Wednesday, 28 December 2011

December 2011

As I intimated in my last post-far too long ago-this was our last arable harvest. Since then, the sale of outlying farmland that had been gestating for several months has come to completion, and we are in a more comfortable situation. Necessarily, we are in a kind of limbo:we will put the rest of the farm on the Market in the Spring, and shall be looking for a suitable location for the cattle and nursery. In the meantime, we’ve put all the plants in the setting out beds and cold frames under cover, with the intention that they don’t get waterlogged then frozen as per last year. Everytime the wind blows round the nursery there is a ghostly flapping of polythene, reminiscent of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. A dry autumn and mild:the grass is still just about growing, and I only brought the youngstock finally inside on Christmas Eve. The cows came in a bit earlier after I brought them back from Riverhall at the end of October, as I didn’t want the bull to come across some of his daughters. I had a brief attack of nostalgia for autumn cultivations, especially as it was one of the most open seasons that I can remember, but I had more than enough to do round the yard and in the nursery.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Didactic fairs

Last week was the end of an era:we harvested our last crop of wheat here at Little Omenden. Nothing special, and it confirms our decision not to carry on with arable on this heavy unforgiving soil. I’ve come to the conclusion that arable production is not really sustainable on the Weald, at least this part, with the inexorable rise in the cost of fuel, spray and fertiliser. Perhaps I’m getting older, but I can’t get as excited about growing wheat as I did back in the glory days of the eighties and nineties. I know we are doing the right thing, but it was still sad when I pulled the last trailer out of the field.
We’ve sold plants at two fairs over the last two weekends: Sissinghurst Smallholdings Fair, and Kent Wildlife Trust’s Fair at their Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve.Both were events designed to inform and entertain, Sissinghurst in a suitably highminded tone, with speakers including Hugh Fearnley-Whittinstall and Mark Diacono from River Cottage. We couldn’t hear all of Hugh’s talk from where we had our stall, but afterwards he complimented us on our chubby thyme. I did wander off on the first day to listen to Sarah Raven interview Mark who spoke on the possibilities of perennial fruit and vegetable crops-grow the stuff that you want , rather than the stuff you can buy from chaps who do the job properly. We are reviewing our farm policy, and I can see a place for some adventurous and experimental cropping. Watch this space…
In the name of localism, Paul revisited his Kentish Ale Tent, with cracking beer from Kentish microbreweries. I was especially pleased with Ebony Moon from Tonbridge Brewery.
The Sevenoaks event was probably more fun, having treats such as a dogshow, folk music and Morris Dancing, and more things for children Also, it was well supported by local environmental groups: I spoke to the local bumblebee expert,who will be able to advise us on putting together a bee friendly application towards the Higher Level of Environmental Stewardship. In both cases, the events were ably supported by volunteers. Plant sales were steady, but not overwhelming!
Our long awaited trip to Sussex Prairies is on the 4th. of September:their publicity has been excellent, and we are looking forward to taking our plants there, and meeting old friends from that part of the world.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Sissinghurst Smallholding Fair

Next weekend will see us at the second Smallholding Fair at Sissinghurst Gardens. Last year was marred by the weather:we’re hoping that the weather will settle down by then, especially as there’s still hay to be made, and wheat to combine. We hope to be busy with our stand, but are looking forward to hear the original posh smallholder, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, address the assembled throng. I understand that the “climate change farmer” Mark Diocono will also be at the fair: a brave man, planting olives and other exotic crops commercially,but we need innovators. Apparently there will be a good selection of livestock for the public to look at: I hope the micro-pigs won’t be making a return visit.These were disturbing, and we heard a number of negative comments over the weekend last year.
We are very excited, not to mention nervous, to say that we have been asked to be a guest nursery at Sissinghurst for a couple of weeks this month. Our plants will be available at the plant shop after the fair.
We’ve managed to make about 18 acres of hay between the showers-our new ley was very productive, though the fields in stewardship were thin. At least, we’ve more in the barn so far than we made all last year.

It's yellow daisy time again: Silphium perfoliatum.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Bees and Beastliness

Not enough for a hay cut, but enough for these chaps.
After a dry early spring, we have been treated to a damp summer: a dripping June has merged into a drenched July. The grass has grown, but haymaking days have been few and far between-we missed the main window as we were busy with the nursery. I was hoping to get the Pinnocks cleared in June, as being a new ley,the regrowth would have been good for the cattle.The cows seem to be thriving on the arable reversion-full of wild clover. I moved the youngstock onto some stewardship grass at Riverhall: not enough to mow, but plenty for them.
Seemingly every sale we have attended has been wet-the Horsmonden farmers market the Friday before last was bleak to say the least, and yesterday’s country fair at Wadhurst was wet, cold and windy. Needless to say, the sun broke through once we all packed up and went home. A pity, as the organisers had done a wonderful job, and received much support from the village. Well organised, and well advertised.
At a Hardy Plant Society sale at Marle Place we set up our table alongside a thick hedge on a baking hot Sunday, only to have a swarm of bees arise from the hives on the other side. They quickly coalesced into a cluster high up in a tree behind us, before flying over our table and away into the woods. Eerie.
On a rare day out, we drove over to West Dean Gardens in West Sussex to meet Lucy and visit MedFest, a celebration of the Mediterranean under leaden English skies. We always make a point of touring the Victorian walled gardens which are inspirational.
West Dean Gardens

Thursday, 2 June 2011

A peat free apocalypse

There seems to be a grand debate on the use of peat in horticulture in the press and on gardening blogs.The general consensus, at least on the more excitable wing, is that users of peat are the spawn of Satan. I don’t have strong views, though I accept that it is a finite resource, and more importantly, acts as a carbon sink.
When we started the nursery about five years ago we decided, wherever possible, to avoid using peat-or most pesticides. Consequently, we have used various types of peat free compost: “consumer” green waste compost, coir and currently a mix of topsoil and peatfree. The consumer product started well, but became very variable, so we moved onto a coir based product. This performed better, but again was variable, and water holding characteristics were challenging. The demise of our suppliers earlier this year prompted us to investigate the topsoil route. A well respected local firm is able to mix to our spec, and deliver in dumpy bags. So far, we are very pleased with the product, and the plants look well. However, the elderly ladies tend to find our pots “a bit heavy”! We do use a John Innes seed compost, which does contain peat.
On Sunday, we are taking our plants up the road to Biddenden Vineyards, who are holding a Kentish produce event in aid of Kent Air Ambulance . Entrance is free-come and enjoy Kent’s finest and marvel at the helicopter.
The much heralded rain at the weekend was derisory-what fell was burnt up by the confounded wind:selling plants was most unpleasant. Grass growth is negligible, and the wheat is really suffering. The cattle look well, but the future is bleak, to say the least.

Baptisia australis

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Time off for (good) behaviour

After a long run of plant fairs and sales, we had a free weekend in the middle of May, allowing us to catch up with things and to have a day out. Back in March, we went to Alfriston, to look at the Clergy House, and have lunch at the Cricketer’s Arms in Berwick. On Saturday, we retraced our steps to the Cricketers, and thence to Charleston Farmhouse in Firle, with its long association with the Bloomsbury set. I hadn’t actually realised that it wasn’t Virginia Woolf’s house, but that of her sister and her extended family. Being of a conventional nature, one rather admires the chaotic yet highminded lifestyle.
A hot afternoon, we were kindly guided to a shady parking space in the old farmyard in honour of the dogs, who joined us on a wander up towards Firle Beacon through fine Sussex farmland. Back at the farmhouse, it was Festival time: a marquee full of polite applause as some literary figure opined sagely. Tea was taken in a wildish orchard, overlooked by a redbrick sphinx peering out of a bush.The garden was delightful, a blue riot rapidly reaching its peak. Some interesting plants, including a small mauve allium, and an electric blue anemone that I didn’t recognise. Big bold clumps of plants with the dignity of long tenure.
We enjoyed our tour round the house:the decoration, startling at first, tied the building to its time and inhabitants :so different to the lives and tastes of middle class opinion.European and outward looking, yet, in its general dottiness, English.
As a counter to all this, I spent half a day in Surrey on a speed awareness course, having fallen foul of a speed camera on the A23 back in the winter.
A full weekend of plant selling ahead:Horsmonden Farmers Market on Friday, a return to High Beeches on Saturday, followed by Finchcocks’ Garden and Jazz Festival on Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday.

The wonderful garden at Charleston.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Castles in Kent

Last weekend was, as is the case in May, spent selling plants in a couple of historic gardens. On Saturday, we were at Saltwood Castle ,supporting the NSPCC plant fair.This is a remarkable and romantic site, very rarely open to the public. Our pitch was on the lawn ,surrounded by ruinous ecclesiastical buildings, all protected by a high flint wall, patrolled by battalions of unearthly peafowl.This, understandably, is a very popular sale, and people were queuing before the start at ten. We sold plenty of plants, despite problems with perishing recyclable bags. Our lovely Siberian Irises and Gladiolus communis ssp Byzantinus were particularly popular and sold out both at Saltwood, and at Godinton on Sunday, which was a quieter day, though still windy. This was run by Plant Heritage, and held on the lawns in front of the jacobean brick mansion house, which is now in the hands of a conservation trust.Set in traditional, peaceful parkland, this house is only a stone’s throw from the grimy metropolis of lovely Ashford.It has much of interest for the gardener:the walled garden is home to a collection of Delphiniums, curated by the Delphinium Society, and the formal gardens were laid out by Sir Reginald Bromfield at the start of the last century. For our sins, we have never ventured inside the House.
Next Friday , we return to Horsmonden Farmers Market:we hope to catch up with old friends. On Saturday, we’ll take some plants to Macmillan Nurses Open Garden at Church Farm Oast in Sissinghurst, before we load up to go to the Lullingstone Castle Plant Fair on Sunday.
The little rain we had last Friday freshened things up, but the round of watering has begun again. The grass for the cattle appreciated it, but it really wasn’t enough. I’m planning to move the Sussex youngstock up the road to some fields that are in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.We cannot use fertiliser or spray on these, and after about eight years, we are seeing an increase in the range of plant species. Most excitingly, I’ve seen spotted orchids, and am looking for Green Winged Orchids, as they are in the area, but I’ve not (yet) seen them on this farm. Quite apart from their innate beauty, wild flowers are part of the “ food chain”, and provide a habitat that benefits insects and birds.
When we first started the nursery, we were living in our cottage, and had our poly tunnel in the field. To level the site, I imported a lorry load of sub base.When we moved to the farmhouse, the tunnel came with us, but the stone remained.Now, 4 years on, we are planning a second tunnel, so I’ve brought back and spread two trailer loads of stone to level the site. During my quieter moments, I hope to dig the post holes, concrete the sockets, and gradually put up the tunnel. We’ll have to enlist some help to build the doors and put the skin on.We will be looking to increase ventilation by means of removable side panels.

Another iris picture!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Plant fairs back in Kent

Plant sales back in Kent
After a hectic bank holiday weekend in Surrey and West Sussex-the Plant Heritage Fair at Denbies, and a stall at High Beeches Gardens,we are back home to recharge batteries and to catch up with work on the farm and nursery. Next Saturday, we will be at the NSPCC plant fair at Saltwood Castle, near Hythe.We visited this sale a couple of years ago as customers:set in the romantic surroundings of this medieval castle , we are really looking forward to taking our plants there. On Sunday, we’ll be nearer home at Godinton House,near Ashford for the Kent Plant Heritage Fair.
At all the events we’ve attended,talk has been dominated by the dry spring and the speed at which plants are coming into flower.Our bluebells are almost over in the woods, and many of our garden plants are showing signs of stress.I walked the fields that we’d shut up for hay this morning: some are so dry that I can’t see us getting more than one round bale per acre off them. The grass is beginning to flower:even if we get some rain in May I fear it will be too late for the grass to bulk up satisfactorily.The cattle are finding enough to eat now, at least.

The photo is of one of the unidentified Siberian Irises that seem to love our garden.I tend to prefer them to the bearded iris, as they have a longer period of interest-I like the narrow strap leaves, the flowers and the dried stems and seed heads that last into autumn and winter.We bought a named variety at Denbies-Perry’s blue, a lovely pale blue that will be a contrast to the rich dark blues and purples of our existing plants

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Denbies and High Beeches

Happy Easter! Glorious weather, more like Ascension Day, really. Next Sunday, Mayday, we’ll be at a Plant Heritage Fair at Denbies Wine Estate, near Dorking in Surrey. This will be our first sale outside Kent or East Sussex, but is on home turf, as Elizabeth was living nearby when we first met, and has strong family links there. On Bank Holiday Monday, we will be at High Beeches Gardens , near Handcross in West Sussex. We’ve not visited these gardens before, and I’ll be very interested in looking at their wildflower meadow-I hope to be inspired in my planning of the Higher Level Environmental Stewardship application.
Farm work is slightly behind, due to the tractor failing to start. After much investigation on the part of myself and our neighbours, the van den Boomens, we traced the problem to loose connections on the starter and solenoid. Easily rectified.

This is the midday shade in our north facing dry bed-well dry today! Tellima grandiflora, Solomon’s Seal, various hellibores, a lovely euphorbia, Galium odoratum and Maianthemum racemosum, which we are growing, because it doesn’t seem to fall prey to the sawfly. It’s scented , too!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

April showers?

Our outing to Sissinghurst Plant fair was successful-we sold a goodly number of plants, and met some old friends. To date, we have had 1 millimetre of rain this month, and we are worried about possible drought restrictions in the coming weeks. The grass is growing, but slowly, and hay cuts are again looking to be thin. Not using nitrogen on our grassland makes us prone to worry about a dry spring. On the other hand, it is a pleasure to be able to work outside in shirtsleeves and leather boots.
We both heard the cuckoo today (19th. April). I read somewhere that their numbers are decreasing: certainly , they were conspicuous by their silence last year. One reason given was the decline in insect numbers, both here and in Africa.In an attempt to safeguard our insects, I sent dung samples to be analysed to identify the worms afflicting our youngstock. We generally use a pour-on product for ease of application, but I want to avoid this scatter gun approach. One problem with the pour-ons is that the active ingredient can in certain circumstances harm the beetles that eat the manure.This in
turn harms bats and perhaps cuckoos.

The photo is a detail of the elderly Prunus amenogawa by the front hedge. It has lost the typical columnar shape as a result of almost dying in the dry summers of the mid seventies, but has been improved by my removal of a large sucker that was taller than the original tree.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Sissinghurst Castle Plant Fair-Friday 15th.April.

On Friday 15th we will be at the Sissinghurst Castle Plant Fair, on the Green in front of the Castle. On a warm day, a very pleasant spot under the whispering poplar trees. Yesterday we spent the afternoon in the walled garden at Belmont on the North Downs, with the Kent Group of the Hardy Plants Society. The public didn’t really throng through the gates, but a steady stream enjoyed the varied plants available. There are certainly worse ways of spending a sunny Sunday afternoon! As well as selling a reasonable number of plants, we bought a couple of interesting violets-V.soraria ‘Alice Witter’ and ‘Rubra’ from the neighbouring stall: Forget Me Not Plants from Sussex.
The bluebells are flowering well, especially in the Ash Poles that were coppiced about 15 years ago. The wonderful, indescribable (and non photographable!) blue haze is occasionally accented by the somewhat carnal flowerspikes of the early purple orchids that seem to be increasing in number. Sitting in a ditch,sorting out an electric fence, I was delighted to see and hear a Willow Tit (OK, it could have been a Marsh Tit!),singing an incredibly liquid song in the branches of a hornbeam, only a few feet from my head.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Green at last

Light levels are up, ground temperature is supposed to be in double figures, and the grass is finally growing.The cows are out fulltime now, though the youngsters are still in, waiting for the outlying grass to bulk up.I’m pretty certain I saw a swallow yesterday, and the buzzards are still about.
We had an enjoyable day selling at Smallhythe last weekend-part of the Kent Big Day Out promotion, and we will be at a Hardy Plants Society fair at Belmont near Faversham on Sunday 10th April from 2-5.
Elizabeth is cracking on with the nursery work, and hopes to start the bulk of seeds next week. We don’t start too early, as we have no heat in the polytunnel.
We recently renewed our Entry Level Stewardship Agreement, and received confirmation from Natural England this week.Next year,our ten year Countryside Stewardship Agreement matures, and we are giving thought as to what follows. I hope that we will be able to join the Higher Level Scheme, as some of our arable reversion fields are showing a reasonable level of floristic interest.
Sometimes I feel as if I’m a Maoist ,as we seem to be in a state of permanent revolution.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Some call it hibernation

Sometimes, I wish we could, especially on those dull grey raw days that seem so frequent this past few months. However, we have not been asleep, nor indeed idle . Thinking about opening to the public, sooner or later, we’ve had days of sorting out the yard-much more to do, but at least we’ve started.The two IBCs that have been cluttering the place up have been plumbed into the gutters of the cattle yards, and will catch water when we get some rain.
I took down the old vegetable raised beds, and replaced them with four laying out beds next to the polytunnel:they are now full,and Elizabeth hasn’t started the spring divisions. I can see that when the Countryside Stewardship Agreement finishes in Autumn 2012, we will have to expand into the House Field.We’ve also got a brand new sturdy potting table in the potting shed, looking out over the front garden.
Plant sales started early this year: a cold but profitable day at the Snowdrop and Hellebore Extravaganza at Goodnestone about a month ago.
Farmwise, I’ve reapplied to the Entry Level Scheme, for a second five year spell, and have spent my time eking out the cattle feed-hay cuts were very light last year.The recent dry weather has meant that I’ve rolled most of the grass near the yard, and the cows have been able to run in and out for the last few weeks.The arable land is still wet under foot-I’ll have to scrimp some cash to buy a bit of fizz for it soon.