Saturday, October 29, 2016

Let the vegetables end (sort of)

Container with lambs lettuce and miner's lettuce, October 2016
After an unexpectedly warm--near constant low to mid 20s Celsius--summer, albeit a little late starting, it's now gone cooler and more rainy here at the end of October.  The main bulk of my plants are finished and cleared away.  I've told the husband we can start buying vegetables again in November.  This will be supplementing the winter veg (kale, cabbage, broccoli, salad greens and a few leeks and root veg) still growing, and the preserved veg in the cupboards/freezer.

Since the second week of July, we have bought no vegetables--except 10 onions for emergency green tomato salsa.  Note this only includes vegetables and not fruits;  all fruits were allowed and we continued to buy "salad" fruits like avocados, cucumbers, etc;  this was explicitly stated at the beginning of the challenge.  I know, loopholes and all that. 

I should also state that not every vegetable we ate came from our garden.  I was given quite a lot, including three overflowing sacks of rhubarb (the bulk of which is still in the freezer) and enough zuccini to make several jars of pickles.  I also obtained some free vegetables from other sources.

One of my five year goals is to be self sufficient in seasonal fruit.  Hopefully this would extend to salad fruits too!  (Though maybe not avocados.)  I anticipate that in future years, building on the success of this year, I might be able to manage this.  My main obstacle to growing en masse is not my small space:  it's organization.

Using The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency as my guide, I had very clear and timely instructions on what to plant and when this year--this is a book written for my particular climate (central/northern England).  In previous years I haven't followed any sort of plan, other than "plant vegetables" and mainly used the backs of seed packets as my guide to gardening--along with a garden year book focused on ornamentals and the occasional internet advice.  I now have a specific plan, and it showed genuine improvement on my previous gardening attempts.

Maybe the extraordinary summer weather contributed more to my success this year, and having secure fencing for chickens certainly helped (no major chicken-caused damage this year);  but I also attribute it to John Seymour's method.  Let the bought vegetables begin again--we've had a full 16 weeks (that's just about 4 months) of not buying.  And we will continue to eat from the garden until further notice.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Doing those autumn jobs!

We had a mass chicken breakout:  they ate the leaves off several chard plants, scratched up the newly sprouting green manure seedlings in the Misc bed--and scratched up some small beets in the raised bed.  Oh well.  I'm thankful we had no major incidents before this, and to be honest, this was not major at all (though it would have been at the beginning of summer when everything was still small and fragile).

I managed to plant out about 35 cloves of my own grown garlic last week;  the chickens scratched up a couple of earlier planted cloves (from the store), which showed some good root growth.  I popped them back in the ground too;  that makes around 85 cloves planted.

I also sowed cauliflower seeds in a tray--hopefully to plant out later on in the raised bed/cold frame next to the house.  If the slugs don't get them, that is.  That raised bed had plenty of chicken attention and has some nice bare spots in it now;  it was just growing chard and a few beets (and weeds);  I think they only scratched away the smaller weeds and smallest beets.  Lots of space for cauliflowers.

I cleared away most of the Roots bed--there were still about 10 onions lurking under the self-sown nasturtiums.  Not big, but tasty at least.  I pulled out some unwanted ornamental crocosmia in the Roots bed (it regrows every year, and if not checked will spread very quickly--at least it's pretty), and had plenty of growth from it and the accompanying weeds to feed my second composter.

And last but not least, I started 30 broad bean seeds to sprout in the garage;  when they do so I will dig a trench in the garden and plant them out.

Still not done:  clear away runner beans, plant shallots (can't find any I care to pay for;  maybe I'll go for seed instead), mulch brassicas with compost, pile manure/sow green manure on beds.  Better get going!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

We are what we eat: chicken!

Chicken dinner 2015 (feet go in the stock pot)
Let's talk about chicken.  It's a tasty meat with a mild flavor.  It can be roasted, baked, fried, sauteed, grilled, stewed, and more.  It tastes good with everything.  It makes an amazing curry or stir fry.  Then there's chicken soup:  a necessity during flu season.  Chicken bones make a fantastic stock.  We love chicken--it's delicious and versatile.

Chicken comes from a bird.  It comes from a chicken, of course.  A chicken that runs around, sleeps with its head under its wing, tips its head up to swallow a drink, clucks to get your attention.  Chicken comes from a curious, friendly, busy bird:  active and interested.  At least, our chicken does.

We hardly ever buy chicken meat any more, since it doesn't compare to our own chicken.  Why would it?  Supermarket chicken was raised in a closed barn, full of birds in cages.  Those chickens eat only chicken chow, and are bred to grow quickly;  usually by eight weeks old they're big enough to slaughter, and if they aren't killed soon after they might die of heart failure anyway.  They don't have much room to move around in, which is good because their legs can't really support all that weight very well. 

It's cheaper to raise chicken this way, and supermarket chicken is cheap.  Our chicken isn't cheap.  A chick costs us around £3.50-£5 when newly hatched;  chick feed is around £10 a bag, and growers feed is £12.  That's expensive chicken--at least twice as much as supermarket chicken.

But there's not just a big difference in price;  there's also a big difference in quality.  Our chicken is happy and healthy, able to act out its natural instincts and behavior, and every day is a good day--until the very last minute.  Our chicken tastes sweet.  It tastes intense and juicy.  Its giblets make a beautiful mild gravy.  Its skin is crispy but tender.  In short, it's the best chicken we've ever had.

Are our chickens our pets?  Do we eat our pets?  Well, no.  We treat them with respect and love, and we let them live as natural a life as possible:  they get to be chickens.  They are not our "feather babies" but animals in their own right.  It's hard to kill them, just as it was hard to take our 14 year old dog to be put to sleep at the vet.  We take responsibility for their lives and wellbeing, and we take responsibility for their deaths.  Everything dies, whether sooner or later.  And unlike our old dog, chickens are useful in death as well as life:  they allow us to go on living.  We give them good lives, and a good death.

We'll be killing Lavender*, our 6 month old Cream Legbar cockerel in a week.  I'll be sorry to kill him--though the six year old's not, as he's continued to be aggressive towards him.  But I won't be sorry to eat him.
*Our big black cockerel Winnie died unexpectedly overnight a few weeks ago;  we found him cold and stiff on the floor of the coop.  Tiny, our miniscule English Game cockerel, has a reprieve for now;  unless we get a complaint about his crowing, he gets to stay.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The John Seymour gardening method: six month review

Glass over tomatoes in the Misc. bed, broccoli and kale adjacent;  with pumpkins, runner beans and Sparta apples growing against the fence:  September 2016
How is the John Seymour gardening method going, 6 months in?

I began gardening according to Seymour's method in his book The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency this spring, starting in March.  To recap, he advocates dividing the vegetable patch into four main growing beds, plus a bed each for seed sowing and holding (an intermediary bed for holding young plants before planting into final growing positions).  He also has a bed dedicated to herbs and perennials, and also a bed for fruit (I do grow these, but mixed together and with ornamentals).

The four main veg beds are Peas/Beans/Brassicas, Roots, Miscellaneous, and Potatoes;  I did not have a separate bed for potatoes this year, giving me just three main beds.  Additionally I did not have a dedicated seed bed, but raised my seeds in trays--to alleviate losses due to slugs.

On the whole, I liked using this system, and it worked pretty well for me.  I had a good harvest off the Peas/etc and Misc. beds.  The Roots bed harvest was less successful (slugs!), though I actually raised some of the root veg in containers because of high slug damage.  The holding bed was very useful for growing the brassicas, and they transplanted pretty well after the peas were finished (I still have a couple left to transplant after the runner beans come out at the end of the month). 

I really like the holding bed;  it allowed me to grow a lot more in my small garden space than in previous years.  It means I can grow a full bed of the more tender vegetables in summer, then transplant the brassicas out from the holding bed after they've finished.  I get two harvests in one year from the same bed:  peas and beans first, then winter brassicas after.  It has meant I haven't grown many summer brassicas (just kale), but perhaps next spring--with some judicious planning--I'll be able to grow a few more alongside the peas.  It's a small sacrifice to make though, in return for a bigger harvest of those short-season vegetables.

I might redivide the beds to allow for a Potatoes bed next spring;  we don't eat many, but then again, my growing space isn't very big:  I could grow ten or so plants and we could certainly eat them gradually over winter. 

The Complete Guide to Self Sufficiency has a calendar of seasonal tasks which I have been following pretty faithfully.  It's a more helpful guide than my big gardening year book;  the tasks are set out bed by bed, and it's obviously geared toward food production (the year book is more focused on ornamentals though it does contain veg/fruit/herb garden tasks). 

All in all, I like this method and will continue using it next year.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The last garden jobs for autumn 2016

Leek flower, September 2016
I started documenting this project at the end of May 2016, after most of the hard work of spring had been done.  I did some transplanting and a little seed sowing during the summer, but the main work was a little weeding, caterpillar removal, and vegetable harvest--not to mention garden enjoyment!   And true, this time of year is not heavy on garden tasks, as the growing season ends.  September was fairly sunny and warm, and unexpectedly extended the growing season a little longer (I even got a few extra zuccini and a surprise squash).  Now, however, things are slowing down, cooling down.  But as I am looking ahead to future food, I have tasks now.

Plant garlic and shallots

I had a modest garlic harvest this year.  We have already eaten the smallest bulbs and I saved the biggest for replanting.  I've bought and planted 50 cloves (from 4 heads) of garlic already;  I'll plant some of my own harvested garlic later this month, in 2017's Roots bed (2016's Miscellaneous bed).  I think I have about 10-12 big bulbs, with probably 8 cloves each;  this won't be enough to plant as well as eat--with judicious use we should probably last until November I think, after which I'll probably start buying it again.

I've never grown shallots before;  I've read they can be planted just like garlic.  I've looked for bulbs from the local garden centers unsuccessfully.  I'll have to look online (or failing that, an upmarket grocery store).

Sow cauliflower

I have a variety of cauliflower which is sown now, grown in a cold frame over winter, and planted out in spring for a summer harvest.  I'll give it a shot. 

Harvest potatoes and runner beans

The main runner bean patch is pretty much finished;  the big pods I saved for seed can be hung up to dry for next year.  I need that space to transplant the final few winter cabbage and spring broccoli plants out of the Holding bed.  There is a random potato volunteer there too, to be harvested (or destroyed, depending on its blight status). 

Clear away spent plants, sow winter cover crops

It's too late for most of the Miscellaneous bed plants.  The bed needs to be cleared and green manure seeds sown onto it;  I've already done this where the tomatoes were, thanks to blight.  I'll be clearing the Roots bed too, and piling lots of chicken bedding (manure and straw) onto it.  (A little later in the year, once they have died down, I'll move the peony and raspberry canes from the Holding bed, and spread either chicken bedding or compost onto it.  I don't want to move them until they're fully dormant.)


Everything in the Brassica bed is growing well and I need to give it all a good mulch.  I'll use the oldest compost from my first bin;  this will protect their roots from cold, but hopefully not harbor slugs.  I'll also mulch my soft fruit bushes--and rhubarb, artichoke and asparagus (hopefully all still alive)--with chicken bedding.

Sow broad beans

Lastly, I'll try sowing broad beans for next year's crop.  I'll sprout them in the garage first, then plant them in 2017's Peas and Beans bed.  However, I'll reserve some seed for spring sowing too, in case they don't survive the winter.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Four things I'm glad I did this year

Carrots in plastic tubs on my patio table, July 2016
1. Grew carrots in tubs

I haven't managed carrots for a few years.  I've never grown them successfully in the ground:  first it was carrot fly, then it was slugs.  Raised beds helped with the carrot fly--but not the slugs.  Plus I had more than one escaped chicken incident involving raised beds (raised beds make the best dust baths, don't you know).

Determined to get carrots, I filled a couple of old plastic storage tubs with a bit of chicken manure and straw, topped up with regular potting compost.  Around the rims I spread a layer of VapoRub (the advice was vaseline but we didn't have it on hand, plus the intended recipient of VapoRub, aka the six year old, hates the stuff) to repel slugs and other creepy crawlies.  The tubs were sown with seeds, placed on top of a table on the patio, and grew lovely 3-4 inch unblemished carrots. 

2. Spent 5 minutes every evening for a month rubbing out caterpillar eggs

Last year we had wholesale destruction of all brassicas because of cabbage white caterpillars.  They pretty much killed all the kale, and set the Brussels sprouts back so far that we only got one meal off the remaining six plants.  This year I was dedicated and nipped that problem in the bud in late July/early August.  No plants were killed or even set back due to caterpillars. 

3. Built a second composter

It's not pretty, but it's digesting my excess nettles, elder and blackberry vines.  The chickens helped me turn the contents of the first compost bin, making for some very nice looking compost.  Hopefully with a little more chicken help, this new pile will be ready for spring.

4. Put a second biofilter in the pond

The husband scored a secondhand filter and we filled it with a big piece of foam from an old cushion.  The water is pumped into this filter, forced through the foam which grabs any algae particles, before flowing into a gravel grow bed and back into the pond;  it cleaned up the water completely in about three weeks.  The pond has been crystal clear since, and its duckweed population has exploded;  our chickens enjoy eating the stuff so much we nicknamed it chicken salad:  free feed!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Planning for winter: chickens in the garden

Plucky and Tiny at the front; Cookie, Red, Lavender and Rock at the back
Our usual rotational system for chickens in the garden changes during winter.  The main vegetable harvest, the frost kill of annual flowers, and herbaceous perennial die back opens up new areas of the garden for our birds.  And on the flip side, the lawn becomes less available and for shorter periods, otherwise they might destroy the grass entirely.  Sometimes in winter we even just let them free range over the entire back property for up to a few weeks at a time (though they invariably end up hanging out on the patio next to our back door). 

Weeding, fertilizing and pest control

Things can grow here in winter, albeit very slowly;  too much chicken pressure can overwhelm.  I can use this to my advantage:  where there are weeds or other unwanted plants, I can leave the chickens to scratch, peck and manure until the ground's bare.  With my good sized flock, they can accomplish this over winter easily.  I have a few areas of excess weeds, waiting for the attention of my industrious helpers this winter, and it's certainly something they do naturally and well.

I also hope to concentrate their efforts in areas of excess slugs.  Hopefully my chickens can scratch up and eat/expose/otherwise kill any overwintering pests, and knock back the population enough to give my spring plants a good start.  It's too much to ask to eradicate them entirely, but so long as I can get my plants started well, I can live with slugs.

As well as fresh manure straight from the bird, I like to pile the autumns's manured straw bedding from the coop straight onto the beds, and let it sit until spring.  The chickens help me spread it around (scratching up piles of organic material is their favorite pastime);  it feeds the soil and encourages worms (free feed!).

Egg production, feed, and reducing flock size

Hens are known to lay less in winter than in summer, because of lower light levels.  Some people leave a light on in the coop to encourage more egg production.  We don't do this:  mainly cause we're cheap and lazy, but also to let the hens rest a little.  We have to accept there will be fewer eggs, and slightly higher feed costs because of lack of grass, bugs and weeds to eat.

To cut down on feed costs I may get creative with their food.  And reduce the flock numbers by eating cockerels (probably at the end of this month);  in subsequent winters we may also eat older non-rescue hens (our oldest non-rescue hens are currently 18 months).  Additionally, every winter we have lost at least one rescue hen to old age.  At the moment we have six rescue hens, and though they all look healthy now, I wouldn't be surprised to lose any of them;  most of our rescue deaths have been quick and sudden.


There will be one bed of standing vegetables which will be entirely off limits to the flock during winter: the brassica bed.  I'm growing cabbage, broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts--for human consumption only.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

September garden recap

Pumpkins:  on the fence

We had the last of the carrots, nearly all good finger size (grown in a plastic tub on my patio).  None for winter storage, sadly.  I'll have to consider my carrot strategy for next year to see if I can grow more, and bigger.  At least I got carrots this year (unlike the last few years).

We also had a few more baby beets, but the later sown seed (also in tubs) in July and August are not yet ready.

Still pulling up small onions as and when needed, but I think the bulk of them have been eaten now.

Celeriac still in the ground until a frost, to maximize size.  I was hoping for softball size but I think they're more like golf balls.

Peas and Beans

I pulled the last of the peas to dry for next year's seed.  I also harvested 8 broad bean seeds.

The runner beans performed well in September, but slowed down by the middle of the month.   Still picking some now and then, and I left about a dozen big pods to go for next year's seed too.


The kale, cabbages, spring broccoli are big and strong;  however I didn't harvest any except a little kale during September--they are all meant for winter eating so I'm letting them grow.  Growth has slowed with the falling light levels.

There are cute little sprouts on my old Brussels, too;  hope to eat them around Christmas.  The new season Brussels plants are still pretty tiny compared to the rest of the brassicas;  not anticipating much from them.


Tomatoes!  I harvested some!  Not a lot, but better than none:  good sized ones, too--bigger than the beets anyway.  I had to harvest all the in ground green tomatoes because of suspected blight, but made a batch of both salsa and relish with them (yum).  The tomatoes in planters may also have the beginning of blight, but I left them to grow on a little longer.

The zuccini plant finally decided to put out some growth, just as it turned cooler:  oh well.  I managed to harvest several small ones at least.

My two pumpkins turned orange, and we ate one banana squash as it looked a bit shrivelly;  I didn't want to lose it so we ate it sauteed with butter and garlic:  yummy.  Luckily, one new small squash formed;  I think it's a hubbard type squash, but forming so late in the season means we'll be probably be eating it like summer squash (e.g. immature), once the plant dies back.

Loads of chard, some dried, some frozen, plenty eaten fresh.  Again, like most things, growth has slowed.


At last we got our plum harvest.  I suspect the tree was mislabeled when I bought it;  it was meant to be an Opal plum:  red skin, ripening in early August.  Instead it's got dark purply skin, green-yellow flesh, and ripened in mid September.  The husband thinks it might be Victoria variety instead.  I wanted an earlier fruiting plum to make up the gap between the cherries in July and the apples in September, but no matter, they were delicious and I picked 9--its first harvest.

Apples also came into season in September, both Laxton Fortune and Sparta.  Sparta apples not as purple as in past years, but a bigger harvest on both than previous years;  some Spartas still on the tree, but all Laxton picked and eaten.  Still waiting on pears.

Perennials and Herbs

It looks like there may be one artichoke not dead yet (out of six), but still very small and unhappy.  Not sure about the fate of the rhubarb and asparagus:  I think they may have died down.  Or just died.  Sorrel still leafy and luxurious;  I'll probably move it out of the main veg patch in October.

Still picking fresh rosemary, tarragon, thyme, and chives all through September.  Picked a very little bit of parsley and sage.  My sage is a small cutting in a pot, taken last autumn from a woody old plant which died over the winter;  I potted it on in the hopes it would bush out a bit (not yet).  The parsley is self-sown in my window box.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

September 2016 Food Totals

Lovely banana squash

64.5 oz runner beans
5.5 oz banana squash
10 oz onion
90 oz chard
13 oz carrots
4.5 oz beet
4 oz beet greens
59 oz tomatoes (ripe)
59 oz tomatoes (green)
13.5 oz zuccini
8.5 oz kale

Total: 331.5 oz, or 20 lbs 11.5 oz

Does not include fresh herbs (tarragon, rosemary, chives) which were too small an amount to weigh, i.e. less than 0.5 oz

Note:  I weigh all my vegetables after preparation:  peeling, trimming, etc.


23 Laxton Fortune apples
17 Sparta apples
9 plums


Total:   202 eggs (from 12 adult hens)
Total feed bought:  2 bags layers pellets (40kg total)


1L salted runner beans (about 1/8L from friend's garden, the rest from my own)
1L pickled zuccini (zuccini from friend's garden)
2L apple chutney (apples from a wild tree, onions and garlic from my garden)
1.5L green tomato salsa (tomatoes and garlic from my garden, onions and peppers bought)
0.75L green tomato relish (tomatoes and garlic from my garden, onions bought)
1L (1 dozen) pickled eggs
0.5L dried chard leaves


Elderberry, elderflower, and rhubarb wines all still fermenting;  all tasted (so far so good).  No new homebrew begun