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.

Seaweed Mulch
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.

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.

Rhubarb Crowns

Just because winter is here, that does not mean that there is nothing to do in the garden. I have now received and planted the rhubarb crowns I ordered to create a rhubarb bed.

First of all I prepared the bed, adding some of the rough compost that the chickens very kindly helped us to make to the vegetable bed that contained a few squash in the summer. (They did not do all that well.) I decided that this spot is rather too exposed for squash but it could do well as a permanent rhubarb bed as rhubarb does not need to be mollycoddled.

I placed the three crowns around 1m apart along the length of the bed, taking care not to bury the crowns. I hope that other than applying some mulches and weeding or watering occasionally I will not have to do much with them until they can be harvested in their second year. It is best not to harvest from the plants in their first year as they need time to become established. I hope they will do well.

Originally, I was planning on planting the rhubarb in the orchard/forest garden but I have not been able to establish whether or not this would be dangerous for the chickens. Reading on-line, some people say that the leaves are poisonous to chickens, as they are to humans in quantity, while others say they have been feeding rhubarb leaves to their birds with no ill-effect. In the absence of hard facts, I decided to err on the side of caution and avoid putting rhubarb where the chickens could get at it.

 

 

Time Flies…

Oops. I really did mean to update this blog a lot sooner than I have done but things have been all go recently on the work front and of course there is always lots to do around here.

Just after I wrote my last post we celebrated one year here, one year since we started to transition to this more sustainable way of life. It does not feel like a year but we have done a lot since we got here. We have made a lot of progress and eaten a lot of home grown food. We erected our polytunnel, prepared vegetable bed areas, rescued the chickens, did work on the house and – great news – we finally have the planning permission to carry out our planned eco-conversion/renovation of the outbuildings!

There have been many successes and several failures – by and large though the baby steps we have taken have really added up and it is pretty staggering when we look back and see how far we have actually come.

The garden is not looking at its best at this time of year but we do have a few things still growing. I have planted onions and garlic and a few swedes and Brussels sprouts still in the vegetable beds and in the polytunnel there are a variety of winter cabbages, beetroot and a few other bits and bobs. Some herbs are in on the windowsill for winter, others are drying nicely. There are plenty of jars of jams and chutneys to see us through the coldest months and a few things like peas and beans in the freezer. We have one small pumpkin/squash on the windowsill still.

The chickens all seem to be doing well. We are still getting two or three eggs most days even though the weather has got so much colder. The girls saw snow for the first time the other day – they were not too impressed. I gave them some porridge to warm them up.

I still have a lot of tidying up to do in the vegetable beds before the ground freezes too hard and the orchard/forest garden is the main area that will get my attention over the winter. Time flies and there is no rest for the wicked…

Order Amid the Chaotic Profusion

In a permaculture garden such as ours, things are often closer to a natural state. Things are more chaotic, often without the straight rows and order of a traditional vegetable garden. Things look messy. Some plants are allowed to go to seed – for example a radish in the polytunnel, which I am allowing to flower so we get the delicious seed pods and then of course some seeds to plant next year.

An investment in the future -sustainably letting things go to seed.
An investment in the future -sustainably letting things go to seed.

The polytunnel is probably fuller than it ought to be – peas and beans spill over the paths and tomatoes crowd ever upwards on the other side. But by using vertical gardening techniques and building frames for the cucumber plants and some squash to grow up we have been able to fit more into a smaller space.

Polytunnel June
Polytunnel in June – a casual approach to weeding means plenty of material that I can recycle into weed-bin plant feed as we go along.

Out the front, the vegetable beds are also beginning to look more abundant, in spite of the mixed and unpredictable weather we have been having.

Companion planting means that there are several things growing together in most of the beds.
Companion planting means that there are several things growing together in most of the beds. In the foreground, chervil is merrily going to seed in the herb spiral.

It all may look chaotic but underneath it all there is order. We are producing almost all the vegetables we need now – salads galore, mange tout and peas, the first few broad beans, potatoes, onions, spring onions, tiny garlic, a few tomatoes, radishes, chard, spinach, calabrese. The calabrese are all almost ready to harvest – we have already had a couple of the heads. But after the main heads have been picked I will not uproot the plants as they will still provide many more little heads over the weeks to come.

CalabreseNext month the peas and broad beans will be in full swing, we should have some courgettes too, I hope. Not everything is perfect, but that is the way it should be. I love the fact that it is all so natural.

More Planting, Pests in the Polytunnel and Wood Burning Stoves

Apologies for not providing a proper update after the snow. We still have rather unseasonably cold weather but nothing dramatic. Fortunately so far there has been no more snow. Aside from a fair few herbs and the marigolds planted in more exposed places, most things seem to be struggling through.

Brassicas seem to be doing okay in spite of the cold weather.
Brassicas seem to be doing okay in spite of the cold weather.

Direct sown peas, salad leaves and radishes are popping up.

Peas popping through

Salad leaves appearing.
Salad leaves appearing.

And everything in the polytunnel seems to be thriving.

The polytunnel is beginning to fill up nicely. Newly sown flowers and more kohlrabi have filled up the space on the hanging shelf.
The polytunnel is beginning to fill up nicely. Newly sown flowers and more kohlrabi have filled up the space on the hanging shelf.

Radish, carrots, beetroot, onions

New potatoes and peas

Peas and bread beans, with salad leaves, spinach and pak choi (from which we have already been taking some leaves).
Peas and bread beans, with salad leaves, spinach and pak choi (from which we have already been taking some leaves).

We do however have rather a large number of what I think (from looking them up on the Internet) are St. Mark’s flies, Bibio marci. I have read that they eat the roots of, amongst other things, lettuce so having so many of them is probably not a great thing. We will have to put our heads together and figure out how to deal with them.

Is this a St. Mark's fly? There are hundreds of them in the polytunnel!
Is this a St. Mark’s fly? There are hundreds of them in the polytunnel!

Today, in hopes that the weather will soon improve I have sown another batch of seeds. More kohlrabi, french beans, various flowers, basil and summer squash.

Basil and summer squash sitting in a warm spot to germinate.
Basil and summer squash sitting in a warm spot to germinate.

One of the reasons that I have not updated this blog sooner than now is that it has been rather a chaotic week. The two wood burning stoves have finally been installed!

The dogs have been wondering what on earth is going on. There was quite a lot of noise and of course things had to be moved out of the way.
The dogs have been wondering what on earth is going on. There was quite a lot of noise and of course things had to be moved out of the way.
The second stove. Just a bit of painting and these rooms in the main house will be much improved.
The second stove. Just a bit of painting and these rooms in the main house will be much improved.

Some wood has been ordered, since of course the wood we have chopped here and that acquired from my husband’s workplace will not be useable for a year or so. We were glad to be able to find a supplier of naturally dried wood. You may or may not be aware that much of the wood on the market is kiln dried – negating its carbon neutrality. Seems crazy to me.

We are glad to finally have the stoves in place. They mean that next autumn and winter we will not have to rely on the oil heating. It is a big step towards our more sustainable way of life.