Saturday, 18 February 2017

Growing Sweet Potatoes

Growing Sweet Potatoes

Something that I had not thought about before was the Sweet Potato. I had no idea what you needed to do in order to grow them until I read Mary's Veggie Garden post about the subject. Her post said:

 "I placed this potato into the glass jar 3/1/2008.  A week later I spotted its first root and by 3/17 it had several 1/4″ roots. Around 4/12 the first slip slowed as a tiny bump near the top."

It looked like it would be a process that needed months and I started mid January, pleased with myself that I had started on  time. Of course I miss read the date, the month is first, and so I've started at least 2 months early!

The process looked straight forward, firstly put a Sweet Potato, up the right way, in a glass of water. After a few weeks when you have roots, place it into a pot of compost so that it doesn't rot, then wait for the shoots, called slips, to start growing.

Secondly, when the slips are big enough cut them off and place them in a glass of water, when they start rooting, pot them up. 

Lastly, after the chance of frost has gone plant out.
1st Step
2nd step

It all looked easy but the first step of putting the potato in a glass up the right way caused a bit of a problem. Which end is the top? My potato was rather pointed at both ends. The end where the stem had been removed looked identical to the end where the end of the root had been cut.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe sorted it out. 

No problems so far, until the roots started. A few days after the roots came the first slip. In fact loads of roots and loads of slips started, all at the bottom! There were about 10 slips starting right at the very bottom and one at the top.

You'll notice that the 1st step photo shows the potato up the other way compared to the 2nd step photo. This is because I forgot to take photos when I started and I have started a 2nd potato off. (Actually I also started a 3rd).
3rd step
I wasn't sure that all the little slips at the bottom (which was really the top) would grow and survive as they were about to be under the compost for the 2nd stage but I did have one slip at the top so I continued just expecting 1 slip to work.

A few weeks later that one slip had grown to 8 or 10 inches so I placed it into a glass of water (step 3) and am waiting for roots to start. The slip grew very fast.

After removing the slip I left the potato in its pot hoping another slip or several slips would now grow.

We went away for a few days and when I returned was surprised to see that not only a few other slips had started but most of the slips that started at the bottom had now grown through the compost.

Rather then the odd one or 2 slips that I had expected, (because it was upside down), and Mary's post explained that depending on how she grew them she got between 3 and 9 slips, I have so far got 21 slips showing and I don't think that all of the ones that started at the bottom have broken through the compost yet.

This photo doesn't do it justice and it's hard to see all the slips but there are 20 slips left on this potato.

So far I've learnt that it doesn't seem to matter about being up the correct way (although being up the right way may be better) but the bigger problem is going to be keeping them warm enough until the end of the frosts considering how quick they are growing and it's only mid February. These slips are going to be my experiment but I have a feeling that I may have to start again mid March although I'm sure that 1 or 2 can go into the Poly Tunnel and maybe another 2 can go into large pots in the green house but there just won't be room for the others to be nurtured for another 3 months.

If you are thinking about growing Sweet Potato I would suggest you don't start until Mid March and give Mary's post using the link above a good read.

For now I will let the slips get to about 8 inches, remove them, and then see just how many slips can be started from one potato.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Seeds are germinating

Seeds are germinating

Throughout January I have been sowing seeds in the heated greenhouse, which is my earliest start to the year. Unlike most years I'm a lot more organised and have written down not only the sowing date but also the germination date and the month that they should be harvested. I'm rather hoping it will enable me to do concessional sowing, which has been a failure every year I've tried because we forget or simply don't get around to it on time.

This year has the added incentive of being able to sell the plants, which I did last year, but none were ready before June and I didn't have nearly enough when they were ready.

Bringing things on so early has meant not only a heated green house was needed (the daytime temp has been upto 22 deg C, nighttime well above freezing) but it became apparent that the plants would need more light. 

I bought a 45 watt (225 LED) lamp which has been on for 16 hours a day. The lamp unit produces mainly read and blue light which is said to produce stronger plants and helps them (in the case of tomatoes) produce more flowers. Whether it helps that much as far as better stronger plants is concerned isn't really here nor there really as the difference is likely to be small. What is of concern is whether one lamp is enough to get the plants to March. By March there is enough light because that's when I normally start and things grow well enough.

The lamp helps about a dozen seed trays and as things germinate I have been moving the trays under the light.

The light has made a big difference. Not with the plants, but with the night time look of the garden and I'm waiting for someone to come and check I'm not growing anything I shouldn't be :)

225 Led's
The light is very directional, really only illuminates directly beneath the unit but it does give the green house an odd glow!  

Today was a very foggy misty day when I checked the light levels using an app on the phone. The accuracy doesn't matter too much as I was comparing the outside light levels to that of the Poly Tunnel and Green House (which has it's light blocked by the bubble wrap).

Outside in the fog, light levels were reading around 4,000 Lux, The Poly Tunnel read 2,500 and the  Greenhouse under bubble wrap was about 1,700. The plants under the light read 4,000 so the light unit has doubled the available light. Indoors on a West facing window sill where some other seeds are germinating read 1,200 Lux. Since the light unit is about 18 inches above the seed trays the plants will get much more light as they grow toward the light.
Led unit at night

I think there is enough light produced by the unit to help the Tomatoes, but I think I'll need another one for the Aubergines and Peppers.

Lettuces, Kale, Broad Beans, Mustard, Mizuna, Peas etc can all go without extra light as they will go into the Poly tunnel once big enough. 

I'll be keeping a tray of tomatoes, Peppers and Aubergines out of this extra light just to see what the difference is, but there's only another 6 weeks to go before natural light levels increase massively anyway.

The seeds that have germinated so far are:
  • Dwarf and broad beans
  • Cauliflower All Year Round
  • Sweet Millions Tomato
  • Mizuna
  • Red and Black Kale
  • Wong Bok
  • Mustard
  • Money Maker Tomato
  • Lollo Rossa, Oak Leaf and Iceberg Lettuce
  • About 10 others that haven't germinated yet
4 Trays of bean germinated last week and so another 2 trays have been sown today and just in case things fail I'll be resowing some more of everything next week, and the week after. Once we get into March I'll then do everything again as I normally do.

Including fruit bush cuttings, Onions, Garlic, Leeks and all the difference seeds as well as last years nut trees in pots, Rhubarb in pots I've already got 35 different plants to sell on the market as well as for ourselves.

I'm hoping that I can turn the market stall into an "any plant that is edible" and "fruit and veg" stall. I've even managed to repot most of last years, and the year before's, nut trees so I'm very pleased with how organised I've been. You never know, this year we may actually earn some money :)

Saturday, 7 January 2017

New year, New Start

New year, New Start

I've got most of the seeds ordered, some have already arrived, and unlike most years I'm on top of things. The greenhouse has been sectioned off with a quarter of it being covered in bubble wrap and a heater placed under the shelving.

For once I'm hoping to bring things on earlier, making a real effort, with Leeks, some Tomatoes, Spring Onions, Broad Beans, Mizuna and Cauliflower sown. 

Greenhouse Jan 2017
Today was quite warm with the Polytunnel getting up to 10.3 deg C and within 10 minutes the heater had taken the greenhouse to about 12 deg C. I'm only having the 135 Watt heater on for the night hours so it'll be interesting what the temp is compared to the polytunnel tomorrow morning. The heating should only cost under 2p per hour (on for 14 hours) and once germinated I'll only have it on when the temperature drops below 7 deg C and hopefully that'll be enough. I'm going to read the light levels under the bubble wrap tomorrow and see if a light will be needed once they have all germinated. It's all a bit of an experiment but if I can bring things on a month or 6 weeks earlier I'm hoping I'll be able to sell plants and seedlings earlier than last year on the market. I didn't really have any plants to sell until June last year.

Friday, 30 December 2016

2016 - still moving forward

2016 - still moving forward

Each year I like to look back and compare the past to see if we are still moving in the right direction. Our lifestyle is all about living a simpler and more healthy life, less reliant on money and avoiding the rat race. 

One measure of this is the place we spend most time, the garden, our little field. Having started out with a wet, flat, and blank field, the question is are we moving toward a place that gives us plenty of fruit, veg and a nice environment to just live in. Pictures and numbers seem to show this best and since 2015 I have been recording all the food that we have grown. Since we only moved in in December 2012 we didn't manage to grow much in 2013 and the trees were all too young to produce anything. 2014 saw a lot more being grown but it wasn't until 2015 that all the beds were dug and trees started to produce anything worth weighing.

December is probably the worst month for looking at photos of the field but it is a good time to compare with what we started with.

December 2008
Click on Photos to see larger versions.

December 2015

December 2016

2015 saw us harvest nearly 500kg of food. 2016 has seen this increase to over 800kg with a lot of it being sold and although it is a lot of food it is still nowhere near enough to be anywhere near self sufficient, not that being self sufficient is a goal, but it does show just how much hard work and how much food is required for a family of 5. 

What we have learnt, for our situation at least, is being 100% organic and not using chemicals is simply not possible. Most of the potatoes, parsnips, beans were destroyed by slugs. Carrots and beetroot were destroyed by moles. The bean problem we recovered from after using slug pellets but it was too late for the others. Several hundred Kilograms of food were lost, or simply not grown. Potatoes and parsnip would have accounted for a large amount of food that could have been spread over months. We won't be suffering from slugs again, it is simply a waste of many hours work and loss of valuable food.

Sprouts, Cabbage, Broccoli and Cauliflower were also a total loss due to caterpillars. The loss of sprouts and cabbage was the worst since they are easily stored either on the plant or a freezer but this can be rectified without chemicals. Our netting failed. 

Had we avoided the big failures it would have made a huge difference in the amount of food available and this years total would have been around 1200kgs. Next years goal is to get around this total. This year we managed a 79% increase in harvested food, next year we need the same increase. This is easily possible and as the fruit trees get older I can see 1300 to 1500kg will be possible within a few years.

A bonus this year was the number of eggs we had from the 20 chickens. Enough to eat, make cakes and sell but unfortunately the chickens stopped laying somewhere around August when they started to moult. By the time they got their feathers back the number of hours daylight started to drop and they never started to lay again. Spending money feeding unproductive chickens opened up a new opportunity - meat. Slaughtering birds was a difficult job but one that we over came. By the time they were killed the meat had become tough, only good for casseroles cooked for a long time but the freezer has 8kg of chicken breast meat. This has shown that next year we can have chickens for eggs, then eat them before spending money feeding them through the autumn and winter. The chickens stopping laying also highlighted the fact that they may have become stressed with the heat of the summer, then by the mud as things got wetter. I have dozens of nut trees and more willow to plant around their pen to keep wind off, provide more shade and give them more of a woodland area. All these extra trees will hopefully keep more areas drier in the future as well as provide food for us in the form of nuts.

The field is filling up, becoming more of a garden but is still a wildlife garden. Plenty of messy untidy areas which is good for wildlife.

July 2013

July 2014

July 2015

July 2016

The summer time photos from each year certainly show the field filling up and trees growing. The Willow is particularly noticeable.

This year also saw us create our own jobs. We now have a market stall selling plants, fruit and veg and home made crafts. We also sell home made crafts that friends have made. This year was a test, we started late, in June, and didn't have much to sell but as the summer progressed and we had more crafts, jams and veg the sales went up but by the time we had a full market stall the weather had changed, summer had gone and the footfall in the market had plummeted. We have to stand there each week to keep our place on the market but also to keep regular customers coming back but there is very little money to be made when it is cold. All the earnings will need to come from late spring to late summer but next year we will start with a full stall to take better advantage of the busy period.

Living as we do, in a modern society, is a struggle, more of a fight, but we are moving forward. The struggles are for another post because society and the way it is set up is designed to stop our way of life and make every one conform and be consumers... 

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Slaughtering Chickens - not a nice subject. Don't view if squeamish!

Slaughtering Chickens - not a nice subject

You can't be self sufficient in a modern world, not without space and money, but we're well on our way to at least partly doing that. Most of of vegetables, some fruit, most of our eggs and now some of our meat.

Some jobs in the garden are enjoyable, some just plain tedious, others are hard work and some jobs just spring up from nowhere and are down right horrible. Killing chickens has just become one of those jobs.

The idea was simple enough, feed chickens, get eggs, repeat and the jobs a good one. Chickens stop laying when it's cold and dark, ours stopped laying early due to a moult and became expensive, then came winter. What do you do? Keep them for 5 months or so not laying and then carry on in the spring? The chicken area has become muddy, it's not nice, a lot of heavy chickens pacing around all day in mud and the grass goes. Just feeding them is a horrible job, drinking containers get muddy, their house gets muddy and it's impossible to get rid of 20 chickens mid winter.

Bird flu comes along, it's in the news, and even small chicken holders are expected to keep chickens indoors for 30 days at least. That just isn't possible, our chicken house is just for them to sleep in. If they all sat still happily there is enough room but with big birds constantly pecking each other trying to get out it seems cruel.

Killing 20 chickens is a lot of meat, and a lot of work. Disposal is also a problem and the amount of hours needed doesn't exist in our life just to drop everything and process in quantity like this. Plucking a bird is messy with feathers going everywhere, time consuming and these birds are tough meat. They are too old for normal chicken meat.

There is a compromise, as there always is, don't pluck them, and simply take the breast meat and freeze it.

I've done a few chickens like this over the last month but the act of killing them is hard, especially as a dead chicken carries on flapping away for a few minutes and the inexperienced person doesn't know if they have done it right. I've had a chat with a few experienced people....

You have to deal with it in a very matter of fact way, quickly and very organised.

Step 1. Feed the birds. Their heads go down and they are easy to approach and pick up.
Step 2. Pick one up, put it under the arm.
Step 3. Walk out of the pen, close the gate and walk to a killing area somewhere else in the garden.
Step 4. As you walk grab the neck of the calm bird and break it's neck by pulling and twisting. Keep the pressure on. There is no movement. Quickly and firmly with no real thought.
Step 5. In the killing / bloody area, put birds neck on a chopping block and with one blow take it's head off while holding it's feet. It should already be dead before the axe falls. Doing this demonstrates the bird is dead and now any flapping of the wings and legs is purely muscle spasms. Mentally it helps.
Step 6. Hold the bird firmly on the ground until it stops flapping. 1 or 2 minutes. 
Step 7. Walk away or get another bird and repeat. Leave them for 10 minutes and get you're head into the right place ready for the next step.
Step 8. Take the bird to a table and pluck just down the breast bone. 30 second job to expose the skin.
Step 9. Sharpe knife and cut the skin down the breast bone, pull skin away to expose the breast.
Step 10. Follow breast bone with knife and remove breast meat without damaging the organs. 2 minutes and both breasts are off.
Step 11. Bird in bin bag, then in bin.
Step 12. Take breast meat and rinse with cold water to remove any dirt or feathers.
Step 13. Put in a plastic bag and freeze.
Step 14. Clean all surfaces.

Life is real, this is where chicken meat comes, from and although this meat will be a bit tough from old birds compared to shop bought it isn't that tough and will soften up very nicely if cooked slowly in a pot or sliced up in small chucks. It's good value for money, doesn't waste all those birds and gets over a bird flu problem. Not to mention no need to feed unproductive birds. 

Dead chickens. Head removed.

Remove feathers to see and access breast.

2 birds, 4 breasts.

I know where my meat has come from!

A lot of people like the idea of having chickens for eggs and possibly for meat but the reality of having animals as part of a life style is that you need a way of dealing with them. You have to deal with death and any problems that arise such as bird flu and you need to just get on with it quickly.

Clearly by the look of the meat I'm no expert but that's another mile stone reached and practice will make perfect. So far 5 birds done in a couple of hours for 2.3kg of chicken breasts.

The last few chickens I will remove legs and perhaps pluck a whole bird to get much more meat but that involves more skills to be learnt.

What would you do with 20 chickens no one wants in winter? Keep them as pets?

Next spring we'll get a new flock and I think repeat the process, have the eggs until they stop laying, then have the meat. At £5 a bird plus feed the eggs pay for the birds and feed and the meat then turns a profit allowing us to get the chicken area re-grassed and turned back into a nice home for the next lot. 

Buying your chicken from Tescos or KFC is all well and good but is it good meat? Were the birds looked after and were they killed by someone who cared for them? How were they treated and what chemicals were they pumped full of? Living in a town or city and getting all your food prepacked in a very expensive way really does hide the reality of real food and where it comes from. Doing everything yourself teaches you an awful lot very very quickly and I think teaches you to appreciate your food more. 

Our birds were well looked after and died calmly while having a cuddle under my arm and they will be appreciated on the table.

Anyone else interested in keeping chickens for eggs and meat and doesn't know how or what to do just ask. I'm no expert but I have been there done that.  

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Muntjac wild deer

Muntjac wild deer

We have had the odd bit of shop bought venison before, even road kill, but the other day a friend had been hunting and had 4 wild deer. Normally he sells them to butchers and restaurants but this time he couldn't fit them all in his car in one go and so one was going begging, and fairly cheap. The deer had come from one of our local woods and had been properly gutted in the woods and hung for 2 days.

£30 delivered, although I was all for trying to attach it to the push bike, but he was going my way anyway.

We left it hanging for another couple of days as we tried to find the time to process it.

The first job is to skin it and with the River Cottage Game On DVD to hand we set to it. It was a lot more time consuming than I remember having last done a road kill deer some years ago.  We started early afternoon as a joint effort taking turns to remove the skin until the point came when the wife and kids had to go out leaving me to finish skinning and cutting the animal into quarters.

We made plenty of mistakes, cutting into the meat, but eventually the skin, feet and head were removed.

Almost Skinned
Once in quarters, plus 2 breasts, I had a table full of meat that could now be converted into cuts and sausage meat as well as stock and casserole meat.

The bottom of the photo shows the back legs / rump. The right is the forequarter with neck and legs. The top shows the back and in the middle are the 2 breasts.

The best meat is in the rump but the tender loin and loins looked good.

Having started around 1pm the clock showed 7pm and I still hadn't finished and something became obvious, namely that to make the most of a deer you really need a sausage making machine because the breast, ribs and forequarter and very sinewy and need mincing. We also made a couple of batches of stock.

It's now all in the freezer, although the rump steaks turned out to be mini rump steaks because when boning the meant I was left with a fair few small joints of meat. All in all we ended up with about 10 freezer bags of cuts.

Next job is to locate a sausage maker and buy some pig fat to wrap the joints in before cooking.

An experience! 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

50 Consecutive Days

50 Consecutive Days

Two months ago I embarked on a diet along with extra exercise and today marked the end of the first two months. The Psoriasis is still there, although better and still improving but so far it has been a very well worth while thing to do.

Exactly 1 Stone in weight lost. 14lb. Which is just over 1lb per week.

Perhaps the most demanding and hardest part was the idea of walking at least 6 miles per day. The first week I managed to walk 6 miles every other day but after that yesterday marked 50 consecutive days of walking those 6 miles with today continuing that to become 51 days. The idea seemed hard but the reality has been the opposite. It's been easy to fit 2 hours in, whether it is first thing in the morning, during the day or even in the dark, come rain or shine.

There has been the odd day, at 7am, or when it is raining, when I haven't wanted to go out but it's like over coming anything, it's only a few minutes of not wanting to go but once you get outside that bit has been cracked. Once in a while, when legs are aching, half a mile in, the idea of another 5.5 miles doesn't sound fun but it doesn't take much to force yourself to the 3 mile point and then there is no way of failing as you have to finish.

I was already fairly fit, but pushing yourself harder is made all the easier when your weight is coming down. Not only does it easier as you get fitter week on week but it gets much easier when you weigh less each week, since there is simply less to carry around. It's almost the same a carrying 1 bag less of sugar each week and after 2 months it's the same as not carrying 6 bags of sugar compared to the first week. That's a lot of weight less!

In just 2 months I've lost over 8% of my body weight plus put on leg muscle but reading alsorts of web sites the ideal weight for a normal person of my height is between 110 and 140lb and I started this at 171lb. I can't see myself losing 30lb to get to the top of that range because the amount of exercise I do in normal life means I've probably got more muscle than average but it's clear that there is still more to come off. Perhaps another 7lb.

At the current rate of losing weight there is still another month to go. Will it be possible to go 80 days of consecutively walking 6 miles on top of my normal exercise?

The last 2 months have seen me average 20,000 steps per day on the pedometer, and my best month in the last 2 years before that was an average of 16,000. The average for the rest of the year is between 12,000 and 14,000 steps so the last 2 months have seen a big increase.