Friday 31 May 2013

Busy bees

bee hives May 13

When I arrived on the allotment this morning to let out the hens and ducks, I was greeted by the amazing view of the hives being incredibly busy. It is a warm and sunny day and clearly the bees are making the most of it. The bees have continued to be busy through this afternoon. Given my fears about the weather damaging the honey crop (as it did last year - and the late running winter this year did not help), this amount of bee activity is enormously welcome. Long may it continue.

Making rhubarb and ginger jam

rhubarb and ginger jam May 13

Last week I traded eggs for rhubarb with three other allotment holders on our site in Sunniside. The first results of that came last night when I made rhubarb and ginger jam. The ginger came from a trade I did a couple of weeks ago when I bought a sackful of allotment veg from a friend, using jam and lemon curd as the currency to buy it. The ginger had been grown by a friend of his in the south of England.

15 jars of jam were made last night. Also made this week were 19 jars of orange and lemon marmalade. Okay, not quite a self-sufficient creation as I don't grow citrus fruit. The marmalade is more a by-product as we use lemons in various other recipes and we store the skins in the freezer until we have enough to do something with them (which normally amounts to making marmalade.) As we need to create space in both our freezers (we have a pig arriving shortly), I decided to use up the 6 bags of lemon peel to make the marmalade, and added in some oranges which had seen better days.

I still have a large amount of rhubarb left so chutney and crumbles will be on the agenda soon.

Thursday 30 May 2013

Coldest spring for 50 years

It's official - we have had the coldest spring for 50 years and the 5th coldest since 2010. The figures from the Met Office have just been reported by the BBC. The effects are still noticable. The hawthorn is just starting to flower. Oak and ash trees are still coming into leaf. Crops have been planted late and we have lost possibly as much as four weeks from the growing season. For us, April in particular was very dry. At least however we are not being visited by the deluge of rain that we had last year.

Extending the raised bed

raised bed extension May 13

The top corner of our main allotment gets very wet when it rains. A stream forms and flows here when the rain is heavy enough. As a result our attempts to use this area in the past have proved futile. We planted 6 soft fruit bushes there last year and only two survived. Nevertheless, we don't want the site to remain unused. I have therefore been digging a drainage trench here and hopefully this will solve the problem.

Next door is the raised bed which we netted a month ago to keep off the hens. The bed is currently used for growing onions but there is a large amount of surplus net which will allow the netted area to be extended onto the area now protected from flooding. We have a large number of strawberry plants in the greenhouse which will be planted here. That will be one of the jobs for the weekend (when the weather forecast predicts it will be sunny and dry).

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Sub-tropical polytunnel

I spent some time in the new polytunnel this afternoon stripped down to my waist whilst digging up the ground to plant tomatoes. I discovered just how effective it was at retaining heat. Temperatures outside were not fantastic. Inside they were hot. The tomatoes are now planted though there will be more to follow soon as tomato seeds were planted over the weekend.

I am trying to prepare the plot where the next polytunnel is going but this is likely to be a slow job as I need to clear the layer of gravel from one part of it. To do that I need to dig the drainage trench into which the gravel will go. And then, once the gravel is removed, it will need to be replaced by the soil dug out from the drainage trench. With the greenhouse already filling with trays of seeds, this second polytunnel is going to be needed soon.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Our goat plans

Our next big project is starting to take shape. We are planning to keep goats and today, I visited the plot where we will be keeping them. The amount of rent on the site is still to be sorted but I am rather looking forward to starting the work on this project. I've consulted people I know who keep goats and I have been sent a few details of sites to look at as well. We also have the fencing ready to be installed along one side of the site though we will need to check thoroughly the boundary along the other two sides (the site is triangular) where a high hedge will be ideal for preventing escape once the gaps in it are filled in. We will also need to put a shed on the site as well.

There are lots of regulations on keeping goats and I will need to register with DEFRA before we buy any livestock. My first plan was to get a billy and two nannies but having spoken to people with experience of goat keeping, we will probably aim to start with a female with a kid.  So, more exciting times ahead. If it all goes well, we will be looking to produce our own milk, cheese and yoghurts as well as meat.

An abundance of mint

Marley Hill allotment May 13 1

We don't just have an abundance of strawberries at the moment. Mint has taken over a patch of Dad's allotment and is spreading rapidly. David spent some time this afternoon digging some of it out and putting it into pots. In that way it can be controlled. I will also use some to make mint sauce this week.

At our next allotment cafe on 30th June, I guess we will be offering mint tea. I may also be selling off mint and strawberry plants at the craft fair I also run at the same venue (Marley Hill Community Centre). And given the amount of seeds planted up over the weekend, we may have a variety of other plants on sale as well.

Monday 27 May 2013

Our main crops

Marley Hill allotment May 13 2

Our two most important vegetable crops are potatoes and onions. We are using a considerable amount of space to grow them. The onions (plus garlic and shallots) take up two thirds of the smaller bed on Dad's allotment and the whole of the raised bed on our main allotment. Potatoes take up the whole of the biggest bed on the main allotment and will soon fill the whole of the biggest bed on Dad's allotment. I spent a good part of this afternoon planting more potatoes but the big bed on Dad's allotment, on which I was working, is still heavily overgrown in parts with weeds. I had hoped to get rid of them today but it was not to be. I will need to finish the job later this week. The job of planting our biggest ever crop of potatoes will therefore be completed.

Marley Hill allotment May 13 3

Meanwhile, all the onions have now been planted. And again, this is the biggest crop we have ever grown. The photo above was taken this afternoon on Dad's allotment. The runner beans are in the background and behind them is a stretch of overgrown land which needs to be cleared of weeds. We need it for growing cabbages, cauliflowers and possibly broad beans and more runner beans.

We have, however, a very large number of strawberry plants than need planting out. Most have been dug out of Dad's allotment where we planted them last year (and where they spread like wildfire). They are being temporarily stored at our main allotment. We planted some under a frame that is acting as a temporary fruitcage to keep off the hens. We still have a large number in the greenhouse and in the back garden. We will try to get as many as possible into our main fruitcage but we are likely still to have some left over. We are yet to solve the problem of where to put them but we had an amusing incident this morning when we went to a local nursery and discovered they were selling strawberry plants for £1 each. We calculated that our stock in the greenhouse was worth a good sum of money!

New polytunnel

polytunner May 13

When we decided to refocus the main allotment on fruit growing and poultry and Dad's smaller allotment on producing vegetables, we knew we would still need to use some of our main allotment for growing veg. There simply isn't enough land to grow all the veg we need on Dad's plot. Any bed with veg on it however will need netting for protection from the hens, ducks, wood pigeons and rabbits. Alas, when we did the calculations of the price of the timber and netting, we were a bit shocked at the costs we were facing. And then we discovered the above polytunnel on Amazon which cost only £80. Not only was it far cheaper than building our own timber frames, it would provide us with protected growing space than can be used through the winter as well. They are a good size as well - 5m long, 2m wide and 2m high. So we bought two.

We discovered they were very easy to assemble and they are very effective at retaining heat. We have already planted out the one we have assembled with tomatoes though there is a vast amount of space to plant more. We need to prepare the ground for the second polytunnel. At the moment, that patch has a manure heap on one side and a gravel heap on the other. The manure needs to be dug into the ground elsewhere and the gravel is due to go into more drainage ditches, one of which I dug yesterday. Hopefully this will all be sorted over the next few days.

Friday 24 May 2013

Hedge trimming and hens

hens May 13 1

Our allotment is over 100 years old and around it is a well established hawthorn hedge which sometimes needs trimming. Actually, "trimming" is possibly an understatement given the work I carried out on it today. On one side of the allotment I wanted the hedge to be about 2 metres high. That meant chopping off another 2 metres of growth. Hawthorn has an ability to grow rapidly and the hedge was simply getting too tall, blocking light to part of the allotment in the morning.

I noticed both the hens and the ducks were interested in eating the leaves from the branches I chopped from the hedge. I have, therefore, left the branches on one of the big beds where I have just planted potatoes. This prevents the hens from kicking about the soil on the otherwise neat rows and trenches and gives the hens an additional food supply. Over the next two or three weeks we will gradually chop up the trimmings. Sticks will go into the incinerator. Branches will cut into 15cm lengths and stored to use in the outdoor oven we are planning to build.

The hawthorn (alternative name being mayflower) is yet to flower. It is very late this year. Normally by this time the hawthorn hedges would be covered in white blossom by now. We are about to enter the final week of May and there are plenty of buds, but no flowers yet. It is in danger of being renamed juneflower. However, the late end to winter this year means many crops and plants are starting late.

In their new home

chicks May 13 5

Three of our seven chicks headed off to their new home a couple of days ago. They were exchanged with a firend who is a builder for some harris frames which we need for our impending goat project. The chicks are now in their new henhouse and chicken run (see photo above). Apart from trying to roost on top of the henhouse on the first evening, they have settled in well.

Thursday 23 May 2013

Overdoing the rain dance

Chase Park in rain May 13

I have mentioned recently that a relatively dry period in March, April and early May was causing us concern. I joked about doing a rain dance and, thankfully, we then had a bit of rain. Alas, I think we may have overdone it. On Saturday 18th May the Whickham May Fayre was due to be held in the Village's Chase Park. In the past I have acted as a steward at the Fayre but this time I decided I was going to have a stall and use it to promote self-sufficiency and the allotment cafe we run once a month in Marley Hill Community Centre.

And then the rain came, and what a downpour! It rained constantly on Friday evening and through into Saturday morning. We had about 4cm of rain. The Fayre was therefore cancelled and on Saturday morning, instead of setting up my stall, I was plodding around in ground water, helping to take down the tents, tables and equipment.

Fortunately the allotment cafe went ahead on Sunday 19th. We ran out of our Tamworth pork burgers and the lovage and potato soup was popular.The last Tamworth leg joint was used to make pork sandwiches. We have now opened discussions with Bill Quay Community Farm to buy another Tamworth but I am also toying with the idea of making game burgers and sausages for the next cafe on 30th June. We have a supply of rabbit, pheasant and duck and we could put the meat through our new sausage making machine. Watch this space.....

(Photo above taken on Saturday in the rain when we were taking down the tents at the Whickham May Fayre.)

Eggs in the incubator

duck eggs in incubator May 13

These are the seven duck eggs that went into the incubator after we lost two of our ducks to foxes. They are due to hatch around 4th June. As we have a number of varieties of ducks and drakes, the majority of ducklings will be cross-breeds.

More potato planting

potato planting May 13 4

Potato planting has been one of the main jobs this week. On our main allotment, for the first time ever we have allocated an entire bed for a single crop and I am concerned that here, and on the bed put aside on Dad's allotment entirely for potatoes, we may run out of space by the weekend. We are growing our biggest crop of potatoes so far and onto the large bed on our main allotment, sharples express, rooster and anya have been planted. I can get another two rows on the bed and I can squeeze another row in by using the path along the top of the bed as a growing space instead. As you can see from the above photo, the hens joined in the dig and had a great feast on worms.

Up at Dad's allotment, we have set aside the big bed for potato growing. I've already used half of it for King Edwards. Part of this bed had been planted out with soft fruit but we moved these to the main allotment a few weeks ago so that Dad's could be focused on vegetable growing. The problem with Dad's allotment is that the big bed, other than the area used for soft fruit, has not been cultivated for at least three years and is now overgrown. A thick layer of weeds blankets the ground and removing it is a slow and laborious job. We can't avoid doing the job however as potatoes are our most important crop. On the part of the bed still to be weeded, I will be planting more King Edwards and a variety called Home Guard.

potato planting May 13 5
(King Edwards have been planted on this bed on Dad's allotment. We have added fresh chicken manure to the rows. You can see it in the first one. Fresh rather than rotted down manure is better for potatoes.)

potato planting May 13 6
(The bed still needs a great deal of work doing before the rest of the potato crop can be planted. Note the thick layer of weeds on the top end of the bed I have not yet removed.)

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Sean's allotment May - week 3

Sean is planting pumpkins, clearing the plot and feeding the cat! Watch out for a very brief appearance from you know who!

My rain dance seems to have worked

The weather forecast was spot on. Lots of rain was predicted to start falling through the night and then through the day, though on a lighter scale. It was predicted to finish by 4pm. I could have set my watch by it! I'm pleased to say the ground has now had a good watering and the water butts are nearly full. The new drainage has worked as well. The plants needed a good watering - and they got it. The drawback now is that we are expecting a few days of relatively cold weather though at the moment, with the rain now gone, the sky is blue and the sun is shining.

Crystal Palace Food Market

Crystal Palace food market May 13 2

When I was in London over the weekend I went along to the Crystal Palace food market, held on Saturday. It was organised by a group of local residents who call themselves Crystal Palace Transition Town. The group came together to promote sustainable living and local food production. They have also taken over a number of small, unused and sometimes derelict plots of land around Crystal Palace to turn them into gardens.

Those of you who know me will know that I am a keen advocate for self-reliance, sustainability and helping others to help themselves. This market was very much along these lines. Unfortunately I got there late as I was delayed by other factors and arrived an hour before the market was due to close. It was raining but that didn't seem to be dampening spirits. And it looked like most stalls had largely sold out. I spoke to one stall holder who was down to her last jar of honey. Typically, when two beekeepers are together at the moment, the conversation quickly turns to how dreadful the weather was in 2012 and 2013 has to be a better year for the bees and the honey crop.

The markets are going to be held fortnightly. There's more on their website:

Crystal Palace food market May 13 1

Monday 13 May 2013

Allotment meeting

My support for allotments in my home town of Gateshead is well known so when an allotment issue pops up, I am often contacted (wearig my local councillor hat) by residents and the media. A few weeks ago, the Council announced allotment rent rises that would mean some would be paying a rent 330% higher than they do now. Many concerned allotment holders very quickly got in touch with me once they were informed of the rise. To cut a long story short, after I raised concerns with officers of the council (and other councillors raised similar concerns) it was announced that the Council Cabinet would not consider the proposed rent rises but there would instead be consultation with recommendations for increases coming to the Council cabinet in June. The consultation closed just over a week ago. (For the record, my allotment is privately rented, as is Dad's.)

As part of the consultation, and at the request of some of the allotment holders, I hosted a meeting earlier this month at Gateshead Civic Centre which was attended by nearly 40 allotment tenants of the Council. The meeting was positive and a wide range of concerns about the management of the sites was raised. I have been pushing for the sites to be run by the allotment holders themselves rather than by the Council. Each site would choose a committee and officers and they would set the priorities for the site, decide what work needs to be done, set the rents accordingly, collect them and spend the money on maintaining the site and the priorities the officers have decided upon. Over the past decade there has very little Council investment and expenditure on the allotment sites though the Council does claim the service is subsidised. Any work that has taken place tends to be of a reactive nature - such as sorting out damage after a flood. This would change if the system I propose is adopted.

Generally, the idea of self-management was supported by the meeting as long as sites could move towards it at their own pace. After all, it will only work if there are allotment holders on each site prepared to come forwad to be officers. The meeting was also interested in moving forward with another idea I had - setting up a Gateshead-wide society to promote allotments and food growing in the borough. Hopefully, sometime this summer we will get an organisation in place.


cherry blossom May 13 3

My trip to London gave me the chance to see how much sooner the growing season starts compared to back home in the North East of England. The photo above is of a cherry tree in blossom. Below is a crab apple tree. Both are in Crystal Palace. Having spent 2 years as a beekeeper, I am now much more aware of how important the blossom is, not just to fruit production, but to the honey crop as well. Blossom is a major source of nectar and pollen for the bees. Back in the North East, the blossom will be with us in large quantities soon, so I'm looking forward to the bees being our in large numbers in the coming weeks.

crab apple blossom May 13

Taking shelter from the rain

hen sheltering May 13

If my hopes that a bit of rain on the allotment meant the end to the dry period of recent weeks, they were a bit premature. Yes, we had rain, but it wasn't very heavy or long lasting. Still, it was enough for my hens to take shelter, for a few minutes at least, and one of them made use of an upturned wheelbarrow.

The dry period continued into today. So, in sharp contrast to this time last year, we are facing a water shortage and plants outdoors are going to have to be watered with water brought over in carriers from the house.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Fox in the garden

Fox in garden May 13

Having endured the loss of two of my ducks to foxes on Monday night on the allotment back home in Sunniside, yesterday I had to endure a fox lazing itself in the sun in the garden of my house in London (see photo above). Urban foxes are the pampered city cousins of the rural ones we have back home. In London they can survive in unnaturally large numbers because people leave out food for them or people waste food (often in criminal quantities). Where wheelie bins are not provided and rubbish bags are put out for collection (as is the case in Crystal Palace where my London home is) foxes are free to rip them open and have a free meal.

Foxes here in London wander around in daylight in public areas. I saw one outside Crystal Palace Sainsburys earlier this week. Back home in Sunniside, they tend to avoid human contact and stay away from housing during daylight hours. What went wrong for us on Monday evening is that two of our ducks somehow didn't get back into the duck house before it was locked up by the friend looking after them in our absence. That was when they became vulnerable.

A number of people have contacted me when learning of our loss so rest assured, all the ducks and hens are safe at night time in their duck and hen houses. We have learnt a costly lesson not to let any difficult birds who don't want to go in for the night to stay out.

Friday 10 May 2013

The growing North South divide

Sean Cameron was my producer on the Horticultural Channel a couple of years ago and his allotment is in Penge in South East London. I paid him a visit yesterday as I'm down in London for a few days. He does a weekly video update (which puts my merely monthly video updates to shame!) the latest of which you can see above.

The key difference between London and my place in the North East of England which I notice every time I come to London in the early spring period is how earlier the growing season starts in the south. Up north we are about two or three weeks behind. So whilst back home the blossom at the moment is very limited, down here in London (and I also noticed in Kent where I was over the weekend) the trees and shrubs are covered in it. Indeed, some of the cherry trees here in Crystal Palace, where I am staying, are past the blossom stage and have little cherries already developing.

Think back a year and the blossom was, generally, being smashed to bits by the heavy and persistent rainfall. Now we worry that there is far too little rain and eagerly watch the weather forecasts in the hope that news will come of a good downpour. The news from home on the weather front is not good. Apparently we had a bit of drizzle last night but nothing heavy. I need to start doing a rain dance again!

Self-Sufficient in Suburbia: April 2013

This is the latest programme from the allotment: it's April 2013 and the month starts in winter weather conditions. Planting is delayed but when the sun arrives, the bees get active. New drainage is dug to avoid a repeat of the sort of floods we had last year but we have had so little rain during April that the drains were barely tested. Meanwhile, we want to increase our stock of soft fruit bushes so cuttings were made and planted up in the greenhouse.

Thursday 9 May 2013

Mini raised beds

mini raised bed May 13

I discovered two old cupboards on a pile of rubbish outside our local community centre so I asked if I could take them. Not being particularly possessive of the things they were throwing out, they let me take them. They would be ideal for mini raised beds. Holes were drilled into the bottom and I put in a layer of gravel (from the bed of gravel I discovered in the corner of the allotment whilst digging the drainage). Over this I put a layer of homemade compost and then a layer of potting compost. The first was planted out with lettuce seeds last week and the photo above was taken last night, showing the seeds had sprouted. The second will be used for radishes.

When we have created protective covers for them to protect them from the hens, we will put them outside the greenhouse.

Onion planting

netted polytunnel May 13

Along with potatoes, onions are my most important vegetable crop. Last autumn we abandoned our attempts to plant onions outdoors on our main allotment because the ground was waterlogged. In January I planted the onion sets instead in seed trays in the greenhouse with the expectation that they would be planted out on the allotment in early April. That target got knocked for six with the delayed end to the winter. Too many frosts hit us in the first half of April so the onions were planted out last week instead. Or rather, some of them were planted.

Plenty still remain in the greenhouse because we ran out of space on the raised bed we had decided to use for onion planting. This bed is normally used for the polytunnel but this time we have removed the polythene and netted it instead to keep the hens off it. Also in the greenhouse are garlic and shallots and in the shed is a bag of more onion sets. These will all go to Dad's allotment. I would have preferred to get them into the ground before now but the knock on effects of the late running winter are still with us.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Recovering from the fox attack

chicks May 13 4

Of the seven ducks we had before the fox attack on Monday evening, four were layers, two were drakes and one khaki campbell was point of lay and it probably was not going to be long before she produced her first egg. Generally we were getting 4 eggs a day. We have now been able to work out which 2 khaki campbells we lost. As there were three eggs this morning, we believe that it was the point of lay and one of the adult khakis that have been lost. We now have 6 duck eggs in the incubator. 27 days to go now before they hatch.

The hens are fine. We lost none to the foxes and the chicks are doing well (see photo above). Shortly, we will create a temporary run for the chicks. Currently they have an enclosed run as part of the henhouse but they will soon outgrow it and it is useful to get them used to bigger, outdoor spaces.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Lost to foxes

I'm sorry to report that we lost two of our khaki campbell ducks to foxes last night. This is the first time we have lost anything to predators and I'm really feeling this setback hard. As an emergency measure, we have put 6 of the latest duck eggs into the incubator to try to restore stock levels though anything that hatches won't be laying until early next year. We have also had to put back our quail plans. With the incubator in use for the duck eggs, the quail eggs will have to wait a month. That means it's unlikely that we can go into quail egg production this year. This is all a setback and I feel a bit upset at the loss of the two ducks, but we will recover. Indeed, we have been surprised that we have not had losses to foxes before now.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Starting the potato and onion planting

potato planting May 13

The late running winter means planting is late this year and the growing season will be about three weeks shorter. Nevertheless, now that winter is, at last, behind us, we have made a start on planting the potatoes. They have been chitting for weeks in the greenhouse. On Thursday, the first row was planted. The entire crop is to go onto Dad's allotment at Marley Hill. This allotment needs a great deal of work to bring it fully into use and I am planning to take some of our chickens up there when I know I am doing a full day's work there so they can attack the weeds and mini-jungle there that need clearing.

With so many chickens and ducks, we don't need to buy fresh manure for the potatoes. Over the past week, I shipped up a load to chicken manure to Marley Hill and added it to the trench ready for planting. It's another cost saved.

Also planted out this week were some of the onions we ended up planting in seed trays in the greenhouse in January because the ground was too wet to put them outdoors in the autumn. I filled the entire netted raised bed on our main allotment along with the shallots and garlic also growing in the greenhouse. The rest will go onto Dad's allotment. We are growing a much bigger crop of onions this year. Along with potatoes, they are our most important crop. They are used in our chutneys, as ingredients in our meals and will be added to the sausages that we will making soon. We will never have more than we need.

Moving the chicks outdoors

Chicks May 13 2

We have now moved the chicks outdoors to the new henhouse we built on Monday. They have settled in well and they have worked out that they roost in the upstairs area and eat, sunbathe, drink and run about in the downstairs area. At this point they are not being let out of the henhouse and its enclosed chicken run. That will happen after three of them have been traded with a friend for fencing materials and the remaining four have grown sufficiently that bullying from the hens in the established flock will not be so much of a problem.

Chicks May 13 3

The plan eventually is to install a shed as a chicken coop and move the hens from the two smaller henhouses into it. These two houses will then be used as quail houses. We can't let the quails out to free range across the allotment but we have already built them two movable runs which can be connected to the small henhouses once they contain quails. An added advantage with the larger of the two runs is that is was designed also as a cage to keep the hens etc from damaging vegetables and soft fruit. It will be placed over one of the rows of gooseberry bushes where the hens have been pecking at the leaves and flowers. The quails will not be a problem for the gooseberries. The bushes will act as a cover for them and make them more contented with the environment in which they are living (and therefore make them more productive.)

All we have to do now is get the quail eggs and hatch them!

Chicks May 13 1

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Egg record broken

April saw my hens and ducks break the record for egg production. We had 396 hen and 105 duck eggs. March was the previous record holder with 328 and 89 respectively. So, quite an increase without any additional birds (though two of our ducks only started laying part way through March.) The improved weather in April (though we started with nearly two weeks of freezing temperatures) seems to have helped improve productivity.

The increased number of eggs has proved to be useful. We are barely keeping up with demand for them from friends who buy them. Shortly, our flock will be expanded by the addition of our chicks (three of which are going to a friend as a swap for fence building material.) In about 16 weeks the hens amongst the chicks will be ready to start laying. Hopefully we will be able to keep up with demand in the meantime.