Saturday, 25 June 2016

Abundant garden, the value of growing our own Part One

Part One - The Finances
Sometimes I wonder whether we'd be better off just buying all our food at a supermarket and then I remember that even if we could source all the chicken, duck, fruit and vegetables that we'd like, organically grown, that they would still have miles to travel to reach the kitchen and we'd lose some of the vitamins and minerals that we'll be accessing by the ground to table journey being just a few yards. And we've chosen to use as few food miles as we can. So wherever possible, when we have to buy, we are buying from local producers, local farmers and local suppliers.

Now I'm not being unrealistic here, there are some things that I just can't provide from our plot. We can't grow our own bananas or olives and while pineapples are possible, they are probably not cost effective given the amount of space and heat that they'd need to grow well (given that I'd eat one or two a week if I had the chance!). Lots of herbs can be grown, but many spices can't. We don't have enough space for pigs, sheep and cows. So I know that if we are going to eat the foods we like to eat (and because we both have food sensitivities, that we can eat) we will have to buy from shops, farmer's markets and stores.

We could for example, just buy in all the organic produce instead of growing it, but it would be beyond our current budget. If I got a job to pay for half of the food, it would need to be one that was completely flexible over my hours of work and where would I find an employer who would be happy for me to stop and have a three hour sleep in the middle of the morning because I have worn myself out or start work at 4.30am because I am up or work at 10 at night on a Sunday? By working on our smallholding, at my own pace and in my own time frame, I can contribute to our family finances by reducing the amount that we need to spend each week whilst also, and more importantly, taking more control of the quality of the food we eat.

Not only are we growing food for ourselves (and to some extent my daughter and sister), but also for the chickens. By supplementing the bought in organic chicken food, we can reduce those costs too. So I've planted kale (which neither of us like very much), sunflowers, spinach and other winter hardy greens that can either we can eat or can be given to the chickens. I hope that the chickens like plums and damsons as we have half a dozen large trees in the garden and although Mr J and I like plums, there is a limit to the number of plum crumbles, jars of jam, brown sauce and sticky plum sauce that two people can eat in a year.

So earlier in the week, as a brief exercise and not at all in a scientific manner, I hopped onto the internet and did a mock online order of our average weekly shop of chicken, fruit and vegetables, only the ones that we are growing, to discover how much it would cost if we purchased all of those organic foods online. Once the basket got to £100 I stopped because without a doubt, growing in our own garden is worth it.

This year, our first year on the smallholding, was always going to be a hectic and not totally productive one. Often, when I'd like to be tending the garden, there are other jobs that need doing which are setting up tasks rather than productive tasks. For example, Mr J and I have spent around fifteen hours this week preparing the second half of the roof for the shed and putting in the floor of the shed. This is time that I could have spent tackling the area behind the piggeries, to make use of the highly fertile but weed choked soil there. I know that there will always be tasks that take me away from the food production, but our first year or two are likely to have more these structural type tasks than later years will.

The other task that has surprised me with the length of time that it requires, is learning. I spend two to three hours a day reading, researching online, processing the information I've read, making notes and keeping records. Although I have been gardening for over thirty years, there are many fruit and vegetables that I've never bothered growing as I didn't have the space to grow them or they were so cheap in the shops that it didn't seem worth it. Now that we are eating organic produce and we have plenty of space, everything seems worth growing and so I am finding out just how much I don't know!  Neither of us have kept chickens or ducks before so everything about them is new to us. It took a few months to feel confident handling the chickens and to start recognising their behaviour patterns and I am sure that learning about them will be a lifelong experience. We don't handle the ducks at all, unless it's absolutely necessary for their safety or health. They hadn't been handled when we got them as adults and they get very upset when they are handled, so respecting that they aren't comfortable with us touching them, we give them a wide berth unless it cannot be avoided.

The 'having a few chickens' idea started out as just that, we thought it would be nice to have a few chickens around and to have fresh eggs. As our confidence grew, we realised that there was a source of almost free food that we would be foolish not to make use of. But it's a different mind set, needing a different approach and making the transition from a few pet chickens who, as a side benefit, lay lovely fresh eggs to raising birds for meat has been every bit as hard as I thought it might be. There are some chickens that are pets, Jack and Diesel for example, who came to us from my daughter's home are very much pets. Even though they are getting less productive as egg layers, they will have a home with us until they die of natural causes. Big Red was our first born chick and although not a pet as such, it will be a very emotional day should we need to dispatch him and I have a big soft spot Little White who hatched a few hours after Big Red. 

By the time we got the Cream Legbar chickens we had already decided not to keep more hens as pets and so they were not named and were given a collective name, the highly imaginative 'The Legbars'. Interestingly, when I put coloured rings on their legs and they could suddenly be identified individually, it became more difficult not to think of them as little individuals. They are, however, with us for a reason.
We want blue eggs and once The Legbars become less productive they will become table birds. When we first tried blue shelled eggs from the supermarket we were surprised at just how rich yolks were and decided that we wanted these from our own hens. As we've become more experienced, we've realised that any of our birds' eggs will have rich, deep yellow yolks because they are being fed good quality food and free range all the time, giving them access to fresh air and grass each day, all day. As they have only recently started laying, they will have a couple more years living in the field and enjoying doing what chickens do naturally before 'that' time comes. But this raises another dilemma for us, we can't wait for over two years to put meat on our table, so the decision was made to raise our own meat birds and the clutch of eggs from which Big Red and Little White were hatched were supposed to be our first meat birds. Well, that was a failure because only those two little chicks hatched and we grew very fond of them.

Our next batch also failed, the incubator's heater broke one night and left our eggs cold and dead. So, our third attempt to raise meat birds is almost at hatching stage. The eggs are due to hatch in three days time. Hopefully this time we will have enough birds hatching that we don't get attached to them. We know what we are doing a little more now and we've made the decision to not have them in a pen in the kitchen for the first couple of weeks. They will live in the boot room for a week, then they will be transferred to the chicken condo until they are a month or so old and no longer need a heated brooder before moving to their own outdoor house and pen. This distancing of the chickens will, I hope, help us to feel more detached whilst still being able to offer them the good life that we think they deserve before I dispatch them in a few months time.
Once this most recent batch of eggs have hatched, I will clean the incubator and put in some more chicken eggs and some duck eggs. These have been laid by the ducks with no names (that I call Frederick and Mrs Warne). They were sold to us as Aylesbury ducks, but I am not convinced that they are pure breeds. They are however, big healthy birds and I can see no reason that the eggs should not be fertile and it would be a valuable source of protein if we manage to raise some successfully. My brother-in-law has requested a duck for their Christmas lunch, should the hatching be successful. It's not so much the hatching that worries me, but whether I can butcher them once we have fluffy little ducklings around the smallholding!
The kitchen garden is just starting to provide us with some food. We have been eating the first lettuces and herbs and this morning I checked to see how the broad beans are developing. I picked the largest pod and popped it open to find these little beans nestled inside. They really aren't much bigger than garden peas, but still, I am going to enjoy that I have grown something new and in a couple more weeks we should be able to start harvesting them.
There are some plants in the kitchen garden that have failed. My first sowing of spinach didn't grow beyond three inches high before starting to go to seed, so I think that they didn't get enough water, or perhaps I left them too long before planting them out or it is the result of the poor soil quality in the garden. The second sowing are now two inches high, I have planted them out more quickly, given them more space and in enriched soil, so I hope that they grow better. Some, like the cannellini beans, have been devoured by slugs despite going into the garden each morning to collect and dispose of all the slugs that I can find. We aren't using any chemical pest control, so my options are to have beer traps, barriers or hand removing them. I have been hand removing them, but think that a few beer traps would also be a good idea.
This weekend we will be taking our now regular trip to the garden centre to see if they have any cardboard boxes that we can have to use in the garden. Hopefully today we will finish the shed that will become the new chicken house with enough space for about 36 - 40 chickens, I will be preparing the incubator for hatching on Tuesday, finish making the latest compost heap with the spent grain collected from the local brewery a couple of days ago and complete creating the next raised bed. But first, as always, it's time for a cuppa!

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Present and future planning

While I was working in the garden yesterday morning, the postman delivered a parcel. I didn't notice him arrive and leave the package by the boot room door, so when I went inside to make a cuppa, there it was on the doorstep, waiting for us.

We had ordered some bits and pieces online, but we weren't expecting them to arrive yet, so I was curious about the parcel. Inside the padded bag was a letter from Mr J's niece, Helen. Amongst her news, she wrote that she had read on my blog that I wanted a compost thermometer and decided to send me one as a gift.
So, I sat at the kitchen table with tears in my eyes because I was so touched by Helen's generosity and thoughtfulness. It is so often the small acts of kindness that mean more than grand gestures, those moments when we reach out to others and connect with them at a personal level that are so special.
After a cuppa, I headed back out to the kitchen garden, compost thermometer in hand. I plunged the thermometer into the compost heap pumpkin patch that we made a couple of days ago and the temperature was 52 degrees, a heat sufficient to break down the materials in the compost heap. The older compost heaps though were a different story. Both the compost bays with spent grain and straw have cooled to well below a temperature that will aid the breaking down of the materials, which might explain the less than pleasant aroma near them.

So I need to find some green materials to add to the compost bays, there are plenty of weeds that I can lift from behind the piggeries to add to the compost bays, but I don't think just adding it on top will be enough to restart the decomposition. So over the next few days, I will dismantle the compost bays (one at a time), turn the contents of the bays and add in plenty of green material. I may need to add an accelerator too. I don't have any comfrey large enough to use, so will cut down some stinging nettles from one of the patches that we have left in place as a home for the local butterfly population. The 'stinger' patches are big enough to be able to harvest several bucket loads without depleting them too much.
In the middle of last month, we created an outdoor run for the chicks, so that they could spend a little time each day (weather permitting) outside in the fresh air. You can read about it here (Fences, hedges, paths and structures). We made it by strapping together some of the panels that my daughter's chicken house had with it when we brought the henhouse from her home to ours. The chicks no longer need it as they are now housed in the chicken field in their own house with fixed run prior to joining the flock.

This meant that the panels were available to use for something else if we needed them. And, yesterday we put them to good use. Our next batch of chicks are due in six days time and our plan is to keep them in the safe enclosure that we created in the boot room for the first few days. Big Red and Little White lived in this enclosure for a month and I took them outside from about 10 days old for a little while each day before returning them to the warmth of the brooder in the boot room.

This time however, we expect there to be a few more chicks (hopefully a dozen or more) and we don't want the noise and smell of a several small chickens to fill the house, so we have decided to have them in the boot room for up to a week before moving them to the chicken condo in the former stables. To have them in the chicken condo safely we needed to create a pen in which they'll have room to run around but also be safe from any predators and from the older chickens for the first few weeks.

So Mr J measured and cut a sheet of ply wood and fixed it to the panels to make a base. I then covered it with chicken wire and folded it around the sides to make it less easy for any rats to gnaw through the wood to access the little chicks inside.
Then we turned it the right way up and put it onto a double length pallet that we'd been given by the man who had delivered the plywood panels to us last month. A couple of screws fixed through the base of the new pen into the pallet secured it and stopped it from wobbling from side to side.
We thought about fixing shallow sides around the pen to reduce draughts, but decided that we can lean these offcuts of plywood if need be, but the pen is inside the stable and so is fairly sheltered already and if it gets particularly windy, I can just prop these offcuts around the pen and then remove them when it calms down again. Mr J fixed the central roof panel in place and I will use cable ties to fix each of the roof end panels in place leaving one side tied with string. This way both roof end panels can be lifted up (as though they are hinged) for easy access for cleaning the pen, feeding the chicks and changing their water for fresh. The chicks will live in this pen from the end of week one until they are four to five weeks old when we'll move them to housing outside so that they can start seeing the other chickens and they all get used to each other. As we have done with Big Red and Little White, I will allow the new chicks to experience outside for a while each day (once they are big enough) in a run that we'll make in the next few weeks. 

We placed the brooder into the run to check where would be the best place for the electrics to live. Mr J found a small  bedside table in the barn to use to sit the extension lead and plug on together with the adaptor for the brooder. By putting them on the lower shelf of the bedside table, they will be raised off the floor and also sheltered from any rain drops that may leak through the roof. We think we've placed it where there are no leaks, but you never know!

I divided the stable into two by using old pieces of conservatory roof and a run panel that isn't being used (yet). The chickens looked a bit miffed for a while, but soon realised that I had moved their favourite dust bathing material into their half and settled down to flick dust over themselves in their almost daily ritual of dust bathing. A fresh layer of wood shavings on the floor around the new pen gave it a smart look, which I am sure won't last for long, but yesterday it looked smart and ready for the new arrivals.
Picture Credit

Last night I made one final check of the eggs in the incubator to remove any that are infertile, the last thing I want at this stage is an egg exploding over the others. I am very disappointed with the Australorp eggs that we bought. We paid £45 for a dozen eggs and only four were fertile, whilst we paid £15 for a dozen white Jersey Giant eggs and ten are fertile. All we can hope for is that we get some females and a male Australorp so that we can increase the size of the flock. And hopefully, I can find another breeder and be able to either buy a couple of pullets (young females) or some more eggs to hatch.

The White Jersey Giants should hatch well enough, the eggs came from the same breeder as Little White's egg and she is healthy, strong and feisty!

It's dull and rainy this morning, so I think I will tackle a few chores indoors, but first, as always, it must be time for a cuppa.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Compost hotbed with vlog

When I went to bed last night I felt as though I hadn't achieved very much in the garden over the weekend, but as I talked it through with Mr J, I realised that I had managed to do quite a lot really. It's strange how our sense of achievement can so often be well under the reality (having said that, I know plenty of folks who also over-estimate what they have achieved!).

On Friday morning I spent a very happy hour in the area behind the piggeries starting to clear some of the semi-wilderness. I had been dreading tackling this, but the recent rain had softened the ground enough to make lifting the weeds a very simple task. Armed with leather gauntlet-style gloves, I was able to pull up stinging nettles, general weeds and brambles. I piled them into separate piles of compostable matter, stinging nettles (to use to make a feed and tonic for the plants in the kitchen garden) and pernicious weeds that I don't want to go into the compost heap and end up in the garden.

I cleared a space about twelve feet square, which hardly made a dent in the chaos, sorry the wildlife area, that we've let grow while we started the kitchen garden and other areas of the smallholding. The soil at the back of the piggeries is probably the best in our garden, years of leaves falling from the trees and rotting down have made the soil dark, rich and friable. So, rather than letting this good soil stay unused, we've decided to plant it up with some oca that I was given. Oca is an old vegetable that was replaced in popularity by potatoes, but in many ways they are easier to grow and less hassle than potatoes. They don't need to be earthed up as they don't go green and they store very well.
I also spotted a couple of nice seedlings in the kitchen garden that have self-sown (volunteers). Amongst the onions I spotted what I believe is a Virginia Creeper. It has just one large leaf and another smaller one just forming, so I'm going to leave it until it's about a foot high and then transplant it into a pot before deciding where it's final home will be.
I also found this seedling, which looks like some sort of fern. It is growing in the pea bed and I will leave it for a while yet to try to work out exactly what it is before deciding whether to lift and transplant it or dispose of it. If you know what it might be, please leave a comment to let me know.

There's a fairly strong smell of 'countryside' in the kitchen garden at the moment and we realised that it is probably coming from the pile of compost made from spent grain, straw and chicken manure with wood shavings that is in the open rather than cocooned in a pallet sided compost bay. So, to tackle the rather unpleasant aroma I decided to cover that compost pile in straw to try to keep the smell contained.

Mr J and I enlarged the bed to fill the allotted space and then to make use of it, as a productive area, before covering it in straw. And below is a short video of what we did. (If you can't view it on this blog page, you can find it on YouTube here).

On Sunday the weather forecast said it was going to rain for a greater part of the day, so we got as many chores done as we could early in the day and then headed to my sister and brother-in-law's home. They had offered us some waste wood as the roof of their house is being replaced and they offered us the old battens from their roof. So after a nice cuppa and catch up, we loaded up the van with two by one battens and then some old fencing posts that they didn't need. My brother-in-law kindly used his chain saw to cut a pointed end to each post so that they are ready for us to use right away and then, to my delight, he also gave us almost a full roll of chicken wire. It's a win-win situation, they no longer want the wood or wire and we do, so their garden is cleared of unwanted materials and we have more resources to enable us to complete even more tasks sooner rather than later.

While we were there, my sister asked me to 'go and have a look behind her shed'. When I'd finished laughing and double checked that this wasn't a euphemism, I duly wandered around to see the area behind the shed. It is absolutely filled with foxgloves and as a result, was alive with bees feasting on the nectar. She has invited me to lift some young foxglove plants for the garden which I will do in early autumn and transplant them to the young hedge that surrounds our plot. I won't put them into the herbaceous border as I have white foxgloves there and would quite like to keep them as white ones as long as I can, so to avoid too much cross pollination, the pink ones will be planted away from them.
After lunch the predicted rain paused for a couple of hours, so I headed back out into the garden to get as many plants as I could into the ground before the next downpour. I have a lot of young plants that have been hardened off outside the greenhouse and they are starting to show evidence of stress as they will have used all the nutrients in the soil in their pots. I planted this lovely ornamental cherry tree that my daughter gave me for Mother's Day. It arrived in the post as a ten to twelve inch high sapling and has now more than doubled in height and is strong and healthy. Around the tree I have placed a layer of cardboard and mulched it with straw, my main reason for doing this is to protect it from the strimmer or lawn mower rather than to reduce competition from weeds (which is also a useful side effect of the mulching layer).

Over the weekend one of the Cream Legbar chickens started to become broody, she sat in the nesting box of the henhouse that most of the chickens sleep in for half of Saturday and most of Sunday. Mr J and I talked through our options, it would after all, be nice if one of the chickens would raise a brood of chicks rather than us being surrogate parents, but we currently have 18 fertile eggs in the incubator which are due to hatch in eight days time and we weren't sure that we'd have enough quiet spaces for this broody hen to live while sitting on some eggs. It was good to talk through our options and work out where we could or would put the chicks from the incubator and a broody hen space. We have a small henhouse that could be used for a broody hen, so very carefully I moved her to the small house and we put water and food in it and left her there to settle down again. This morning, she was scratching to come out, had kicked the eggs all around the little house and was decidedly unimpressed with being in the small house. So for yesterday at least, that was a broody fail. I will keep a close watch on her in case she decides to nest in the large henhouse again and I'll have another try at moving her to a quieter place.

I've just been out to check on the chicken that was in a broody mood, she is back in the larger henhouse again, puffed up, low down on the wood shavings making little bok bok noises. The eggs that were in the small house that I moved her to (and that she abandoned this morning) have been attacked by the other chickens. I have no idea which of them started it, but when I walked around the corner of the shed to see what the commotion was, there were three hens and the cockerel in the small house having an 'egg fest'. They haven't touched the eggs that have been laid today in the usual nesting boxes, so perhaps they pecked at them because they were in an unusual place and there was a small container of chicken food in the house too.

Today we plan to start making the nursery area for the chicks that are due on 28th June. Once they are hatched they spend the first 24 hours in the incubator and will then be moved into the small secluded pen that we have set up in the boot room. This will only be large enough for them for a few days (it was fine for just the two chicks that hatched last time, but it won't be for more than four or five chicks for long) and then we plan to move them to the chicken condo that we've created in the old stables. They can have a slightly larger space with their water, food and the brooder in it (an electrically heated platform that they can nest under to stay warm that acts as a surrogate mother, for the warmth at least). They will live in their nursery area until they are four weeks old and then we'll move them into their own house and run in the chicken field until they are eight weeks old and can join the main flock.

So, it's time to go and start drawing up a plan of how we'll make the nursery coop and of course, have a cuppa!

Broody hen update - she spent most of the day on the nest again, coming out a couple of times for food. Tonight she is still on her chosen nest space with the other hens going to sleep around her, it hardly seems like a restful space. We will think again about finding a dark and quiet place for her to be moved to.