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A novice's guide to producing his own food


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Orchard plan finally bears fruit

East End Park -- site of the orchard and wildflower meadow

East End Park — site of the orchard and wildflower meadow

I’ve always wanted some fruit trees. Some apples and maybe a few pears. There wasn’t enough room on my allotment, so I tried to get a hold of some adjacent land which would have taken about six trees. That was a failure, so I was at a dead-end.

That was over a year ago, and I’d almost given up on the idea until I bumped into Alex Graham, who is chair of Monifieth EcoForce — an environmental group which does its best to keep the town looking good. I said I was looking for some land for an orchard for myself or the community. “Leave it with me,” he said. I thought little more about until we met again several months later, and he said there was a piece of ground near the golf course which would be suitable for an orchard combined with a wildflower meadow. 

A quick visit to the site left me overwhelmed. It was huge! Roughly 50 x 100m. It was more than I ever dreamed of.

Google Maps view of the site

Google Maps view of the site

The more I thought about it, the more the idea of doing something for the community appealed. There was no doubting this was going to be a massive task, and so I asked Frank King, a fellow allotment holder, if he would come on board. I was delighted to hear him say yes.

Not long after he came up with a genius fundraising idea. Why don’t we allow people in Monifieth to sponsor their own family tree? Brilliant. Folk would have a tree in their name with a plaque giving their details.

Meanwhile, I got in touch with Andrew Lear, who specialises in reviving orchards in this area, particularly in the Carse. He reckoned there was room for 90 trees. And he listed the types of pear, plum and apple which were commonly grown in this area.

So far, so good. But there were two huge hurdles to overcome — getting funding and permission. Thanks to Catherine LLoyd, of Tayside Biodiversity, we applied for a grant from Angus Environmental Trust — a group which uses money from the landfill tax to promote projects like ours. They were very enthusiastic and gave us a grant to cover the cost of the trees, stakes, guards and seeds for the meadow.

The bigger problem was getting permission from the council to go ahead. Although they were behind the idea, their cogs turned extremely slowly. However, after I put in an appeal with our councillor, things started moving — still too slowly for my liking, but faster than before.

On stipulation they had was I should consult with all the owners of the neighbouring properties to get their views on the matter. Two sides of the area was owned by the golf links. I spoke to the chairman, and he was delighted that an eyesore was going to be put to proper use. Residents, however, had reservations. While the vast majority were in favour, many were concerned trees would block their views of the golf course.

This was all passed on to the council who eventually agreed at the beginning of March to lease us the site for the orchard and wildflower meadow. Nothing can stop us now. The money is in place and we have the cash.

Now the real work begins …


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A second stab at winter crops

Not much to see just now, but this is where I planted the onions and cabbage. The onions are marked out with string, so I know where to weed

Not much to see just now, but this is where I planted the onions and cabbage. The onions are marked out with string, so I know where to weed

In  2012/13 I tried for the first time to grow winter crops.  The plot was in pretty good nick, and there was some spare time, so I thought I’d try growing winter onions, lettuce and cabbage. Get the most out of the plot, and all that.

The onions grew OK, but the lettuce and cabbages were quickly choked out by a late flush of weeds and never really showed themselves.

I reminded myself that everything I try for the first time on the plot is usually a disaster, so, this year, I thought, I’ll learn from my mistakes and have another go. This time I decided to forget about the lettuce, and plant spring cabbages from seedlings. That way they’ll be easier to weed.

The onions were planted as sets, and buried below the ground. As I knew it’d be several months before they showed themselves, I marked their location with string. That way I could weed with impunity. As I write this only one onion has shown itself. That’s to be expected. During the winter months, the onions will set down roots, and come the spring, they should pop through and grow quickly.

The leeks have been a great success again

The leeks have been a great success again

Actually, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call them winter onions. The reality is that they’ll only end up being only about four weeks ahead of normal onions. But that’s OK by me. If I need the space come spring,  I’ll harvest them as large(-ish) spring onions. I did that last year, and they were among the first harvest of the year. Fresh veg, come April and May, is extremely welcome.

There are still other crops on the go at the plot, which aren’t strictly winter crops as they were planted in early summer, but are still maturing. They are leeks, purple sprouting broccoli and turnip. Leeks have been a great success over the past two years, and this season is no exception. Big, thick and white, they have a crunch, flavour and an oniony smell you just don’t get from the supermarket. Plus I managed to grow about 90 in half a bed. You can cram them in, and they don’t seem to mind too much.

The same can’t be said about the broccoli. I planted these in mid-summer, and they grew very fast, but there is no sign of a crop. It’s all green. Not sure where my mistake is, but the harvest season is December to March, so maybe something will show itself yet. If not, I’ll dig them up and give them to the chickens. They’ll love it.

Finally, the turnips (or should I say swedes?).  Another great success. As an experiment, I tried planting these as seedlings too. Seems to be a good idea, as they have turned out to quite substantial. Some of the shapes are bit odd (long and rounded — more like a marrow), but still edible.

It’s good to have something to harvest between now and spring, and its means my plot is producing veg for around nine or 10 months of the year. Not bad at all.


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video update no. 3 2013

This post will be accompanied by few words. I seem to have most covered of what I wanted to say in the video update.

There is one further thing I want to add, though. Since filming the footage above, events have moved on regarding the quails. As I said I would, I reunited the injured bird with her siblings. However, almost immediately she started to get picked on. I watched anxiously hoping it would settle down, but within a few minutes the corner of her eye was starting to bleed. The other quails were being vicious little toe-rags. One, in particular, was not only nipping the back of her neck, but was also getting a piggy-back ride as the injured bird ran around trying to escape. I had no choice but to put her back in the pet carrier.

But things got even worse. Soon after I notice ANOTHER quail was getting viciously picked on as well! Can’t figure out what’s up with them.

I took the two bullied quail back indoors and put them in the cage that formerly housed our rats.  Soon the greenhouse will be empty of tomatoes, and I intend to put the two cages with all the quails in there over the winter while I work out what to do next.

Don’t let the quails’ cutesy size and their Tribble-like cooing fool you. They’re mean little buggers.


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video update no.2 2013

My second video of the year is actually a first! It’s the first time I’ve done an update on the bees.

Usually by this time of year, I’ve kinda had enough of being stung and making mistakes, and I abandon the idea of a wee video. Things are different now. I’m a much more confident beekeeper, and have made no major errors (another first!).

My intention in 2013 was to give honey production minimal attention, but concentrate instead on increasing the number of colonies. I still managed to get two supers from one hive, with the first (from oil seed rape) giving me 23lbs of fairly decent honey. Of course, the weather has been good, but I’ve also managed to split my mother colony into three quite-strong hives.

Astonishingly for me, it all went exactly to plan (as you can see from the video). Early on this year I ditched the idea of taking the hives up to the heather, because my last two visits produced little or no honey, and I also lost a lot of bees.

I’ve been feeding the splits quite heavily, and have added Vitafeed Green. Although, I can’t say for sure that it has made a difference, the hives do seem very healthy. Of course, that could be down to the good weather. Who knows? I’m an inexperienced beekeeper, so perhaps I’ll find the answer to these questions in time. Until then, enjoy the video….

 


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Video Update No. 1 2013

Good golly, is it video update time already? Yes, that’s right, I about to administer some digital propofol by warbling about my beloved allotment.

If you watch it all, you’ll notice I keep banging on about how a great year it has been (so far). I’m getting better at growing veg, the weather has been particularly good (although some folk still aren’t happy), and I’m actually getting fitter. A couple of years ago, three hours down the allotment would have had me taking to bed for the next couple of days. Not any more. I’m regularly putting in up to eight hours on Saturday, followed by a similar amount on Sunday (I then struggle to stay awake at work on Monday).

All my time hasn’t been spent at allotment, though. At least one day each weekend is spent at home tending to the greenhouse, chickens and quails. And, of course, there are the bees.

Anyway, time to kick back and enjoy the clip.

See! Told you it was rubbish. Before I go, I must correct one mistake. Contrary to what I say in the video, I am not growing climbing beans. The legumes are: (in order) broad beans, early peas, FRENCH beans, RUNNER beans and late peas (I really should prepare better).


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What a weekend!

The quail -- well five of them -- safety at home in our garden

The quail — well five of them — safety at home in our garden

It’s Sunday evening, and I’m reflecting on a weekend that was a bit hectic, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. The rewards are starting to reveal themselves after all the hard work I’ve put in over the last few months.

Saturday began with an 8am start. Janek and I were driving to the village of Dollar (almost 55 miles away) to collect six Japanese quail. My three boys had decided to get them for me as a Father’s Day gift. Janek had seen an allotment holder with quail, and reckoned I’d like some too. A nice thought.

The sun broke cover by the time we left Dundee, and most of the day was gloriously hot. The drive to Dollar was quick as Janek and I chatted quite a bit (I rarely see him). We found the farm easily enough, and collected the quail in a pet carrier. Lovely little birds, and they make a soothing cooing noise. Although they are ground-dwellers, you look after them in the same way as chickens.

Back home, I transferred my new wee pals into an ark I had bought for the chickens (but never used). After cowering in the shade for a bit, they soon ventured out.

In the afternoon, I visited the pet shop in Monifieth, and bought the quail two little houses (which are meant for small rabbits). They seemed to like them, as they provided more cover. I think I’m right in saying that quail traditionally live on forest floors, so they like being out of the sun.

On Sunday, Janek accompanied me again. This time to check the bees. It was his first-ever visit , and he was (naturally) quite wary. But he did OK, remained calm and didn’t get stung.

My main hive is absolutely chock-full of bees. I’ve never seen so many. And they’re bringing in more honey. The super is getting heavy for a second time — something that has never happened to me before. I’ll keep this honey for the bees, and let them use it over the winter.

The nucleus hive at the apiary (the other is at the allotment) is also doing well. Plenty of bees about to hatch. I’ll have to “upgrade” the nuc to a full brood box soon.

On our way home Janek and I decided to drop in on the allotment. All of a sudden everything seems to be becoming ready at the plot. The two of us spent the next two hours harvesting, and between us gathered the first potatoes (purple majesty), red and white onions, two types of garlic, courgettes, broad beans, two types of peas, a few raspberries, even fewer Tayberries, but a massive 5lbs of strawberries. Oh, and an absolutely huge bunch of sweet peas for Sue.

The strawberries have been stunning this year (they’re even good from the shops), and I think I have harvested about 7lbs so far. There will be more to come, but I suspect today was the peak.

Back at the house, I spread the onions out to dry, and gave Sue a hand as she shelled the beans and peas.

After tea (and an amazing snooze), I zipped back to the allotment to check on the nucleus hive there. It’s also doing great. Although it has not grown as strong as the other nuc, it does have sealed brood. That’s a sign that I can move it back to the apiary. Mission accomplished!

This evening has been spent preparing the strawberries to make jam, making potato and courgette soup, and using a couple of bulbs (yes, bulbs) of garlic to make guacamole.

That’s the end to a perfect weekend. Time to put my feet up and pour myself a whisky.


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Could this actually be a good year?

A nucleus hive at the allotment

A nucleus hive at the allotment

Ever since I started beekeeping, one thing has been consistent — beekeepers have moaned about the weather. They are, of course, right — over the past few years it has been dreadful, and I could only listen in wonder when they talked about the glory days of beekeeping with supers groaning under the weight of honey.

Not any more. Although 2013 hasn’t been perfect, it has certainly been pretty good. Not only that, but I’m becoming a better beekeeper. For the first time, I feel I am in control of the bees, and I don’t seem to be lurching from one crisis to another. Have I got it cracked? I doubt it, because I’ve been undoubtedly helped by the glorious sun. Had the weather been erratic, then perhaps things would be different.

As you may recall, I started the year with just one colony.  Being in this situation is not good. One mistake, and I could be beeless, so I decided to spend 2013 building up colony numbers, and not bothering whether I got honey or not.

Well, perhaps this is the right attitude, because as it happens my sole hive produced 23lbs of honey — only 1lb less than the two colonies combined last year! Although the oilseed rape was late in flowering, when it did come, the fine weather meant my bees could make the most of it.

There was further good news when it came to the swarming season. This time I was well prepared, both psychologically and equipment-wise, and so I decided to try a wee experiment. Instead of creating one artificial swarm, and getting two hives, I thought I’d try splitting my sole colony into three.

I created two nucs (small hives with only five frames each). Each nuc had a few frames of bees, a few frames of eggs, some honey, and, crucially, a queen cell each. On advice, I kept the two nucs away from each other, putting one on the allotment (pictured above) and one at the apiary.

Then it was just a matter of waiting. After a week, I peaked inside. Although I didn’t see the newly emerged queens, I noticed their cells had been broken down by the bees. That’s a good sign — they probably hatched OK. So far, so good. The next hurdle was to see if they mated. Again, good weather helps because the virgin queens will be able to make as many flights as they need. However, it is still a risky business as they could get scoffed by a hungry bird.

Last weekend, after a two-week gap, I looked inside the nucs. There were eggs! Both queens had mated and were laying away happily. From having only one colony, I now have three. Result!

The next hurdle is to make sure my three hives keep building up numbers, and go into the winter as strong as possible.

So far, everything this year has gone exactly according to plan. It’s a first!


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Stepping up a gear

On the left and right of the fruit cage are the rasps. The strawbs are in the middle.

On the left and right of the fruit cage are the rasps. The strawbs are in the middle.

All of a sudden the allotment seems have entered a new phase. After months and months of digging, mulching and sowing in bare earth, the plants are now roaring ahead, and I’ve even been able to harvest something.

The winter onions were an unsuccessful experiment. Despite being planted before Christmas, they’re only a few weeks ahead of my main onions, so (as I need the space) I’ve decided to dig them up  for use in salads. The lettuce in the greenhouse is also ready to eat. At last, the hungry gap is over.

Although there is substantial growth at the allotment, the biggest change is probably in the greenhouse. Up until now, it was being used to bring on as many seedlings as I could. Hundreds of peas (Alderman and Hurst), beans (Blauhilde and Wisley), leeks, lettuce, chillies and tomatoes have all been brought on under glass.

Gradually, however, most have been hardened off and replanted in the allotment, leaving only the tomatoes and chillies. The toms are getting too big for their pots and need to be placed in grow bags. This means a complete clear-out of everything in the greenhouse – three staging benches, plant pots and bags of compost. From this weekend on, it will devoted to growing only cucumber (they arrived in the post today), chillies and, most importantly of all, lots and lots of tomatoes of varying colours and sizes. Nearly all have been grown from seed, but I’ve also acquired about seven freebie plug plants.

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The plan for 2013

If all goes according to plan...

The figure in brackets is the number of plants I should be able to squeeze in comfortably. More info can her found here

http://gardenplanner.suttons.co.uk/garden-plan.aspx?p=398906

It seems nuts to be writing about my plans for this year when it’s already the middle of April, but winter has been so horribly long I’ve barely been able to get things started.

The tomato seeds are growing in an electric propagator, and the rhubarb is starting to show itself, but that’s about it. Surely winter must be on its way out now, and I’ll be able to get cracking properly.

Not that I’ve been sitting with my feet up. I’ve taken advantage of this weather to give the allotment a proper and thorough digging, removing plenty of perennial weeds along the way, and it’s almost ready for the planting season.

Most of my plans for 2013 simply revolve around crop rotation, but there are one or two significant changes. I now have a dedicated rhubarb plot, with six crowns planted in the autumn. Once established, I should get rhubarb staggered throughout the growing season.

I’ve also removed a row of strawberries and replaced them with rasps. Like the rhubarb, this will take two years before I get a decent crop.

The strawberries were rubbish last year — very little fruit, a lot of it rotten, and the fruit that did make it was often ripe on one side, while yellow on the other. I’ve all but given up on them, and decided to go for raspberries which have been far more successful recently. Besides, Sue prefers them.

Another change has been to the brassicas bed. Last year, half the bed was devoted to cabbages, a quarter to sprouts and a quarter to swedes. Although the cabbages were very successful, no-one wanted to eat them, and they ended up being fed to the hens. The sprouts blew and were no good, so I also gave them to my feathered chums who really adored them. As for the swedes — they would have been eaten, but were very small. I am, however, going to give them another go this year, and see if I can somehow get them bigger.

As for the rest of the brassicas patch — I’m not sure what to do. There’s no point in growing stuff if no-0ne (apart from chickens) eats it, so I might throw the area over to more peas. We’ll see….


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Hot chicks having a bath!

My chickens have become an instant hit. They’re relatively easy to look after (so far) and are producing a crazy number of eggs. In a month, they’ve laid 158, and all but 30 have been scoffed by the family (including the dog). I realise it’s a total cliché, but the eggs they produce are genuinely tastier than anything I’ve gotten from a supermarket. The yolks are thick and full of flavour.

As the evenings are dark and still very cold, the chickens and I haven’t spent as much quality time together as I would like. There’s little time for them before work, and on my return home they’re tucked up in their coop, digesting the contents of their crop.

Last Saturday, though, I spent an entire day in the garden, tidying up the greenhouse, chitting potatoes and putting onion sets in modules. While I busied myself, I decided to let the chickens out of their run. I was a bit nervous about this as I wasn’t sure what our cats would make of them, but Sue had successfully let them out earlier in the week, so I gave it a go.

The cats were nowhere to be seen, and the chickens just loved scratching about new territory. It was great looking up from my work in the greenhouse to see them happily exploring. By and large, they seemed to stick together, and weren’t interesting in escaping from the confines of the garden. Mind you, one was determined to dig up a flower bed which had 50 bulbs in. I had to chase her out six times.

At one point in the day, all the chickens decided to have a dust bath under the hedge. It was so nice to watch, I couldn’t resist reaching for my iPhone.