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

Finishing off the raised beds

At last, construction of the new raised bed area can be considered complete! The final task of shifting 4 tonnes of slate chippings with a spade and wheelbarrow is finished. It took a little longer than I had originally expected but the results are exactly what I wanted.

The pressure is now on to make sure the veg grows in nice neat lines and nothing spoils the arrangement…

Raised beds - all done!
Raised beds – all done!

For the moment the soft fruit bushes are taking up a raised bed on their own but they will probably not be there forever. Another raised bed is already filled with garlic and onion sets that were planted last year and they seem to be doing well.

The over spill of onions made a couple of rows in another raised bed and these have been joined by a quick row of carrots – the first sown direct outside. Hopefully this has been timed right to fit in with an earlier sowing using root trainers (as a test) so that the harvest can be spread out a little. It also means that all space in this bed has been allocated.

Onions and carrots
Onions and carrots

Although there’s not much to show for it yet, this bed has the first beetroot sowing and now a row of leeks sown direct as well. There is a batch of leeks that were sown in pots earlier and they are coming along nicely so this bed is also pretty much allocated as well.

Beetroot and leeks
Beetroot and leeks

That leaves just the last raised bed to be filled which is completely empty at the moment but the plan is to use that for parsnips and swede. Last years attempts at parsnips were planted far too late in the year after out house move so nothing came of them. I’ve never tried growing swede before but it’s good to try new things and I’ll be interested to see how that goes!

Raised bed progress

Despite having started constructing the raised veg beds back in October, further progress has been a little slow due to the high number of distractions in the intervening months. One thing is becoming very clear since we moved here, it’s all too easy to find yourself with many projects started but none fully completed!

With these new raised veg beds, the intention was always to come up with some covers to help extend the growing season but initially I had no particular approach in mind. Finally the delays got to me so I ordered some supplies from Premier Polytunnels  including a decent length of polythene to use as a cover.

At the same time, I took the opportunity to order a decent length of ground cover fabric to go in between the raised beds. It seems wise to get that in place sooner rather than later!

In an earlier post I showed the first stages of adding the water pipe hoops on one of the raised beds but with an hour or two to spare last weekend I finally completed the work on two of the four raised beds. This new area alone is more growing space than I had in the last house never mind the original vegetable bed here which is also expected to be fully utilised this year.

Polythene covers in place
Polythene covers in place

At least I can relax now if the chickens decide to invade the garden because the onions and garlic (on the left) and soft fruit bushes (at the back) are suitably protected. The onions in the nearest bed will just have to take their chances for the moment with a low fence around them – it seems that the chickens can’t be bothered to flap over that.

There is still some final work needed to properly tighten up the covers so that they can survive any bad weather but I’m still contemplating the best way of attaching the polythene to the raised veg beds. I’d like to make it completely removable if possible but perhaps it’s better to just attach it on one side so that it can be rolled back if needed.

Further ideas

There was always plans for another raised bed in this area but I’m inclined to hold back on that in case I take on more than can be properly managed in the coming year. Having said that, I usually buy far too many seeds each spring so I may hurriedly build something once I’ve filled up all other available space.

It will probably be best to completely fence off this new growing area – to prevent damage as a result of football in the garden, to stop any destruction by the chickens (and rabbits) and also from sheep being brought through to the fields at the back as well. That’s not a combination of problems I’ve had to consider in the past but I’m not complaining…

6 month assessment

Slightly surprisingly we’ve been in our “new” house for 6 months now so it seemed a good time to take stock and assess the situation. It’s also a good point to take the time to appreciate everything we have and how lucky we are to have it.

Over this period there have been a good number of successes, a few minor failures and plenty of schemes or plans for the future which may or may not ever come to fruition. Here is a quick run through for the record…


The 3 original "pet" hens
The 3 original “pet” hens

We made a seemingly minor decision during the first month or two to occasionally leave broody hens to hatch batches of eggs. However after the first three sets of chicks arrived  we quickly realised that we had reached full capacity on the under-productive white chickens that we inherited on our arrival here.

The first batch of chicks that hatched yielded just 2 – one male and one female – so the cockerel soon became the volunteer for our first attempt at killing and eating our own chicken.

Through the summer we found that it was just too much like hard work to find out if and where they’re laying eggs despite our efforts with fencing them in and generally improving the facilities provided for them.

Next spring we’ll give the existing flock another few months to prove themselves but if there’s no improvement then some extra point of lay hybrids will be brought in. There is always the possibility of getting rid of the inherited chickens but right now that seems a little drastic. On reflection perhaps a “layers flock” in a separate dedicated area will mean the existing flock can be treated as meat birds.


The Tamworths
The Tamworths

The huge success and enjoyment of our first foray into pig-keeping means that we will definitely be getting 2 or 3 weaners in Spring 2014. There is a temptation at this stage to go further next year by getting a couple of breeding sows but common sense should prevail and we’ll get more experience with weaners first.

The next batch of pigs will definitely be a different breed so we can compare them with the first two Tamworths and get more day-to-day practical experience before settling on a particular breed for the longer term

My preference would be for Oxford Sandy and Black weaners next simply based on their appearance but it’s just as likely that we’ll get whatever is available at the time locally to save headaches with transporting them.


From everything I’ve read, Dexters seem to be a good fit for our requirements if we are considering a house cow but with no prior experience of this I think some practical training will be needed first. There is also a consideration about the amount extra time this will take and how we can best fit that in with all the other plans we have (as well as the day jobs).

At least  any excess dairy products could be used to cut the pig feed bill and ease the financial burden but as usual there are also plans to try cheese and butter making or even yoghurt if we’re feeling daring.


Another appealing idea is to take on a few orphaned lambs from the local farmer and raise them for meat. However it might be better to wait until we’ve dealt with the pigs before deciding on that just in case we get too attached to them!

Our friendly local farmer is always willing to make use of our paddocks and hay meadow for his sheep from time to time so we can fall back on that option. It gives us the chance to watch closely how the professionals do it before making any decisions for our own flock.


The expansion of growing space should mean that more of each can be grown providing I can resist the temptation to just grow a larger number of varieties instead. Some of this extra space is already taken up with the onion sets and garlic but I have plenty more space and loads of ideas for next year!

Raised bed building
Raised bed building

My first batch of rhubarb will need to be moved to a more permanent home after starting life with us in large tubs so they could be transported when we moved house. As luck would have it, the house we eventually bought already had some healthy looking rhubarb but I’m sure we can find plenty of ways to use up any excess.

One of the great successes from the previous 6 months was the dwarf bean which were a freebie promotional packet of seeds but provided a good crop from a relatively small space. They will definitely be making an appearance again next year along with the leeks, carrots and beetroot.

One lesson learned the hard way this year was to properly protect cabbages from butterflies – much as I like to see them, I’d rather eat my own cabbages than feed them to the pigs. Needless to say, there are already plans to try some theories for removable netting covers for the new raised beds.


Our new fruit trees (3 apple, 1 plum and 1 pear) should be arriving any day now but for the first year or so while they get established we will be removing any fruit that forms. I’m happy to make sure of a better future harvest in future years and encourage its energy into growth rather than expect fruit in the first year.

All indications seem to be that they should survive in the North Pennines especially as the chosen spot is fairly well sheltered but still sunny (on a good day). It’s likely that any failures are much more likely to be down to my inexperience  but preparations are well in hand including tree guards and stakes.

Another fruit adventure is some soft fruit bushes which are due for delivery shortly – 2 each of blackcurrant, redcurrant and blueberry. That seemed a good variety of plants to try but, if space permits, we can always get more of those that do well over the next few years.

Other ideas…

We have already signed up for the installation of solar PV panels although for our situation these will be ground mounted in a field rather than on the roof. Although there is still the small matter of planning permission to get we’re reliably told that this has not been a problem on previous installations by the same company.

With such a wide range of ideas and options running around my head, it’s sometimes important to step back and keep focussed on the main issues. However in my “spare time” I can dream up even more schemes with varying levels of realism for such things as a holiday let conversion, biomass heating system, main house refurbishment, tree planting, fencing/walling repairs and so much more.

If only there were more hours in the day and an unlimited amount of money in the bank …


Building new vegetable beds

It didn’t take long after moving in for us to realise that having such a large expanse of lawn would be far too time-consuming every week even with the industrial grade petrol mower we bought. We could have just bought a ride-on mower and tackled the problem in that way but I preferred an alternate approach particularly as we had no need for so much lawn.

My approach was that if the grass takes too long to cut and we don’t use that area anyway then it makes sense to use that space for extra vegetable growing space. This is especially relevant as I had very quickly filled up the existing vegetable bed soon after we moved here!

General plan

After considering some different layouts and even briefly considering the idea of a parterre with fancy box hedging, I soon realised that this would involve almost as much work as the lawn which defeated some of the object! In the end I decided to be more practical and common sense prevailed – the final layout I devised was this:


Final veg bed layout
Final veg bed layout

Materials so far

Some lengths of 6″ x 2″ timber from the local timber merchants

Some 2 ft long, 2″ x 2″ corner posts to hold the beds together.

Unwanted cardboard boxes left over from the move

A few “dumpy” bags of compost (but I won’t recommend buy that again due to the poor quality)

Progress so far

This was never going to be a rush project as I only expected to use these for the first time next spring. However by the time I had some of them in place and filled with compost/soil it seemed a shame to waste the growing space.

The initial layout was an exercise in careful measuring and placing stakes. A layer of cardboard covered with grass cuttings and compost hopefully kills off the existing growth and acts as a good mulch base. This allowed me to visualise some of the layout before cutting any boards to length incase I decided the sizes weren’t working for me.

Step 1 - Cardboard, grass cuttings and compost
Step 1 – Cardboard, grass cuttings and compost

At first this didn’t look too promising to my untrained eye but after adding the boards around the edges including some old sleepers from elsewhere in the garden the first few came together quite nicely.

Step 2 - Edge boards and top soil
Step 2 – Edge boards and top soil

A Work In Progress

There are now 4 of the 7 raised beds in place and I couldn’t resist the temptation to plant something.

I’ve not used green manure before so I planted two beds with different varieties to try that out. Also a late sowing of carrots, onions and beetroot seemed like a good idea at the time but the weather has since become a lot more autumnal so I don’t expect much from that.

While waiting to see what if anything will germinate, I covered half of that bed with a clear plastic tunnel and the other half with some bubble wrap. It would have been interesting to see if there was a difference in the results between the two materials.

Unfortunately after I removed the covering temporarily on a day when the weather had picked up a bit, the chickens discovered the joys of scratching and dust bathing in the loose soil when I wasn’t looking.

I don’t expect much to survive now other than the few rows which I covered over again with the plastic cloche but you never know! The green manure may never recover but I can always try that next year.

Partially protected carrots, onions, beetroot
Partially protected carrots, onions, beetroot

Luckily I learnt my lesson from this episode and the next batch of sowing – garlic and overwintering onion sets – were planted last weekend behind a temporary 4 ft high fence

Garlic and onion behind a security fence
Garlic and onion behind a security fence

Some hard lessons learned but once I get the rest of the raised beds finished with luck all this effort will pay off in the spring when I can get much more in the ground that I did this year!

More eggs than at Easter!

From time to time our fridge fills up with eggs even though we only have 3 chickens and there are 3 grown adults in our house. Some days we open the fridge door and there are eggs wedged in almost every available space – in fact it’s amazing they don’t fall out!

I know we could probably pass some on to No.1 or No.2 daughter and they would be glad of some free food but somehow that doesn’t always happen. It might be a lack of egg cartons or just simple forgetfulness but the result is 3 more eggs in the morning and the fridge soon fills up.

Obviously we must be more efficient in our egg handouts I guess and we  should  palm them off  give some to work colleagues, friends and neighbours as well. However my first reaction when this glut appears is to wonder what other options are available for cooking with eggs.

On many occasions we have an excess of eggs simply because we’re bored with scrambled, poached or boiled!

This led me to  and an interesting recipe for Ham And Egg Cobbler which looks very quick and simple to prepare although perhaps a little plain. I like “quick and simple” as much as the next person but when I attempt this recipe I will probably be adding some extra ingredients to add “interest”.

Ideally I would like to work with something from the garden but I’m not sure that carrots would go with this and I don’t have time to wait for the leeks to get bigger. However I could try an early harvest of some garlic and even an onion perhaps to liven things up.

Some other good general links I found were the Good Food Channel from UKTV and the BBC Good Food site but  something I’ve definitely noted for future reference is this Scotch Egg recipe from The Guardian website.

Please let me know about any other good egg recipe ideas and watch this space…