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.
(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!
First the wall came down and then the metal supporting beam went in.
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.)
As you can see, the wall end is finished except for some pointing up that will be done later.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.