We have a large area for growing veggies; six rectangles of about 2 x 4 metres. We like to grow a mixture of root and leaf crops, tomatoes and herbs. Growing our own is really satisfying and it tastes delicious too. Plus our nearest supermarket is an hour away so it’s nice and convenient.
Our sheep are largely responsible for the success of our veggies. Our veggie patch is covered in sheep dung and over the years this has hugely improved the condition of the soil and the worm-count.
Every spring we pile on the dung before sowing. It’s tough work, but it looks great once its done with a deep layer of mulch blanketing everything including the weeds. We pull out the perennials like docks and nettles but the annuals are left to be splatted into submission.
The worms look forward to the annual dung party too, they love nothing more than to get stuck into it, creating little tunnels, wriggling around and creating the perfect environment for crops to grow in.
As spring unfolds and the baby crops start peeking out, it’s time to watch out for snails, slugs and blackbirds. We carefully net off young crops to give them a chance to establish before the blackbirds pull them out. Once the plants are big enough, we remove the netting and get to work with the second phase of mulching: the sheeps’ wool layer.
We lay wool around our crops for several reasons: as a barrier to slugs and snails, (their soft bodies don’t like the scratchy, dry sensation of wool). To stop the soil from drying out, to provide a barrier against weed seeds floating past looking for some soil to land on. Wool mulch is great for so many reasons and one of the best, it’s really handy to have a layer of wool to walk on when rummaging about in amongst the crops snipping spinach leaves for dinner.
At the end of the growing season we’ll be giving our sheep a big helping of turnips and carrots as a thank you.
Over the weekend while Adrian has been busy adding a shrubbery to the hen run, my job has been to get the veggie patch ready for planting. Spring is nearly upon us and our seeds are sitting in their little packets on the kitchen shelf just bursting to get out and transform themselves into plants. We have carrots, beetroot, turnips, parsnips kale, cabbage, pumpkin, tomatoes, spinach and different types of salads all waiting to go into the ground.
The veggie patch has been left practically untouched since the autumn, Adrian mulched a couple of beds in November and planted some garlic, but since then it’s been left to its own devices.
As a result the weeds which took residence last summer were still very much there, and of course, there were plenty of old stalks left over too.
I knew I was in for a long haul so on Saturday morning, I booted up, rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in.
After digging out endless piles of nettle roots and couch grass, (I don’t remember seeing that last year!) six docks, zillions of buttercups and willowherb, I got the weeding and clearing done by the end of the day.
I quite enjoy weeding if I’m honest and the weather was fairly sunny which made the job much more bearable. It’s still cold as we’re only in February, but there’s a hint of early spring in the air and a feeling of things about to burst into growth which I love. I saw lots of compost worms as I was weeding away which was very heart warming, I love worms, they do such a great job and we’ve built up quite a population over the last few years.
We use the “no dig” method so apart from weeding, we don’t dig the soil, we just pile on mulch every year and let the worms do the rest. The result has been a huge increase in worms and a really lovely crumbly soil, much improved from when we first dug our veggie patch out five years ago.
Now all that there is left to do before the “big planting ceremony”, is to add several tons of rotted down sheep dung to the freshly weeded beds. I’ll be doing this on Thursday and using the big pile of dung that I heaped up after deep cleaning the sheep shed last month.
As we move into September, our thoughts turn to harvesting. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be collecting apples, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions. We already have a nice crop of garlic drying in the kitchen.
Normally, we leave the root crops, mainly turnip (swede outside Scotland) and beetroot in the ground and harvest them as we need it. However, this year has been a battle with the veggie patch pests. On inspection, we found every beetroot had been nibbled, some almost to nothing. Slugs, mice or voles? Who knows. We had to act.
The weather was dry and warm so I spent the day gathering the beetroot into a box. The veggie patch was then covered in cardboard ready to be mulched. I did wonder whether the pesky beetroot nibblers would be out scratching their heads that evening.
We decided to turn some of it into soup and freeze the rest. That meant a lot of chopping. It also meant a lot of time spent chopping as each beetroot had been nibbled in different ways. Each had to be carefully trimmed. There were a lot of trimmings heading for the compost bin.
The first batch went into soup, as did the next three. That involved filling a baking tray, sprinkling the beetroot with oil, honey and pepper, and roasting it for half an hour. That was added to fried onions along with water, potoates, garlic and stock.
All in all, I must have made about 18 jugs of soup, around 15 litres or so. It’s very tasty indeed. Most of that is in the freezer ready for lunch on those cold winter days.
The rest was frozen. This was chopped and laid out on baking trays. Those were put in the freezer. Once it had frozen, it was scraped off with a fish slice and bagged up. Some advised that the pieces of beetroot should not touch. Too much effort I thought. The risk paid off and all the pieces separated quite happily.
Other perceived wisdom was to blanch it all. Well, I suspect whover suggested that didn’t have 8Kg of beetroot and had plenty of time on their hands. Ours went straight in the freezer. Most of it will end up in soup anyway.
As all gardeners, keen or otherwise know, spring is the time for new planting and growth. This is particularly true in the vegetable patch where the salad and vegetables for the coming year are grown. Over the years, we have improved our veggie area and slimmed down our ambitions, basically we grow what works. Less is more and all that. In practice it means none of the tricky little veggies that have 5 minute harvesting windows, like peas for example.
Due to problems with slugs eating everything, in previous years we have grown everything in pots and planted out strong healthy plants. It’s a lot of work and a lot of watering. Two years ago we installed a custom made carrot box that is slug and carrot fly unfriendly. This year, I decided to bite the bullet and plant all the root crops and onions direct. What could go wrong?
The answer in two words is blackbirds and slugs. Now we love blackbirds. We even put out special feed for them; every day. However, 5 years of regular mulching has turned a damp desert into a thriving soil packed with worms. With young to feed, it was the perfect hunting ground for at least one blackbird family. With regular soil disturbance, nothing grew. Well, not strictly true, a couple of turnips poked their heads up, but they didn’t last long. But that could also be down to the slugs. Despite the nematodes, they have been spotted in late evening amongst the fragile vegetables.
Finally, I put the nets up. Nets are great, but they too have their downside, mainly that no matter how carefully you install them, the birds always find a gap. So they need constant checking so the intruders can be released. Occasionally, they have to be cut free. That said, they butterfly nets are essential. Unless, of course, you find picking caterpillars off for hours on end to be a fun activity. Plus, it makes life harder for poor old Mr and Mrs Blackird, cue guilt trip.
Anyway, luckily, I did plant a few ‘reserves’ and they are now planted out so all is not lost. That said, I had to dig up the turnips as they were fast disappearing and a cabbage and kale have also succombed to slug’s munching. On top of all that, there are zero onions, unlike last year, and only about six beetroots. After writing this, I’ll be off to plant seeds to make up for what’s missing. In pots. In the greenhouse.
The polytunnel is planted up and is looking good. However, I made the mistake of turning the automated watering system off during the winter months. Result, soil that makes the Gobi desert resemble a water meadow. Cue lots of watering. I turned on the automated watering system to find it wasn’t working. The timer was working fine but only a trickle of water emerged at the alloted times. Baffled, I took it to pieces. Amazed at the engineering ingenuity but finding no obvious fault, I put it back together again. To my surprise, it now works perfectly.
Despite all of this, we are hoping for another good crop leading to a winter packed with fresh soups
It has been a good year for the veggies. The new polytunnel produced plenty of salad and tomatoes are ripening thick and fast. Outdoors, everything we planted has grown well. We’re not sure if it is down to the amazing, hot summer or all our preparation, probably a bit of both. The soil, this year, has certainly been the best we’ve had, courtesy of a large annual covering with mulch.
As a rule, we try to grow vegetables that are harvested when needed. This includes carrots which remain quite happy in their purpose built box, turnips that will survive outdoors through the winter and beetroot which can also be left in the ground till needed (hungry mice notwithstanding). Summer crops such as spinach and chard are picked as and when needed.
Two vegetable that do need harvesting are the onions and the cabbage. The onions are huge this year, some the size of grapefruits, and we are delighted with that. We have been waiting for the leaves to bend over as they reach maturity signalling they are ready to harvest. All those that had done so were harvested a week or so ago. The rest I gave a helping hand by bending the leaves (as shown in the above picture).
The harvested onions have their roots trimmed (carefully avoiding nestling worms) and are dried on the Auchenstroan designed and patented onion drying rack (a pallet raised on two chairs). Once dry, they are strung in the traditional way and hung ready for use. We reckon we’ll have at least 10 onion strings this year which is pretty good going.
Once harvested, the preparation for next year starts with a layer of cardboard to suppress the weeds. It’s called the ‘no dig’ method and I’m fine with that, believe you me.
Once the cardboard is laid, I’ll cover it in mulch, a mixture of composted sheep poo and home made garden compost. It will be laid 10-15cm thick, the thicker the better as the soil really benefits from it.
The cabbage has grown well and today I harvested the first, it was the size of a football and weighed over 3Kg. There’s not much you can do with cabbage other than eat it or make coleslaw, so we are, for the first time, making sauerkraut. The first batch was prepared today. The cabbage was chopped, shredded in our tiny vegetable shredding machine and then mixed with salt and herbs in a bucket. It all went to plan and I was amazed at how much it all shrinks as the salt does its work.
The feeling pleased with myself lasted only till I realised it needs about 6 weeks of fermentation to get the best flavour. Having only two suitable buckets and around 10 cabbages presented a conundrum. So, this week kas now been designated sauerkraut week and I will spend the days shredding cabbages and building up one large bucket of fermenting sauerkraut.
At the same time, I’ll be keeping an eye on the tomatoes and making sauce or soup as and when I have to. Also needing watching are the apples, it was this time last year that cider vinegar production got underway.
While all that is going on, Nicole has been harvesting blackberries, pulling out nettles and cutting back brambles. And, of course, we’re both working, Nicole making rugs and me editing my book (now that it’s back from the editor) and also working on my dry stone dyke course.
As they days shorten and the night draws in, the autumn harvest is coming to a close. The onions are all tied up in onion strings. We had a much better crop this year, netting them off helped stop the birds digging them up. As ever, those grown from seed soon caught up with the onion sets so maybe we’ll just sow seeds in future.
The last apples are clinging to our neighbour’s apple tree. Those on the ground are being hoovered up by blackbirds or whisked away in the beaks of crows. Our apples are all picked, and have found their way into the freezer (for future apple crumbles) or the brewing room where cider and cider vinegar production is underway.
It has not been that warm but fermentation has continued, albeit a little slowly.
We still have a few winter crops left, plenty of beetroot and turnips sit petiently in the ground awaiting their turn to be made into soup. The nematodes did their work and slug damage has been minimal. The mice or moles have, however, been helping themselves to the beetroot. Fortunately, this year they are large so there’s plenty left for us.
The carrot box did brilliantly and there are only one or two carrots left so one job this winter will be to build a second box. It has been a long time since I have managed to grow perfectly shaped carrots.
The only crop not doing so well are the brussell sprouts. Seemingly strong and healthy plants are producing few sprouts. We’ve been racking our brains on this one though general consensus seems to be stress (they’d fallen over) and nitrogen deficiency (though healthy leaves would contradict this). So, not too much green veg for the winter motnhs.
Preparation for next year is well underway with lots of mulching.
As anyone who has read my book might now realise, it’s hard keeping up with everything on a smallholding. This is particularly true as we both have to work to pay the bills. A while back, I mentioned this loss of control of some of the veggie patches in a blog entry – Taking back control – one area of the vegetable garden had gone completely wild.
This area was where we should have been growing our salad crops. However, last year the slugs and snails had got the lot and so we were experimenting with pots. We took our eyes of the veggie patch and the weeds took advantage. The pots were not a great success, really lettuces and so on need their roots in the ground to flourish. We had a think about it and thought a polytunnel might prove the answer. Under cover, the salads should do better (it can be a bit wet and windy here). The tomatoes, too, would flourish.
We measured the area and bought ourselves a polytunnel which, of course, arrived in kit form. I stored it in a shed while we started preparing the ground. The paths were covered in old carpet and the beds in cardboard and wool. This suppressed most of the weeds, the buttercups proving the hardest to conquer.
Then it was time to get the build underway. The original plan was to have a contractor put it up. We are so busy it was hard to see where we’d find time to build it ourselves. However, some unexpected roof repairs and a contractor that was also very busy meant I decided to put it up myself. How hard could it be?
Not too hard, as it happened. Not an easy start when I found the instruction leaflet soaking wet and illegible. Thank goodness for the internet and PDF downloads. Having watched the instruction video, I made one of my better decision – rather than going all out and building it in one go, I broke it down into stages.
The first was getting the water pipe and electric cable ready. We had installed a large rainwater tank earlier in the year and the pipe was ready and waiting. It just needed to be put underground and into the polytunnel. The electric cable was laid at the same time.
Next was getting the foundations and hoops in place. That went pretty well though, that said, the instructions on squaring the foundations were correct but hard to implement. My maths background was suddenly useful as I designed a simple way to get this right. Quite easy really, I just tied the four corners together with string at the correct length and put them in the ground at roughly the right place. Then I connected the diagonals with string (at the correct length) and marked the middle of the string. Then all I had to do was line up the centres of the diagonals while keeping all the string taut. Took about 20 minutes. That done, the foundations could be drilled into place. After that, the hoops could go up and I had welcome assistance from Nicole in getting them installed. It was starting to take shape.
The following day, I put up the rest of the frame. This included A frame bars to add extra strength – it can get pretty stormy here. The door frames proved challenging insofar as it was at this point I found that the existing path and veggie beds were not square and some realignment was needed. I took the opportunity to add frames around all the veggie beds to keep the soil in place.
It seemed a good idea to sort out the interior as much as possible before the plastic went on. I had a day or two to do this as I had planned the plastic installation for that rare sunny, wind free day that we sometimes get here. I knocked in a couple of posts and installed the tap and electrical sockets. I also created an area for Nicole to use in her rug making. Making felted fleece rugs uses a lot of water and here, the water could flow freely into the ground (as opposed to all over a wooden shed floor).
That all done, it was time to get the plastic on. This turned out to be harder than it looked. I was working on my own and while I got most of the main area taut, one panel ended up a bit loose. Nicole helped around the door frames with the platting and pulling the plastic tight. The plastic was held in place by metal spring clips which, while fairly simple to install, took its tool on my fingers – blisters galore.
Nevertheless, it’s up, it works and all the veggie beds have been mulched. I have tidied it up around the outer edges sinking the plastic into the ground and laying membrane and gravel to keep the weeds down. We are looking forward to a bumper salad crop next year.
Last year’s veggie growing didn’t go well. What with constant rain, little sun and an army of slugs and snails, we did not get much of a harvest.
This year, we were determined to do better. Nematodes took care of the slugs and snails. All plants were grown to a good size before planting out and carrots are in their own special box. This has worked quite well and the veggie patch is looking good (see right).
We have two veggie patches, one that was here already and the one in the picture to the right that we built. With all the focus on the new patch, we took our eye off the old patch and this (left) is what happened. It didn’t take long.
Now, one of the problems we have here in SW Scotland is that the growing season is a bit shorter. We have a greenhouse but it’s not very big. So, we have invested in a polytunnel which is planned to go over this weedy area.
The polytunnel has been delivered and sits awaiting action in our shed. It was time to take back control.
The original plan was to cover the area with a weed membrane. However, I saw a good idea on twitter that comes from the “no dig” school of thinking. Cardboard topped with mulch. We had plenty cardboard lying around. With COVID, we are buy much more stuff online, so plenty of boxes pass through our front door these days. We added our spin on this approach by covering the cardboard with wool. This is waste wool that can’t be used in Nicole’s rugs, so would have gone to compost anyway. I’m hoping that the damp wool will stop the cardboard blowing away.
The paths were covered in underlay from our bedroom floor. In case you’re wondering, I recently laid a new wooden floor replacing a rather old carpet.
Most of the cardboard was soggy having sat in a pile outside, so I got pretty wet carrying it over. But, bit by bit, I have reclaimed most of the patch. I ran out of cardboard before I got it all covered. This has not resulted in an online buying frenzy, but all boxes that arrive are soon snapped up and put to use.
Once the polytunnel is up, the growing areas will be covered in mulch provided by our sheep. By next year, this should provide an excellent growing area.
Part of the sustainable living ethos is re-using stuff. We generate a lot of garden waste and this all goes into a large compost bin. Of course, over time, it fills up. I have found the best thing to do is to move all the compost into bins and leave it for a few months to rot down properly.
That said, first the bins need to be emptied (having been filled last time). So, what I have a three stage system. There are bins with useable compost, bins with compost that is rotting down and the large collection bin.
At the compost shuffle, I put all the usable compost into old plastic feed or compost bags and take it to the greenhouse. Then I tip all the compost from the green bins into the “ready bins”. Then I tip all the stuff in the big bin into the teo green bins.
It’s a lot of work, but it only needs to be done a couple of times a year. And it’s very satisfying once it’s all done.
We also have wormeries for the kitchen waste. They are enclosed so no tempting titbits for rats or crows, both of which can be a bit of a pest.