Archive for the ‘biodiversity’ Category

The Gardening Year

29 November, 2012

Way back in March in that glorious warm sunny week it all looked so promising for the year ahead. We got some early carrots sown then which was just as well because some of the later sowings produced nothing even with two attempts. Then it all changed to a mostly cold wet summer and party time for slugs and snails.

Snails in the Physic Garden

The plums had plenty blossom but as it turned colder and wetter there weren’t many bees about for good pollination . Whereas last year we harvested full crates this time it was merely a handful. Apples were looking the same but in the end we did manage to fill about three quarters of the cold store.

Plum in Blossom

With all the wet weather this Summer it was very rarely dry enough to do any hoeing so there was a lot of hand weeding and it was a struggle to keep on top of this. Weeding some of the early crops was not a fun task in cold weather as you can see from below as a colleague weeds parsnips in full winter gear. Our chef @suzi4goodfood used the thinnings from the parsnips and carrots for some tasty new season meals.

Weeding parsnips in freezing early May

Despite the difficulty of getting carrots to germinate we did get a very good crop with the variety chantenay red cored being a great success. We also grew some wonderfully wacky shaped carrots of white satin.

Chantenay Red Cored

White Satin

With the incessant rain all the root crops did well with good beetroot , carrots , parsnips and celeriac. It actually shows how much water these need to bulk them up to a good size. The only really failure this year was onions which obviously don’t like the cold and wet and some of them just sat there all season making very little growth and resulting in a very poor harvest. Early potatoes Amorosa (red) and Charlotte were again a great success and went down well at the conference centre.

Amorosa and Charlotte

I wasn’t sure we would get any pumpkins this year as even under fleece in the cold the plants struggled to get going but in the end we got some monsters.

Lovely Pumpkins

Pumpkins on storage shelves

We supply some of the herbs for Neal’s Yard Remedies and keeping the Calendula clean required another hand weeding effort but it was well worth it. We managed to send the flower heads most weeks through the summer somehow finding dry spells for harvesting. Picking the flowers was usually a team effort with help from the office staff who were glad to get outside for an hour.

Weeding Calendula

Calendula in the Neals Yard plot

Calendula harvest

At the conference centre once a month there is now a Shhhh secret supper club which has been a huge hit and are usually sold out within a few days of the tickets going on sale. See website for details  The idea had been to host them at various venues throughout the farm but this proved impossible with the poor weather . However in May we did manage a night outside in the Physic garden by the conference centre starting in the amphitheatre.

In the Amphitheatre

Another course…

We try to supply all the vegetables and fruit for these events and here is a selection harvested for one of the supper clubs.

Supper club vegetables and fruit

Sprouting seeds continue to go down well and there was plenty of colour to add to the chefs selection.

Giant red mustard , spinach beet , rhubarb , canary yellow and white chard.

Its always interesting to try and grow something new and this year we grew sweet potatoes in the glasshouse border and another first for me was borlotti beans. Its a very exposed site at the walled vegetable garden so growing anything tall is not easy but the beans did reasonably well . The sweet potatoes on the other hand although they grew well we only harvested very small tubers .I think we will leave this one for warmer countries. Until this year I didn’t even know they were a member of the bindweed family and it was interesting asking visitors to the glasshouse what they thought was growing.

Borlotti beans drying in the glasshouse

The farm was eventually given permission to install a small wind turbine which was put up earlier in the year in the paddock below the walled garden . Its nearly always windy here although there have been a few rare occasions when it has stopped and birds settled on the propellers.

Turbine with carrots and parsnips

We have a few chickens up at the farmhouse to provide eggs for the conference centre and I was reminded of ‘Chicken Run’ when Russell the rooster tried to make a break for it hitching a ride in the back of our electric buggy.

Russell hatches another escape plan

During the summer a Pyromaniac hit our compost bins.

Burning compost bins

He was trying to hide but we caught him.

You can’t hide in there

In October the Berkshire Countryside Volunteers came to help for a day which included a lovely lunch at the conference centre. One of their tasks was helping to harvest celeriac for storing .If you would like to Volunteer at Sheepdrove see the contact details at the bottom of this link.

Harvesting Celeriac

Now we are making Christmas wreaths for the shops. Lets hope next year will be easier for growers with lots more sun and a lot warmer.

Time to rest up for the winter

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Winter wildlife on the farm

28 February, 2012

Winter so far has been marked by huge flocks of fieldfares in the hedgerows and woods. As the extra hedgerows planted on the farm in the last fifteen years mature the hawthorn and blackthorn are producing more berries. These are providing a much needed food supply to the beautiful fieldfare, a close relative of the song thrush and mistle thrush. Most of our fieldfares breed in Scandinavia and northern Russia and I was lucky enough to see some in the pine forests of Finland a few years ago. To avoid the harsh winters of the Arctic the birds fly south in Autumn to seek out the milder climates of Britain where there are plentiful berries. The Berkshire Downs support very large numbers of fieldfares and they can add much excitement to a walk along the Ridgeway in winter. We have regularly been seeing flocks of over a hundred this winter on the farm, moving from hedgerow to hedgerow seeking out any remaining berries. If you are responsible for hedgerows or even an isolated hawthorn tree then you can help the fieldfare by not cutting the foliage back every year. The flowers which form the berries only grow on a second year branch so if a hedge is cut every year then few or no berries will be formed.

 

The remarkably mild winter (until February anyway!) meant that the bluebells in our ancient woodlands came up remarkably early and I was able to map their location in January. The plan is to record their distribution each year to see how they respond to our woodland management – we are hoping that they increase! The bluebells love the hazel coppice in our ancient woodland, Nut Wood.

How we hope Nut Wood hazel coppice will look in May, with bluebells everywhere.

Last week Sheepdrove Organic Farm Volunteers planted more hazel trees into the wood, both to help wildlife and to provide a sustainable supply of hazel rods for the gardens and for charcoal making.  The hazel trees can be coppiced every 10 – 15 years, continuing an ancient tradition, and providing a variety of habitats for nesting birds such as warblers. They will then regrow, creating a sustainable product, that can be harvested over and over again for hundreds of years. Our garden team use the hazel rods as pea sticks, supporting our organic runner beans and peas that are used for meals at the Eco Conference Centre. And if the hazel is allowed to grow for longer it provides an excellent material for our charcoal burner (see photos in the SheepdroveGarden blog below). Sheepdrove Organic Farm charcoal is usually available from Sheepdrove Eco Conference Centre, and our shops in Bristol and London although best to check before going specially.

Our charcoal, bagged up and ready to use.

Organic Gardening

18 September, 2011

After such a good start to the year with a warm sunny Spring its been a dull Summer which hasn’t contributed to the growth and development of some crops. Melons after planting both in frames and in the glasshouse sat around for ages before beginning to grow again and we won’t be getting any melons this year. Although the tomato plants grew well fruit has been slow to ripen and taste and texture has been poor(with a flavour reminiscent of cotton wool ) I am informed as I can’t eat them myself due to an allergy. Even regular feeding with comfrey liquid to increase potash doesn’t appear to have improved the quality by much. Many people are saying similar as to the taste of tomatoes this year so lack of sunshine is surely a factor. The only other poor crop this year has been dwarf French beans which in my experience do better in a dryer and warmer summer. Most of the other crops have done well with prolific cucumbers in the polytunnel, good sized onions and some monster beetroots. Other successes in particular were lettuce, plums, strawberries, fennel, carrots and garlic. Runner beans and autumn raspberries have faced constant battering by winds which have done them no favours.The sweetcorn was blown sideways after the severe winds last week and we had to stake all the plants which is a first for me. This was probably planted a little late on our exposed site but its nearly ready now. We have kept the conference centre well supplied with vegetables and any excess has been sent to the Bristol shop.

Vegetable garden in September

Vegetable garden in September

The south facing greenhouses were leaking badly whenever it rained so when it was dry we have been up on the roof sealing with silicone which has improved the situation considerably. The rain blown horizontally by last weeks gales revealed further leaks however where no rain could normally be expected to go requiring another assault on the ridge and hopefully curing the problem for the winter ahead.

We have already sown some Hungarian rye after early potatoes , early lettuce and onions. When the carrots are harvested for storage these beds will also be sown . This is a good cover crop  over winter to prevent nutrient leaching and its deep penetrative roots are good for soil structure. It is also a good weed suppressant and continues to grow in cold weather.

The use of green manures is an important part of organic growing. Two beds were sown with alflalfa in the spring. This is very deep rooting  so again useful for soil structure  and also bringing trace elements to the surface.  This will be overwintered and dug in next Spring after the tops are cut down for composting .

Also grown were Phacelia which has an extensive root system to improve soil structure and with dense foliage for smothering weeds. The blue flowers are very attractive to bees and benficial insects such as hoverflies which eat aphids. Fitting in with the legumes red clover was sown which  is one of the best varieties for fixing nitrogen from the air , weed suppression and improving soil structure. Trefoil will tolerate some shade and is useful for undersowing once crops are established such as sweetcorn. It is good at fixing nitrogen and once the crop is cut down it can be left overwinter to protect the soil. Trefoil was also sown on a small area in the glasshouse which will be dug in before planting up with winter salads. There is one more green manure to sow which is field beans after summer legumes and in parts of the glasshouse and polytunnel after the tomatoes and cucumbers have finished. They germinate well in colder weather and can be sown from September to November.

sweetcorn undersown with trefoil

sweetcorn undersown with trefoil

alfalfa

Alfalfa

phacelia

Phacelia

We have a few chickens up at the farmhouse and the problem of them pecking holes in their own eggs was solved in 3 ways: The placing of golf balls in their nesting boxes acted as a deterrent towards further pecking of rounded objects, a dietary supplement of broken shell solved their calcium craving and Mr Fox made off with the chief protagonists for his dinner! The remaining chickens were penned in behind electric fences and have maintained numbers (18) since the dreadful discovery. They are due to be joined by 20 newcomer hens this week. The Gardening Team have done their best to mentally prepare Russell, the sole cockerel, for their arrival.

The potager at the farmhouse was an abundance of colour throughout the summer. This along with other areas will be available for public appreciation next year through the National Gardens Scheme on 1st July.

potager

Potager in July

The Physic Garden and thyme clock has also excelled in colour and variety

physic garden

Thyme clock and Physic Garden

physic garden

Physic Garden in July

For Neal’s Yard remedies we have harvested chickweed , oats , and elderberries. Last week competition winners from Neal’s Yard spent a day at Sheepdrove and helped with harvesting hawthorn berries. These are used in combination with other herbs to help lowering high blood pressure.

We made more charcoal with the large burner . This is sold at the conference centre and at the shops in London and Bristol. Our lumpwood charcoal gets hot very quickly and saves that time waiting for your barbecue to warm up before you can start cooking.

charcoal burner

Charcoal Burner

wood burning

Wood burning before sealing

Throughout August we spent many early mornings team ragwort pulling in one of the woods which was thick with it. There were thousands of them and, volunteers from the kitchen, farm, garden and office as well as the owners came in at 7.30am come rain or shine to pull up every single plant by hand. With a unique sense of teamwork, humour, belonging and passion for what Sheepdrove stands for, a labourious task was made light. After an hour or two’s ragwort tugging, there is nothing better than the succulent bacon and sausage rolls received gratefully from the chef at the Conference Centre

ragwort pulling

Team ragwort pulling

If you have managed to follow this to the end you now reach the funny moments to report. One colleague while strimming around the farmhouse managed to lose his car keys from his pocket. Although not funny at the time in retrospect we can laugh about it. We found someone who had a metal detector and after 2.5 hours searching finally found his keys and he was able to get home that evening.

For those of you that remember the Basil Fawlty episode when he threatened his car we had similar incident here. Another colleague disappeared and came back with the following:

basil fawlty moment

I'm going to give you a damn good thrashing

The same person also had her hair adhered securely to a yellow sticky trap causing an impromptu hair cut as the only safe way of release.

So autumn is here and the ever-present winds up on this ridge continue and the temperature is beginning to fall overnight.. The spiders have made their way into the greenhouse and the wasps are drunk and dangerous amongst the windfall apples. The mornings can be chilly though the afternoon sun we sometimes see is glorious and there is a beautiful quality of light over Lambourn Valley, rich and with a tint of orange.

Organic Gardening and Poker

8 May, 2011

What a relief to get some rain this weekend. Everything was getting desperate for it. The young trees we planted to create wind breaks for extra bee hives have been suffering the most although we have been watering them regularly from a water bowser. The calendula ( for the bees) was sown after rain was forecast the previous weekend but hopefully now this should all germinate well. All the new planting and direct sowing of vegetables were watered in rotation overnight using a timer and oscillating sprinkler..

Plenty of vegetables are now planted out mostly under fleece and we have been harvesting radish, lettuce and asparagus for a few weeks. The first bed of carrots has germinated but unfortunately I missed the pre-emergence flame weeding as it came up very quickly . The first bed was a mixture of varieties including Chantenay,  Fly Away, Yellowstone, White Satin and Purple Haze. The second bed of Autumn King is now sown. The early Tomatoes , Cucumbers and Peppers planted in the heated glasshouse are thriving.

salad leaves

Clockwise: giant red mustard, endive, mizuna, purslane

Tomatoes

Peppers, Tomatoes and Cucumbers

The Potager and gravel garden are transformed now. We have begun to plant the Potager with  early annuals and vegetables ; cornflower black boy and diadem, poppies black paeony and blackcurrant fizz, nicotiana fragrant cloud , verbena bonariensis , Italian, French and moss curled parsley, Bulls Blood beetroot and a mixture of lettuce.

potager

Potager. Spot the cat.

Gravel Garden

In June we will be running a charcoal making day so we did a trial run in a large oil drum. Including preparation it took about 6hours before it was ready to close up and leave overnight. The quantity of wood put in reduces to about  a fifth but  we had some good charcoal on inspection the next day.

charcoal making

Initial Burning of wood

charcoal making

Partial sealing of drum

charcoal

Charcoal the following day

This week  people involved with Neal’s Yard Remedies came down for a day at Sheepdrove and to help harvesting Nettles (Urtica Dioica), Cleavers (Galium Aparine) and Comfrey(Symphytum Officinale).

Dragana tells us about nettles

nettle harvesting

Harvesting Nettles

Dried nettles are a natural anti-histamine and also have anti-asthmatic properties. For hundreds of years they have been used to treat painful muscles and joints and arthritis. Also used now for urinary problems.

Dried or fresh cleavers is said to have anti-inflammatory , astringent, diaphoretic, stimulant and diuretic properties.

Comfrey has a long history of use to promote the healing of bones and wounds and internal use to treat ailments such as arthritis and ulcers.

Russel the rooster has been getting a little shifty this month and I was kung fu kicked on the leg and a colleague was also attacked.

We have now had two Sheepdrove poker tournaments . The first one was taken down by Cool Hand Luke who unfortunately couldn’t defend his title last week as they are lambing on the farm. This weeks game was a re-buy which was won by Raise Every Hand Suzi. Best hand of the night involved 4 players with 3 all in and two flushes . The Queen high flush was beaten by the Ace high flush and 2 players were knocked out. It was the second time of the night our IT man was beaten by a higher flush which was very unlucky.

poker tournament

May rebuy-tournament. Who has all the chips already?

Jobs for the next month. Planting tomatoes , cucumbers, peppers and aubergines in polytunnel and cold glasshouse.  Sowing winter vegetables. Lots of hoeing and weeding. Ridging up potatoes. Cutting down cow parsley through woodland around farmhouse gardens. Planting later annuals and vegetables in potager and herbs in Physic garden

Tree protection to be trimmed?

16 December, 2010

The Ancient Tree Forum and the Woodland Trust need your support to stop avoidable loss of Ancient Trees and to help protect one of the most important habitats a tree can provide – dead wood.

The Tree Preservation Order (TPO) in England is currently being reviewed and we are concerned about some proposed changes which would reduce, rather than improve, protection and could directly affect beautiful and valuable ancient and veteran trees*.

The Department of Communities and Local Government proposes to continue to allow all dead trees, however valuable, to be felled without consent. There is also a proposal to introduce a similar exception for the removal of dead branches – vital habitats that naturally develop as trees age – on living trees.

Essentially this means that very old, historic and wildlife-rich dead trees and dead branches of living veteran trees could be completely removed, rather than managed for stability.

Please help us prevent such a backward step in tree and habitat protection! The Trust has set up an emergency campaign with the Ancient Tree Forum to feed directly into the public consultation process.

Go straight to the live petition where you can add your own voice to ours**.

PLEASE, find 2 minutes today to feed directly into this consultation and
pass it on to your friends and contacts. This consultation ends 20th December.

In haste,
Neville and Nikki

Neville Fay – chair, Ancient Tree Forum
Nikki Williams – head of campaigning, Woodland Trust

Butterflies in continental decline

10 December, 2010

Grassland butterflies in steep decline across Europe
Drop in 17 species’ populations indicates a catastrophic loss of flower-rich meadows in many European countries.

Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation (UK), said the data from 3,000 sites in 15 countries showed an urgent need for EU funding to support sustainable “high-nature-value farming”.

Flower-rich grassland created by traditional livestock-grazing and hay-making over centuries of human occupation is either being abandoned, overgrazed or ploughed up for intensive farming, particularly in eastern Europe and mountainous regions.
The Guardian (10 December, p.15)

Read about the big butterfly project at Sheepdrove >>>

Wild food crop relatives to be ‘rescued’
Scientists have announced a plan to collect and store the wild plant relatives of essential food crops, including wheat, rice, and potatoes. The project, co-ordinated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, will collect and catalogue seeds from across the globe. The hope is that the wild relatives of food crops will help plant-breeders to “correct for”, not only a changing climate, but plant diseases and loss of viable agricultural land.
BBC News (10 December)

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This news service is provided by the Soil Association press office to keep you up-to-date with the latest news on organic food & farming and other relevant issues.

Butterflies on BBC Berkshire again

23 November, 2010

It’s good to see that we still make the local headlines with our butterfly conservation work. (Newbury Weekly News, Oxfordshire Nature Conservation Forum, LINK to BBC Berkshire story… )

But we need volunteers too – so please come along on Saturday or Monday (or both!) to be part of our campaigns for nature at the farm. Pass the word to anyone you know in the Wantage – Lambourn valley – Hungerford area. Thank you!

 Full event details here…

Soil Association: biodiversity and organic farming

15 November, 2010

An article by Clio Turton…

Unusual things seen at the farm

3 November, 2010

Three unusual or unseasonal things we’ve seen at the farm:

  • a melanistic (dark) Fallow Deer stag
  • a summertime flower, Small Scabious
  • a springtime flower, Cowslip

Click the pictures to enlarge them.

Bats = pesticides

29 October, 2010

“Bats are one of nature’s greatest pesticides… during the 180 days or so that they are out of hibernation, a million little brown bats will eat – and this is a conservative estimate – in the region of 500 tons of insects. If bats die out farmers will have to use so much more pesticides.”

Dr Kunz, a biology professor at Boston University – The Independent – 29 Oct 2010