Saturday, 15 August 2009

New Arrivals

The family O'Brien has been smallholding now for over a decade, but until this past week we've avoided the tie of keeping a dairy animal. However the draw of a more complete self-sufficiency has overruled our desire for flexibility and freedom (which was very partial in any case what with pigs, sheep, poultry and bees as well as the dogs, cat and seedlings in the greenhouse). So into the fold we welcome Sepia and Sophie, two Golden Guernsey goats aged two and five years.
Sophie, the big girl, is in milk, if producing just a pint or so a day, but it's the third year since she last kidded, the end of a lengthy lactation. In a couple of months, as the leaves start to colour, both goats will be sent away for a holiday romance (we don't want a billy here thanks, to stink and spray us with pee), but with luck they'll return home contented with a sparkle in each eye, to result in two pairs of twins born next spring, and gallons of milk for cheese and yoghurt.
Goats are friendly, lively creatures, much more curious and intelligent than sheep or cattle. They make ideal playmates for children, always up for a game of hide-and-seek in the field by day, or a quiet cuddle whilst they meditatively chew the cud in their shed of an evening. I've milked Jersey cows by hand in the past, a herculean task since they produce such vast quantities, but with only two teats and a much smaller udder, a goat is a pleasure to milk out, not a chore. And much to the surprise of all our sceptical visitors, Sophie's milk, fresh today, chilled in the fridge, has proved indistinguishable from the bottle of cow's milk usually delivered to our doorstep.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Bees and honey

The garden is humming with bees, bumbles of many different species, and of course our honeybees, gathering pollen for their brood and nectar to make into honey. Sunny June suited them well, and I had high hopes for a good honey harvest, but with the washout of July, my expectations are no longer great. Any day now I will take off some combs, perhaps tomorrow if it's fine so lots of bees are flying - the fewer in the hives to defend against my burglary, the better.

I prefer to err on the side of generosity as a beekeeper, leaving them plenty of their own stores for the winter, and mixing 10% honey back into the sugar syrup that I feed to replace the stolen booty. I also add a few drops of chamomile tea, a biodynamic technique, to aid their digestion of the refined white sugar (they cannot metabolise brown). This year for the first time the chamomile is homegrown, so I trust the tea will suit them especially well - and my family too, to soothe indigestion or calm troubled nerves.

Wildlife in the veg garden

The vegetable garden is in full production, the beds that held garlic, onions and shallots in the first half of the year now contain many varieties of salad leaves and roots that should feed us through next winter.

I've replanted the banks between the two veg terraces with herbs and bee-friendly flowers, and now they are in full flower and alive with flying insects and butterflies. I fear however that they are also harbouring my deadliest enemies, the slugs and snails, as once again a wet summer has ensured they are in plague proportions. Where are the frogs and toads I've tried so hard to attract, with a pond, plenty of cover and choice hibernation sites for overwintering? Next year I plan to raise an aquarium of tadpoles that I'll nurture right up to adulthood, only then releasing them into the garden - we'll see if that helps.

Monday, 8 June 2009

June in Mid Devon

Flaming June after two years of washout – it’s been pure bliss – particularly a picnic supper at the top of the hill, basking in the sun’s lowering rays, debating the location of church towers in the far-flung distance, and feasting on the first strawberries, with gooseberry puree, honey and clotted cream. The cream was not from Bertie’s Cottage, but skimmed from the milk of the very cows that grazed the sward on which we were sitting, then ‘scalded’ by our kindly neighbour, on her kitchen stove.

Smallholding may be hard work, and I’m permanently grubby and dishevelled, but what better way is there to end a day than sharing food fit for gods with your family, smelling roses to the serenade of birdsong, and following the slow trajectory of a still-warm sun as it dips down over the horizon?

I had guarded the secret of the first strawberries zealously to allow for the crucial extra day’s ripening that deepens their red and maximises flavour and sweetness, but now, in addition to the slugs (foiled by growing them in hanging baskets) and blackbirds (scared away by pendant CDs), an altogether trickier pest (of the tall tail-less variety) is plundering the patch!

Bertie's Cottage Smallholding courses

Patti will be running day courses on sustainable small-holding at Bertie’s Cottage on July 4, August 22, September 19 and October 10. Price £75 per person. For more information please contact or Tel. 01647 24704

Alchemy in the compost heap

The art of rotting animal and vegetable waste might sound unappealing to the uninitiated, but the rewards of successful composting cannot be overstated. I recently parted the straw that covered a heap I made late last autumn (and had not touched since). The contents were even, moist, crumbly brown, a-wriggle with worms and with a pleasant earthy, almost sweet smell. Five star compost – I was very excited – from weeds, straw and animal waste (plus a dose of seaweed, some ground limestone and eggshells to counteract acidity, and the biodynamic preparations that help guide the process), I now had at my disposal the ultimate present for my plants. Feeding the food chain right at the base, by stimulating the soil life makes for healthy plants with good resistance to pest and disease. In turn these plants pass on their vitality to the animals that eat them, and on again to humans, at the top of the chain. How simply amazing that inside a tepee of thatch, decomposing kitchen waste and chicken poo transform into the elixir of life!

I photographed the giant heap I built last week. The first image shows it three-quarters made, with a bath of water to wet the straw, and a cloth to cover the heap during the scorching hot days. Can you see it’s already steaming from the microbial activity inside? This heat should kill any weed seeds and pathogenic spores – I’ll find out if it was sufficient in the autumn when I spread the compost on my beds.

The middle photo, in the afternoon the following day, shows thick sticks inserted to make channels for my arm to insert the biodynamic herbal preparations right into the centre of the mound.

In the last picture my work is finished, the heap is thatched with straw (saved from stoking a thatcher’s bonfire). This allows it to ‘breathe’, whilst guiding rain to run off and affording protection against drying winds and fluctuations in the temperature. Now I'll just have to wait till November!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Late spring flowers and Allium 'Purple Sensation'

Now even the oaks are fully in leaf, our valley is a verdant paradise - the fields are dotted with fragrant pheasant’s eye narcissi and pink spires of spotted orchids, the verges froth with wild flowers – bugle, bluebells and stitchwort, buttercups, dandelions and wild strawberry.

The ornamental garden is at its most fresh and colourful too. A red-leaved japanese acer contrasts well with white wisteria, blue ceanothus and yellow Azara serrata. The latter shrub is invaluable for the delicious, heady scent of its pompom flowers that permeates the entire pond garden.

Another signature plant of the season is Allium x hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’. An inedible member of the allium family, that fortunately lacks an onion or garlic scent, I introduced a handful of the bulbs into a border eight years ago. They obviously loved the heavy clay, seeding prolifically so the front garden is now packed with glorious purple spheres, a great companion for both late tulips as they finish and hardy geraniums and irises just coming into flower. An added bonus, they are a great favourite with many different bees and the first butterflies of the year – if you don’t already grow them and have a sunny patch with moisture-retentive soil, why not place an order and plant some in the autumn?