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

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

A real rollercoaster weekend

Last weekend was the second anniversary of our move and was also probably the most stressful weekend so far. Now that the dust has started to settle and there are plans in place to deal with the various problems I can take stock with a blog update!


After what seems like a very long wait, Friday was the day that our 2 Dexters were finally being delivered. They are both 3 years old and, according to the vet check before departure, they are in calf with one 12 weeks along and the other only 5 weeks along.

Having waited so long and done so much planning ahead of time, it seems that fate decided to mix things up a bit. As new cattle owners we had tried our best to cover all eventualities but hadn’t considered that they would be extremely grumpy after the dramatic events of the day.

Immediately when they were unloaded into their new home they promptly disappeared over a stone wall, through our woods and over another wall into the neighbours fields!

The calm before the storm
The calm before the storm

They somehow ended up in separate fields and apparently unable to see or hear each other which was less than ideal. After much rushing around up and down the neighbours hilly fields over the next 24 hours we eventually had to give up on getting them back together.

First thing on the Saturday morning, I found an unexpected sight around the chicken house but unfortunately she still wasn’t happy enough to stay. Within minutes she’d hopped back over the walls and into the neighbours field again.

An early morning visitor
An early morning visitor

Obviously the best option was to let them calm down in their own time and tackle the problem later. Luckily while checking them on the Sunday morning one of them decided that it was time to head back uphill and find their companion.

In due course some progress was made even though they’re still not in our fields, at least they’re next door. The next job is to get the fencing man in to raise the boundaries of their initial home then we can considered herding them around the corner and back onto our own land.

Suspicious stares
Suspicious stares


On a lighter note and as a distraction from the cattle stress, the veg beds got some long overdue attention. Finally some more seedlings could get planted out into their final growing position and I can clear up some of the cold frame area.

The additional raised bed that was added at the last minute has really helped with my usual problem of planting too many things in pots and trays! The lettuce, dwarf beans and nasturtiums all seem to be getting well established now.

It might be nice to see a little more progress from the peas but I’m happy that they are at least making slow progress. Maybe the experiences with the cows will remind me to be more grateful for the simple pleasures and less demanding overall!

A quick check on the soft fruit and fruit trees also helped to raise the mood on what could otherwise have been a very dispiriting weekend.

There’s always a smile to be had with a picture gallery!


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!

Small time harvesting

It’s gratifying that some harvesting can now take place and some of the early rushed efforts when we first moved in can begin to pay off. There may not be very much of everything but we will happily work our way through whatever we can get.

Everything was planted around the first week of June when we moved in to the new place so after about 10 weeks now it’s not probably not that surprising something has made it this far!

Harvesting beetroot, carrots and lettuce
Harvesting beetroot, carrots and lettuce


The most impressive by taste are the carrots which are the Nantes variety and while not overly large they are a reasonable size.

A few more rows of seeds have been planted at various stages over the last few weeks in the hope of getting a regular supply for a little while longer at least.


The beetroot was also very tasty with a more earthy (but not unpleasant) taste than our usual shop bought ones. Some  have been boiled for use with salad but last weekend I also tried roasting them (with some carrots) and they were delicious.

A second batch of seeds have been planted but I’m not sure that they are doing quite so well. Perhaps another row or two should be sown in the very near future just in case.


Unfortunately the lettuce suffers a little in comparison because it’s “just some green leaves”. However that would be unfair because there is nothing wrong with the taste which is just like lettuce should be.

Perhaps I’m influenced by the commonly held belief that home-grown produce always tastes so much better than the shop bought equivalent. I’m not sure that applies to Little Gem lettuces though…


One bit of bad news though is that the potatoes have been a huge disappointment and will probably not yield anything much. Due to the timing of our house move, they were left chitting in trays for 3 or 4 months which obviously didn’t give them the best start in life.

There’s always next year though so I’ll try again and keep my fingers crossed next year.

Slow and steady progress with the vegetables

Main vegetable growing area
Main vegetable growing area

There are a couple of areas that have obviously been set aside for vegetables in the past The main veg bed must have previously been a set of raised beds but now the framing has gone so I decided to level off the soil and convert it back into a single bed divided by paths.

As can be seen in the picture, the existing rhubarb (at the back) has been brought back into line with the huge flowers removed and many of the older, chunkier leaves taken off. this will be followed by a good mulching so hopefully in future this will continue to be productive.

I’ve decided to keep our original rhubarb in the pots where I planted them earlier this year. Maybe I’ll move them early next year perhaps but they probably need to get established where they are this year.

While on a recent trip to buy some machinery (a heavy duty strimmer), we popped into a nearby garden centre and I couldn’t resist getting a couple of trays of cabbage seedlings – one labelled as January King and the other Ruby Red I think.

Maybe 2 trays of 12 plants will prove to be too many though as they are now taking up much more space than I had planned to use for cabbages! Hopefully I can squeeze in a catch crop before they get too big as I need somewhere to plant out the lettuce seedlings that are coming on so well.

The peas and beetroot seeds at the back are only just starting to show signs of growth but I’m quite happy with that as the seeds have only been in for 2 weeks!

Existing Raised Beds

In an adjacent area there are 4 raised beds left by the previous owners which I have retained but as we’ve not been here long I have no specific plan for them.

Original raised beds
Original raised beds to be kept

On the first weekend we got here I planted some onion, carrots and beetroot but I deliberately left a little space for the moment so I can plant some more seeds once the first batch get going.

These beds also had some existing strawberry plants which are  a new thing for me. In the past I haven’t been bothered about soft fruit but now I’ve got a lot more space I’m starting to think about setting aside an area and investing in a fruit cage or similar. Something for the future I think as there is more than enough to be getting with right now.

Hopefully all I need is to maybe put down a little straw to keep the fruit off the damp soil and then maybe some sort of netting over the top to keep out the birds.

Despite those plans, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for getting fruit from these plants as the wall around this area seems to be populated with field mice. I’ve seen a couple of them but they are hard to spot – I’m sure they’ll be hungry for strawberries at some point.

Chicken Shacks

The chicken shack village is made up a number of “inherited” buildings from the previous owners (in the foreground) which are towering over the low rise chicken house we brought with us when we moved here (just visible near the back).

Chicken shack village
Chicken shack village

There is a main chicken house for the rooster (now known as John) and his ten lady friends – in the centre of the picture – and a couple of storage sheds on the left. One of these has a run attached which is currently home to a broody hen who has been sitting on 7 eggs for a week or two – it was eight eggs when we first got here but we think a stoat must have paid them a visit perhaps?

This is all situated between the paddocks at the back so the hens are not as close to the house as we were used to but now we have a rooster as well this is not such a bad thing in my opinion!

Luckily the two sets of chickens have settled into a truce where each set ignores the other apart from the occasional ruffling of feathers if there is food is involved. If anything I think it helps that our 3 hybrid hens are larger than the existing 10 hens which goes some way to compensate for the greater numbers should any disagreements arise.

Early signs are encouraging

The rhubarb crowns that I planted in pots earlier  are beginning to show signs of life although the fact that I originally planted one on its side probably didn’t help.

Stockbridge Arrow
Stockbridge Arrow is the first to show

My excuse is that it wasn’t easy to figure out which way was “up” when I received the crowns through the post.

Luckily I had my doubts within a few days of the originally planting them and it was a quick thing to fix with hopefully no adverse effects on the growth and future cropping!

Although i planted both varieties in matching pots with the same compost, it’s the Stockbridge Arrow variety which is looking the best. Perhaps this is the result of using bubble wrap over that pot instead of the horticultural fleece which covered the pot with the Champagne variety?

Champagne rhubarb
Champagne rhubarb is not so promising (…yet)

These pictures really highlight the difference and if I wasn’t such an optimist I might have had thoughts of giving up on the Champagne variety.

However it’s still very early days and I’ve never grown rhubarb before so it makes more sense to keep an eye on it and let nature do what it does best.

They can be easily transported with us when we move house and I have no other use for those pots at the moment!

The cheap lettuce seeds I bought in the sales that were planted only last week are already showing promise which encouraged me to plant some more vegetable seeds this weekend. This even included some beetroot and peas in the garden veg beds which had been covered for a few weeks in preparation.

The cloches went straight back on again afterwards as well because the weather is unlikely to be in my favour just yet! I’m also choosing to ignore the fact that with any luck our house move will take place before these reach a suitable point for harvesting – the new owners can treat them as a house-warming present though.

I hope I don’t regret that in the future when I have too many plants and nowhere to put them. I can always give them away I suppose so watch this space in the coming weeks as there maybe a vegetable plant give away!

Promising signs from the lettuce seeds
Promising signs from the lettuce seeds

Just a few seeds planted

It was going to be a matter of principle for me this year to follow the general advice and wait patiently for the right time to start planting. I have read so many articles and books emphasising that it is better to wait one more week than to plant too early because it won’t affect the results too badly and  planting too soon can be a big mistake.

At first this wasn’t too hard to do especially when we had a couple of spells with a few days of  snow and some very low temperatures overnight. More recently it has been getting harder especially as I’m very aware that March is rapidly approaching – I happily choose to ignore the fact that I live in the North East, UK where spring comes a little later than most!

I had been doing so well but I eventually gave in to the temptation and opened some seed packets yesterday which I had bought over the last few weeks. We have  had a few consecutive days of relatively good weather (for the time of year) plus I had prepared some seed trays which have been “warming up” in the house for the last few weeks.

This was only a very small sowing just to ease me in so only 1 tray has been used and no more than 10 of anything was planted. This first batch includes:

  • Onions from seed as I’ve only grown them from sets before
  • Beetroot because I’ve never tried growing that before
  • Squash because I’ve never tried it before (and I bought the seeds in a sale!)
  • Lettuce just because the seeds were cheap and I didn’t want to risk any other seeds yet

There’s not much to show for the effort yet of course but I’ve included a picture anyway and I feel more like spring is on the way at last.. (just until we get the Easter snow of course!)

First sowing of 2013
First sowing of 2013