Thursday, 5 November 2009

Well I just looked at my last post (sound of bugle in background!) and another three months have gone by. Amazing!

So to recap, the Cherry-Plum jam is gorgeous and sadly nearly all gone already, hopefully we can make more next year. The bottling didn't happen, but we've frozen loads instead and they make really good crumbles.

More raised beds are being constructed as this is proving to be the ideal way of working with the heavy loam we have here. One of my earliest raised beds has now been established about four years. This year I grew parsnips in it and for the first time ever had roots that were difficult to dig because of their length. The nature and depth of the top-soil has changed dramatically having had no compaction from foot or wheel and only minimal cultivation over that time. It looks like 'Reduced Dig' could be a workable technique IF and only IF I keep off the land and that means raised beds with paths! It also means that I don't waste compost on ground that isn't growing crops, but that is another story.

Last and definitely not least, today I want to brag about my cloches, which is where this blog started.
Three weeks ago I pricked out some spring cabbage into a newly made bed and covered them with the glass barn cloches. Unfortunately the last plant in each row wasn't covered. However that has proved useful in demonstrating the advantages of protected cropping over unprotected. The cabbages under the cloches have grown on well, whilst those left outside have not really grown at all, and the weather has not been that bad yet! Oh yes, the white powder is a bit of lime, the slugs don't like crossing it and helps protect the plants whilst they are young.
Well hopefully the photo will show the difference between protected (top) and not (bottom).
Thanks for the visit, I'll endeavor to write more often and get some more pics up soon. Richard

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Another wet summer, but look on the bright side.

Well I bet you thought that was the last you would hear from me. Another one post wonder! True I've not been blogging for a while, but other things have demanded my attention. In fact I cannot believe where this year has gone!

During the spring we had fantastic weather here, almost too hot to work in the sun sometimes, but now the summer weather has arrived, wall to wall rain. This morning the water was lying in puddles on the cultivated ground, how glad I am to have some raised beds and I think there will be more to come if this is the weather pattern we are to expect.

However I'm not going to moan and groan, lets look on the bright side.
Lets have a bit of history.

Back in 2002 I bought a load of seeds from Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust. Many of the seeds were for varieties considered very experimental in our climate, but I wanted to try different tree crops. The fridge was partially occupied by stratifying seeds over winter, but in truth I now think natural winter temperature fluctuations are just as good or better at breaking dormancy!

So where is this leading? I'm just really excited about how well the myrobilan are doing! These are also called Cherry-Plum and are more often used as ornamentals.

Many people have told me that they will not fruit or will fruit poorly in the UK.

HOWEVER look at these pictures!

If this is poor fruiting then roll on the good years!

These trees are only six years old. We have had a small quantity fruit over the last couple of years, but only enough to eat off the tree. This year we plan to experiment with bottling and jamming.

If anyone out there has experience of using cherry plums we'd love to hear from you.

Oh Yes, I forgot to mention the pleasure the blossom brings in the early spring. That is the only word of caution, don't plant them is a frost I have! Of course being seedlings they have different characteristics, like flowering time. So some of mine caught a frost this year, and some didn't.

A wonderful thing Diversity!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Cloches In The Spring

We seem to have gone back into winter again. It so often happens that February brings a false spring, the birds, the trees and I all feel it. Those days that make you sweat with the burden of winter clothing, tempting you to discard the extra pair of socks and sow the seeds of tender plants, when in your heart you know it's too soon for either. Well it's happened again! Last week was beautiful here in Wales, sunny days, drying ground and bird song. Then last night, however, brought a different story. Cold wintry showers, icy rain and a covering of snow by morning. Yet this is seasonal and I always wonder at my inability (or is it an unwillingness) to expect it. Some of my favorite memories are of these early spring days, so precious, when you can get out and feel the earth returning to life after the little death of winter; when we can start to prepare for spring proper and plan for the year ahead. The cloches which I was making in the winter have already been deployed in the garden with an early sowing of carrots, spring onions and radish to get the salad crops going. The lettuce have just germinated in the propagator and will be planted out a little later, when spring proper has arrived. But when is that?

The old sayings come to mind, "ne'er cast a clout 'til may is out" was always a favorite of my grandfather, a clout being an item of clothing (so I'm told) , suggesting that we should be ready for cold weather, even until the end of May. Then of course there is "Blackthorn Winter" and true enough we often get another cold snap when the Blackthorn or Sloe is in blossom which is generally early April with us.

So cloches are good, warming the ground when the sun shines and conserving that warmth when it doesn't. They also allow it to dry out a bit quicker which is a boon for us in the West of Britain, but when it does rain the water soaks into the ground under them as they are not too wide, meaning less watering is needed in the early summer. Now there is something to look forward to!

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Raised beds and Chicken Tractors

I've just been reading about 'no dig' on the Scilly Organics blog and as I've been out on the land today I got to thinking. I have tried no dig systems before and was disappointed. The soil became compact and the living part became shallower due to the lack of oxygen I guess. However I did not use a strict bed growing system then.For a few years now I have been using a system of (more or less) raised beds. When I say raised, maybe humped is a more apt term. The important point is that I NEVER put any pressure on the soil, not foot or even hand to lean over if I can help it (they are only four feet wide). It has become a bit of a 'thing' for me, but it has worked. I now find that having removed the last leeks yesterday a quick rake over today and I have a seed bed and sowed my first organic seeds.

The soil condition is fantastic, but it has taken about three years to come to that state. Interestingly that was the time which Rosa Dalziel O'Brian, who wrote 'Intensive Gardening' about 50 years ago, said it would take and she insisted that you should not walk on the land!

So why was I thinking about soil compaction and no dig? Well my lovely seed bed and my new raised beds, real raised beds, not just areas that I don't walk on. These new beds are where I grew potatoes last year so the soil is quite clean and open and as the weather has been fine I gave them a quick once over with the hand cultivator. Disappointment! The soil was nowhere near as friable (I think that's the word I'm looking for) as the older bed. So I'll just have to wait a couple of years, with the addition of compost of course.

But there may be a shortcut, I don't know......yet. After using the cultivator to work over the soil my two chickens arrived to look for lunch. After only a few minutes scrathhing around they had produced a wonderfully fine tilth, here and there! Maybe, if they were confined on the bed for a day or two the scratched patches would join up? And so we've invented that device so loved by Permaculturists, The Chicken Tractor.

You may well ask how I reconcile all this talk of not walking on the land with my raving about old Ferguson tractors. Well I'll come to that next time, maybe. Or it may be about apple grafting, it's such a busy and exciting time of the year, who knows.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The tractor problem solved, or is it?

So even after I'd agonised about tractors and whether I should get a new/different one in an earlier post I still didn't know what to do. Should I get a new Chinese tractor or should I try and find a restored oldie? Or should I stick with my very old and tired Massey Ferguson 35 (1959 vintage) which to be honest I considered too tired to do what I wanted of it.

My arguments to myself were along these lines. Pro. Get a new one and it is going to be under warranty, will have after sales service etc. Con. BUT how long will it last, what is the quality control like, what will the spares situation be like in 50 years (If you know me and my age please feel free to laugh at the last concern!)

So looking through the classifieds in Classic Tractor magazine I noticed a local phone number. This led to me and other half viewing not one but two restored Massey Ferguson 135s on a very cold morning. This I felt was a cruel twist of fate, I had just about come to terms with getting a restored machine and just about decided on the MF135, but then to have to decide between two seemed unfair! However I did make a decision and here it is, after having the front end loader fitted which I need for turning all that compost I will be making.

Great now I can get on with the ploughing! Well the old 2 furrow plough needed a bit of fettling and a polish, I'd tried to use it behind the old MF35 and it was basically a bit of a disaster. Mainly my fault, but it taught me a lot about how not to plough, starting with a rusty plough is a no-no. Likewise blunt coulter disks. I just ended up with a load of turf tangled round the frame.

Right, everything is polished and sharp, lets get to it! The weather is fine and rain is predicted soon, don't want to make a mess (of the new tractor as well as the land) Hitch up plough and..... The hydraulics wont lift it!!!!!! I wont bother to type what I said, but you know I was a bit fed up.
This is odd I thought, fiddling with the front end loader, when all of a sudden as I lowered the loader the plough came up. Ah, something is wrong with the plumbing NOT the tractor. Major sigh of relief. But what to do?

I wanted to do the ploughing NOW so it had to be the old MF35. After the usual sniff of the yellow can (the tractor not me, this time) it started and kept going and did the job and I'm strangely glad it worked out that way. It feels like honouring an old friend for a service rendered, which neither of us really knew if it was in their power to achieve. It reminded me that things were made to last 50 years ago and don't have to be shiny to be functional. However I do think the 35's earned a coat of paint next winter, it sure needs it!
Oh yes, the MF135 problem was solved by putting in the diverter valve which should have been there in the first place. Hmmmm?

Thursday, 5 February 2009

WOOD BURNERS for a sustainable future!?

Well the snow came, almost went and then came back again. Hopefully the old adage about it waiting for some more to come along and take it away is true. The trouble is it feels colder out there now than it did when it was minus 8C a couple of weeks ago. At least I got some hedge laying done in the dry cold, now I can enjoy the fruits of last years cutting. We have two wood burners here, one which I bought from a friend many years ago and I've only just discovered is a Yeoman Exe. The other is an Esse Ironheart. The Yeoman only heats the room (though it did have a back boiler once). The Esse does the lot! Big hot plates, big oven, big firebox and it heats the water too.
Why do I mention this straight after hedge laying? Well the small wood, from 1 to 4 inches diameter, that gets cut out from an old hedge is ideal fuel for the range. If you are cooking on a wood burner you don't want big cold logs else your fire and oven temperature goes up and down. Smaller, lighter wood added at regular intervals allows far more control when cooking on a wood burner. The picture above is actually willow which was cut after only three years and dried for 12 months.
Thanks for the comment jon, it must be unusual for there to be snow in the scilly Isles. I like the pics too (
However, not to be outdone here is some Welsh snow, not quite so rare, but just as beautiful when you've a nice warm house to return to.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Thoughts on Hand tools and Tractors.

It's been hedge laying time here and our hedges are a bit grown out. Too much to do mechanically so I've got out the bill hook and hand saw, sharpened them up and got stuck in. Working with hand tools, for me, is a time for contemplation. My bill hook is ancient, it has outlasted many users and will outlast me. But it takes an edge that you could shave with! High quality tools are such a pleasure to work with whilst poor quality tools make any job difficult. It was this that I was thinking about whilst working.

What am I going to do about my tractor? It is a 50 year old Massey Ferguson 35. Being the 4cylinder diesel it's a bad starter and really I fancy something new, or do I? I've been looking at the selection of compact tractors available now and am amazed how many there are. A quick google of 'compact tractor' throws up Jinma, Siromer, Shire, Iseki and others all at affordable prices. So why haven't I rushed out and bought one then? Well part of the problem is being spoilt for choice, there are so many available, which one is best? Buying a tractor is a big investment, even a compact tractor is a considerable investment. At least that is what I tell myself is the reason for not buying one. Actually I think my real problem lies with my love of old equipment. When I use the tractor I wonder what work it has done in the past, just like the bill hook. In the MF35s 50 years it certainly has had a hard life as most parts are worn. I guess it has character (which may just mean it's difficult to start when you really need it), but using it in its present condition is really is like using the bill hook with out sharpening it. So maybe the answer is to spend a bit of time and money restoring my Massey Ferguson and see how I feel about buying a new compact tractor then. I just need a few extra hours in the day and days in the week!
If I do restore this tractor you will hear all about it.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Everything has to start somewhere. Making Glass Cloches.

So why don't I just start at the beginning? Well to tell the truth I don't know where that is anymore! In which case all I can do is start with today and work my way outwards. Forwards into the plan and backwards into the planning. In that way I hope to give a picture of why we've decided to start this project, the problems we face and how we overcame/overcame them. So let's get back to today.

Today I've been making Barn Cloche frames. These are the metal and glass Barn cloches invented by Chase back in the early 1900s. Now that plastic mini polytunnels have taken over no one seems to have these cloches any more, but I see them as a durable and sustainable way to extend the growing season.Why am I making them?

Simple I couldn't find any to buy at a price I could afford.

Having a few of my grandfathers frames I made a jig or template to bend the wires on. This was made out of 4"x1" timber and some coach bolts. The wires were 8mm steel, which is a bit over the top, but I wanted to make something to last, however it did mean heating it to be able to bend it to shape. This was done with a propane gas torch and a few old fire bricks. I did consider building a charcoal hearth, but I really needed to get these made ready for the new growing season. Once heated it was easy to bend the steel to shape around the bolts.
Each bend is done on each wire starting at the middle/top one and working down to the bottom bend shown here which is the one that holds the horticultural glass in place. What we are making is really mini greenhouses that can be moved from crop to crop as the season progresses. With these I hope to extend my growing season such that there is very little 'down time'. What I really like is that I've made something that will be around for generations to come. Just as I'm using my grandfathers original frames, and even some of his glass, so will someone use these to grow when I'm long gone!

So there it is, something made and released into the world, a bit like this blog. Once released who knows where it will go!
So this is the end product.
Happy Growing