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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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Archive for the ‘Garden’ Category

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!

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.

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.

Precious cherries (already under attack)

Precious cherries (already under attack)

This is the first year we’ve really had any fruit on our cherry trees, and we’re determined to get to try at least a few. Already the blackbirds have been having a good go at stopping us, so we’ve decided to take action. There are all kinds of ways of trying to stop birds getting to your fruit before you do, but I think the only real method is to net the fruit (and even this is not 100% bird proof, especially if they find a hole). I’d seen various YouTube videos showing how commercial orchards net their cherry trees, and most of them involve encasing the whole tree in a net. This is easier said than done when the tree is above head height. Luckily we’ve got some very large nets which should be adequate to get most of the branches covered on our still relatively small trees. So armed with a couple of long poles, Simon and I carefully manoeuvred the net over the tree and wrapped the bottom securely. It’s made some of the branches bend back a bit, but the net is light enough that it shouldn’t break the branches. There are also a few cherries pressing against the net, but hopefully the birds can’t land safely and start pecking at the fruit through the holes.

Fingers crossed this is enough to defend our precious cherries, which should be ready in a few weeks, if we get some summer sun!

After netting

After netting

Before netting

Before netting

Fig tree, hole and root control bag

Fig tree, hole and root control bag

I’ve been growing a couple of fig trees in pots for a number of years. One I kept in the polytunnel and the other outside. Last year we managed to get two edible figs from the one kept in the polytunnel and nothing from the one outside! In a bid to try and up the production rate, I’ve decided that the trees may be more productive if they are planted in the soil, and then they will get more nutrients and more water (I’m not very good at remembering to water plants in pots). Figs, however, need to have their roots restricted when grown in the UK, not only because they have a tendency to get out of control if grown in the open soil, but it helps to increase the number of fruit in the short season we have in the UK. The traditional planting method is to dig a fig pit, but I recently read that a root control bag is just as effective, and easier to use than a pit. Pomona Fruits sells bags called Rootex, which come in a variety of sizes depending on the type of plant you’re trying to grow. The bags are coated on the inside with a permeable copper coating, which allows water and nutrients to enter, but the cooper stops the main roots in their tracks.

The bag for the fig tree is 45 litres, and means quite a sizeable hole needs to be dug. The top soil in our polytunnel is quite good and easy to dig for the first foot, but after that is hard going, so what seemed like a relatively simple task ended up taking all morning! The article I read suggested putting a bit of gravel in the bottom to aid drainage, and then to add top soil mixed with compost to fill the bag. The bag needs to be a few inches above the soil level, so the roots don’t grow up and over the bag.

Fig tree in place

Fig tree in place

I’ll keep the second fig tree in a pot for now, but if the one in the polytunnel is successful, we may consider putting one outside (in a root control bag) to see how that fairs in our wet and windy climate. So fingers crossed for a bumper harvest of figs in the years to come.

Latest building project

Latest building project

As February draws to a close, and the weather begins to improve, we have at last been able to get on with the first major job of the year…building another log store. Yes, this will now be the third log store we’ve built! This latest structure will house one year’s worth of split logs, which will mean that in conjunction with our main log store, we can have a rolling three year cycle. This should mean that we always have space for any wood we cut and split during the winter, without having to shuffle existing stacks of wood around.

The latest log store is a bit simpler than our larger one; nevertheless it still seems to have taken a while to build. We’re about half way through the build now, with just the roof and sides to put on. Simon is already busy splitting the wood that will go in it, so there’s an incentive to get on with it (if the weather holds).

We’ve got a few major projects planned for this year, all involving building structures. I’m not sure if we’ll have the motivation to get them all done, but we’ve made a good start on the first one.

Pink and knobbly Oca

Pink and knobbly Oca

After getting our first hard frost last week, it was time to dig up the oca (New Zealand yam) – the second of the unusual vegetables I grew this year. These pink (other colours are available) and knobbly tubers start to swell when the days shorten, and are ready to harvest in late November, usually once the frost has killed off the foliage. I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of tubers produced from each plant, and there seems to be a fair number of good sized tubers, suggesting I’d left them a reasonable length of time in the ground before harvesting. I’ve consequently read that you can leave them in the ground for a number of weeks after the first frost, to swell even further. But I was too eager to see what they looked like. There was very little slug damage to them, and they are meant to be free from the diseases that potatoes succumb to, e.g. blight, making them a good alternative to potatoes.

I can’t decide whether I like their appearance or not. The pink and red coluring is appealing, but the ridges and knobs make them look a bit alien. If they taste good then I’m not too bothered either way. You can eat them both raw or cooked, although I think they taste better cooked. Raw, they had quite a nice crunchy texture and very subtle lemony taste, but after cooking (same way as potatoes) the flavour became more pronounced. Unfortunately they lose their colour on cooking.

I’ve got enough tubers to reuse some next year as new plants, so I can try growing a few more of these strange alien-like vegetables.

The harvest from one plant

The harvest from one plant

I’m always up for trying something new in the veg garden, and hopefully finding something tasty and easy to grow which gives us a bit more variety in the vegetables we eat. After trying cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana) a few years ago, I now always plant a few in the polytunnel. However, I haven’t bothered with okra or aubergines again, as they weren’t very successful, and took a lot of effort. This year I’ve got two new crops on the go – sweet potato and oca (New Zealand yam). We like eating sweet potato, but are reluctant to buy them knowing that they have to be imported from South America. I don’t know much about Oca, other than it’s popular in South America and New Zealand as an alternative to potato, but is becoming more widely eaten and grown in the UK.

The sweet potatoes (Beauregard) were bought as “slips” from DT Browns, but are now widely available from most seed suppliers.


The vines trained up string

They weren’t cheap, but once you’ve grown them, you’re meant to be able to create your own slips each year. So if they’re successful it should work out quite cheaply. This variety is specially bred for the cooler British climate, and although they can be grown outside, if you’ve got the space they’ll benefit from the extra heat of a polytunnel. Being a member of the Ipomoea genus (morning glory, bindweed etc.), they have a tendency to send out a lot of vines. After planting in May, it wasn’t long until I had a mass of vines sprawling around the ground, which I trained up a string to save space. They clearly enjoy the warmth of the polytunnel, as a friend who had also planted some at the same time, but outside, had barely any vines. Once the vines had reached the roof of the polytunnel I thought it was best to try to get the plant to put their energy into developing tubers, rather than foliage, so I nipped out the ends. Other than that they didn’t require much work, other than watering twice a week.
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