Saturday, 11 September 2010

Nostalgia occasioned by fruit

Heritage Day, Apple Day: we were at Smallhythe Place in the byre with our plants. In the adjacent stall Charlotte and her friends were selling apples, nuts, pears and damsons grown in the venerable orchard once tended by the redoubtable Ellen Terry. Throughout the day, we heard a steady refrain from the fruit display: people all had medlars or Millers Seedlings “at home”, and recalled how grandfather could always guess the weight of the cake at the village fete. Despite the rush to modernity, we value traditional things and foods: this is good news for traditional farmers and growers.
We were pleased to sell one of our Dicentra macrocapnos plants, grown from seed this year. This is a hardy herbaceous climber, and we envisage that it will clamber up some suitable shrub or small tree in the garden. Along with other gardeners and plantspeople, we hadn’t seen anything quite like it-I’m becoming more interested in climbers generally, but can see the need to build more furniture for them. Cue desperate swearing.
A week ago we combined our wheat- a moderate crop, but the price is now more realistic. The grass is finally growing, and the cattle are finding more to eat, though we shall be selling the autumn calvers and the store cattle to eke out winter feed and bedding supplies.
Packing up after the day’s entertainments, I devoured a Worcester Pearmain and remembered my grandfather, who would have grown them early in the last century.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Sodden in Sissinghurst

We spent last weekend selling our plants at Sissinghurst Castle’s Smallholder’s Fair. If you follow the intrigues of the National Trust you will know that the “donor family” at Sissinghurst-the Nicholson’s- are much concerned with reconnecting the property with the local community, and re-establishing the estate as a working farm, or at least some kind of aristocratic demesne. This appeals to the nostalgic in me: at one time, most of the great and the good in Kent farming circles learnt their trade studying under the redoubtable Captain Beale, the long term tenant of the Castle.
Part of these plans was the idea of a Smallholder’s fair, sited on and around the new market garden that supplies the restaurant. As with all new events there was perhaps a gap between intention and reality: our impression was that there were not enough real smallholders taking part. We can think of at least three small rural businesses selling produce, fresh or cooked, that would have been excellent examples of what can be done on a small scale, businesses that provide employment and income on the local level.Many stallholders were local, or if travelling from away, were providing material or information pertinent to smallholdings: a few, however, seemed to stretch the bounds of smallholding somewhat.
The two days were marred to a greater or lesser extent by rain-drizzle on Saturday, heavy rain mid day on Sunday.The plants, of course, enjoyed the wet.We don’t believe in gazebos, as they seem to be more trouble than they are worth, so we got damper and damper as the day wore on.
We specially grew a number of varieties that would attract bees and butterflies, thinking that bee keepers would be interested. However non specific perennials were as attractive to the paying public.
Part of the fair was the “Talk Tent” where assorted worthies opined about subjects varying from poultry, cidermaking, cookery and the general place of smallholding and the environment. As we were there to sell plants, we only planned to hear Monty Don’s sermon. Don is a great communicator and enthusiast (in an eighteenth century manner) for the reconnection of food producers to both society and the land and nature. At times, there was a Wordsworthian or almost Blakean sensitivity to his talk, and it felt good that we had someone with this passion batting for us.
More prosaically, speaking to people on the day and since, we got the impression that the event was experimental, and that the public and participants didn’t really know what to expect, but were disappointed when they couldn’t find it.For our part, we would have liked to see more local smallholders and producers on site, together with a larger livestock element-I was pleased to see our friends from the Sussex Cattle Society there-, and some smallholders’ pigs!

Thursday, 5 August 2010


We’ve attended several fairs and plant sales so far this year-some in aweful weather-Smarden and Goodnestone in June, and some in blazing sun, but the one thatI enjoyed the most so far was the Grand Market on the Moor at Hawkhurst,held to celebrate the centenary of the OXO Cube. A pleasant day, weatherwise, the event was well run by local organisations, with support from SEEDA, the local development agency. That will date it, as I gather that SEEDA is to be abolished as part of the war on waste.
People were interested in, and complimentary about our plants, and we didn’t have to take too many home at the end of the day.
Researching the pub on the Moor, I discovered that OXO was developed by the Gunther family, who lived in what is now St Ronan’s School, which used to be a very superior prep school. It probably still is, but we aren’t allowed to be superior nowdays. One sad bit of information, which rather tempered my enjoyment of the day, was that two of the Gunther sons died in the Great War. However, I seem to remember that there was a farming family of Gunthers in the area when I was growing up.
Calving has proceeded without too much trauma, but, in common with the rest of the southeast, our farm is very dry, and it has been a struggle to find enough keep for the cattle, and hay cuts have been extremely low.
In a similar note, the nursery and garden have needed a lot of watering to keep growth on schedule, and Elizabeth is worried about the number of divisions she will be able to take. The Bee friendly plants that we sowed in the spring are progressing:most of them seem useful and saleable.

Thursday, 13 May 2010


Finally, I’ve heard the cuckoo: the nightingale has been singing for a good fortnight, but I suppose that the gowk is like me, and can’t stand that bloody northeast wind that has been blighting this part of Kent for what seems like weeks.
May is a busy time for plant sales and events, but we’ve never been so cold as this year: the absolute limit was at Charing country fair , on the race course under the Downs. The wind rushed over the Downs, bearing sleet, hail and all else in front of it. The Bank holiday crowds stayed at home in front of the fire, or ventured out briefly, and then went home, and didn’t buy any plants. Other sales were slightly warmer, perhaps our favourite was the Horder Centre Spring Fair at Crowborough where we were looked after royally, and met regular plant lovers.
The prolonged dry and cold spell has slowed grass growth down-the cattle have to work hard to find enough to eat. Calves are making good use of the shelter provided by our new hedges. Nursery stock, too, is suffering, and we are still find what has succumbed to the winter frost.
There has been much comment in the blogosphere about the reliability of peat free compost. As a fairly new enterprise we decided that we wouldn’t use peat-for both environmental concerns, and because we are lucky enough to sell plants at a National Trust property. We have had problems with peat free, especially that based on municipal waste: I’d probably use it on the farm if it was free, but we’ve had reasonable results with a coir based product, and we were complimented on our plants at a fair last week by a fellow nurserywoman who’d noticed our spanking new blackboard extolling the virtues of coir. Fame at last!

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Thistle spudding

Thistles are always a problem for the conservation minded farmer: when in flower, they’re a goodnectar and pollen source, and I suppose the goldfinches like the down, but most of the time they’re awkward prickly buggers that ruin your grazing and make your hay unpalatable. We’re not allowed to boomspray our arable reversion fields, so the options are to heave the knapsack on your back, hitch up the topper, or remove the humble thistle spud from its lurking place in the back of the toolshed. I top the thistles in our grazing fields, but the Upper Wood field is destined for hay making this year, and our lovely spear thistles will be a mass of down by the time the mower start work in the middle of July.This morning therefore saw me (briefly) attacking the barbed rosettes until the most almighty backache hit me across the shoulders. I must persevere, however, as sticking the blade in and flicking the plant material in the air is most satisfying.
Elizabeth has been back in the polytunnel carrying on with the sowing, having given the plants in the cold frames and setting out beds their first dose of nematodes for slug control.