The right stuff

It turns out that rhubarb is actually pretty strong stuff.

Recently while my back was turned on a business trip all the leaves from one of our plants – the Champagne variety – were stripped and the stalks were eaten. I’m not naming names but as I was away on business at the time I like to think that I’m in the clear.

On my return I was concerned that this excessive stripping of the rhubarb would have killed off the plant. After all, how can a plant photosynthesise if there aren’t any leaves? Or so I thought at the time…

It turns out that I was wrong and rhubarb is a bit of a fighter – who would have thought it?

I gave the pot a top up of compost, a good watering and added a netting cover to keep the chickens from getting at it while I was doing all that.

Now there are signs of new shoots breaking through and I feel like I may have overreacted when I first spotted the apparently empty pot. It’s almost like spring all over again …

Champagne rhubarb recovering
Champagne rhubarb recovering

Rhubarb – a minor success story

After my efforts back in February with forcing rhubarb it is very pleasing to report that both varieties have yielded a small crop.

As both these plants are only just into their second year I didn’t want to push my luck but I did want to get some to try so that we will know what to expect in the future.

The Champagne variety was the first to reach to top of the covering pot so that got eaten first, mostly in the form of Rhubarb Scones. The Stockbridge Arrow variety wasn’t too far behind though and luckily the covering pot helped to protect it when we received a light dusting of snow recently.

Forcing Stockbridge Arrow rhubarb
Forcing Stockbridge Arrow rhubarb

I’ll leave the plants uncovered now and give a layer of mulch around the top of the pots to give them some more nutrients. Eventually they will be planted out into a dedicated bed along with the existing rhubarb plant which has been brought under control ready for later in the spring.

I think my remaining rhubarb worry now is whether to work on improving the rhubarb scone recipe or perhaps I should have a go at making rhubarb crumble? Either way it’s a delicious choice to be faced with!

Forcing rhubarb and first seeds sown

Rhubarb Forcing

Both rhubarb varieties seem to be doing well – the Stockbridge Arrow is lagging slightly behind the Champagne but that may help to spread out the (limited) harvest. I don’t want to force these excessively in case the plants suffer as a result so I won’t be picking too much from each plant.

I’ve never forced rhubarb before so I used a couple of spare plant pots as covers on the new growth but in future I may go for something taller. Luckily the pots have worked very well so far this year but as the new growth develops there is not enough space so I will soon be faced with a choice – harvest them as shorter stems or find something taller so they can develop a little more height.

As I’m impatient to see whether this rhubarb tastes any better, my current preference is to pick them sooner rather than later!

Champagne Rhubarb
Champagne Rhubarb


Stockbridge Arrow Rhubarb
Stockbridge Arrow Rhubarb

First seeds sown

Last weekend I decided that I had waited long enough and it was time to sow some of the vegetable seeds indoors. Nothing too delicate yet because there will be a few weeks yet before I can be certain of the weather improving.

This year I’m using bags of a dedicated seed compost for seed sowing and for this first batch I carefully sieved it when filling the trays or tubes. I doubt that the sieving is really necessary but when I sow more in 2-3 weeks time perhaps I’ll skip the sieving just to see what difference that makes (if any).

I had planned to put all the covered seed trays on to window sills in the living room and kitchen but apparently this approach does not meet with full approval from my better half. Luckily I eventually realised that the loft room would be perfectly suitable for the early stages as it gets most of the heat from the house plus the sky lights should provide a decent amount of light.

Just a few standard vegetable varieties have been sown so far (leeks, carrots and red/green cabbage) but if I can get these underway successfully now then I should have some space and time for the more interesting varieties.

Once the weather warms up a bit more, it will be interesting to see how much success I can get with things like sweetcorn and courgettes (which I haven’t tried before)  and  also whether I have any luck with my second attempt at squash and parsnips when I can plant them at the right time of the year.

Raised Beds

This bout of seed sowing also finally prompted some action on building the last raised bed (for this year at least). The original plan was for something slightly more contrived but as the work progressed the plans changed and the completed set of 5 raised beds should be more than enough for now

The path edging needs to be put down and I’m still not sure what to use for the paths but perhaps the easy option would be to use wood chip for now as we have lots of leftover small branches from the trees that came down. If that doesn’t work it can always be used for mulch elsewhere and the paths covered with slate chips or similar instead.

Raised bed construction
Raised bed construction

Early signs of growth

The rhubarb that I planted in pots before we moved last year has overwintered safely in a corner of a barn. This probably wasn’t essential but for our first winter in the North Pennines I wasn’t sure what to expect!

Both the Stockbridge Arrow variety and the Champagne variety are looking quite healthy considering the neglect of the last few months. Once I saw that there are already some signs of life I thought I’d try gently forcing them this year.

Forcing is not something I’ve tried before and these were only planted into the pots last spring so I don’t want to push them too hard. On the other hand I want to see how it goes while they are still in pots because I plan to put these plants into an old vegetable bed next year.

Stockbridge Arrow rhubarb
Stockbridge Arrow rhubarb


Forcing rhubarb - Champagne variety
Forcing rhubarb – Champagne variety

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 …


Rhubarb relocation needed perhaps?

The two rhubarb crowns I bought and planted in pots at the start of the year are looking really good now so I thought it’s a good time to post a general update on their progress.

They had to go into pots at the time because we knew we would eventually move house even though we hadn’t actually sold at that point. We knew it was inevitable though and that was the easiest way to bring them with us.

At first I wasn’t sure that they were both going to make it because after a few months only the Stockbridge Arrow had shown any decent growth. The Champagne variety was more of a disappointment to say the least with no signs of life for a couple of months but I held my nerve and eventually they both started to come good.

Now I think I need to make plans for planting them out somewhere in the garden because the pots were never intended to be their permanent home. They are fairly thirsty and easily dry out in the pots with those large leaves keeping the rain off.

I also had a brief scare when they almost went into reverse at one point but I think they just needed some more nutrients as they had exhausted the supply in the pots! They are fairly large pots but it seems that rhubarb can be greedy and I need to keep an eye on this in future.

Stockbridge Arrow and Champagne rhubarb
Stockbridge Arrow and Champagne rhubarb

So this is how they look now and they don’t seem to have suffered at all in the move from the seaside to our new place in the North Pennines. There has been no harvesting for this first year as instructed by every reputable rhubarb source. Next year they may not be so lucky though as I’m looking forward to trying some and I’m keen to compare the taste of the two varieties.

I just need to find the right time to move them from the pots to a longer term home but I have no idea when that might be!

Time flies, carrot flies and cabbage white butterflies

The recent period of rain has been very welcome and luckily we’ve not had quite as much here in the North Pennines as some other areas of the UK. The time is flying past and given all these excellent growing conditions I knew it was probably time for another general vegetable update

Watching  the rainwater running out of the gutters and disappearing down the drains makes me want to add more water butts in a few places. On the other hand, I think we can probably expect  to have higher average rainfall here than at our old house near the coast so perhaps we won’t need them quite as much? Time will tell …

Existing raised beds

Existing raised beds
Existing raised beds

The existing raised beds with a few onions, carrots and beetroot are still going well. These were all planted at the start of June within a day or two of moving in.

We have already harvested a few small “baby” beetroots which tasted very nice with a not unpleasant “earthy” undertone (even though we washed/cooked them).

Another couple of short rows of beetroot have now been planted in the empty space which is just visible at the back.

These are already starting to show signs of growth so I’m definitely a convert to the idea of soaking beetroot seeds overnight before planting them.

The few carrots here are only just at the “baby” stage now and although a few have been sampled I hope to leave them in place a little longer. It would be good to get our first full sized carrot from the garden and in the meantime another short row of carrot seeds has been planted elsewhere for the future.

Around these carrots I sowed some onion seed in the hope that this would discourage carrot fly – not that I’ve seen any evidence of this. Perhaps the raised beds in a separate raised area have fooled the carrot flies because I think they don’t fly very high off the ground.

This is my first time growing onions from seed and they are doing remarkably well. I tried onion sets last year but I felt that was not quite as much fun – I prefer planting seeds instead of a smaller version of the finished article because seeds give a greater sense of achievement at harvest time.

It will obviously be a little while yet before we can consider trying these onions but they are developing well.  There are a few more onion seeds left so I think they will be planted towards the end of August to try overwintering them (if I can find the space).

The long veg bed

This is mostly devoted to cabbages and leeks – not because we’re big fans of those but because I bought too many seedlings for each and can’t bear to throw any of them away.

Cabbages and leeks
Cabbages and leeks

As usual a combination of eagerness to plant leeks and underestimating the size of cabbages has meant that some leeks are now being swamped by the expanding cabbages. I’m hoping that the leeks planted between the cabbages will put on enough growth that they can be used first before they get totally overwhelmed.

The handful of pea seeds which came up are at the back and doing their best to climb up their supports. There are even a few flowers starting to form so I may get a small saucer of peas this year if I’m lucky!

This weekend will probably involve some detailed examination of the cabbage plants.  I’ve seen a few cabbage white butterflies around the garden so it must be time to take action.

The “Old House” rhubarb

The two pots of rhubarb which were planted into pots at the old house before we moved are doing really well again. There was a period of a few weeks recently when they appeared to stop growing despite good weather, careful attention, watering and such like.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that the plants just needed more nutrition having exhausted the supply in the pots. A quick sprinkle of some Growmore plus a little extra compost to mix it in with and they soon burst into life again.

Rhubarb in pots
Rhubarb in pots

I’m not sure if I’m imaging things but I think this photo shows  the difference in leaf shapes quite nicely with the Stockbridge Arrow in the foreground having a more pronounce “arrow” shape to the leaves.

Seedling progress

Although it might be a little late, I recently planted some parsnip seeds on the basis that we really like parsnip. Hopefully they’ll develop well but not too quickly as I will need to find some space to plant them out once something else has been harvested

Parsnip seedlings
Parsnip seedlings

The free packet of Dwarf bean seeds have also been planted but I used some large troughs which we had brought with us. Perhaps not the best situation for them but I ran out of space very quickly and still wanted to give them a try this year. I can’t resist a freebie although I’m not sure that I’ll eat many of them – we’ll see how they develop.

Dwarf beans in troughs
Dwarf beans in troughs

Future plans

There is a common thread running through this post about a lack of growing space so it may not be long before some of the extensive and under-utilised lawn is replaced with raised beds. This is especially relevant through the spring and summer as I’d rather spend my time growing produce than cutting the grass every week.

Some sturdy rabbit defences will be needed as they seem to be getting bolder each week but I’m hoping that razor wire, sentry towers and armed guards will not be needed.

Perhaps there is even space for a small orchard if the sheltered location I have in mind will counteract our altitude here (1000ft above sea level). If I’m lucky there will be enough shelter from trees and low stone walls to give some fruit trees a chance?

The time has just flown by!

We’re still at the stage of keep track of how long we’ve been here although I’m sure that will change eventually. For now though, we’re doing the counting in weeks rather than months and it’s flying by!

This is the sixth week now and there is certainly never a dull moment…


Freshly cut hay
Freshly cut hay

The 2 meadows out the front have been cut by a neighbouring farmer and the current good weather will be really helpful.

I’m mentally taking notes about how this is done even though I don’t expect to be doing it myself at any point in the near future. It’s just good to watch and learn.

As this picture shows it has only just been cut so it will need turning a few times.

While I was out taking this photo of the meadow I realised it was probably time to post a progress update for the vegetables (more on this below).

Vegetable bed plans

All available veg bed space has now been used for something and there are plans to extend the current area for next year.

One idea is to convert up to 1/3 of the very large lawn area into a more productive space. The original thinking was for something like an orchard area with some raised veg beds alongside but a grander term for this might be “forest garden” if you favour the permaculture approach.

Either way I foresee the strong possibility of a continuous battle against rabbit incursions so I will definitely need to include defences in the overall plan!

Veg bed photo gallery

Having taken a range of photos of the vegetable progress, it seems a good excuse to try out the gallery facility that is provided within the WordPress system I use. My first impressions are that it does an excellent job and it’s certainly easy for me to set up.

However the experience will perhaps be different for people just reading this and viewing the pictures so let me know in the comments what you think.

Just click on any of the thumbnail images below and the gallery will load to let you see the large versions of the photos…


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.

Rhubarb progress

After checking up on the older posts I realised that a rhubarb update was long overdue and now I’ve also finally remembered to take some decent pictures to accompany this.

It’s hard to believe that it is now 2 months since the first signs of growth and my initial concerns that one variety was taking too long to get going. It’s even more odd to think that it’s been almost 4 months since the crowns were first delivered but time has been a little skewed for me lately with all the other concerns around moving house.

The most promising is still the Stockbridge Arrow variety with some good growth plus strong looking stems and leaves. I must confess that I look longing at the stems every now and then but I will follow the advice to leave this alone for at least this year. It’s not easy to resist the temptation but I’m banking on a better harvest in future as a result

Rhubarb - Stockbridge Arrow
Rhubarb – Stockbridge Arrow

Despite my initial concern at the comparatively slow start, the other variety – Champagne – is now looking promising too. I’m not sure whether this is just a later harvesting variety so I need to investigate that further. However the difference between the varieties could be simply down to the use of bubble wrap on the Stockbridge Arrow provided better insulation that the fairly basic garden fleece that was used for the Champagne variety.

Rhubarb - Champagne
Rhubarb – Champagne

My only concern now is whether the plants and pots will survive the best efforts of the removal men when the time comes – I’m not sure that their insurance specifically covers rhubarb damage but I’ll certainly check beforehand!