week and added some more grass clippings, it is breaking down nicely. The thick straw top, which I will remove before I use the compost, has been very effective at keeping the heat in and the rain out, I will do this again. I used a little of this compost in the new heap and also to add to the heap we made last week that is out in the open rather than in a pallet sided bay.
A couple of weeks ago I fenced off an area that the chickens have turned over very well and planted some seed potatoes and then mulched it with straw.
I was delighted to notice yesterday that the potatoes had started to grow. The little shoots are now about two or three inches high and I now feel reasonably confident that we will have some sort of crop from this area, although they may not be very large potatoes as I put them into the ground quite late in the season.
The old tractor tyres that I planted up a month or so ago are now filled with rapidly growing potato plants. Having 'earthed up' using partially rotted wood chippings last week and mulched with straw, I was surprised to see just how quickly they are putting on growth now. I suspect that all the recent rain has been to their liking.

The tractor tyres are next to the herbaceous border and I am really pleased with this corner. The delphinium and foxgloves were bought at our local garden centre in the reduced section as they were really very much past their best. They were six packs of mixed colours so I had no idea what colours would appear when, and if, they grew. As luck would have it, the delphinium and foxgloves are creamy white, so it almost looks as though it was planted this way on purpose. As this is their first year the flower spikes are small but still, they are very pretty. This rose with delicate pink flowers was a gift from my friend Jane and the acer in the very corner was already in the garden but tucked away behind the house, so in February Jane and I moved it to this spot where it seems to have settled in well.
Anyway, back to the kitchen garden. When I drew up the plan for the garden I had grand visions of immaculately manicured pathways and attractive beds giving it a potager look. It didn't take me very long to change my mind when I realised that actually what I want is a highly productive garden that works as much as possible with nature, but also one that doesn't create a huge amount of upkeep. I knew that this year, during the setting up period, there would be a vast amount to do, but I've also learnt a lot of ways to reduce the workload and to make best use of the resources that we have. One of those resources is the chickens and in the autumn, when there is plenty of clearing up to do in the beds, they will have a part to play. We already have a run, that we used for the chicks in the garden that is the perfect size for putting over the beds. We can then put a few of the chickens into the run for the day to scratch about in the bed and clear it of weeds and any remaining crops that have started going to seed. At the same time they will be fertilising the soil, turning it over and fluffing it up.

We are now about half way through creating the raised beds and bit by bit I am covering the pathways with cardboard and shredded dried Leylandii (because that's what I have). Next year on the pathways I will probably use straw or, if I can find a good source, with wood chippings. I have now put up approximately a quarter of the pallet fencing that will surround the kitchen garden and it really feels like it is all coming together.
 I haven't grown broad beans before, I don't like them, so there was little point in giving them space, but Mr J does like them and so now there is a jolly good reason to learn about them. I sowed them indoors early in the year and grew them on in the greenhouse until they were about four inches high before planting them out. I planted them between the rows of garlic, hoping that the smell of garlic would confuse any bugs that might find the broad beans tasty. Today I spotted that there are small bean pods forming and none of the leaves look too badly nibbled by unwelcome visitors.
The onion beds are a mixed bag of results so far. I planted two varieties and one has done very well, with strong growth and a rich dark green colour, the other is weaker, smaller, paler and not looking so happy. I will make some nettle and chicken manure liquid feed in the hope that they will pick up once they've been given a nutritional boost.
The deeper bed which had parsnip seeds sown into it and edged with pot marigolds is now starting to do well. I got very excited last week when I saw lots of little seedlings appear, only to realise that I was getting excited about small vetches and plantain! This week however, I can celebrate properly as the parsnip seedlings are starting to pop up in neat lines across the bed. I'm leaving the weeds to grow a little more and then when they are four to six inches high I will hoe them off and leave them where they are to feed the soil and create a green mulch to reduce the number of other weed seeds that might otherwise germinate. There is also a volunteer potato growing in this bed because some potato peelings ended up in the compost heap rather than being boiled and fed to the chickens. The peeling has sprouted and grown and I'm happy for it to be there, it may or may not produce edible potatoes, we will know later in the year.
This pea bed is also growing now. At the far end are mange tout which seem to be struggling a bit, the lower leaves are yellowing. Everything in the garden seems to be suffering from a lack of nutrients, which I suspect is a reflection of the poor soil on which we are trying to create this vegetable and fruit garden. Looking further around the garden, I can see some shrubs with similar problems, so I think it must be an issue across the whole of the smallholding. The large amount of compost being created should help improve the soil in the long term, but for the immediate needs of the plants I will make nettle and chicken manure tonic and look in the garden centre for organic plant foods that I can use to give the poor plants a boost.
The borlotti beans are now about three feet high and this morning I noticed this beautiful flower had opened. The plants are more delicate to look at than those of the robust runner bean, or at least they are at the moment, I'll assess them again for delicateness at the end of the season.
 At the back of the vegetable area is the space that we have designated for soft fruit. In late spring Mr J and I dug a small bed (which we nicknamed 'the grave') and planted it with some of the raspberries which we brought from Mr J's mother's home. These are now doing well, but interestingly no better than the plants that are still sitting in pots waiting to go into the ground. I haven't got as far as weeding between the rows of raspberries, but will need to do so before they go to seed.
The soft fruit area runs to the far end of our smallholding. Along this boundary we have planted a hedge with native plants like hawthorn, buckthorn, hazel, wild rose, dog rose and honeysuckle. As small plants they will take a while to form a useful boundary, be a wind break or to provide us with hedgerow crops. Yesterday I spotted that a large bramble has grown, it's roots are just on the other side of the stock fencing that marks the edge of our property and I made a mental note to take the secateurs to it. This morning however, I have changed my mind. I will go out with some garden twine and tie the longest stems to the wire of the stock fencing and rather than battle with a weed, I'll embrace it (not literally) and use it as a valuable fruit crop.

Yesterday Mr J moved several barrow loads of top soil from where it had been delivered in the front garden to the next raised bed in the kitchen garden and I mixed in some compost and hops. Today he plans to add a few more barrow loads and then I will plant it with purple sprouting broccoli (which should provide us with a crop next spring), under-plant them with perpetual spinach and strawberries. I noticed some strawberry plants hidden amongst the long grass in the back garden, hopefully if I take a large enough soil ball they won't notice that they have been moved.
Last week we cut and ate our first home grown lettuces. Rather than pull the plants out, I cut them quite low down, leaving a few leaves. This morning there are new leaves growing from the base, so we will have a second flush of crispy lettuce from this plant. The red oak leaf lettuce is doing the same thing, so we'll be able to enjoy more if the slugs don't get to them first!
And finally, to complete my celebration of the kitchen garden, I checked on the  plants in the greenhouse. The tomatoes are doing very well, they seem to have grown quickly in the last couple of weeks. I've tied them gently to their cane frame and pinched out the side shoots as they appear. Between the tomatoes I've planted lettuce and along the front is a row of basil and one clump of parsley. I have a few red skin onions that can either be spring onions or left to grow into bulbs, that I plan to add to this bed, again in the hope that the aromas of basil and onion will keep away anything that might attack the tomatoes. The tomatoes at the back in pots are a cordon variety (the name of which I can't remember) and the front ones growing direct in the soil are Money Maker. I also have some Red Alert tomato plants that I will plant in the kitchen garden area. Interestingly the Money Maker seem to be growing more strongly as plants even though the ones in the pots have already started producing fruit.
Today my friend who lives in Tasmania is calling in for a cuppa again, on her way from visiting one family member to see another while she is in the UK. As I was up at four this morning, I imagine that I will head for bed after her visit, so nothing much more will be done in the garden by me today. And that's okay, I think the garden is doing just fine at the moment.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

One good turn

Yesterday was a gentle day again, I spent much of it asleep or curled up on the sofa, popping outside to do a bit more when I woke up, only to need to sleep again shortly afterwards. But I did manage to get some more cardboard laid out in the kitchen garden to cover the grass in readiness for creating another raised bed and pathway.

I also ordered another ton of topsoil which, with super efficiency, the company delivered in the afternoon. I moved three barrow loads of soil and put it onto the cardboard base, but have left the rest for another day when I have less pain and more energy.
This morning I took a phone call from the local brewery to say that another load of spent grain and hops would be available this afternoon, so Mr J drove us to the brewery to collect it this afternoon. The brewer has now kindly agreed to only half fill each bag, so that Mr J is able to lift them into the van easily (even half-filled they are too heavy for me to lift). Back at home Mr J unloaded the van and the hops and grains are now in bags in the paddock waiting for us to build new compost heaps. As it's four days since I put the first small heap together, I thought it would be a good time to turn the heap, put some more air into the pile and assess how the grains are decomposing. As it is a fairly small pile of straw and grains it was a quick job to turn it, putting the materials from the top of the pile onto the ground, shaking the straw a little to fluff it up and sprinkling the grains evenly over it. In just four days the grains have turned from a pale golden colour to nutty brown and there is already evidence of some fungal activity. I was pleased to find that it wasn't the stinky, slimy mess of grains that I had anticipated that I might find and there is still plenty of heat in the pile.
I don't know that I've got the correct ratio of grains to straw and think that we probably need to add some animal manure to the mixture to put different micro-organisms into it. If we get a chance we may go and collect some horse manure from my sister's home in the next day or two, which we can add to the heaps as well as to the top soil that was delivered.
Anyway, it was but a ten minute task to turn the smaller heap and create enough space next to it to build another heap with the new batch of grains. Hopefully by the time we get to autumn there will be plenty of well rotted compost to add to the raised vegetable beds, around the fruit trees and if there is enough left over, to the herbaceous border. Decorative flower beds need to come second to the productive areas of the smallholding.
Here's a view of the kitchen garden that I don't often see. I took the photo from the centre of the shrubbery looking straight along the central pathway towards the Second Severn Crossing. It seems funny to think that six months ago there was only grass in this paddock and since then we have laid out paths, dug and planted a herbaceous border, created 10 raised beds, and planted them with plants grown from seed, started the pallet fence, made 6 compost bays and filled them, fenced off an area for the ducks and then another for the chickens (who have half the paddock!), planted a natural hedge along the back and left side of the paddock and started planting up the hedge on the right hand side. That doesn't seem too bad for a couple who are having to learn fast, learn by their mistakes and work around me being out of action for chunks of each day!

In those periods of the day that I am out of action, if I am not sleeping, I try to make use of the time by researching, reading and watching helpful videos and vlogs. This morning I had an odd moment. Sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cuppa and watching yet another vlog about starting a permaculture garden, I hooked my foot around the chair leg, an action that lots of us do regularly, but as I did it I heard a loud crunch and had a shooting pain whizz up my leg and I felt ever-so-slightly sick and then, I was pain free. I have spent the last six months hobbling around on a walking stick at some point of most days, with a swollen ankle and shooting pains with almost every step. I haven't been able to turn my foot in a circle and I've woken myself each night in pain as I've knocked my foot on the bed or on my other leg and some days the only way that I have been able to get up stairs is to crawl. I don't want to speak too soon, but I think that crunch may just have sorted out whatever the problem was! My foot is still a bit stiff and achy, but after so many months of being 'crook' that's hardly surprising. So for today, I am going to celebrate and enjoy my foot feeling, well, not feeling anything very much.

Regardless of any plans that I may have thought we had for tomorrow, like moving a ton of topsoil, the task will be to build another compost heap or two using the spent grains that we collected today. I may record some of the process and a tour of our compost heaps, then spend a little time trying to edit the footage into an interesting video. I am starting to toy with the idea of making a weekly vlog to go along side this blog, because sometimes a picture really can not only paint, but also replace, a thousand words. Please leave a comment to let me know whether you'd be interested in seeing a weekly vlog of the developments on our smallholding as we try to build a healthier, cleaner life for ourselves.