Keeping the rabbits out

There’s never enough time for all the possible jobs on our smallholding so there’s an element of prioritising the available time. However, growing and eating some of our own produce will always be a high priority for me.

The growing season starts a little later in the year for us as demonstrated by the last growing update that was posted in April and featured very little plant growth. I still enjoy growing some fresh, healthy food from just a few small seeds though and maybe one day when I have more spare time I’ll advance to a greenhouse or polytunnel as well.

It can be tricky to keep on top of the weeding, watering and general care along with all the other jobs – especially in the summer months. This is made even harder if the rabbits are happily sneaking in to the raised beds whenever they want.

Good growth from the dwarf beans and swedes

For the moment we have a combination of green, plastic coated wire fencing in place with added chicken wire because the baby rabbits kept squeezing through the small holes.

This seems to have been working well recently, especially now that I’ve started regular detailed examinations and made minor repairs as needed. Earlier this year there was a major set back by about 2-3 weeks after one or more intruders nibbled the tops off just about everything.

Eventually I must get around to replace this ramshackle fencing with something more presentable but for the moment it’s just important that the one task is handled properly – keeping my veg safe from the rabbits!

Nice straight lines for chard, parsnips, courgettes, leeks, dwarf beans and onions

The raised beds are really starting to come good now after the additions from our compost bins, some well rotted leaves from a couple of years ago and also the ash from our biomass pellet boiler every month or so.

Mixed results from the carrots and leeks

With just one bed (carrots and leeks) giving me cause for concern at this stage, I have high hopes for an ever increasing harvest in the coming weeks.

So far we’ve only had some chard (very nice as always) but I’m hoping for some decent small carrots when I get around to thinning those out.

First courgette on the way

The first few courgettes are always exciting of course but I also remember that they are soon followed by a glut despite my best efforts at succession sowing.

Some beetroot seedlings doing well

While I’m not a big fan of beetroot, it’s so easy to grow that I can’t stop myself sowing some seeds most years. Usually it goes nicely with some salad or occasionally we roast some with other root veg. This year I’m also planning to freeze some for use later so I’m hoping that I’ve sown about the right amount.

Time to consider the vegetable plans

Last year there just wasn’t enough hours in the day to spend any real time on the vegetable growing side of things. With a day job as well as the livestock and other land management tasks taking up all of my time, it was a tough but ultimately the best decision.

In the end I simply had to accept that some areas had to be left untouched and that they would inevitably disappear under the weed growth. There was no way I could keep on top of all the available growing space so it was better to tackle just a sensible and manageable amount.

A little extra compost to top it up

This year I hope to build on that hard lesson by increasing the growing space used – but just a little. A combination of shorter but more frequent weeding sessions and also plenty of mulching should help to keep on top of any weeds.

The first batch of outside seed sowing has already been done with some carrots sown in the left hand bed shown below. This also has a plastic cover over the top just to help protect it from the cooler evenings we still seem to get at the moment. The other plastic cover has been put in place ready for planting out other vegetables later on.

Very happy with the progress at this stage

Nearly all of the raised beds are looking very respectable at the moment and just about ready for sowing or planting out. The raised bed containing the soft fruit (far right) still needs some care and attention but that has a weed fabric in place so any tidy up shouldn’t be too difficult.

Now that it finally seems the last of winter has passed, over I can get on with some proper seed sowing the course of the next week or two. This will be a more concentrated effort because in previous years I’ve tried spreading the work out and ended up getting confused with what was planted and when!

When is a dwarf bean no longer dwarf?

The very first early seeds were sown a few weeks ago using a donated heated propagator but they have been a little too successful I think. These are supposed to be dwarf beans and they have got a bit ahead of themselves.

These poor plants also suffered when I was potting them on last weekend. The chickens spotted them while my back was turned and in the space of a minute or two they had descended on them.

Luckily the damage wasn’t too bad in the end but some of the leaves must have been a very tasty treat!

Growing update – success and setbacks

While reviewing the older blog posts in preparation for the recent blog update covering our first 5 years on the smallholding, I realised that the livestock still take up a much larger part of our work than was originally expected. I’d even noted this in a blog post last summer but somehow I’d never managed to deal with this imbalance.

Originally I had expected that growing fruit and vegetables would be an equal part of the work involved and hadn’t thought there’d be quite such a focus on animals. Obviously that is just the result of the decisions taken over time and these were all based on the options available at the time so I can see how we’ve ended up in the current situation.

In an attempt to rectify the balance a little on the blog, here is a quick update on the successes or otherwise with fruit/vegetables for this year (so far)…

Soft Fruit and Top Fruit

While the blackcurrants have been a roaring success, the red currants have usually taken the role of a sacrificial crop. We never lose many blackcurrants to the birds but the redcurrants are always picked clean. I think that this year I’ll make a greater effort to properly net the bushes in the hope that we can at least try some of our own redcurrants.

The fruit trees (apple, plum, pear) continue to make good progress but, during the bad snowfall in March, things must have been tough for the local wildlife. As a result the bark was stripped from most of our fruit trees and I’ve kept my fingers crossed since then in the hope that they’ll pull through.

Apple blossom - Spring 2018
Apple blossom – Spring 2018


Pear blossom and bark damage
Pear blossom and bark damage

Autumn onions

I left it a bit late last autumn when planting out my red onion sets but despite my failings there is still a decent enough showing in that raised bed. With any luck we should have a usable crop and it’s been a good lesson to learn about the proper planting times for crops going into the ground in autumn

Mixed results for the Red Onions
Mixed results for the Red Onions

Lambs and seeds

Continuing the general theme of reporting minor disasters, one batch of seed sowing suffered quite badly with an attack of lamb hooves. The “little darlings” pushed their way out an enclosure and over the relatively soft rabbit protection I had in place.

Having just sown some rows of seeds only a few days earlier, I was less than impressed and I plan to use the whole episode to help me get over the difficulties of sending them off to slaughter in due course.

As can be seen in the picture below, there were a few gaps in the rows where carrots and lettuce should be but I’ve now re-seeded them and hopefully we can still make use of the space.

Limited seed sowing success
Limited seed sowing success

Success comes at a price

To end on a high note, after a couple of failed years trying to grow courgettes, I have finally managed to raise some that didn’t die within a week or so of being planted out. Unfortunately I can already predict the likely outcome when they start producing because I always plant too many and never learn that lesson!

Luckily we quite like courgettes and if necessary can probably find someone who’ll take any spares but if all else fails then the excess can easily go to the pigs and chickens

You can have too many courgettes
You can have too many courgettes

Catching up with things

It’s been a very busy time over the last few months and the weeks just fly by but I’ve eventually realised that some events had not been fully covered by a blog update. Many events do get mentioned briefly through the Facebook or Twitter accounts but that doesn’t include much detail so it seems right that I post more information here.


This year we got exactly what we’d hoped for with the calving. A red heifer calf (Primrose) from Nellie on 30 May followed a few weeks later by a “black” bull calf (Frank) from Daisy on 12 June.

My initial belief that Frank was black is proving to be a little wrong and he is actually a lovely shade of brown which I assume should officially be called “dun”.

Frank (left) and Primrose (right)
Frank (left) and Primrose (right)

We are now looking forward to the arrival of the pedigree Dexter bull that we’re borrowing this year. We’ve heard good things about him and saw him while he was at a friends farm recently so we’ll keep our fingers crossed for another good result when calving time comes around next May or June.


We have 4 pigs from the first litter (from Sissy) and they are developing nicely. As we didn’t raise any pigs for meat last year, it’s been a good reminder this year for monitoring their growth and planning for the inevitable departure.  We don’t take this any more lightly now that we’ve had pigs for 4 years, it’s just as important to us now that they have a good life while they’re with us and a stress-free final trip to the abattoir.

The first 2 pigs from the older litter will be heading off to the butchers by early August and when I calculated their weight at 6 months old they were roughly 60kg which is fairly respectable. At feeding time tonight I managed another quick measurement for weight calculations and they are almost up to 74kg now.

Sissy and gang
Sissy and gang

Amazingly this is exactly what I’d been hoping for as they will be going off in 2 weeks time and should be about 80kg at that time. This is ideal for a basic “porker” like the first ones going off where we just want pork joints, sausages etc. With some careful monitoring, the other 2 pigs from this litter will go off about 3-4 weeks later when they’ll hopefully be 90kg or just over which is a better weight for a “baconer”.

The first batch of pork will be available for sale from 20 Aug and this year we also have 3 pigs from the second litter (from Esther) who are roughly 2 months younger. This will help to give us a regular supply of pork for sale from summer through to autumn or later this year.

More details on the pork for sale will be posted on the blog in due course and also on the Small Plot Big Ideas “shop” page on Facebook

Veg beds

Despite some poor results in other areas with growing produce this year, the garlic and onions that were planted last Autumn have now been harvested. The fairly respectable haul is currently drying in an outhouse while I think about the best way (and place) to store them. This is the second time that I’ve grown garlic and onions this way and I’m really pleased with the results. I think they’re definitely on the list for next year so I’ll need to reserve a spot to plant some more this autumn.

Garlic and onion crop
Garlic and onion crop

After a complete failure (yet again) with the dwarf beans, I’ve almost managed to fill the space with my excess leeks and some chard. I’m also hoping to get some more carrots sown in there very soon as well because we can always use more carrots and they are easy to grow – although never very straight!

With just a single row of parsnips this year, I think that Christmas dinner might be sorted out but not many parsnips left after that. I’ve never had much luck with germinating the seeds and I often think I won’t bother with them next time… However, the taste of a roasted parsnip which came fresh from the garden is something really special so I expect I’ll persevere with them.

Just space for one more row of something
Just space for one more row of something

Overall it’s been a pretty good growing season this year with no prolonged excessively dry (or wet) spells. There were some problems with rabbits sneaking in and nibbling my lettuces but adding some chicken wire to the boundary fence has fixed that problem.

The newly installed scarecrows from Waltons are now dealing with any potential problems with the extensive bird life in the garden. If I’m honest I really don’t mind sharing a little of it with them but I’m not sure they’ll leave any behind if I don’t do something!

Mr and Mrs keep watch
Mr and Mrs keep watch

There’s more to life than livestock

After having such a busy past few weeks, the blog updates inevitably had to suffer. There have been far too many things going on (both cows calving, piglets weaned/sold etc.) as well as our popular holiday let not to mention the full-time day job and there are only so many hours in the day.

It’s definitely time for some updates on the other aspects of life on our North Pennines smallholding.


Our 2 egg laying hens are doing us proud lately with regular egg production and also looking pretty good while they stroll leisurely around the place as if they owned it.

The good looking egg layers
The good looking egg layers

For the record, they are named Birdy and Babs after female singers. Babs (on the right in the photo) is a Columbine and she lays blue eggs with an occasional double-yokers for good measure.

Raised Beds

After a slow start to the growing season, things are now looking a little more respectable but there are still a couple of empty patches due to earlier failures or poor growth. These will be filled very soon with something else so that we at least get something out of each raised bed

The current pride and joy is the middle raised bed which this year holds a selection of vegetables, all of which seem to be doing very well.

Reassuringly straight lines
Reassuringly straight lines

From left to right – lettuce, leeks, chard (recently harvested and very tasty), carrots, swede, more carrots and finally some rather unimpressive peas (luckily just out of shot)

Fruit Trees

Last year was not such a good year for the fruit trees, mostly I think because we have a large number of jackdaws and other birds in the general area who must have been hungry!

Hopefully I can get more organised this year and protect the fruit before the birds start attacking them.

A promising haul of apples
A promising haul of apples

As for the pears, it might not seem like much to others but last year we had no sign of any pears. This year one of the two trees actually has some fruit – although to be honest, I shouldn’t use the term “some fruit” when there’s only a single pear!

One pear is not a pair
One pear is not a pair

Successes and failures in the raised beds

With so much attention focussed on the livestock over the last few months, it made a pleasant change to spend some time on the raised beds were put in place after we moved here.  Even though some of the results this year are not as good as hoped, the simple fact that we can eat fresh produce from the garden is still very rewarding.

This will hopefully be the last year of significant experimentation with vegetables in the raised beds. Over the past 2-3 years I’ve tried a selection of different crops and different varieties of our favourites with the idea of identifying what works best in our location.

For the second year in a row, the dwarf beans have been unimpressive and I suspect that any success in the first year was purely luck. Mostly the problem was down to poor germination but even those I’ve planted out are now looking too impressive. I think it’s likely that I’ll give these a miss for a year or two now in favour of something more reliable.

Dwarf beans and extra carrots
Dwarf beans and extra carrots

As reliable as ever, the leeks always seem to do well here and this year is the third different area I’ve tried them in so they must like the general location.

These will definitely be on the regular list for vegetables to grow and hopefully this year I’ve got the quantity right as there were far too many last year!


Despite a slow start with the carrots there are now quite a few growing on in the raised beds. It was a battle early on when sowing seeds direct and as a result there aren’t as many as I’d hoped now.

However, compared to the difficulties with just germinating parsnip seeds, the carrots could be counted as a comparative success. Even though we love eating fresh, home-grown parsnip in the winter the problems with getting them started means that I may not bother with them next year.

Carrots and parsnips
Carrots and parsnips

After an unexpected success last year with my first attempts at growing chard, this got another chance again this year and yet again is doing really well.

Easy to grow with a cut and come again approach to harvesting plus it’s really tasty when cooked – this is sure to be on the list for future years.

Chard and self-seeded nasturtiums
Chard and self-seeded nasturtiums

As usual for me, I think I planted the first batch of courgette seeds too soon so they were never going to do well. However the second batch benefitted from my first attempts at using a heated propagator. Of course I now have too many courgette plants again this year but isn’t that obligatory if you grow courgettes?

The 2 onions in this picture were actually planted elsewhere last year but came to nothing so I moved them to an empty this spring. After a few months they’ve developed quite well – perhaps better than last years onions did – so that’s a bit of a bonus and perhaps an indication that they would do well in this bed?


Every year so far swedes have been the most reliable crop I’ve grown here and this year looks to be no different. I seems that nothing I do will stop the swede seeds from germinating and growing into a tasty crop!

Luckily it’s become a favourite in the kitchen too so there’s always a place for swedes in the raised beds.


Vegetable raised bed update

Despite holding off a little longer this year before starting with veg growing, it seems that I was still far too keen even though some of the seeds were initially planted inside to germinate. Eventually they still needed to be planted out but the weather in our part of the world just hasn’t warmed up as quickly as I’d hoped.

After a slow start there is finally something to show for all the efforts now that the red cabbage and red brussels sprouts have been transplanted in the raised beds last weekend.

Red cabbage and red brussels sprouts
Red cabbage and red brussels sprouts

Unfortunately things don’t look quite so good where I’ve been planting seed directly into their final growing positions. The raised bed that was set aside for carrots and parsnips this year looks distinctly unimpressive and I may need to investigate a backup plan if nothing happens soon.

Carrots and parsnips supposedly
Carrots and parsnips supposedly

After last years successful crop, there was no reason not to grow swede again and at least this has proved to be more resilient. The netting is already up to protect from the expected rush of pests even though the plants themselves aren’t yet of a size to make much of a meal for the bugs!

Red cabbage and red brussels sprouts
The swedes are covered

On the bright side though, the soft fruit is doing well in the temporary home of a raised bed. Eventually this will be moved to a permanent home but I’m taking my time with that after learning a hard lesson when planting fruit trees in what turned out to be an underground pond in winter!

Black and Red Currants doing well
Black and Red Currants doing well

Planning seems to be paying off

I’ll probably change my mind when summer gets here but at the moment this is definitely my favourite time of year. The first swallow arrived yesterday – only 5 days later than last year – which I’m definitely taking as a good sign even though it was only one bird so far.

There is so much happening right now with the seeds starting to put on some impressive growth and the effort put in through the winter with the planting plans starting to pay off.

I’ve even managed to resist the urge to plant too much too soon this year which is a first for me. Having said that I think I might still have planted a little too much but at least it wasn’t too soon!

Original raised bed plan
Original raised bed plan

The only minor change to the original plans I’d made during the winter was to also plant a selection of flower seeds as well as vegetable and herb seeds. I suspect that this helped to ease my excessive planting urge because I could plant other seeds instead.

Actually, I now remember that there was another “minor” change when I added the new 20ft long raised bed a few weeks ago. However in my mind that doesn’t really count as breaking the plans because I’m simply adding more growing space for the courgettes which went so well last year.

Next year will certainly be a little different though as there are grand plans in my head for a polytunnel (maybe 10ft x 20ft) and even a greenhouse but I may need to seek approval from my better half before going ahead with all of that!

Spring is here…

A week of fine, dry weather which coincided with taking time off from the day job – what are the chances of that happening?

This stroke of luck meant that I was able to get cracking with many jobs in the hope that preparations could be made so things don’t get out of hand like last year.

Most importantly to my mind, the seed trays are all labelled properly rather than using an old lolly stick which inevitably fades and gets covered in dirt so I can’t read what I wrote on it.


The first batches of vegetable seeds were sown over the third weekend in March, a little later than last year and a sign of what I consider to be my admirable restraint. In most cases, the various trays and pots were promptly stashed in the fairly warm loft to germinate.

Carrots on their way
Carrots on their way

However the leeks were left outside in the cold frame based on advice I read that they prefer colder conditions to germinate. This would seem to be true because they are looking okay so far.

Out of interest, I decided to test the leeks using 3 pots of “Gro Sure” seed compost alongside 3 pots with “John Innes”. There doesn’t seem too much difference in the results at the moment but it’s still early days.

Comparing compost with leeks
Comparing compost with leeks

There are now carrots, red cabbage, swede and leeks to name a few starting to show above the soil so I’m happy that I’m on course for planting out properly in a few weeks time.

The only minor concern is that there is no sign of life from the lettuce yet but perhaps that is down to using an old packet of seed that I found. I’ll give them a little longer to come up before worrying too much.

Flower seeds

I also decided to plant a range of flower seeds this year – partly for variety because I focus on vegetables too much but also because the garden could use some colour and scent at times!

To my surprise and satisfaction these came up even quicker than many of the vegetable seeds I had sown…

Flower seeds making good progress
Flower seeds making good progress

All in all, a highly productive week and a feeling that good progress has been made in preparation for the rest of the growing season!

I even managed to squeeze in another raised bed using some left over materials I had lying around. I did have to buy in a few bags of compost but I was able to mix that with some home-produced compost that needed to be shifted.

You can never have too many
You can never have too many

Let’s hear it for wonky veg

Why should your carrots all look the same shape or colour? I grew purple carrots last year and they tasted just fine but I still prefer the orange ones for some reason… Whatever the colour they never grow as straight as you see them in the shops

Why should a parsnip be straight and pointy? This year is my first attempt with parsnips and I was quite impressed with this first one. Very tasty and really easy to grow once you can get the seeds to germinate!

Do all swedes have to be round and look the same? Another relative success story in my first year with growing them. Why would I be bothered what shape they are if I’m going to boil and mash them?

So let’s hear it for home-grown, wonky veg …

There's nothing wrong with wonky!
There’s nothing wrong with wonky!