Sunday, 8 February 2015

Land Management

If there is one thing that this winter has taught me it is how to make best use of the space I have in my garden.

Back in September I fenced my chickens in on what was to be a new vegetable patch on the south facing side of the garden. The idea of this being that the chickens would dig up the soil, keep it weed free and fertilize it at the same time. The real test of whether this has worked or not will come when I start to grow in it but first impressions of the soil are looking good. We had three chickens in total two penned in on the veg patch and one from an older group free ranging in the garden with the ducks. The two penned in were specifically bought as table birds so last week the time came to move them on. One had grown much bigger than the other and was definitely starting to show signs that it was clearly a cockerel, so this one was selected for the pot. The other seemed a little small, a shy and timid hen that was worth keeping.

With panels from the old run I have built a new enclosure that could house the two remaining chickens, the benefit of the new one being that it is easily transportable and the coop fits on the end so I have now earmarked three potential patches of grass which the run will be rotated on.
With a bit of chasing and bribing with corn the chickens were in their new home and getting along well. I say a bit of chasing, it involved propping the run up on a stick with a long bit of string attached. After a sitting on the back step for a while in minus temperature both chickens discovered the food was inside and in my mind all I had to do was pull the string to drop the run down and trap the chickens. Of course this didn't work the string snapped, the stick didn't move and I ended up running down the garden and kicking the stick out before the chickens had realised what was happening. I'm sure the neighbours already think I'm mad so if any of them did see me doing something like this it probably wouldn't have shocked them.

 The grass on the lawn has taken a real battering from the wet autumn and freezing winter. having three ducks digging about on it all day doesn't really help, but with my new mobile chicken coop and a few temporary fences to keep the ducks where I want them the lawnmower should be seeing very little use this summer. I'll sow grass seed at some point in April and then only cut it if it gets really out of control. I've said before I'm only interested in growing vegetables but if the grass is going to supplement the chickens and ducks diets in return for eggs it's worth spending a little time ensuring that plenty is available.  

With the new veg patch this has now been dug over, all of my home made compost has been added to the existing veg patch so I had to buy a few bags of manure to mix in whilst digging. Improving the soil now will make a huge difference come the summer. However it is worth noting the cost when it comes to these things, the more compost I can make myself from the animal bedding and garden/kitchen waste the better. I don't want the cost of my soil to outweigh the cost of the vegetables that I am able to grow from it.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Polytunnel Disaster

As any of you that have been reading this blog over the past year will know one of the highlights of the past twelve months has been the purchase of a polytunnel. It has allowed me to grow a greater variety of crops over a greater period of time. My tomato harvest this year beat almost everything else in garden for quantity and taste. I had planned to start sowing a few seedlings in the next few weeks and instead of cluttering up every south facing windowsill in the house would start some off in the polytunnel, but then disaster struck!

I had been working away for a couple of days and the weather had been pretty bad. Snow hit large parts of the country this was followed by a few local floods and strong winds. By the time I returned home last Friday the worst of the weather had passed. Even though it was getting dark by the time I arrived,  as usual I had a look around the garden to see if much had happened while I had been gone. As I walked around the corner of the house I was confronted by a scene of sheer devastation.

The wind had blown the entire thing away! My first thought was how annoying the whole thing was, after a long week this was all I needed. I didn't think it would be too hard to track down, something the size of a polytunnel should easily be spotted. I expected it to have blown around the back of the house or into a corner of the garden, or the worst case scenario that it was in a neighbours garden. The brassicas that I had been nurturing for two months in the hope that as soon as the days started to get a bit longer would shoot up into something harvestable had been savaged by the weather and nibbled by the chickens.

After a while looking it became clear that it was certainly not anywhere near the garden. I gave up for the night. At the end of the garden are fields sloping down to a river so I thought I'd go to the bottom of the hill in the morning and have a look around.

Again though, even in the morning it was nowhere to be seen. I had looked on foot and in the car and it had completely disappeared. I had no idea where it could of gone so I turned my attention to tidying up the beds that had now been left exposed. As I did a familiar voice called down the garden 'are you missing something?' It was the local farmer, we had met a few time whilst we had been out walking. He would always be driving some sort of machinery but would always pull over and turn the engine off for a chat when he saw us. It turns out that all my searching had been in vein. the polytunnel, or what was left of it was in his sheep shed. He said he was astonished when he saw it in the morning and wasn't too sure what it was to start with.  Maybe something to do with the state it was in, it really wasn't looking much like a polytunnel by that point. As a consolation he did say it's the worst wind that he's seen in ten years up here, bearing in mind this is the Brecon beacons things must have been bad. He kindly agreed to drop it back over the fence in case I could make use of anything that was left. I was prepared for the worst but was still bitterly disappointed when I saw it.

The veg that was left would a least need some sort of protection so I decided I try and make a mini polytunnel or a large cloche to at least try and cover it over. This wasn't easy as most of the poles were bent so even when the screws were removed they would rarely come apart without a struggle. Add to that the bitterly cold temperatures outside and it resulted in a rather miserable afternoon in the garden.

The end result wasn't too bad though, it does some sort of job and provides the protection that I need. to say I am a little paranoid about it blowing away again is an under statement. But if I did had to remove it when the wetaher gets too bad it would be pointless having it there at all. Out of some of the bent poles I made foot long pegs and staked it to the ground, so with a bit of luck it's here to stay this time.

I mentioned in a previous post that it would take a couple of years worth of tomatoes and chillies to make the polytunnel pay for itself. Turns out that didn't happen, what I have gained is an idea of just how harsh the weather can be up here. The polytunnel was great while it lasted but I certainly won't be rushing out to buy another one. The idea is that the garden pays for itself including the ducks and the chickens in terms of manure, eggs and occasionally meat. I may have to go without tomatoes this year but you can be sure there will be something equally as exciting in their place.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Winter has arrived

Winter has well and truly arrived here in the Welsh mountains. After a couple of weeks of high winds and constant rain we have now been hit with back to back frosts. With the sun barely high enough to clear the hedge during the short days we're having, the garden hasn't had a chance to thaw before being hit by another frost.

Part of my morning routine is to now break the ice on the duck pond and both the chickens and the ducks drinkers. With the temperatures hardly rising above zero in the day it only takes an hour or so before they have another layer of ice on top requiring me to clear it again.

Despite the solid ground and the cold air the chickens don't seem to mind the weather at all. They're happy feeding on any leftover greens from the kitchen, plus whatever else they can find to supplement their normal feed.  I am slightly concerned that one still decides to sleep in a tree every night rather than in the coop with the rest but have still decided to leave her up there. It's perfectly safe from any predators and the amount of distress I know it would cause cooping her in with the others after living the free life wouldn't be worth it. She has the option and chooses the tree. A note on that, the rogue cockerel mentioned in my previous posts turned out to be a hen! She eventually laid and saved herself from the kitchen table by providing us with eggs once the ducks had stopped laying. A very fortunate result for her and us! She's a real character to have in the garden and joins forces with the ducks for most of the day, retreating to her tree just before dark. In addition we also have two Marans, a breed originating from France, highly regarded for their fine meat. These are penned in on what will be an further vegetable patch next year. Despite being only four months old they have already reached the size of the aforementioned hen. For feed I am now starting to mix corn in with their growers pellets and will eventually finish them entirely on corn ready for slaughter at some point in February.

This does leave me with a dilemma of what to do with the resident hen in the summer, as I found out this year, chickens and summer vegetable patches do not mix. Still I have a bit of time to decide with that one. Having free ranging ducks and chickens during the autumn and winter has left my lawn looking pretty bare. Far from being an idyllic looking rural garden, it is beginning to look a bit tired, something only a bit of sunshine will fix. They seem to prefer the clover to grass and it turns out most of my lawn was clover. I'll reseed this in March or April but am not too concerned it's the veg that I'm most focussed on.

The ducks are less keen on the cold weather, gingerly stepping out of the coop in the mornings onto the frozen grass. However this week I have had my first duck egg since September, something I was not expecting until at least March. I have no idea what has triggered her to start laying again but it is a welcome surprise.

Overwintering outside in the vegetable patch I have leeks and some swede which in terms of growth have almost come to a standstill, something else that needs bit of sun to kick-start them. These should be ready early March way ahead of  anything else. I had planned to fill up the veg patch throughout he winter but due to the chickens eating some of the seedlings and me underestimating just how many I would need to sow to see an end result, more than half of the patch remains empty. Something to work on next year and if I am harvesting veg in March it's certainly an improvement on anything I've managed before.

In the polytunnel I have sprouting broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage all doing quite well despite something having a nibble on a few of them. The polytunnel has provided some much needed protection from the frost and there is no question the plants are doing better than they would have done outside. Some of the stronger gusts of wind that we have been having recently have had a detrimental effect to the plastic on the polytunnel with a few small tears appearing in the sheeting. To combat this I have anchored the door down with some wood to reduce any movement and hopefully put a stop to the tears. If it doesn't last for at least a couple of years it could prove an expensive way of getting my tomatoes and chillies.

Apparently this year there were more slugs about than ever due to the mild winter. The ducks certainly did a good job of keeping the numbers down in my garden but there were still a few about. I don't think I can even remember a single frost last year so if this is going to drive down the numbers of garden pest and diseases then I'm glad there is a cold spell.

I'm already getting excited looking ahead to next year, the days getting longer, the weather getting warmer, ordering and maybe even sowing a few seeds in the near future. We just need this weather to pass first.