Tuesday 30 April 2013

Netting the polytunnel

polytunnel with net Apr 13

Another step forward in preparing the allotment for planting was taken last night. The polythene covering of the polytunnel was removed some time ago, leaving a raised bed and the polytunnel frame. We have now added to it a net that keeps off the hens, ducks, rabbits, wood pigeons and other animals that think they can have a free meal at our expense. I will be planting out the large numnber of onions growing in the greenhouse later this week.

Also last night I shipped a load of our chicken manure up to Dad's allotment in Marley Hill where I'll be planting the potatoes later today and tomorrow. The cold, lingering end to winter has delayed planting so this job has to be done and finished soon to take advantage of the fact spring has actually arrived.

Monday 29 April 2013

Another henhouse

henhouse Apr 13

This is the new henhouse we bought on Friday and assembled this evening. Snow White and Atilla, our two boss hens, can be seen checking it out. It will be used as a nursery unit for the 7 chicks but in the future it will be used as a home for the quails we are planning to hatch. We now have three henhouses in the corner of the allotment so we have ended up calling it Henhouse Avenue.

Thursday 25 April 2013

And still they keep growing

chick Apr 13

We are still on a learning curve when it comes to hatching and raising our own chicks. This week we started to feed them growers pellets which we mix with the chick feed. Over the next few days we will gradually increase the pellets until we have weaned them off the chick feed. The chicks are growing remarkably quickly. We took this photo yesterday. They must be about 5 times bigger than they were when they hatched 5 weeks ago.

A friend is taking 3 of them and we will keep the others. He may have to take them a bit earlier than expected.

Building cold frames

We have been planning to make some cold frames on the allotment and we have identified the site where they are to go - next to the fruitcage. But what about the materials from which they will be constructed? I didn't want to pay for new materials so we went on the look out for anything that could be recycled. Then a house near us had an extension built and on the front drive was a load of demolition waste from a wall that had been knocked down to make way for the extension. In it was a couple of old, double glazed window units. We asked the couple if we could have them and they were quite happy for us to take them. They even said that they had talked to other people living here to see if they wanted them for local allotments (one of whom spoke to me this morning to ask if I wanted them). So, in what must have been a bemusing sight for other local residents who didn't know what was going on, there we were, sorting through a pile of building waste on the drive of another house, and then carting off a couple of window panes!

Once we've got all the materials we need, we'll build the cold frames. We have courgette and gherkin seeds planted in the greenhouse. I suspect they will eventually be planted into them.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Dry Earth

dry earth Apr 13 2

This time last year we were experiencing the start of an incredibly wet period that lasted until December. My fear was that we would end up with the same problem this year. Things have turned out differently. We had a late start to spring. And now that spring has arrived, it is warmer and dryer, much much dryer, than last year. Take a look at the photo above, taken on the allotment this afternoon. See how dry the ground is. It's so dry that it is cracking up. We have been bringing over water each day as the water butts are nearly empty.

We have had one modest downpour this month and that's about it. I never thought I would hear myself say this but I really would like to see some rain. Tonight, my bizarre dream may be about to happen. The weather forecast is for rain. Alas, it looks as though it will last through the day as well and will bring with it a few days of colder temperatures. That's not quite what I wanted.

It will mean there will be less opportunity for the bees to get out and about. If the temperature is too low, the bees will stay in the hives. Today however has been warm again and they were out in force, as they have been every day for the past couple of weeks. Hopefully we will have a honey crop this year, unlike 2012.

beehives Apr 13
Favourable weather means the bees have been active for the past couple of weeks.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Transplanting soft fruit

soft fruit Apr 13

Last year, we planted a large number of soft fruit bushes on Dad's alotment. Today, I started the task of digging them out and transferring them to our allotment to replant them. The reason for this is a decision to refocus our main allotment on growing fruit and keeping poultry. We will use Dad's allotment to grow most of our vegetables, though some will be grown on two beds on our main allotment. They will have cages over them to protect them from the hens, ducks, wood pigeons and rabbits. The other factor that helped us to decide to refocus what is grown where is flooding.

We are probably overdoing our concerns but last year was such a bad year for the weather that, even though this year looks as though a repeat of the wet, miserable temperatures and rain is not on the cards, fear of them will linger on for ages to come. Crop yields in the mud of the allotment last year were so poor that we are not going to leave ourselves vulnerable like that again, even though we are putting in extensive drainage. Dad's allotment is better drained and did not have any flooding or mud last year. That's better for veg growing. The soft fruit on the other hand survived the wet conditions (and the hens) in better shape.

The photo above shows some of the transplanted soft fruit bushes. They have been arranged so that they will in effect form a hedge along the side of the main path into the allotment. There will also be room for us to net them if needed.

Chicken manure

hens Apr 13 3

In past years we have had to buy in manure for the allotment. Well, that problem and expense is now behind us. Our hens and ducks produce plenty of fresh manure on a daily basis for us. It is mixed with wood shavings (and sometimes shredded paper) which we use as bedding in the hen and duck houses. The ducks pee an awful lot more than the hens with the result that the bedding is rich in ammonia. It all makes for a good, slow release manure.

We learnt by trial and error last year however that creating an open top compost bin in which to store the muck from the hen and duck houses is not so good an idea if the hens can get into it. They end up kicking it out onto the ground and then spreading it around again. The bottom corner of our allotment was therefore in need of a clean up. I spent this morning digging up the manure the hens had kicked onto the ground and took it over to one of the main beds where I left it in piles. The hens then kindly spread it across the bed for us.

Yesterday we built a new compost bin using wood salvaged from some pallets. The bin now sits on the path outside the allotment so the hens can't get to it. We will fill it gradually and any other allotment holder on our site can help themselves to the contents.

Dandelions for ducks and hens

Hens Apr 13 1

I went up to Dad's allotment in Marley Hill, the next village up from ours, this afternoon to do a bit of work there, which included a bit of weeding. I took the large quantity of dandelion leaves I gathered back down to our main allotment to feed them to the ducks and hens. Greens are an important part of the diet of poultry though, obviously they are in short supply during winter. There are plenty of dandelions growing now so I am planning to go out each day to gather a large bag of them. In this way, we can reduce the amount of bought chicken feed, save the money and get a bit closer to being self-sufficient.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Blossom and bees

On Saturday, I saw the first blossom of the year. It is late due to the late running winter and sadly it was about 30km from my hives so was no use to my bees. And then, in the past couple of days, the blossom on one of the plum trees near our allotment has appeared. The bees have had a good few days as, though it has been very windy, temperatures have been modestly warm, enough to encourage the bees to leave the hives. Until the recent cold spell ended, the impact on the bees was playing on my mind. My fear was that we would end up with a repeat of last year when the rotten weather meant we had only a tiny honey crop. It is early days but now things are looking up. The bees are clearly finding pollen sources as I can see them carrying it back into the hives. And if they are finding pollen, they are presumably finding nectar as well. Bringing in the pollen is also likely to mean that the queens are laying and larvae are developing (adult bees can't digest pollen which is fed instead to the larvae which need it as a protein source).

Honey is important for us. It is a replacement for sugar and it is also a valuable "export" for us, earning us money and creating a high value product that can be swapped for other people's produce. We are also hoping it will get us into farmers' markets as well. We have invested a significant amount of money in our bee venture and the investment needs to pay for itself and then give us a return. When I think back to this time last year, with the rain pouring down day after day after day, I feel a bit more confident that things will be better this time. Certainly the weather couln't be worse than it was in 2012. Hopefully soon, we will be experiencing the sweet taste of success.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Our growing chicks

chicks April 13 3

The chicks are growing quickly and will be ready to leave the brooder in a couple of weeks' time. So I thought I'd include a photo or two taken this evening. Four have been lined up for a friend to take (we are doing a swap with him for some fencing materials. A couple of other people have said they are interested in taking one or two and we need a couple to add to our own flock. Since that outstrips supply, we will need to hatch more during the spring or summer.

chicks April 13 2

Toad in the hole

toad in the hole Apr 13

I had to show you this: toad in the hole made using sausages from our own Tamworth pig with batter made using our own eggs. Alas, the milk and flour were bought at a supermarket but if we were to get goats, half that problem would be solved and I am going to experiment with making batter from mashed potato. Anyway, the meal was first class.

August: our target month

We have set ourselves a target: in August this year we will aim to eat only food we have ground, picked wild or traded. We will attempt to avoid any food purchased from commercial outlets. There will be an issue about things we cannot produce ourselves such as wheat flour and tea so we are looking for a friendly shopkeeper who will be ready to trade these for eggs, jam, honey and other of our produce. Nevertheless, we will ration very closely these products.

We will be filming our activities and writing up a full record on this blog. Hopefully, once the monthn is up, we will be able to continue with what we started. We will need to do more research in advance and I suspect I will be going back to my wartime cookery books to look at alternatives to some of the things we have to buy. Potatoes can be used as a partial alternative to flour in some circumstances; honey will replace sugar; milk supplies will be dependent on our getting a goat (as will cheese and yoghurt).

So follow us to see how we get on. It should turn out to be quite an education for all of us.

Let there be rain

allotment drainage Apr 13 3

I never thought I would hear myself say this, given the terrible rain and flooding we had last year, but we need a bit of rain. Though we had an abnormally late winter, what we haven't had is much rain recently. We have had two evenings when we had a bit of rain and an afternoon of light showers this month. And that's about it. The ground is rather parched. Look at the grass in fields and they are looking a bit brown at the moment. We have rain forecast for tomorrow so hopefully that will help to fill the water butts on the allotment. It could also test out our new drainage.

The photo above shows a spur of the drainage system I dug recently. Until a few weeks ago it was a very muddy path. The drainage channel is now filled in with bricks and stones and topped off with gravel (which you can see at the top of the photo above).

Soon we will have to start to dig the drainage from under the duck house to the pond. And then from the pond to the corner of the allotment where we will dig a second pond. Lots to do, but we are getting there.

Soft fruit cuttings

soft fruit cuttings Apr 13

The soft fruit cuttings I made in March and put into jars in my kitchen have now been planted into pots in the greenhouse. I applied a bit of rooting powder to them to stimulate root growth. 48 weere potted up and once they have become established, they will be planted out onto the allotment. Their leaves are well advanced over those of the soft fruit already growing on the allotment, such was the severity of the late running winter.

I'm pleased to say that winter now appears to have shut up shop and spring has arrived. Everything that was outdoors during that time is, as a result, about two to three weeks late. Last year, admittedly after a mild winter and very warm first week of spring (that ended once the downpours started) the hawthorn was in leaf by the end of March. It is still in bud now, though some leaves are starting to break out.

All this means a shorter growing season which could impact on crop yields.

Another egg record

eggs Apr 13 2

Sunday saw another egg record for us. This time we had 15 hen (see photo above) and 4 duck eggs. And since the start of the month we have had eggs in double figures every day. I'm hoping that will last for the whole month, again making it a record for us.

Meanwhile, I can report that our chicks have learnt to fly. Their wings developed faster than any other part of their bodies after they hatched. That was a bit of a surprise for us, but all part of the learning curve. It does mean however that I sometimes find a chick sitting on top of the brood box, rather than in it. They are little eating machines at the moment, and they are growing rapidly. We have now switched off the brooder. They no longer need the heat from it.

Friday 12 April 2013

Egg record

eggs Apr 13

Thursday was a record day for eggs. We had 14 hen (from 18 hens) and 4 duck eggs (from 5 ducks - I've excused the 2 drakes from egg laying!) We have had days before when we have had 4 duck eggs, and days when we have had 14 hen eggs but we have not had both these numbers on the same day. I will have a mini celebration when our final duck starts laying and a further celebration when we get more than 14 hen eggs on a single day.

The photo above is of the eggs laid by our new copper black. She laid her first on Wednesday and her second on Thursday. Her first was the very small egg. It almost certainly has no yolk. Her second egg is quite small but large enough to have a yolk. Copper blacks lay a lovely darkish brown egg. We now have two of them.

Digging the drainage

allotment drainage Apr 13 4

We have made quicker progress on digging the drainage on the allotment than we expected. The first main drainage channel was dug last week. The plans however have constantly changed as we assess and reassess what resources we have available. The first plan was to fill the drainage channels with gravel we would buy from the local DIY centre. We were then given some drainage pipes by a friend so the plan was to install them in the drainage channel and then cover them over with gravel. Then we found that the pipes were not sufficient for the whole of the network we want to dig.

So, we decided to fill the first channel with bricks and rubble and cover it over with gravel from the DIY centre. That was until yesterday when we found that a thick layer of gravel near a corner of the allotment which I discovered when I first dug the channel was far bigger than I thought. It must have been dumped there years ago, well before we took on the plot. We have not previously noticed it as it was under a thin layer of soil and a year ago we deposited a few tonnes of manure there and left it to rot down. It looks like it will be sufficient for the entire drainage network.

Gravel Apr 13

This is the gravel layer. At the left you can see the drainage channel I dug through it. At the bottom you can just see the line of the channel, backfilled with bricks (as in photo at top) and covered over with gravel. This free gravel supply has saved us a great deal of money and has put something that was otherwise waste material to productive use. We will have to pay for the paving stones to create the path over the drainage but at least we have massively cut the cost of this project.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Attending a beekeepers' auction

new bee equipment Apr 13

We bought our first bees two years ago from Robert Furniss, a leading member of the Hexham Beekeepers' Association. Unfortunately Robert passed away earlier this year and on Sunday all his equipment was auctioned at an event in the village of Wall in Northumberland. There were over three hundred lots so the auction itself took four hours with a further two for viewing at the start. Some of the auction took place outside and it was a cold day so at times, bidding was brisk.

We bought various hive parts, 15kg of sugar (for feeding the bees) and 2 nuc boxes. We were very keen to get some nuc boxes as we can use them to create new hives and reduce the likelihood of our existing hives swarming. In a nutshell, we can take some brood frames from a hive which contain queen cells and place them in a nuc box. The flying worker bees will return to the hive but the nursery bees will remain with the newly established colony. The queen cells will produce a queen and as the colony grows, it will be transferred into a hive.

The new equipment is stacked in our hallway at home until this coming weekend when we will re-arrange our new shed so that space is created for storage.

At the auction, I put in bids for blocks of beeswax. I was unsuccessful but I wanted them to test out some candle making equipment we have. We have some honeycomb from last year that needs to be melted down so it seems we will test our candle making skills on that instead.

Self-Sufficient in Suburbia March edition

This is the March edition of Self-Sufficient in Suburbia. The cold winter is still clinging on as we officially move into spring. Crop planting is therefore delayed. We make a start on digging the drains on the allotment and go to the North East Beekeepers' Convention. Top billing goes however to the chicks which hatched during the month.

Monday 8 April 2013

Planting the soft fruit

planting soft fruit Apr 13 1

Planting 20 soft fruit plants (raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and blueberries) was my main job for Saturday. This is part of our plan to refocus our main allotment on fruit production and poultry and move most (but not all) vegetable production up to Dad's allotment in Marley Hill. The bed on which I planted most of them has not previously been used by us. When we took on the allotment, it was completely derelict. This is the last part to be brought into use. The original plan was to put in potatoes as these would help break up the ground. Once we took the decision to refocus the large allotment on fruit and eggs (to beat the flooding and because the chickens and ducks will eat any unprotected veg), we bought some additional soft fruit bushes and canes.

planting soft fruit Apr 13 2

I had to put some netting around this blueberry as the moment it was in the ground, the hens started to peck the leaves.

soft fruit cuttings Apr 13

We do not however want to spent lots of money buying many more fruit bushes. The cheapest price we have been able to get them is £3 each. To ensure we are able to fill the space we are allocating to fruit growing, we have taken cuttings from our existing canes and shrubs. Some have gone into a pot outside the greenhouse to get them to root. The rest have gone into jars in our kitchen (a temporary location). The ones in the kitchen are doing far better than anything we have growing on the allotment, whethere they are cuttings or established plants. Clearly the warmth in the house is a boost to them.

The greenhouse is filling up

greenhouse Apr 13

Though we had a warm day yesterday, it was something of a one-off. The coldest March for whatever number of decades has turned into a cold April. Our mini ice age is taking a long time to turn into a warm spring and the forecast for the week ahead is of continuing cold weather. There is a frost most nights and most mornings I have to break the ice on the pond before letting the ducks onto it.

The result of this is that we cannot plant out our vegetables on the allotment. The frost would kill off most of them. That means the greenhouse is gradually filling with seedlings and onion sets that we would have been planting out by now under normal weather conditions. Over the weekend we have planted up broad beans as well and we are now beginning to run out of space.

We are now planning to get the polytunnel back into operation sooner than originally planned so that we can get more of our onion sets planted out.

We had a sunny and warm day yesterday (Saturday). The bees were out in force. It looks like during the coming week they will be stuck in the hive again. That means we will have to continue feeding them. We have to hope that the warmer weather will arrive in time for the spring blossom (which looks as though it will be delayed because of the cold). If the bees can't get out to pollinate the blossom however, we will lose much of the honey crop, and the fruit tree crops, for the second year running.

Sunday 7 April 2013

The chicks are growing

chicks Apr 13

Our seven chicks are now two weeks old and they are growing rapidly. The old aquarium into which we put them when they came out of the incubator had become too small for them so we planned to get a brooder cage. And then I saw a temporary solution to housing the chicks. Last week, some branches and timber were about to be incinerated on the neighbouring allotment. Amongst all this waste was a cupboard. The owners no longer needed it and had planned to burn it. They were happy for us to take it (and some of the timber).

The cupboard, turned onto its back, has made a great brooder cage and has provided much more room for the chicks. However, it will soon be put to another use: a quail house. Our plan is to get some fertilised quail eggs, hatch them and start producing quail eggs and quail meat. In the meantime, the cupboard is acting as a great home for the chicks.

Thursday 4 April 2013

Honey press

Yesterday, for the first time this year, my bees were relatively busy. A sunny break in the late wintry weather encouraged them to venture from the hives in search of pollen and nectar. Alas, it was not repeated today. The anticipated end to the over-extended winter is still anticipated. Whilst we had moments of sun today, the warmth was sadly lacking. The bees sensibly stayed inside the hives.

We have, however, two new additions to our bee equipment: a honey press and a wax extractor. A couple of beekeeping friends are moving to Qatar, leaving behind our joyous, bracing, fresh, breezy weather for the horrors of heat, sun and warm seas lapping against the shore. Their equipment is for sale and so we went out to Hexham last night to snap up the press and extractor. All we need now is a honey crop this year, something that was sadly lacking in summer-free 2012.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Awaiting the weekend weather

For the first time in weeks I heard on the weather forecast today a positive comment about a possible break in the winter weather. It won't happen until the weekend but possibly, hopefully, the wintry weather will end on Saturday or Sunday. It can't come soon enough. Our greenhouse is filling rapidly with seedlings that need to be planted out. Over the weekend, we planted into seed trays the onion sets and garlic that we would have preferred to plant straight into the ground. Sharp night time frosts means nothing is being planted out at the moment. We simply have to get as much ready as possible in the greenhouse for planting once the warmer spring weather arrives.

The positive point about the weather over the past couple of weeks however is that it has been relatively dry.

This morning's duck eggs

duck eggs Apr 13

These were the three eggs from the ducks this morning. As you can see, one of them is exceptionally small and has a very fragile shell. We have experienced this once before, though it was with the hens. It can be caused by a calcium shortage. I put grit which includes calcium into their food. Perhaps I am not including enough. I'll keep an eye on things and if the problem repeats itself, I'll increase the grit, poultry spice and egg shell I add to the feed.

Digging the drainage system

allotment drainage Apr 13 3

I have mentioned before that we need to dig some drainage channels on our allotment. The ground here has a thick, heavy clay layer and we are at the bottom of a gentle slope, next to the outflow of a culverted stream. This means that other allotments on the site drain into ours. In addition, we lost crops last year because of the intensive rain and waterlogged soil. Hopefully there will be no repeat of that level of rainfall but we are not relying on hope to ensure our crops grow. So we have started digging the drainage system.

allotment drainage Apr 13 2

To create the first channel, I dug down through the top soil until I hit the clay. In most places this meant digging down only 30cm. A couple of places had deeper top soil. The channel was about 20cm wide and it now runs from the south side of the allotment to the north side where it will drain into the culvert. Into this channel will go a drainage pipe with notches cut into it through which the water from the ground will seep. Over the pipe will go stones, brick and rubble we can collect around the allotment site. Our original plan was to fill the channel with gravel we would buy from the local DIY centre but we decided that would be an unnecessary expense when there are plenty of stones and bricks littering the site which are begging to be put to good use. Once filled in, we'll put some paving stones on top to create a path.

allotment drainage Apr 13 1

Two other channels will be dug. One will start under the duck house and go to the pond. This area is the wettest part of the allotment. The second will run from the other side of the pond to the far corner of the allotment where we will dig a second pond. This will be for the ducks to use and we will close off the first pond to them. The ducks wrecked that pond within a couple of weeks of getting them. It was meant to be a wildlife pond. It had been full of newts and frogs and we want them to return to the allotment as they are good for eating bugs, especially in the nearby polytunnel and greenhouse.

We won't finish this construction job until the end of April but work so far has progressed well. We will also dig a channel into the neighbouring allotment so they can drain their land, which also floods in part, into our drainage system.

From incubation to brooding - how to hatch hen eggs

This is the video we made of the process of getting the fertile hen eggs, putting them in the incubator, looking after them, hatching them and then transferring them to the brooder. We'll be doing updates over the coming months.

Monday 1 April 2013

Hatching egg - the video

This video shows one of the chicks hatching last week. I have speeded it up significantly. The actual time it took to hatch was nearly 40 minutes. In this video, it is reduced to just over 2 minutes.