A novice's guide to producing his own food


The swarm chaser

The first swarm. A terrifying thing of beauty

It was only nine days ago that the weather was so rubbish I thought it was going to be a disastrous year for bees. Since then, the heat has rocketed, my bees are going like stink, and I have had four major crises in eight days. I’m knackered.

It all began on Sunday, May 20. I had already noticed that one hive was bringing in a serious amount of honey, expanding rapidly, and producing queen cells.

It was time to create an artificial swarm.

When a colony expands quickly in the spring, it soon outgrows the  hive, and so decides to swarm. It initiates the process by created new queens, and it is at the point before they hatch that a beekeeper has to act. By creating an artificial warm, a beekeeper will get rid of the colony’s urge to move home. Plus he gets an extra colony into the bargain.

The first thing I had to do was find the queen. It’s not something I’m great at, but I saw her first time. Brilliant.

I popped a queen cage on her and prepared to move her to her new hive. The rest of the flying bees would follow.

It was all going well until the cage dropped off, and, to make matters worse, the queen then flew away. That was Crisis No. 1.

Where did she go? Chances are she went back to her hive, but by this time the bees were so disturbed, I had no chance of seeing her, so I shut the hive up.

That was on the Sunday. On the Monday, I returned to see if I could find her. No sign, despite going through the hive twice. I was preparing to go home when I turned round and saw something that rooted me to the spot. There was a huge swarm in a nearby tree. It must’ve been a least three-foot long.

Crisis No. 2. What do I do? I’d never caught a swarm before and didn’t have the right equipment. So, I phoned my mentor. Luckily he was available to help.

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Listen, this is how it is going to be …

I have a plan.

Last year I had a plan too, but it didn’t work out. Neither did the previous year’s. This year will be different, though, because for the first time I am in complete control of the allotment. All I need to do is keep it that way.

There is one major alteration to what I aim to produce. I’m going to start growing flowers (top left, in the salad bed). The idea being, after spending a little too long at the allotment, I’ll surprise my wife with a bunch just to show I appreciate her putting up with my “latest craze” (her words). However, I was so excited by the idea that I immediately spilled the beans as soon as the seeds arrived through the post. Still, it’s the thought.

The rest of the allotment is pretty much dictated by crop rotation. The potatoes go where the carrots were, the carrots where the Brassicas were, and so on.

The spuds, though, will be done slightly differently. Instead of splitting the bed into four sections (salad, first earlies, second earlies and maincrop), I’m just going for the maincrop. The yield is greater, and I’d like to see my potatoes last for at least half a year (we go through a lot).

Oh, and I’ve moved the leeks from their own patch to beside the carrots. Technically, of course, leeks should be in the onion bed, but it’s full, so I’m gonna bend the rules a smidge.

As I write this, most of the potatoes are already in the ground, as are the flowers, lettuces and some carrots. Plenty of work lies ahead, as the onions are sprouting in the greenhouse, alongside the peas, beans and leeks.I just love this time of year and seeing the first plants pop out of the soil. Truly exciting. The icing on the cake, though, is one of my hives is already stuffed with bees, so I’ve put a super on top to collect honey. The Uchman food machine is finally cranking into gear!

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2011: The rise and fall and rise and eventual collapse of the greenhouse

The greenhouse didn't survive the December storm

Looking back over the 2011, it’s clear events have been dominated by one thing – the greenhouse. Money, and even more importantly, time have been wasted on it.

My “big project” of the year was to grow my first veg in a greenhouse, and yet here I am at the beginning of 2011 without one, despite having built one twice and moved it three times. As you’ve probably guessed my year-old greenhouse blew down in the December 8 storm, and is completely unrepairable.

This is the second time it has blown over since I bought it in January 2011. The first time was when it was on the allotment. Then I thought I had lost it for good, along with the £459 I paid for it. However, it was salvageable and so I  brought up to the garden at home.

But, come December, it blew down again. Although it was in a much more sheltered spot, the winds were the strongest in 10 years, and the greenhouse was completely wrecked. However, as it was on my own property, I was able to claim insurance, and got most of the cash back. Good news.

I am still determined to have a greenhouse, and will put the cash towards a proper wooden Victorian lookalikey. This will cost thousands, rather than hundreds, but I am confident it will last. After all, we have two wooden summerhouses and a shed which weren’t at all fazed by the storms.

The fault with my greenhouse was a common one — it used polycarbonate sheeting. This is supposed to better than glass for the plants,  but the downside is it makes greenhouses so light they can’t withstand even moderate winds. After the last storms, it was suckers like me with polycarbonate greenhouses who lost everything, while glass greenhouses stood.

The lesson here is: don’t ever buy polycarbonate. I will never touch them again

But I must’ve be too negative, there was plenty to be excited about in 2011. The harvest (although not large) was at least consistent. Just about everything produced a crop which ended up on the table.

Let’s take a look at each bed  in turn.

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I’ve Got My Bees! (And How I Thought I’d Killed The Lot)

My bees finally arrived on June 19. A local beekeeper (Jim) was willing to sell me a complete hive with a full colony for £150. By starting with a full (as opposed to a nuclear) colony he said I should get some honey this year. He promised to get me a nuc for a second hive a few weeks later. I was so thrilled to finally get going with beekeeping, I thought I’d probably be unable to sleep the night before they arrived (as it happens I snored like a chain saw).

Is it OK if I slip into something stupid?

Two days earlier (on June 17), I’d raced over to Thornes in Newburgh and bought a beekeeper’s suit, gloves and a  hive tool. That set me back another £150. A lot of money, but all the purchases were one-offs, and Sue said she’d help pay for the hive as part of my birthday.

Jim arrived at 9am on the Saturday. The one thing I can say about all the beekeepers I’ve met so far, is that they’re a genuine, friendly and honest bunch, so when he told me the colony he was selling was very healthy, I believed him. In fact there were so many bees, it was almost congested. Jim decided to put a Super on to the top of the hive straight away. Supers are the boxes where bees store excess honey to tide them over the winter, but before they get to use it, we humans nick it off them and scoff it for ourselves (leaving enough behind, of course).

After Jim left, I had a lot of weeding to do, but I kept returning to the hive to have a peek. As the day progressed, the bees seemed to get more and more frantic, and became pretty aggressive. I got stung twice by little bleeders who were clearly determined to get me. I had decided to keep calm in such situations, but one of the bees had started to crawl into my ear and then tried to get into my mouth. Without thinking, I flailed like a motherfucker. You’d think flailing would be quite a good strategy to fend off a highly manoeuvrable object about the size of a pea, wouldn’t you? Well,  it doesn’t work, and I got stung anyway. (Bee stings, by the way, aren’t all that bad. Worse that nettles, but nowhere near as bad as a wasp. About as sore as childbirth, I reckon.)

When I left the allotment that afternoon (after making the attached video), I was beginning to wonder if the bees would prove to a problem not just for me, but for the other gardeners. I needn’t have worried, though. They had been going crazy primarily because they didn’t like being moved. It was also an extremely hot day, I’d been very busy,  and seemingly bees are easily irritated by human sweat, hence their determination to sting me on my face.

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