Establishing the Forest Garden

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Yes, it has been a long while since I updated this blog, but that does not mean that no progress has been made. We’ve done a lot in the last few months and the garden is coming along nicely. First of all, I thought I should include an update on the forest garden area I am establishing slowly in a portion of the existing orchard. It is finally beginning to come together this year and, while it is still very much a work in progress, it is already providing plenty of food.

The largest challenge with the creation of this space has been the gradual reduction of the existing grass cover. Grass is not ideal beneath trees as it will compete for water and nutrients with the trees roots and also helps to create a bacterial environment – where a natural woodland will have a fungal environment.  To suppress the grass, I covered much of the area with cardboard and with some membrane left over from when we erected the polytunnel. Of course there is still some grass but I am generally working on edging it out with other dense planting and mulches over time.

The area had to be fenced as the chickens were causing absolute chaos and ripping anything up as soon as I put it in. A wood-chip path leads through the area to allow for harvesting. At present it is quite sparsely planted but shrubs will fill out over time and I will be bulking up the ground cover layers as we go along.

When we arrived, there were already three mature trees, two apples and one wild cherry, in this quadrant of the orchard. I added a damson sapling (yet to fruit).

I have added a range of fruit bushes and shrubs. We now have blackberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, blueberries in pots with ericaceous compost, bay, fuchsia, and elaeagnus x ebbingei and elaeagnus umbellata scattered throughout as nitrogen fixers. The latter two types of shrub will provide fruit further south but not usually this far north. Whether these will fruit here in coming years remains to be seen. In any case, they are a useful part of the garden ecosystem.

Comfrey is, of course, one of the predominant plants in the herbaceous layer. I split my existing plant and grew new ones from crown and root sections. There are also borage, dandelions, and a few other dynamic accumulators.  One of the main additions that I made in the autumn were some perennial vegetables. We have nine star perennial broccoli, ewiger kohl (perpetual cabbage), sorrel, Good King Henry and some little perennial onions growing from seed. There are also shallots, and a whole lot of strawberries. In a sunny patch, I am growing some potatoes this year, though eventually all the annuals will be grown elsewhere and all of this area will be taken up with perennial crops and beneficial companion plants.

The spring here was very dry (which is typical for here) but colder than it has been the previous two years and it has been interesting to note the difference this has made in the garden. Last year, all the tree blossom from the plums, cherries and apples came out at about the same time! This year, the apples budded after the others are pretty much done.

Unfortunately, the dry spring led into a horrendously rainy summer. We’ve had a few warm and sunny spots in between, but this has been one of the wettest summers I can remember, and very dull. Sill, we have had good fruit harvests of the summer fruits, especially raspberries, of which we have had an abundance!

I am keeping notes and will be interested to see what this odd weather will all mean for the harvest from the fruit trees in autumn. Last year we had loads and loads of plums, though they were not quite as tasty as the year before. It was also a bumper year for apples last year, and those were very good. This year, the apples look pretty good again but there are far fewer plums… how they will taste remains to be seen…

There is still a lot of work to do and plants to buy/ propagate to fill the forest garden but I am pleased with the progress I have made so far and look forward to harvesting fruits in the summer.

‘Cluckingham Palace’ and Our Barn

I am coming back to this blog after a busy few months to let you know about this fantastic new section of run for our poor chickens, who are still cooped up due to the bird flu decree and very indignant about it! Our ‘resident carpenter’ set to work and she created and built just what we needed. This structure is amazingly solid, yet brilliantly designed to be flat packed away when the hens are allowed to range free again.

cluckingham2(The chickens are kept entertained with dangling CDs, branches and other distractions.)

Meanwhile, my husband and I have been very busy with work on our renovations of the steading building. (The new hen run was made largely using scrap wood that had to be stripped out of the barn.) So far most of the work has been stripping back, knocking down an old interior wall and breaking up old flooring. I am really looking forward to beginning to put things in rather than taking things out!

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First the wall came down and then the metal supporting beam went in.

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Then came the laborious process of building up the jagged end of wall in the image above, carefully selecting stones and creating a straight (ish) end. (Though nothing in this building is square or straight, which is one of the reasons that we like it so much.)

wall-endAs you can see, the wall end is finished except for some pointing up that will be done later.

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Unfortunately, when we brought up the wooden flooring throughout this area, we found that there were not only some amazing original stone slabs to be removed and carefully re-laid in the pantry at a later stage but also two concrete slabs. Unfortunately, both had to come out as the floors were all rough, uneven and not at the required level. There was a LOT of concrete to move, but nothing goes to waste here if we can help it, so it is not going to landfill.

 

Now we are working on making some big temporary doors to cover a stone arch at the front of the section while we remove the old, rotten frontage. This will also give access for a mini digger, which we will soon be hiring to bring the floor to the right level.

 

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All the large sections of concrete have been removed and now there is just debris to clear. Here you can also see large old floorboards, which we have been reusing to make large new doors for the frontage and in the rear of this shot you can see the large stone slabs that we will also reuse to floor the walk in pantry once the new floor slab is laid.

Things are and will continue to move slowly because we both have full time jobs and so have to do what we can on weekends. Still, I will try to be better about keeping this blog updated as we continue with this job, as well as giving more garden updates in the spring.

The Biggest Of Environmental Disasters

Donald J. Trump will be the next president of the United States. For those of us around the world who are working to live a more sustainable and eco-friendly life and leave this world in a better state than we found it, this is a devastating blow. Americans have voted en masse to give the political establishment a kick in the teeth but in the process they could have triggered the beginning of a decline that will end with the very biggest of environmental disasters.

Trump called global warming a ‘Chinese Hoax’. He plans to systematically dismantle all the positive progress that has been made towards halting man-made climate change during the Obama administration. He wants to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency and repeal all federal spending on clean energy. He wants to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. According to Lux Research, Trumps plans for his presidency will lead to 3.4 billion more tonnes of CO2 than the plans for a Clinton presidency would have done. This is the man who has the safety and even the very survival of future generations in his hands. We should all be deeply concerned.

The fact of the matter is that the results of this election make it more likely that global warming will rapidly pass the ‘dangerous’ 2 degree level and global temperatures could rise by 4 degrees or more. This decision will reverberate for, literally, thousands of years.

But it is important to stress on this deeply depressing day that hope is not yet entirely lost. More than ever, in the absence of sustained environmental effort from global government, grass-roots activism, local action and ethical business are vitally important to our collective future. We must all work harder than ever to counteract the negative effects of a Trump administration. We must not give up the fight for our future – in fact, we will all have to step up our efforts. So much is at stake.

 

 

Update After a Very Busy Summer

It really has been a busy summer, which is why I have not updated this blog until now. There is always plenty to do around here, what with the polytunnel and vegetable beds, the orchard/forest garden, the (now 15) ex-battery hens, our dogs, and our conversion of our old stone steading building. Then there is the small matter of my full-time job as a writer! When I am writing all day Mon-Fri I do not always have the energy or inclination to write for fun. That said, I do want to keep some record of what we are doing here. I am really proud of what we have achieved so far and love moving to a more sustainable way of life. Perhaps I can even inspire others to do the same…

Summer Crops:

The polytunnel and the vegetable beds have been pretty productive this year, in spite of the bad weather earlier in the year and the unpredictable summer. As I mentioned way back in the spring, I conducted a little experiment with mulches for the potatoes and without a doubt, the seaweed mulch proved most effective. The potatoes mulched with seaweed were markedly larger than those mulched with grass or earthed up. Not very scientific, of course, but enough to convince me that is the way to go for next year.

At the moment we are eating: mixed salad, radish pods, tomatoes, courgettes, summer squash, broccoli, kale, spinach, chard, French beans, runner beans, potatoes, garlic and onions. There are peas, broad beans and runner beans in the freezer.

At the moment the only problem really is that the chilli peppers are in flower still and only the first few fruits are beginning to form, so I am not sure we will get any before the colder weather arrives. (Probably because the summer has been rather a cool one on the whole.) Perhaps I will bring them indoors from the polytunnel for the winter to see if I can get them to fruit properly.

Orchard/Forest Garden:

In addition to the crops from the vegetable beds and polytunnel, we have also enjoyed a variety of fruits from the orchard/ evolving forest garden.

We enjoyed strawberries, gooseberries, black currants, red currants, mahonia berries, and wild and cultivated raspberries over the summer and have some raspberries in the freezer for later. At the weekend we harvested the dessert apples from one of the trees in the orchard (variety unknown). They are delicious (though tart) eating apples.

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Gooseberries in the forest garden in the early summer.

Some I have wrapped for storage and I started to preserve some of the blemished fruits over the weekend. We now have jars of windfall apple jam, foraged blackberry and apple jam, pickled apple slices (with apple cider vinegar and dill seeds from the garden), several jars of apple pie mix and some dehydrated apple crisps. There are still quite a few apples left from that one tree, some of which we will be juicing over the next week or so.

There are also still lots of apples to come (mostly cooking apples, from four more trees), and two plum trees heavily laden with fruit that is very late to ripen and which I hope will ripen before the weather grows too cold.

Chickens:

We have rescued five more ex-battery hens and though, sadly, two have died suddenly over the last year, we now have a flock of 15. Unfortunately we are currently tackling a red mite outbreak but other than that they seem to be doing quite well. The white chickens (the first we got) are no longer laying but are enjoying a pleasant retirement in the orchard and of course are still contributing to the compost and the garden. The latest hens are still rather timid but integrating both lots of new hens has gone relatively smoothly. Of course we are enjoying plenty of eggs from the younger hens.

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One of the newest arrivals.

Steading Conversion:

After a year of red tape we finally have the planning consent and the building warrant and have been allowed to begin work on the conversion of the stone-built outbuilding that will be a forever home for me and my husband. It was a long and frustrating process getting all the paperwork in place. The work will take us a long time because we are doing most of it ourselves but at least things are now moving! So far we have gutted the interior, removed some wiring, propped the existing floor joists and removed a very thick stone wall to open up the space that will be our kitchen/dining room. We have also removed most of the stones (a mammoth task!) as we will be reusing them elsewhere in the conversion project. There is just some rubble and a few more large rocks to move which we will be doing at the weekend. Then we can put in the structural beam specified by the structural engineer and remove the props.

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Two thirds of the wall on the left is now removed. The portion nearest the window in this shot will stay to form a wall of a walk in pantry/ cold store. The window will eventually become French doors into the garden. (These original stone floor slabs were a surprise and though they can’t stay there they will be used in the cold pantry.)
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Before we started to remove the wall (one of the right of this image).
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Works in progress.

It is a slow and steady process but it feels great to have started properly at last.

I’ll try to update more regularly over the coming months!

 

 

Mulching and Vegetables Update

The vegetable beds are now filling up nicely. There are plenty of potatoes, some Calabrese broccoli and other brassicas, chard, peas, broad beans, onions and garlic. There is some space left that will be for leeks when those go out in a couple of weeks. Then, when the first early potatoes come out, kale, beans and other crops will take their place and, with a little protection, should make it through the winter.

As I mentioned in my post about the polytunnel, I am experimenting a little this year with different mulches as an alternative to earthing up potatoes. Some have been given a thick mulch of grass clippings while others are peeping up through seaweed from one of our local beaches. I have also given some a top dressing of a heavily chicken-poo based compost. Basically, I am using what we have to hand and I will of course let you know how we get on with my not very scientific experiment.

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Seaweed Mulching in Progress – An alternative to earthing up?

Peas and beans run down the centres of the beds as companions for the potatoes, hence the sticks in the photo above and I have also planted a few other companion plants, such as the marigolds that you can see in the end of the brassica bed.

Speaking of potatoes, one of the lessons I learned recently is that I have to be a lot more careful about making sure that I have dug up all the potatoes! When I was top dressing the beds for the brassicas earlier in the spring and weeding prior to planting, I found a few potatoes from last year had sprouted and were just about the broach the surface. Luckily, as I got to them in time, there were still quite a few potatoes from last year’s maincrop that were still in good condition under ground, a small bonus to supplement our food stocks during the ‘hungry gap’. I think we were lucky due to the mild winter and cold spring. This year, however, I will be far more careful to make sure I have retrieved all the tubers! Speaking of which, we should be harvesting the first, first earlies from the polytunnel in the next week or two.

New Chicken Shed

One of the things that I have been remiss in not sharing until now is the wonderful work that was done getting a new home ready for our chickens. As you may remember, we recently doubled the size of our little … from six to twelve. The shed is a regular garden shed purchased on line, to which have been added an easy to clean rubber flooring, some easily cleaned removable nesting boxes, a roosting bar and below that, the ‘poop deck’.

The chickens have now been integrated and although they are still establishing their pecking order and are still two distinct groups, the white ones we had before and the new, far more timid brown ones, they are all now heading into the shed at night together and seem slowly to be getting more used to the new situation and each other.

By customising the shed, we now have something well suited to the chickens but also easier for us to clean out and maintain.

Egg production has dropped off now and we suspect that it is partly due to the upheaval and partly due to the fact that the white hens are getting on a bit… the brown ones will probably begin to lay better in the next week or two as their systems get used to their free-range lives. We are still getting some eggs though, and of course the chickens also have value as fertilisers and pest control. Though I could never say that getting ex-battery hens makes the most commercial sense, it is lovely to know that, if we cannot halt the disgusting practises of battery farming, we can at least give them a good home.

Vertical Gardening in the Polytunnel

In an effort to make the most of the space we have, I have been turning my attention to optimising our growing space in the polytunnel by thinking upwards. I already had a hanging shelf which I have been using to harden off plants for outside and, in the summer, to germinate some new seeds.

This year, to maximise use of space further, I have used what we had to hand (a couple of very battered old wooden chairs and some pallet sections used to deliver the new shed which has been adapted for the chickens) to make some staging. This is now filled with seedlings of various descriptions.

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I have also created some additional growing space for salad crops and other bits and pieces by attaching some adapted milk bottle growing contains to the frame we already had for growing our cucumbers etc. I simply strung the milk bottles by their handles along garden bamboo canes and popped these across the frame. Though I am disappointed that we cannot get our milk in glass in this area, at least I have come up with a way to re-purpose the plastic rather than just putting it all in the recycling.

If we keep going in the same vein, we should maximise every inch of space. In our smallish polytunnel and on our 1/3 acre in general, that is important if we are to feed ourselves throughout the year.