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Welcome

Sow The Seed follows the ups and downs of me, Helen and my husband, Simon - a couple trying to live a simpler life in south-west Wales.

I hope this blog will not only be a good reference and diary for us over the coming years, but will give helpful advice and tips for people trying to do the same thing, or dreaming of doing the same thing.

Find out more on how we got here.

What’s Happening Today

Tasks: Sowing; pruning; weeding; pottering

Harvesting: Cucumber, lettuce, radishes, strawberries, broad beans, potatoes

Eggs this year: 394 (hens) 317 (ducks)

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Flopsy and Stompy enjoying willow

As I write this it is actually raining, and for once a good amount of rain, not just a few spits and spots which has done nothing for the parched ground. However, unless it rains all night this still won’t be enough; something I thought I would never say since we moved to west Wales 10 years ago. But while the dry sunny weather hasn’t been great for the garden, the goats and chickens have been enjoying it (the ducks less so) and have been sun bathing at every opportunity. We did start to wonder when the goats ever ate, as they always seemed to be asleep in the sun, but after filming them one night with the camera trap, we discovered they don’t really go to bed, and are up most of the night and having a nibble.

Low willow hurdle – debarked by the goats

As an additional feed supplement, and while the goats don’t have any access to the hedges in their current paddock, we’re giving them tree branches. Their favourite is willow, and as we have plenty we give them a few branches every now again. They’ll eat the leaves first and then using their sharp front teeth will strip the bark leaving just the bare stems. These de-barked stems don’t go to waste, as I’m now able to use the stripped willow in the garden to make hurdles and low fences. These I make in various places to stop the chickens kicking out the soil from beds when they’re free range. So it is a win-win situation for us and goats.

Squash enjoying the sun

Despite the lack of rain, the vegetable garden is not doing too badly. We’ve had a reasonable crop of peas and broad beans, enough for the freezer. The potatoes haven’t fared so well, and the tops have withered away and the potatoes left in the ground are being eaten by slugs. Another crop that appears to be enjoying the hot weather is the winter squashes. As the picture shows, they have gone rampant, with loads of fruit emerging on them. The only water they are getting is the water out of the ducks bath, once a week. So fingers crossed the fruit swell enough for us to get plenty of squashes for saving over winter.

On a sad note, we lost one of our rescue hens, Cottontail. She wasn’t looking well for a few days, so we ended up bringing her into the house, which is never a good sign. She wasn’t eating, and the following morning died. The remaining hens have really slowed down their egg laying, we think because of the weather, rather than any illness. And speaking to other hen keepers they’re experiencing the same. Hopefully once the hot weather finishes (whenever that might be), the egg count will rise again.

Ah, I spoke too soon, the rain has stopped and that’s probably it now for another week given the forecast!

We’ve been down to two chickens for a while, and having also recently lost a duck, it was about time that we added to our collection of poultry. Because of the Avian Flu lockdown, we had found it hard to find anywhere offering hens for sale, as there are various biosecurity measures in place to restrict the movement of poultry during this time. However a friend suggested we try a local animal rescue centre, as they often have rescue hens available which are looking for new homes.

Last weekend we set off into the wilds of Pembrokeshire to Greenacres Rescue, west of Haverfordwest, and a few hours later came back with three brown hens. They are typical ex-commercial brown hens, bred for egg laying. We’ve had these breed of hens before, but at point-of-lay, rather than a few years old as these girls are. We’ve always found them to be friendly and inquisitive (perhaps too inquisitive), and these appear to be just the same. We don’t know their background, however, all commercial businesses will still get a new stock of hens every year, so it is just as likely that they came from a commercial free range business as a battery/caged business..

They have settled in nicely into their new home, scratching, dustbathing, lazing about in the sun, and already giving us eggs. We’ve kept them separate from the other two hens for the time being until they get used to each other and we are sure they don’t have any health issues. But in a couple of weeks they’ll all go in the same run and house, and find their pecking order, and hopefully everyone will get on.

Our three new hens – Pickle, Chutney and Cottontail

Rabbit proof(?) fence

It seems we may finally be coming out of the long, wet and cold winter, and spring is on its way. The rabbits certainly must think spring is in the air, as the rabbits are doing what they do best, and breeding like rabbits. Our rabbit problem is progressively getting worse, and while one or two in the fields can be tolerated, when they start to cause havoc in the garden, particularly the veg garden then it’s war!

When I checked on a row of parsnips and carrots I’d sown a few weeks ago, which I had been protecting from the cold with some fleece, I found a number of rabbit holes and tunnels underneath, soil everywhere, and most disheartening the rows of seedlings tossed around. I had found a similar situation a week before with the potatoes I had planted out, again under fleece for protection, but that wasn’t quite so bad as the potatoes can be fairly easily be replanted, but germinated seedlings will have to be resown.

Rabbit destruction

On seeing my frustration, Simon set out on Saturday morning to construct a rabbit (proof?) fence around the veg garden. We had a number of fence posts and a small roll of chicken wire already, so we’ve utilised what we have available. The fence doesn’t need to be particularly high (we hope we don’t have jumping rabbits), but the important thing is to make a skirt around the fence so the rabbits can’t easily burrow underneath. We also need to get in and out of the veg garden, so we need it a height we can easily get over. We managed to get three sides done, including using the duck’s electric fence as one side, and part of the polytunnel as another side. We didn’t have quite enough materials to go the full way round, but it’s a start. The rabbits are still getting in, so we will definitely need to close off every side before I can start sowing again.

This weekend also saw the loss of our first duck (other than Mr Duck, who flew the nest of his own accord). We’ve had them now for nearly 4 years, so they haven’t done too badly, but one of them could no longer walk. She was in a sorry state, pulling herself along with her wing. So we decided it was better to put her out of her misery than let her suffer any longer. So Simon did the deed, and we’re now down to two ducks. We would like to get some more poultry, probably just chickens, but while the avian flu lockdown is going on, nowhere seems to be selling young laying hens. Hopefully when the lockdown is lifted there will be some available, so we can boost our number again.

We’re both looking forward to some nice spring weather, and getting on with the year pest and trouble free… wishful thinking perhaps!

Three ducks in happier times

One more tree for our growing woodland

We’ve completed the last task of 2017 this morning, planting a new tree. I bought Simon a Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis) for Christmas, as it was a tree he’d been interested in for some while because of its rarity in the UK, although native to this country. We’d first seen one years ago when visiting an ancient woodland near Llandovery, Carmarthenshire (Poor Man’s Wood), which has a number of specimens. I’m unclear why it is so rare, but research suggests that it is a highly valued timber so the trees may have been felled for this reason. It also is hard to propagate from seed, needing very exacting conditions, including cold winters which are becoming less frequent. Whatever the reason, we now can say that our corner of West Wales is now home to a Wild Service Tree. We’ve got space in our small woodland area, partly due to the number of ash trees which have now succumbed to ash dieback. So this morning a hole was dug and the tree planted. We’ve staked it to protect it from wind rock, and help it establish a good root system before having to fend for itself. By maturity it could reach up to 25m high, so will be one of the larger trees in our woodland area, which is beginning to take shape, despite most of the trees being only eight years old.

So that’s it for 2017. We haven’t set ourselves any specific projects for 2018, but as the year progresses no doubt the tasks will become evident! Happy New Year.

Cider making underway

Well it’s been a while since I posted anything on Sow the Seed, despite lots going on. Summer has been and gone, with all the growing and harvesting that the summer season entails, and we’re now well into autumn and the harvesting continues, with apples taking centre stage. Our fruit trees are now in full production, with most of the trees producing well. One aspect of having plenty of apples is that we can make apple juice and cider, and today was ear marked as cider making day.

This year we have got our first big crop of apples from our cider tree – “Yarlington Mill”. In retrospect we might not have planted this variety, which can only really be used for cider making. Other varieties have multiple uses – the variety “Tom Putt”, which we also planted, can be used for juicing, cider making or cooking. Never mind though, it’s a good excuse to try making some farmhouse cider. You are meant to only use the juice from cider apples for a proportion of the cider, so we juiced Tom Putt and Golden Delicious alongside the Yarlington Mill to give us a cider that will hopefully be tasty, and not too dry.

The whole process is a bit time consuming. The apples have to picked and washed, and then cut up, crushed and pressed. All the demijohns and equipment have to be sterilised, and the kitchen starts to look like a chemistry lab! It’s a good job for a wet weekend, which we seem to be having plenty of.

The cider is now undergoing its initial ferment, and once that has finished there is the process of racking off for a second ferment and then bottling. It’s best to keep it bottled for a few months before consuming, so it’s really not a quick process. The problem then is that if it really tastes awful at the end of it all, you’ve had to wait so long and invest a lot of time before finding out.

Roll on next year when we get to try it!

Mr Duck has flown the nest!

Spring is definitely in full flow. The blossom is out on the fruit trees, the birds are busy making nests, and the swallows have arrived. However, there are also other signs of spring in our garden. Around this time last year, our drake decided to fly away one day and leave his ladies. He didn’t go very far, just down to the neighbours. He came back of his own accord a day later, and stayed put. However, he must have had the urge to try again, as he’s disappeared. None of the neighbours have seen him, and it’s been three days since he left, with no sign of him returning. We think he must have gone further afield to try his luck elsewhere. We’re not too bothered he’s gone, as he did molest the ladies a lot, and he was just another mouth to feed, with little in return. He certainly didn’t like us, often hissing at us if we got too close. The ladies don’t seem too bothered either (as far as we can tell), and they are still laying well. We’ll keep a look out for him, but I think given the time he’s been away he’s gone for good.

Whilst we’ve lost a duck, we’ve gained another occupant in the garden, just in time for Easter. A rabbit (we assume it is only one), has decided that they are going to make their home in our garden, and more specifically in our polytunnel. We’ve caught them on the camera trap, so we definitely know it’s a rabbit, and I surprised it the other day when I went to open up the polytunnel one morning. This is the first time we’ve seen a rabbit this close to the house, but given they have been growing in numbers in the area, it was only a matter of time before one appeared in the garden…but we hadn’t expected it to set up home in the polytunnel! We’re making efforts to remove it from the tunnel, but of course as soon as we laid a trap it hasn’t returned. We will have to play the waiting game!

Hen Pheasant caught on camera

We hope we’ve made our garden and grounds more wildlife friendly since we moved in, and given the amount and variety of birds we see, we think we have. And while we can see the birds and sometimes other wildlife in the garden, we haven’t seen much wildlife in the rest of the grounds…but we know it’s there as we see the evidence. Tracks criss-crossing the fields, large holes appear overnight, badger latrines and activity all over the place, and various “deposits” left around the place for me to find when I’m gardening!

I’ve been wanting to get a camera trap (sometimes called trail camera) for a while, which would help solve what is responsible for some of these mysteries. And for my birthday my wish was granted. Simon did lots of research on the various types of cameras available, and with a little help from a company called NatureSpy I received a Bushnell Essential E2 Trophy Cam. It takes both video and still photos, and can take pictures during the day and night. It’s a relatively simple device, relying on movement to trigger the camera into action, which takes either a series of still photos or a short video of whatever is in its field of view. The camera comes with a strap, which enables you to secure the camera against a tree, however, given there aren’t always trees available where you want to site the camera, I invested in a camera pole, which means you can place the camera wherever you want and at different heights.

My first attempts weren’t very successful, perhaps due to where it was positioned, but the camera is now down in our bottom field, not far from our pond, where we think there is wildlife activity. And we weren’t wrong as we’ve managed to capture a number of visitors – a local cat (which solves the mystery deposits left in our heather bushes), a hen pheasant (which is now a regular in the garden), and a fox (which is a little worrying given we keep chickens and ducks). I’m hoping once the badgers and their young become more active, we’ll get some good footage.

 

Diamond leision on trunk of ash tree

Diamond lesion on trunk of ash tree

I can’t believe I haven’t written anything on Sow The Seed since July. It’s now  the beginning of December, and summer is a distant memory. And unfortunately my first post in 5 months brings bad news…we’ve identified Ash Dieback on our plot. Some of our ash trees, which we planted during our first few winters here, have been growing well. However, this summer some of them didn’t look quite right, and when I went to look at them in the week, I saw the classic symptom of a diamond shaped lesion on the trunk of one of the trees. I didn’t see this on any others, but I’m sure if one of them has got it, then the rest will follow suit in due course. The saplings were all ones we had found growing nearby, and not from a tree nursery, so the disease must have come in on the wind, and will transfer from tree to tree this way as well. This is a bit of a disaster, not only are many of the trees we planted going to die, but much of our hedgerows are ash, so if these succumb to the disease, then the hedges are going to be very bare. I’ve read that some ash trees appear to be immune from getting Ash Dieback, so fingers crossed this may be the case with some of ours. Also, mature trees, of which we’ve got two in our garden, may also be better at withstanding the disease. We will just have to wait and see what happens.

All the advice says it is best to remove and destroy any small trees, to at least slowdown any transmittance to other trees, so we have cut down and burnt the tree, as well as a few others that looked a bit suspect. I will also report it, but I can see from the Forestry Commission website, that Ash Dieback has already been reported in our area, so this is not strictly necessary, but it might help to identify how quickly the disease is spreading.

We will now have to decide whether it is worth planting anything in place of the ash, or use this as a way to thin the trees, which would have needed doing at some point anyway.

So not great news to end the year on, but inevitable.

Section through trunk with leision

Section through trunk with lesion

First cherry harvest. Sweet (left) and sour (right)

First cherry harvest. Sweet (left) and sour (right)

It seems our endeavors to protect our cherries from the birds has worked, and we have been able to pick our first crop of cherries. It’s not a bumper crop, but enough sweet cherries (Stella) to nibble on and enough sour cherries (Morello) to make a few puddings. Unfortunately, the net we’re using has holes in which are large enough to let wasps in, so I picked as many as I could, and we’ll remove the nets so the birds and wasps can have the rest. There’s always something trying to get to our precious fruit!

Blighted Maris Piper (foreground) health Sarpo Mira (background)

Blighted Maris Piper (foreground) healthy Sarpo Mira (background)

It’s not surprising given the damp weather we’ve been having the last few days that some of our potatoes have succumbed to the dreaded blight. This is nearly 3 weeks earlier than last year, but thankfully this year I took precautions. As well as the usual varieties I like to grow – Charlotte for salad potatoes and Maris Piper for all round main crops, I also planted some Sarpo Mira and Axona varieties. Both of these are said to be less susceptible to blight. Looking at the plants they do seem to be holding up to their claim, as there doesn’t seem to be any sign of anything looking like blight on the leaves…in fact they look very healthy.

The Charlotte potatoes should be fine, as we are eating those now, but the Maris Piper potatoes won’t have grown to their full potential (usually you wouldn’t harvest these until late August). So I’m now keeping everything crossed that these new varieties continue to perform, and we’ll get a few potatoes for storing over winter.

Modified version of the Summer Polaroid Pics template