Spring and summer have come and gone. The garden borders were, and still are, dramatic and glorious. At this point of year many of the summer flowers are spent, rather wind bashed and sad looking and ready for cutting back so that the ornamental grasses can take up the mantle and come into their own for the coming months. But that needs to wait as I’m busy potting up dozens of self-seeded plants that will be grown on, given away or replanted in the spring.
Ive also just finished making some new bug hotels for ladybirds and solitary bees to spend the winter. I caught a fascinating programme about ladybirds from a recent BBC Radio 4’s Living World programme (still available of the BBC Sounds app). As well as the common two-spot and seven-spot ladybird, did you know there are around 40 other species of ladybird living in the UK? And they love eating annoying aphids so are a great friend to gardeners. During the coming winter months many will settle down in window frames as well as bug hotels, keeping warm and dry. You can help to track and monitor our ladybird populations by taking part in the UK Ladybird Survey
Arrival of the Newts!
Our wildlife pond has been the focus of much attention and excitement throughout the year. Not one, not two, but three smooth newts took up residence in the spring. How they got there, we have no idea. Although they are common in the UK, it was still a small miracle of nature. It resulted in several trips to the pond daily, just to see them pop up occasionally for a gulp of air. As happens in the world of newts, around mid-June having hopefully mated and laid their eggs, they left the pond for dry land, probably living amongst the long grass, woodland, hedgerows or piles of rocks placed close to the pond. By now they will most likely be starting their hibernation, having buried themselves under rocks and logs. We can’t wait to see them again in the spring.
Although we haven’t seen any frogs this year, we have had many colourful dragonflies and damselflies whipping around, and the females will now have laid their eggs on the emerging reeds in the pond. Their metamorphosis from a rather ugly nymph to a graceful, sleek and colourful adult dragonfly is extraordinary.
Over in the woodland the trees have had a good growing season and are definitely looking more like small trees than big sticks. The trunks have grown considerably in girth as well as height and despite being in a quite exposed area, most are standing tall. Whitebeam, oak, walnut, wild cherry, willow and field maple are all providing a good habitat for various forms of wildlife.
Our hopes of adding bees to our permaculture were raised this year, having found a local bee keeper willing to locate a couple of his hives with us. Those hopes were later dashed when his swarms were devastatingly wiped out by wasps. We are keeping fingers and toes crossed that next spring he may locate another swarm to bring over. With an increase in pollination when bees are present of some 20-40% supposedly, it will be well worth one of us doing a course in apiculture if that doesn’t work out. I can’t wait to see a row of bees on a lily pad drinking from the pond, apparently a common sight.
One book has had a profound effect on us since reading it earlier this year. Isabella Tree’s wonderful Wilding, is the story of her family’s 3,500 acre estate in West Sussex, called Knepp. Having removed fences and artificial barriers they have given the land over to free-ranging herds of Exmoor ponies, Red Deer, long-horned cattle and Tamworth pigs. The results have been extraordinary. The spent and barren heavy weald clay is now fertile and full of worms. Many species have returned or appeared for the first time, some of which were considered extinct or at least on the red list. These include the Purple Emperor butterfly, turtle doves and nightingales. Truly inspiring and offering hope at a time when our impact on this world and all other species is reaching breaking point. I can’t wait to visit there, hopefully next year.
We plan to follow some of the rewilding principles on our little patch of South Somerset, hopefully creating a haven for wildlife and a stepping stone to other nature reserves and wildlife friendly habitat.
Back at the farm, a massive step forward in production came with the erection of our polytunnel. Providing a much longer growing season, it should make a huge difference to our fruit and vegetable production. Interestingly by the time it was ready to plant out, we had already planted some tomato plants outside, and so we were then able to compare the tomatoes like for like. The polytunnel ones definitely took the biscuit, as it were. As lovely as our outdoor tomatoes are, these are even more tender and juicy and less prone to blight. Importantly, now in November they are still ripening, whereas the outdoor ones were finished weeks ago. Cucumbers also grew in abundance and no visitor could leave the property without a cucumber in their bag (and a few courgettes thrown in for good measure).
[Other than those eaten fresh, most of our tomato crop found its way into our freezer, in the form of a rich and wholesome tomato sauce. So easy to make, just halve the tomatoes and throw into a large roasting tin along with some chopped onion, basil, sliced courgette if you have some to use up, salt, pepper and garlic. Trickle over some olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Slow roast at 180 degrees C for about 45 mins. Then simply use a food processor or hand blender to whizz into a sauce, as smooth as you like. I then pour it into freezer bags, find room in the bursting freezer and they will last through the year until the next crop.]
Central hanging beds contain strawberry plants and their runners have just been potted up, ready for next season. Above them on another hanging shelf, around 20 butternut squashes are curing. Again, with some stored in a basket of straw, and others chopped and frozen, the harvest will last us through to next year.
We have found How to Grow Food in your Polytunnel by Gatter and McKee (available in our online shop) an excellent manual for learning about the best use of the polytunnel, extending the growing season and the opportunities for bringing plants on over the winter.
Over in the hen run our flock had some ups and down during the summer, with a few of our oldies keeling over and going off to that hen run in the sky. Replacing them were five new girls – a Colombian Blacktail, another Black Rock, two Golden Marans and another Speckled Maran. Eggs are now coming thick and fast and we are selling plenty at the farm gate.
They have a very large run, approx. 30x40’ with a weeping willow (which they keep well trimmed) and a willow arbour – grown from whips just pushed into the ground - which provides great shelter from sun and rain and provides lots of lovely willow cuttings which they love to eat as well as more willow whips, that I can then plant out round and about the pond. To make it winter-ready, we take out a scraping of the floor and replace with lots of fresh woodchip mulch, providing a great base which doesn’t get waterlogged. And of course, the girls love to scratch around in it. its a heavy job but one that's well worth doing each year. We also create a hay bale wall, two or three bales high which divides the run and creates a bit of a windbreak. Along with a couple of old tyres full of sand, a long-dead Christmas tree and several large logs they find lots to entertain themselves.
So we are nearly winter-ready. Every hour in these shortened days is valuable with much to do outside before the weather really takes a turn for the worst. However, the freezer is full of produce, red and white onions are plaited and hanging in the barn alongside elephant garlic, potatoes by the sack-load await roasting, baking, steaming or mashing, and freshly pressed apple juice is waiting to be drunk (possibly mulled as the Christmas season approaches). Cider is about to go into production and, of course, every day is a day nearer spring, and for that I cannot wait!.....
Ps. Do have a look at our online shop for some lovely nature inspired gifts, as well as very useful books including How to Grow Food in your Polytunnel and The Fruit Tree Handbook, both of which we find essential reference books.
Pic from top left:
Freshly dug onions for storing; Newt Skywalker; tomato sauce in the making; colourful 4th border completed; sunset over the pond; our first proper crop of apples; holiday homes for solitary bees and ladybirds; butternut squash curing in the polytunnel; our first bottles of Chappels Farm apple juice.