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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More Chickens

We went to collect some more ex-battery hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust today to add to our existing flock of six. We now have twelve chickens in total, six of whom now look rather fat when viewed next to the new additions!

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Of course it will not be too long before all the new arrivals are looking just as happy and healthy. Already some of them have some beautiful brown and white plumage. As with the others, they were rather scared when they arrived but as before, we have been amazed by how quickly they remember how to be chickens and start scratching and foraging.

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The old girls were far from thrilled initially to see the new arrivals and ran to the far side of the orchard, alarm calling like crazy. After a while, however, curiosity took over and they were peering at their flock mates to be through the bars of the run. Of course it will be a while before they are let loose together.

When introducing new flock members it is important to keep an eye on any bullying as they establish a pecking order. Already, one of the new girls is showing herself to be rather dominant, sizing up against the existing top hen through the bars. It will be interesting to see how it all works out when they get together.

One of the new arrivals looks rather worse that the others. The poor thing has no feathers on her neck at all. It really is disgusting that creatures are allowed to get into this state. Fortunately, as we found before, she should quickly grow and thrive when given a nice life in our orchard.

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Gooseberries and Blueberries

This is the time of year when you can think about increasing your fruit crops for the following year, planting bare-root plants or putting pot grown plants into their permanent home. This is exactly what I have turned my mind to now that the vegetable growing side of things has slowed down for the winter.

I have bought and planted three bare-root gooseberry bushes in the forest garden. The chickens took great delight in getting in my way as I dug the holes and eating any worms or other little creatures that I unearthed. I mulched with some fallen leaves and amended the soil with a little compost.

The blueberries are pot grown and they will remain in containers in the orchard/forest garden area. They are best grown in a container as they like acid conditions. I will be keeping them in their own area of ericaceous compost rather than amending our soil.

I am hoping these plants will thrive and we will increase our fruit stocks next year. We should now have some blueberries and gooseberries in addition to our strawberries, raspberries, wild and cultivated, mahonia berries,  elderberries, plums and apples. Perhaps we will also be able to help our cherry trees to keep their fruits and our pear tree to produce more than one sad looking pear. I hope my little damson sapling will also fruit next year or the one after, so we will have to wait and see which of these plants will deliver a bounty next year.

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…

Fruitful

We have had our first few strawberries of this year (the ones that the chickens did not get to first) and there is lots of fruit yet to come. I have to say that I am really looking forward to getting apples, blackberries, raspberries and possibly plums a little later in the year. Signs are looking good so far for a fairly bountiful fruit harvest.

Delicious strawberries.
Delicious strawberries.

Here are a few more pictures of the fruit developing. It is great getting to know the orchard/ forest garden a little better as the year goes by.

P1030878 P1030877 P1030876 P1030875 P1030879There are also some brambles in wilder corners and a greengage tree and an elder (currently in full bloom) in the back garden. We could pick the blossom and use it to make an elderflower cordial or wine but we are leaving most of it to get the berries later in the year. Unfortunately since everything except the raspberries and strawberries was here when we moved in, we do not have a clue about which varieties we have, so I hope to learn at least a bit more as the year goes on.

We are so lucky to have so much fruit already here, but already we are thinking about increasing our fruit stock in years to come. I know I would like to get a rhubarb patch going, and grow some gooseberries, and currants… one step at a time.

An Update on Garden Creatures

We are not the only ones who are enjoying our garden, polytunnel and orchard/ forest garden. Our six chickens are settling in extremely well now. Dorcas, who was the least feathered and the smallest now looks like this:

Dorcas has developed beautiful brown flecks now and is one of the larger hens!
Dorcas has developed beautiful brown flecks now and is one of the larger hens!

This is what the poor thing looked like soon after she arrived:

What a difference!
What a difference!

The others are also doing rather well, and all of them are laying almost every day now! We are barely able to get through all the eggs we get from them. As free range chickens they are happily going about their business in the orchard, eating some of my strawberries and laying their eggs in the most awkward places. Two of them decided to lay right in a corner and it took us a while to realise – I found 17 eggs there a few days ago! All were fresh though, fortunately, which I checked by putting them in water. Here are some of the other girls, clucking around:

Chickens in July

The wild birds are also doing rather well here still. Though some cheeky corvids were stealing the chicken’s food the other night while they were inside the coop so we are now making sure to put the food container inside the run at night.

There was also a toad in the orchard a while ago – the first toad we have seen here and we were all very happy the other day when a frog was spotted in the pond out behind the polytunnel. We had been keeping our fingers crossed that some creatures would move into the pond – with any luck there will be more to come.

Hens Home At Last – But I am not!

I am writing this from my mother-in-laws house in Yorkshire. We are down here for a few days helping her with a few DIY jobs around the house. While we are having a lovely time it is bad timing as while my we are down here our new ex-battery hens have finally arrived! We adopted them in the end them through the excellent charity ‘A Wing and a Prayer’. Now we have not five as we originally intended but six lucky ladies who have now happily set up residence in the orchard/forest garden.

Hens HenIntroducing then, Clara, Henrietta, Florence, Martha, Gladys and Dorcas – though I am yet to meet them myself!

It sounds as though they are already loving their new lives – scratching around in their run. They have laid six eggs already – clearly as their systems have not yet climbed down from their intensively farmed schedule. It will be interesting to see what happens to egg production when they become fully integrated into free-range life.

In any case, the chickens are here to stay – any gifts they choose to give us are purely incidental.
Hens exploring their new home

First of many more to come?
First of many more to come?