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!

 

 

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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.

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.

Polytunnel Progress

Since the weather finally warmed up things have been progressing rapidly in the polytunnel. The broad beans are in full flower and the first few pods are starting to form.

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The peas are in flower and, much to the delight of the youngest member of our little community, we have had the first few mange tout straight off the plants.

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Everything is a little behind where it was this time last year, due to the cold spring, when last year we had a heatwave in April. Still, now things are coming along nicely and our food production is beginning to increase considerably again.

The first early potatoes in the ground and in bags have been mulched heavily with the first lawn clippings. This is a permaculture alternative for earthing up and one I wanted to experiment with this year. As I say, these potatoes have been mulched with grass clippings and I will be using seaweed elsewhere (another thing that is readily available in this area, as we are only about four or five miles from the coast). Straw and bracken are other alternatives but we do not have ready access to either here. It will be interesting to see how our yields compare to last year’s, which I earthed up in the more traditional way.

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Potato Mulching in Progress

In the ground in the polytunnel there are also some onions, a couple of courgette plants, cucumbers and a few leafy lettuces. Soon it will be changeover time and all the first early potatoes will be coming out to make way for the tomatoes and some squash. The tomatoes have been potted up but are still on windowsills inside. Squash are just beginning to germinate.

Happy Easter!

I hope everyone is having a good Easter weekend. We took Thursday and Friday off work and went for a short break up north in Blair Atholl with our dog for a few walks in the woods and a bit of relaxation that allowed us to recharge a bit after a very busy couple of months. We stayed in a dog-friendly hotel, the Atholl Arms, before coming back here yesterday so we could do some more jobs around the house and garden.

As usual there is plenty going on here. We’ve been using the compost that we made (with the help of the chickens) to enrich the beds ready for the season’s planting. I am glad to see that it appears to be rich and crumbly so it should help us to get a good yield this year.

The polytunnel is filling up again with first early potatoes, peas, beans, salad crops etc and as they were last year, the windowsills inside are crammed with a variety of plants that will later be transplanted into their growing positions in the polytunnel and in the vegetable beds as soon as the weather warms up.

Yesterday we decided to tackle the compost situation in the orchard. The compost we created has been good quality so far but the problem was that the cold compost heap had been spread over a rather large area by the chickens! We meant to get around to it before, but we have finally built a rough structure from wooden pallets which will contain the compost while still giving the chickens access to it.

Today we planted a LOT of potatoes in the vegetable beds, helping them along with the addition of plenty of our compost. That was rather a mammoth task! One of the lessons I learned last year is that we could have done with more potatoes, so we have given over a lot more space to this staple. When the weather warms up a bit, they will be inter-planted with some peas and other companion plants.

Another job for today was to sort out the area behind the polytunnel next to the wildlife pond. I’ve prepared a circular area for a runner bean tipi in this sheltered spot and we’ve made a path with cardboard laid beneath wood chips. This will slow things down a little and keep down the weeds, meaning that we can more easily reach the beans and the wild raspberries that grow in that far corner of the garden. This meant relocating some daffodils and making it all a bit less lumpy out there. We are slowing getting around to sorting out and making the most of all the space we have here. At some point this spring, we will turn over the small area in front of the polytunnel to growing space too.

We are moving along slowly but surely. This Easter weekend we have made a few more tentative steps in the right direction.

Sowing and Growing

I’ve been having a busy day so far today. I’ve got the next batch of seeds germinating on the kitchen windowsill: pea shoots, mixed lettuce, pak choi, broad beans and spring onions.

The weather has been grey but dry and fairly mild so I also managed to go out into the polytunnel and do quite a bit of work out there. I added some of my compost to the vacant beds and cleared things up a little. I got rid of a few weeds and tidied up the winter cabbages and broccoli. The cabbages were rather badly nibbled earlier in the season by various culprits but we have still had plenty to eat and the badly nibbled outer leaves went to the chickens, who devour them eagerly.

I also took some of the pea shoots from the windowsill and popped them in. They are a fairly hardy variety but I will still cover them with cloches if the temperatures dive too far below zero again in the next couple of months. They probably won’t shoot up much before the early spring but getting them in situ means that they will be positioned for speedy growth when the weather does warm up.

When I was in the polytunnel I noted that the soil that I have been amending throughout the year is definitely improving. One side bed of the tunnel had soil that was not in the best state because it was underneath the spreading arms of large conifers which we chopped down. The soil is gradually coming back into its own. After I had amended it with plenty of compost last year, the tomatoes did reasonably well there, though I think as the years of my permaculture ‘regime’ go on, yields will continue to grow.

I also cleaned out the chickens and spent some time with them. It has been a very mild, though wet, winter here so far but the chickens have been surprisingly un-fazed. They were rather surprised and bemused by the snow but do not seem to mind. Egg production has remained fairly constant at around three a day, which is a little surprising as I had read that you should expect far fewer eggs in winter.

Anyway, after a couple of months with lots of colds and coughs doing the rounds and little happening in the garden, I was glad to feel I was making progress again. I’m looking forward to all the challenges to come this year.

 

Happy New Year!

This blog is over a year old now and we have been working towards our more sustainable way of life for even longer. Some things can be hard but on the whole I am feeling very positive about how much we have accomplished here so far. Still, as always, there is a lot more to do!

It is that time of year and the windowsills are filling up again. There are some salad things and pea shoots in the porch, tomatoes and chilli peppers germinating and as of today, seed potatoes chitting. I’ve ordered more seed potatoes than I did last year, having learned how many of them we collectively go through and knowing that we can successfully grow them here. I will also be planting out a few seed potatoes from our last year’s crop, to see how well they do. More onion sets have also arrived.

In spite of several minor setbacks, we are further ahead than we were this time last year with growing things. There are winter cabbages, onions, strawberry plants and a few other bits and bobs in the polytunnel still. peas and beans will probably go in there next month. There should have been broad beans and peas over-wintering but they were unfortunately gobbled up by rodents in the autumn so didn’t get a look in!

We have the consent we needed from the planners to go ahead with our outbuilding conversion so are currently getting plans drawn up for the building warrant and hope to actually start work in earnest in the next couple of months. We have to think about how to meet the stringent insulation requirements while still using eco-friendly materials and doing this affordably without compromising our sustainability goals. I feel we are actually getting somewhere – but more on that at a later date, once our architect gets back to us with her drawings based on out ideas.

The chickens are doing well, though we plan to build them a better home in the next few months as the coop we bought is not great. One of the main problems is the front door, which has jammed shut in the very wet weather. We are thinking along the lines of customising a small, wooden garden shed, which will be easier for us as well as better for them, though we have not yet worked out the exact plan.

I hope everyone had a good festive season and I wish you all the best for the coming year.