Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Preventing rabbits in your garden

One problem you can get if you live in a rural region is the ever present rabbits. They despoil your vegetables and make a mess of your lawn. And they are getting much more common. Although in the 80’s they were well under control, they have been multiplying like – well - rabbits and they can be real trouble in the garden..

The traditional approach to a rabbit problem was decidedly deadly. People used to snare them, or trap them, or shoot them. In the old days people used to go out at twilight, with night scopes, and then stun them with a bright headlight. The Rabbits would stand still making an easy target.
Other approaches were to use ferrets to drive them into nets (this is no longer legal in many parts of the United States).

Of course, you can’t take many of these approaches these days. It is illegal to use snares, and if you do trap them you are legally responsible for killing them instantly, and in a humane way. When you trap them you need to use an approved trap.

Personally, my preferred approach is to try to prevent the rabbits getting into the garden.

There are two main ways you can do this. The first is to get a dog. The smell of a dog will frighten the rabbits away from your garden. This method is more successful than you would think. And you don’t have to kill anything!

The second approach that works is rabbit netting. Now, you can get this commercially. But one thing they don’t always make clear is that you need to dig the netting deeply into the ground. Rabbits, after all, burrow.
This makes putting the rabbit netting up quite an unpleasant experience.

There are other ideas, such as trying to use something like lions poo to frighten them off, or a sonic device, but I think in practice they are more quackery than effective. And so, from a practical perspective, you may end up having to trap the rabbits.

There are no really great solutions to the problem. Unfortunately if not dealt with you will slowly get overrun with rabbits.

I guess the upside is rabbit pie. 

I’m thinking about trying the recipe on although I think that this post has certainly alienated the vegetarian readers of my blog. Ah well. I hope they will forgive me J   

Sunday, 27 March 2011

.Chickens for slug control

Traditionally people have kept chickens for their meat and eggs, as well as using them to convert waste into food and fertilizer for the garden. These days, they are often treated as pets rather than farmyard animals.

We bought out first chickens eight years ago, as point of lay birds. This means that you have slightly older birds that are almost ready to produce eggs. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. You get eggs sooner, and the birds being older are more robust and healthy. You need less experience at breeding, and looking after younger birds.

Probably the biggest disadvantage for the backyard keeper is that the chickens are not that tame, and haven’t had as much training or handling in their youth as you would hope for. While the birds do get tamer, I find that hand reared birds are often more tame.

There is such a wide variety of choices when it comes to chickens. We choose Light Sussex. It is a mixed breed that produces nice eggs, and can also be used for meat. The biggest downside of such a bird is that the breed becomes broody very often. You need to learn how to overcome this problem. Probably the most efficient means was the broody coup,

I think people often think that looking after chickens is quite simple. Well, I don’t agree. While the first stages... making sure they have regular food, water, and medical attention is relatively simple it is like taking care of any other animal. You need to pay attention to them, and become aware of the problems you can have.

Of course, it becomes very complicated when you get to breeding. Suffice to say, if you don’t know what you are doing I suggest seeking advice before breeding chickens. In particular, most people should not keep a rooster in their garden.

When we bought our chickens, we chose electric fencing and a paid chicken coup. It was perhaps the most expensive way to get chickens. These days, I would suggest that you convert a shed into a chicken coup instead. The biggest thing is to get the egg box and perches right, and make sure that the coup is not too large for the birds so they don’t get too cold during the winter.

You can find instructions on how to convert a shed in Seymour’s Self Sufficiency.

Looking after chickens is fairly easy. You will want to use a decent quality layers mash, or layers pellets, and may want to provide a source of grit or calcium in the enclosure. Probably the most common problems are with mites. You are probably advised to clean the coups with Jayes fluid at least twice a year, make sure there are dry dust baths, and probably worm the chickens regularly.

In addition to that, you will also want to buy a red spider mite powder available in livestock supply shops if you get red spider mites in your coup. You need to examine the crevices of the coup regularly to check for them.

Of course, decent hygiene is important, so you need to regularly clean your chicken coup out. This is not an entirely pleasant experience. But it does produce plenty of chicken manure, which can be put on the compost heap once it is rotted down.

Making sure they are tame

The most important thing is to handle the chickens regularly, from a young age. It is important that they learn you are not scary. Otherwise, it becomes quite a challenge to catch them and treat them when they are ill. You don’t want to end up chasing them around the garden!

Using Chickens to eat slugs

You can get the best value out of your chickens by allowing them into your vegetable garden to eat slugs during the winter. While they eat any insects and slugs in their enclosure, they will also be providing a certain amount of goodness to the soil too.

Chickens do eat slugs, insects and snails, and they really enjoy removing these pests from your garden for you!

Locking the Chickens up at night

I generally suggest locking chickens up at night, because they are a temptation to foxes. This is especially true in early spring, when foxes are particularly hungry. In any case you will need to fence your chickens very securely. Probably the best fence is an electric fence, but as long as you have a sturdy, tall fence with chicken wire that has been dug into the ground at least three feet deep, it should protect the chickens.

Some people may think their chickens are safe because they live in a town or city. This is no longer the case.


Chickens produce great eggs, meat, and of course will eat the slugs in your garden so can even save you time. They are well tempered birds, but they do need a lot of looking after. If you want to take care of chickens, I suggest getting a copy of smallholder magazine and finding a poultry course in your area.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Easy soft fruit

Here is a list of the easiest soft fruit I grow in my garden. If you are going to grow fruit and vegetables, I think soft fruit is a great place to start. The fruit is delicious, and will save you a fortune. And, it is not hard to grow them – despite the rumours to the contrary.


Possibly the easiest of the soft fruit varieties that you can grow, blackberry is so vigorous that you can practically cut it to the floor every year and it won’t suffer from it at all. The fruit is plentiful, and there aren’t that many pests that will attack it.

I guess the downside of blackberry is that firstly once ripened it is best picked before it rains, since sometimes the fruits can attract maggots. And secondly that it has very strong thorns that will prickle you when you pick the fruit or prune it.
You can reduce these problems by spending a little money and getting a thorn-less variety. They taste just as good as other varieties of blackberry but are much easier to manage.

Even if you don’t grow them yourself, you can often find them around in hedgerows in the countryside. Fifty years ago people just picked them. These days, it is best to avoid them if they are too near a busy road. But if you can find some in a secluded field they are still delicious.

There are many uses for them, including eating them raw with cream, blackberry and apple crumble, and jams. 

Currents – Red, Black and white

Currents are very easy to grow from cuttings, or you can buy them in the shops. Depending on your proclivities, you may decide to prune them like they tell you in gardening books. Frankly, I don’t bother. A little top dressing with manure every spring, and they provide a plentiful supply. The only difficulty thing is to net them. Otherwise the Birds will gobble them down.


This is half and half. Gooseberries are not difficult to grow, in fact they are very easy... if it weren’t for the fact that they do attract butterlies. A gooseberry bush can be stripped raw in a day or so. So constant vigilance is necessary. For an organic gardener there is not much choice but to pick them off. This is not a pleasant experience.

The gooseberry is delicious when cooked. Personally I don’t like them when raw although many people do. 


This is a rare mixture, similar to Blackberry in many respects. It makes absolutely delicious fruit. I haven’t grown one yet, and the gardening books do describe pruning in detail. I guess if we grew them here, we would dispense with the instructions to a degree.


Raspberry's provide delicious fruit, and they do require a certain amount of effort when planting, because they will be in the same place for many years. If you can give them a nice sunny spot with sandy soil, they will reward you for years without any real hassle at all.

Suggestions for planting and caring

I think soft fruit has a reputation for being difficult because many gardeners look at the descriptions in the gardening books and think they should follow them exactly. And, in many respects, if you do so you will get great results.

If you are like me, you will find yourself not bothering so much with the detailed pruning instructions.

As long as you remember whether the fruit flowers on this years or ext years wood, you are often good to go. In the main all you need to do is keep it tidy. This kind of approach to gardening will not get you the ‘best’ results but will get you good results, without having to spend hundreds of hours fussing over plants.

I guess this is my personal gardening philosophy coming out: if you are not a professional gardener, doing something for money, you can be a little more lazy with your gardening techniques. If you don’t get 100% of the possible fruit... but get enough for delicious treats for the family, that is enough in my opinion.

In general I suggest not planting soft fruit in the same place twice, and making sure to start several fruit patches, because these plants often die off after five to ten years.

The main thing to do is make sure that you net the fruit every year. The easiest way to do this is to get plastic piping, like they use for insulation or for hosepipes, and form a small netting poly-tunnel covering the plants. Alternatively, if you have some time on your hands and a bit of DIY skill, a fruit cage is a good idea. But it will take a bit of ingenuity to construct. We’re planning to build one eventually, but it may take a few years.

Until then, we’ll use our home made poly-tunnel solution.

In general, with all of these fruits you can simply cook them and freeze them, so once you’ve picked them you can enjoy great homemade summer puddings, pies and crumbles almost all year round.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Up the garden path - More Sheep.

Sorry about not posting much today. We have two new lambs, born today, healthy and well. It seems Mr Ram has been naughty. I was suspecting that we would get them this year, because we knew he'd got in without the usual permissions, but... well... two lambs earlier than expected.

Need to put iodine on them, check they are well. From the look of things they are feeding well, and look OK.

The weather today has been fantastic, we are planning to add some more spring bulbs in front of the kitchen window, and the Rhubarb is coming up well. We've noticed Raspberries leaves forming at the bottom of the canes.

It is also getting dark a lot latter than a couple of weeks ago... I think it may even be past the spring equinox. I noticed the neighbor's cats have been reproducing as well... their is another black and white youngster lounging in our garden.

Anyway, I will write again tomorrow... sheep to look after

Monday, 21 March 2011

Search questions

Every now and again someone comes to the blog through a search which I don’t think the site has answered yet, so I thought it might be useful for me to answer a few of the questions they type into Google. Just because I am a nice fellow. Several of the recent ones have been about vegetable gardens.

So here they are
garden paths for vegetable gardens

Here is the thing, with a path; you need to consider the size of the wheelbarrow or lawn mower you are going to use. That is the biggest factor. In our garden we use a simple grass path. You can also use a gravel path.

Basically, as a rule of thumb, when you are starting a garden I suggest non permanent. Once you are sure you have the layout right, you can dig the path, put weed proof membrane down, and secure the edge with wooden planks and stakes. 

Once you have the edge, bark mulch is probably the best topping,

Of course, there are a lot of other ways to do things, and I’ll probably write something more detailed eventually.

raw egg to make tomato plants grow

Not a very good idea. Sure, there will be some nutrients in the egg, but by far the cheapest solution is to use normal compost, and feed the tomato plant with a tomato feed. It will work really well. Plus, a local fox won’t dig your tomato plant up to eat the egg.

time of year for weeding

Yes, it is. In fact, you can weed any time of year, but you shouldn’t go on the soil to dig when it is too wet. Basically, if your foot is covered in mud only weed from the path. You can use a plank to distribute your weight evenly while you are weeding. During spring there is the difficulty it can be hard to know what is weed or what really valuable plant is. So be careful of not weeding self seeded plants that could be valuable. Go for the big weeds.

when to plant tomato plants

The best time to plant tomato is 90 days before you want to harvest them. The other thing to consider is frosts. If you are still experiencing them, or likely to have frosts, you need to keep the tomato plants warmer using fleece or heating pad.

when to start tomato in window box

That’s a pretty neat idea actually. 90 days before you want to harvest is the latest time you should sow them. If you are doing it as a window box, you can easily store them indoors. If I were you I would consider adding something low growing like, say, alpine strawberries, as well. 

The resulting container is going to get a little awkward so try to get a smaller variety of tomato plant.
Because you are not entirely limited on the frost front, you could even start them now.

Sp I hope those answers to the search queries people have been reaching this blog are useful to anyone who decides to come here in the future. All part of the service J

Saturday, 19 March 2011

How to Grow Tomatoes

Growing tomatoes is great fun. I remember when as a kid my father used to start tomatoes off in the spring, and we’d watch them greedily for months. Then he’d start picking them but they’d barely get to the kitchen before we ate the lot. 

They are delicious, whether raw or cooked. I particularly like cherry tomatoes, eating them is like eating sweats.

The first job in spring is deciding which variety is right for you. The choice is confusing. There are two things you need to consider... whether it is an early or late variety of tomato, and what type of tomato it is.

In Britain Blight can be a big problem, and so many gardeners decide to go for an early tomato. Because blight is spread in the air by spores over a wide area it is possible you are in a blight zone. In which case, choosing a variety that ripens as quickly as possible, growing the tomato in compost rather than the soil, and keeping the tomato in a greenhouse or polytunnel all help.

A main crop tomato can take around 90 days from sowing to the first harvest. Early tomatoes are a little faster, and can be planted out a little earlier since they are hardier. So they are more likely to ripen before blight season starts.

The other main decision is on what type of plant you select.

Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes are the most delicious tomato variety in my opinion. They are around 1 inch wide, and ripen quickly. You can eat a tomato in one. The taste is really strong, concentrated compared to other tomatoes.

Plum Tomatoes

Plum tomatoes are named after their shape. They do look a little like a plum, have a decent size about them, but are not as large as beefsteak tomatoes. They are great in salads, and are easy to look after.

Beefsteak tomatoes

This variety of tomato is often very large. They are nice to eat, although they often don’t have the same flavour as Cherry Tomatoes.

Steps for Tomato Growing

1.       Select seed

In general I think it is best to buy tomato seed every year. Many varieties of tomatoes available in the shops do not come true. So although you could in theory save the seed, you are not likely to get the same result every year.

2.       Fill pot with compost

I think it is best to choose seedling compost. Some people intentionally put a handful of solid from their garden into the compost a week before. The theory is that the natural bacteria and mitochondria in the garden will develop in the compost, so preventing a shock when you plant it out. I don’t really believe the theory, but it is interesting. I would avoid this technique if you are in a blight area.

3.       Dampen potting compost from below

Use a tray, and warm water. It is best not to get the pot swimming in water. If you use warm water – about the same temperature as a baby’s bottle – you will find that it speeds up germination.

4.       Sow seed – be careful.

It is quite a fine seed. Some people fold a piece of card, and put a few seeds on the card at a time, tapping the card so only one seed drops on the soil at a time. Of course, some people just do it by hand.

5.       Place in dark until see shoot

This is often recommended, although I don’t really find it necessary... I have planted them before and they do pretty well wherever, as long as they are kept at a comfortable temperature.

6.       Put on window, or in cold frame or heated greenhouse

Once they have germinated, they need warmth, water and light to grow. A heated greenhouse, cold frame, or your window is great. In fact, if it doesn’t get below 5 degrees centigrade at night, an unheated greenhouse is fine too.

7.       Make sure to regularly turn the seedling

If you keep the seed indoors, make sure you turn the seedling regularly to prevent it bending towards the light. Make sure there is a reasonable amount of light too. If the plant doesn’t get enough light it will try to grow towards the sun too much, and may become leggy.

8.       Harden off when the seedling gets larger
Once you have a decent sized seedling, start putting it outside for the daylight hours. After a week or so, it should be used to it, so you can then plant it out.

9.       Water a little but often
Make sure you don’t let the plant get thirsty, and don’t swamp it with water either. This is particularly important when the plant has fruit on it, since they can split if not watered regularly.

10.   Plant outside, or in grow bags or containers in greenhouse
The choice of whether to plant outside or in a container is simple in a blight area – you grow it in a container.  Otherwise, growing it outside in the ground tends to make for a really delicious tomato but at the risk that it will suffer from pests. Tomatoes in a greenhouse are less likely to suffer from early frosts.
11.   Feed

Use a tomato feed as recommended on the label. Tomatoe plants are very hungry.

12.   Prune

How to prune a tomato is an entire new article in its own right, so I will discuss it latter!

13.   Harvest

It often takes 90 days from sowing before you get the first harvest. When the tomato is full sized you can either pick individual ripe fruit. Or simply cut an entire vine away and store that. People often worry about ripening the green fruits. It is easy, put them on a sunny windowsill in a open shoe box with an banana and some apples.

The banana lets off a gas that makes the fruit ripen quickly.

When you prune, water or harvest the tomato make sure to wear gloves, as the tomato plant has hairs that can irritate some people’s skin.

14.   Compost the plant
Unless the plant is infected with a disease, composting the plant is the last stage of the growing life cycle.

I hope this article helps you when you decide to grow tomato plants for yourself. It is exciting and fun to watch them ripen... although you often don’t get as far as the kitchen with them!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Up the Garden Path - The winter returneth

Today I have not had a chance to do much in the garden. The winter returned with a little bit of a vengeance. The rain has been constant, and it is cold. So, obviously the right time to curl up with a cup of tea and a good book. In this case, the Allotment Handbook by Fowley... which is a great read full of ideas.

So, less grafting than expected, and more reading about grafting. And with a nice cup of tea, and bar of chocolate, there can barely be anything better.

We have finally almost run out of wood... this winter was colder than normal, so we have used all the wood we cut last year on the wood burner. And a load we bought. That’s not great!

On the other hand it is quite nice to look at the spring border, which is probably at its best right now. Even if the weather isn’t. Full of winter pansies, hellebores, and the silver leaves of pinks... which isn’t bad!

I cleared out the weeds from the rockery, and we have invested in bulbs for the lawn outside of the kitchen window... when we get a chance to plant them, they will add a splendid dash of colour in the autumn.
But there is a lot of pleasure to come before then!