Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Tempted by the seed packets?

Tempting? Oh yes, the lure of the seed packet is very strong right now - as the wind howls outside.

These seeds were a welcome Christmas gift, but I must confess, they have unleashed the budding gardener within far, far too early.

Every fibre of my being wants to rush out and get planting - but, as my brain knows well, that not a clever move - yet.

Apart from broad beans and onions I'm gritting my teeth and biding my time.

If I start the sowing spree too early I'll have a rake of seedlings going leggy on windowsills and having to be coaxed to survive until it's time to put them in their final growing places.

So, what to do to satiate that lust to get planting? Well, I could sprout some sprouts on a windowsill for a VERY quick crop, or even attempt some indoor cut and cut again seedlings, but, luckily I found a diversion. Get planning.

Oh yes, time to channel my energies into getting organised for the coming season.

So, I've been looking at my gardening notebook from 2009 - and noticing that I didn't plant ANYTHING (apart from broad beans and windowsill basil) before the first week in April. Granted, that was because there was nowhere to put any seeds until the shell of the house went up in March 2009.

Anyway, it was really helpful to look back over the timings, successes and failures of last year. The tomatoes grew fine despite a late start. It's just a pity they got blight in mid September. Most things did really well. We had great sweetcorn, peas, cucumbers, sweet potato, salad leaves etc.
I have learned a thing or two along the way. That putting up a polytunnel with two people is indeed possible, but quite silly; that squashes are thugs that need constant attention(hacking back) unless you want them to smother everything in sight; that chickens are devious and will find a way into the tunnel if at all possible; that there really is NOTHING like the taste of the first broad bean, pea or corn of the season. I could go on... but I digress.

I have the planning bug big now. I did start in the autumn with an outline plan for the polytunnel.

I already have a crop rotation system underway in there and have some oriental leaves, salads and brassicas overwintering already. The radishes I planted at the end of August, between broccoli seedlings, were very yummy, so that worked well .. and we still have nice salad leaves etc

Anyway, in my growing enthusiasm, I took the big plunge .. and started to plan out the 'kitchen garden' aka the vegetable beds that will be right at the back of the house. I had a rough size and shape but hadn't got around to planning exactly what I'd put in them.

Successional planting is key for me. I want as much home grown produce as possible as much of the time as possible. I've never really tried to grow food on a 'large' scale before. Before setting up the polytunnel I'd just been dabbling really - trying a few things here and there.

When I stopped to think about it, there is a lot to consider. How many potatoes or cauliflowers or peas do we eat in a year? How much space would that take up? How exactly do I manage to have cabbage all year round? I still have a lot to learn. To be honest, the more I thought about it, the more complicated it seemed to become.

So, I turned to my trusted companion - Joy Larkcom's "Grow Your Own Vegetables" to look at her planting ideas. Noticing that the kitchen garden plot is a similar size to her sample plans, I have very strongly modeled my plan on her 'gourmet plan'. I've substituted a few things and made a few additions, but otherwise it's a straight copy. Actually, it's a great way of learning about successional planting and seeing first hand crop rotation in action, so thank you Joy, you've made that much easier for me, on paper at least.

I must admit that, although not sowing seeds yet, I do have the urge to buy a few more, in preparation. I do notice though, that I won't always use the full amount of seed I get in a packet. I'm hoping that some of last years spare seed will still be viable, so I can use it this year. Even so, it gets me thinking about seed swapping - even 1/2 packs. It seems a great way to try new and different things. I'm sure there are schemes for it out there. I will check it out.

Meanwhile, if anyone out there fancies swapping some seeds, just get in touch. Leave a comment or email me (

Still on the subject of seeds I'm pondering this year's system for propagating. Last year I took full advantage of my neighbors airing cupboard - and it looks like I may be going down that route again (sorry Jenny) to get chillis, tomatoes etc started. Then I kept them in the shell of the house until the polytunnel went up in mid May. I did try my invention of the hot water bottle propagator, which was rather ineffective to say the least.

Well, for 2010 I have a new plan. As we won't have mains electricity in Spring, I can rule out a proper heated propagator or heat mat for starting off seeds OR keeping them happy until outside temperatures warm up. So, undaunted, I have a new plan. It will involve a 12 volt electric blanket and a car battery. Watch this space.

Otherwise, I'll try using a cloche at night in the polytunnel if temperatures drop.

Also, while I ponder the balancing act of when to start seeds so that a) they aren't so early that they go leggy indoors or could get too cold in the tunnel or b) they aren't too late to produce well ... I'm leaning towards starting them later and trusting they'd catch up with any riskier earlier sowing ... heres a picture of the hens having a holiday in the snow.

Have a Happy New Year everyone. Here's to a fabulous 2010 for us all.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Winter slow down?

Well, we're heading into winter now. Those nights are getting really long and it's getting colder for sure. Some say winter is a time for slowing down. In some ways that rings true. We're still not able to work on the house, due to ongoing planning issues, so building work is still halted and will remain so until early next year if things drag on (and believe me they they are dragging).
Yet, there is always plenty to do.
Here's a picture of our late blooming butternut squashes. We got 5 squashes from 2 plants - but I was late germinating them, I think I started them off in April.

I've been experimenting with drying the seeds from our pumpkins and squashes. I never factored in the TIME that it takes to 'process' seeds for eating - guess I was too busy planting and tending things to even consider it.
Well, it does take time. Squash seeds are really slimy when first removed, so need washing and drying, but it is worth it, as they taste great and are full of goodness.
With time on my hands I also started shelling the sunflower seeds that I'd collected from my polytunnel giants. Some of the seedheads, even in the tunnel, had got a bit mouldy and some others still had a lot of immature seeds (without a proper seed inside the shell), but we had some really nice ones. I find it quite meditative shelling the seeds - but you really do need to find the time. Would be tricky if we had a tight schedule.

The linseeds were even trickier (no photo - sorry) to shell and a lot of time shelling provided slim results.
The quinoa (pictured below), just needed the seed coating rubbing off. There are a LOT of seeds though.

Now the frosts have come we've been digging up our oca tubers. We haven't tried any yet. I hear they are quite versatile to cook with. We'll let you know how we get on.

I've been trying to dry out of black cherokee trail of tears beans. They're part way dry. I'm not sure how to cook them that way - they're aren't quite fresh or quite dry.

Some of my garlic is emerging. I have them in pots overwinter, so they can get a spell of cold without being in really damp ground, then I'll plant them out in spring.

In the tunnel the salads are doing well. We have a few sneaky slugs and caterpillars but noting too drastic. We did have some pak choi that succumbed to vine weevil (don't know how that got in) but most are fine.

The brussel sprouts are absolutely gorgeous. Just hope we manage to save some for Christmas dinner!

I'm trying some cardboard collars round my brassicas. I have started some cauliflower and broccoli so we get an early crop in the tunnel next year.

It's time now to dig up the sweet potatoes (the leaves that look like ivy in the picture). We'll get a few - but we won't be quite self sufficient in them yet ... unless I get a few more polytunnels ;-)

Growing my own has been an eye opener in many ways. I don't mind that I get small yields (as I plant small amounts). In a way I appreciate things more when they are seasonal. Quality not quantity is ok. There is a buzz out of picking a few choice blueberries from the bush that outweighs buying an expensive punnet of them from the supermarket.

That where we're lucky to have the best of both worlds - growing our own as best we can and then supplementing it with veggies from elsewhere when we need to. It can be tricky though these days - do you prioritize local or organic? It can be quite a brain teaser that one, enough to tempt me to stick more closely to seasonal produce that can more easily be both. Yet, they say variety is the spice of life and to eat a varied diet. What do you think?

I must admit that I do hanker after being relatively self sufficient even though I know its a pipe dream (as somewhere along the line it could take too much work and time and thus become less fun) . I joke to Sam that I'll put an acre to goji berries and turn the really damp patch into a paddy field for rice. Thing is , I'm only half joking.

I guess it's good to have a dream, even a pipe dream. Whatever I end up doing in 'the field', I know I'll have fun trying. To me thats the key. Fingers crossed that we'll get to have fun building our house again soon (all positive thoughts, vibes and prayers for us being able to get our planning finally sorted and our build back on track are very greatly appreciated).

I'll sign off with a picture of our nasturtiums (interspersed with a few leeks) appreciating the shelter of the polytunnel.

Monday, 19 October 2009

It's all gone a bit quiet

Ah yes, it's pumpkin time again. Here's a selection of this year's pickings - some pumpkin potimarron (small orange ones), prostate squash, with tasty seeds (stripey green and gold one) and some blue banana squash (the long one). We also have some butternet squashes that need just a little more time to mature.

Apart from all things edible it's been very quiet here for the past week or so. For reasons beyond your control, and our imagination, we have had to stop building for a while.

Long story short, the previous planning permission for the site had an error, so we are technically without planning permission for our build and having to seek 'retention' and aren't allowed to do ANY building work until this is sorted.

This has been quite a shock to say the very least. Yet, life goes on. (It has also been an interesting lesson in 'living in the now' and not forever 'waiting' to be done and 'in'. After all, the journey is everything .. and it's quite some journey!).There's still the polytunnel to look after and chickens and ducks to feed here etc. We can still sort out some technical details, make plans etc

I'll still be blogging - just don't expect any pictures of work going on inside the house for a while.

So, here's what we HAVE been up to.

As well as the joy of squash ...

... on the last day of September I got some seeds started and now we have pak choi, lettuce and rocket etc growing really well in the tunnel. I'm also in the middle of setting up a watering system for the tunnel, with seep hose running from water butts. Watch this space to see if it works. (You can see the brown pipe has already been laid out between the plants)

I've also been collecting seed from those massive sunflowers.

Also, this week, we have installed an automatic pop hole for the bird house. It's very useful for when we o out before it gets dark and don't want to either lock the girls away really early or leave them out late without having the door shut.

It seems to be a great success. Luckily, the door goes down slowly (I was concerned that if it went down too fast and a chicken was going through at the time that it could get messy!) There is a battery powered light sensor that closes and opens the door at dusk and dawn. Very clever.

The days are really drawing in now and shortening, but they birds are still all laying really well.

We're getting some 'free' mushrooms from our latest load of spent mushroom compost - and very tasty they are too.

We also found that there's a lovely hazel on site that has been giving us lovely nuts.

I may still mark out my raised beds this month rather than waiting until Spring, if I prepare them now and then cover them with black plastic the soil could be nice and warm by Spring. (Don't you just love a bit of optimism).

Anyway, normal building work WILL be resumed, hopefully fairly shortly, so do keep checking in.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Six months in .. but not in yet.

Here's the current view of the lawn and chicken run, from the living room.

Just been musing that it's now been six months since the shell of the house went up.

We've been pretty busy since then (and also frequently pulled away from the build to do other things). Sam has been doing great work, but morale does wane at times - it really is a lot of work for just the two of us (and just him doing heavy work). Guess I might have been a bit over ambitious and quite optimistic. We are really quite tired by now - but it is still all worth it.

Some things have gone really well, like making new friends, playing in the polytunnel, and eating from it, of course. One of the best things has been having the chickens and ducks, especially now they are free ranging. They are a constant source of amusement, whether they are using the remains of the sand pile as a giant dust bath, chasing insects across the lawn or trying to sneakily gain entry to the tunnel. The chickens have really come on since we first got them. Their faces have great colour now, their beaks are now brown (rather than white) and have grown back and their feathers are improving really well. See for yourself.

Here's a pic of the bed by the tunnel, the sunflowers are the same variety as those in the tunnel in the last post. The wind has been quite fierce at times, (hence the sunflowers are not 11ft tall like in the tunnel), even over the summer, so much so that I'm considering using windbreak netting.

People have been telling me recently how getting the shell up is the 'easy' bit .. and it is after that when the costs really soar. I can well understand what they mean. It can be frightening how money disappears (and there's always something I forgot to budget for).

One thing we had planned on was using renewable energy, preferably by being off-grid, using a hybrid wind and solar system combined with a battery bank. That plan for electricity from renewables had to be shelved and leaves us now having to wait a minimum of three months to get conneted to the ESB (grid). So, it will be an interesting time ahead with just the generator for a while longer (was ok in summer with long days, may be more challenging in winter). There may even be a time when we have to stop the build until the electric is connected. Fingers crossed we'll manage ok. (The solar hot water needs electricity to work so we'll only have cold water for a while longer). At least the wood burning stove is now ready for action.

Eventually, we'll get some renewables for electricity.

We'd originally planned to be 'in' by September and although we aren't there yet, it is getting ever closer (I daren't say a deadline, let alone go for the 'we'll be in by Christmas' idea).

For now, there is a rumor that Sam might just get the toilet plumbed in soon :)

While the good weather stays we'll also be busy plastering the outside. Pictures next time.

polytunnel progress and more roof antics

Here's a taster of what is going on in the polytunnel these days. Thankfully the squashes are starting to lose their insistence on scambling over the paths but they are producing grand fruits now, like this pumpkin potimarron.

The russian mammoth sunflowers are living up to their name and have reahed the top of the tunnel and have tree trunks for stems.

Of ourse, I am starting off more seeds, to fill gaps left by peas and brassicas (see the 'blue banana' squash growing along the bench - good in risotto so I hear .. I'll remember to invite a large crowd for dinner that night!)

The butternut squash are a bit behind. Fingers crossed they'll cath up.

My best surprise has been the green nutmeg melon - we have four, hidden behind brocolli and so unattended, but they've done fine and are very tasty - even ripened well and are even sweet.

Corn on the cob is fab too.

Brassias were ridiculously large, especially the leaves, but all came through with good heads in the end.

Of course, we've not been without incident. Last week my pop corn got badly infested with aphids (I swear I hadn't seen any the day before) which took some time and effort to sort (washing up liquid and brutality).

Also. outside the polytunnel, the pond has some sort of green gloop. Not quite sure what it is, but will feed it to the compost heap.

In the house there has been some progress.

Here is the ceiling starting to go up.

Here, Sam starts making holes in the roof again ...

... to fit the flue for the stove (note the re-appearance of Neil, our able helper back for more punishment)

Here's Sam on the roof, removing tiles.

Now, job done, saluting his fine erection .. of the flue.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Where does the time go?

Wherever the time goes, it hasn't been spent building much over the past few weeks.

With guests a plenty and work to distract us the build has been sorely neglected.

However, we've got a few things done and have been having some fun.

Here's Sam attempting to 'herd' the ducks towards the pond on their first free range outing.
Needless to say, he was unsuccessful.

The chickens are also greatly enjoying free ranging now and are looking really lively and healthy - and producing plenty of gorgeous eggs.

Despite neglecting the tunnel a wee bit we've got plenty of veg - still dwarf beans, the last polytunnel peas (with outdoor peas now starting), broccoli, cabbage, courgettes, salad onions etc

Here's one of our tunnel sunflowers.

Here's some marigolfd from the tunnel (they entice the bees in).

Here's a potimarron winter squash.

Inside the house we have managed to do first fix electrics and plumbing, so we've lots of wires hanging from the ceiling.

We've also been preparing for insulating the ceiling under the roof. Here are the hardboard sheets we (very painstakingly) put up. That took us a lot longer than we anticipated. I think if it wasn't for Test Match Special Sam might not have made it through the job in one piece (it's tricky wielding hardboard over your head .. esp when the helper (me) is undersized for the job).

The squash have been trying to take over the universe. I'm still regularly filling wheelbarrows with squashy tendrills that overtake the paths in the tunnel.

Here's some of that veg I was talking about earlier.

Hopefully, I'll have a bit more to report soon. There are rumours of a working toilet soon. Now that will be well appreciated!