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!
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.
Vegetable Beds with Mulching in Progress
Brassicas Protected from Pigeons
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.