Tuesday, 9 November 2010

In Praise of Worms


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Way back when I first moved into this farm, the sort of rain we had today would have led to an amazing amount of runoff from my cereal field that would flood the pump house area, which is what I was tying to photograph in the following out-of-focus shot.

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I also noticed when I came to plough the cereal field that there were practically no worms present even though the soil was still moist and cool unlike the pump house area where the worms took on giant status.


The lack of worms was why I decided to continue using a mineral based organic fertiliser on the field even though I realised quite quickly that it wasn’t feasible for me to be fully organic on the farm.  The difference it has made is now becoming apparent; when I walk across the field there are worm casts.  Not lots, but at least one every step.  The improvement to the soil structure is even more apparent in the following photograph.

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This was taken today after heavy persistent rain.  There is no runoff from the field; the rain is able to soak into the ground far more easily than before and I put that down to the humble earthworm encouraged back into the soil by the mineral based fertiliser.

As it has been raining heavily and the wind has been gusting strongly I finally got round to doing something about the ‘window’ in the back storeroom.  Window is in quotes because it’s actually a hole in the wall covered by a shutter.

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The shutter is old, the planks it is made from don’t butt up against each other and there is a gap all round between the wall and the shutter.  Needless to say, it is on the windward side of the building and the wind howls through the storeroom.  I am aiming eventually to put in a proper window but the current hole is a non-standard window size, (like most of the windows in this place) so until I’m ready to enlarge the hole, all it is going to get is a temporary measure.

I tried polythene over the shutter last year which survived until the first gust of wind so this year I’m going for something a bit more sophisticated!  It may not be pretty but I’m hoping once I seal the outer frame to the wall, when it finally stops raining, that it will stay in place and cut the draught.

The acrylic is fixed to the front frame and if I want to bolt the shutter again I can unscrew the front frame without having to remove the outer frame.

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It will be interesting to see how well this does against the winter storms and also how much difference it makes to the temperature in the storerooms.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

October is Over

As I mentioned in the previous post it’s been a hectic month; there is always so much to try and get done before the weather turns.  In fact there is far more than can be done but then that’s just how life is.  So what else have I been up to this month?

The area under the fruit trees that I seeded earlier in the month is a nice shade of green.  While a lot of the green is the weeds that sprouted almost immediately but there is also a good bit of grass too☺

As I was preparing the area, I realised that I had to pick the quinces before the grass seed went down and I ended up with 33lbs of them.

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This year I decided to make quince jelly again; it took nearly a week, boiling the fruit in batches and then straining the puree through a jelly bag.  In the end I had enough juice to make 2 large batches of jelly.


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One of the really nice things about home-made things is that everyone is different – there is quite a colour difference between the two batches of jelly even though I mixed all the batches of juice together.

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Both batches taste good but even so I think I have more than enough quince jelly to last me for the next couple of years, which left me thinking about what to do with next years crop.  This year’s was exceptionally prolific which is why I’m more than happy to make extra this year in case there is an untimely frost next year.  The tree is still growing and should the weather be kind I should have even more quinces so I will use them to make pectin. 

I made a batch of apple pectin this year but I think my apples would be better for cider or juicing.  The quince has a high level of pectin – you could use my quince jelly as safety matting! – and they would be ideal.

I also took a course in Shibori and Indigo dyeing techniques

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The fabric on the right I produced using various resist objects: Chick peas, screws, coins, twisting and stitching.  However the main reason I did the course was to have a go at Indigo dyeing, so I took along a hank of alpaca wool I’d spun, (although sadly not from my alpacas, this was from a practice fleece I’d been working on) and had a go at resist dyeing that.  I’m really pleased with the results and will, sometime, over the winter knit a stole with it.

I harvested the sweet potatoes I planted earlier in the year.

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I was going to blog about growing the slips back at the beginning of the year but never got round to it so that will be something for next year.  The plants went in a bit to late but I did get a few decent sized tubers, definitely more than I used to get the plants.  With luck I cracked the growing method this year and will start the plants earlier next year and they will have a longer growing season than they got this year.  They taste good though!

Way back in the mists of time, about 2 years ago, I had 3 large poplar trees that were planted around the house felled.  Any one of the 3 could have landed on the house if they were toppled in a storm and the closest one was rotten and leaning towards the house to boot.  I have spent the last 2 years trying to burn the metre plus diameter trunks to very little avail.  Well, Regis took pity on me and turned up with the pusher attachment on his tractor that he uses to clear the plum tree prunings.

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He also scraped up all the old straw and hay that had been lying about too, in fact I almost had to lie down in front of the tractor to stop him removing things – like the heaps of compost.  The result was 3 very large bonfires, two of which have been smouldering for a week now despite a day of rain and I am really pleased as I can now start to cut grass and tidy up around the farm.

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My saffron crocuses have also started flowering so everyday I’m picking the flowers and removing the stigmas and drying them on top of the wood-burner.  I have a lot more than previous years – probably enough for 2 or three meals this time!  I have converted their growing area to a raised bed and I think this has been very beneficial.  Next spring I will divide the clumps and see if that helps them further

And finally for this post, I’ve also been spinning in the evenings.  I have a fleece I was given which I've been using s a practice piece as I said above.  My spinning is getting more even and generally thinner.  Still a long way to go and my skirting and carding of the fleece still needs honing but I can see the improvement.  It’s also quite a therapeutic thing to do of an evening and with the long evenings that have just started, - sob, sob, why do they have to mess around with the clocks, - I’m hoping to get more fleeces spun.

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These are the hanks washed and hung up to dry in the kitchen today.

Happy Samhain/Halloween


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Yet another month has flown by and my feet feel as if they have barely toughed the ground.  Tonight though is Halloween and above is my very unsteady hand-held photograph of my pumpkin lantern in the garden.

It’s the first year I’ve managed to grow a pumpkin – previous attempts have usually succumbed to either the weather or slugs.  While this one is nowhere near record standard I’m really chuffed.  It came in at 42cm high and 115cm round.  I’ve no idea what it weighed but I could only just carry it.

This is it sat on the kitchen table.

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Large pumpkins also mean:-

toasted pumpkin seeds

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and pumpkin soup, which I think I’ll be eating for the next month!

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Once the above vat has cooled I’ll pass it through a mouli to make sure it’s smooth.

I was worried as to whether I would be able to carve and hollow out such a large pumpkin; my previous efforts had been on smaller supermarket bought pumpkins and I had found them very hard to carve safely.  However even though I’d picked this one around three weeks ago when the weather people forecast a possible frost, it was remarkably easy and I was able to use a soup spoon to scrape out most of the flesh.

Happy Halloween everyone.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Rose Hip Syrup


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I first made this last year and thoroughly enjoyed it so braved the thorns again this year.  The summer drought has meant that there are not many wild rose hips this year.

The recipe is simple, rose hips, water and sugar.  My recipe is from “The Complete Book of Preserving” by Marye Cameron-Smith and dates from the late 70’s but is one of my favourite, and now rather battered and falling apart, cookbooks.

These are the quantities given, but I usually scale it down, (thank goodness for Excel), to whatever quantity I’ve picked – usually I manage between 500 – 750 gm before I either run out of hips or get fed up picking them:

Bring 3 litres of water to the boil in a large pan.  Wash and mince the hips – for ‘mince’ I substituted process in a food processor or liquidiser.  Add to the water and bring back to the boil.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool for about 15 min then strain through a jelly bag into a bowl.

Once drained, return the pulp to the pan and add another 1.5 litres of water.  Bring to the boil then strain again through a clean jelly bag into a bowl.

Combine both lots of strained juice  into a clean pan, bring to the boil and continue boiling until the juice is reduced to 1.5 litres.  Then reduce the heat to low and add 1 kg of sugar and stir until dissolved.  Once dissolved bring back to the boil and boil for 5 mins.

Pour into clean, hot bottles and they should then be heat processed for 20 mins at 88°C.  I haven’t done the latter as I didn’t make much and am keeping them in the fridge.

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One cup of hot rose hip syrup – not quite a red as last years as I added extra water and didn’t reduce it enough but delicious all the same.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Counting Down to Winter – part 2


The next major job to get done before winter is to seed the orchard area.  This is about 1200 m2 and before seeding, it needed to be raked to remove the troughs caused by the cultivator digging in and by the tractor wheels.  I was slightly hampered too…Jewel decided I wasn’t taking enough attention of her and when she realised that I was ignoring her climbing posts and chewing them she took a far more direct approach and attacked the rake.

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The soil was in perfect condition for raking but it still took a whole day to rake the area.  I was trying very hard to get it done before the rain we had been promised arrive. This was taken about half way through.

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Although the day stayed dry the wind was far too strong to allow me to seed which was probably jut as well since the rain we got was rather hard and might have washed all the seed to the bottom of the slope.  I now need to wait a couple more days until I can walk on the soil again and can then seed the area.

Since I couldn’t get on with the seeding that evening I took a stroll across my harvested field to pick a few more hazel nuts and rose hips.  On walking back my eye was caught by something in the harvesting debris.  My apologies for the lack of focus.

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Another sign that winter is approaching, a roe deer antler.  I think it is from a 3 year old, and it is 14 cm long.  I’ve always wanted to find antlers and have over the years spent time looking in woods but never finding any and then I find one when not looking, but that’s life isn’t it!

And a final sign for this post:

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Making use of a good drying day to wash the summer clothes before putting them away and bringing out the winter ones.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Counting Down to Winter – part 1

It’s been nearly a week since my last summer visitor, my son ‘A’ left but is seems so much longer. ‘A’ had been here for nearly 7 weeks and between us we got a couple of the more difficult/time-consuming jobs done.  The first one was the hay-loft floor. This is a long running saga and starts about 2 and a half years ago; that’s when my other son ‘G’ fell through the hayloft floor while helping me stack bales. We decided that on his return visit we would re-floor the loft.

He returned last summer for a long stay, by which time I had also had a go at falling through the floor but thankfully didn’t succeed anywhere near as well as ‘G’.  After a few days of searching we found a reasonably local building suppliers and collected twelve 4m long flooring planks.  They only had the 12 so the other 88 I needed had to be ordered.  Not too much of a problem or so I thought; I’d glanced at the order and saw that the date was only a couple of weeks away.  Silly me, I didn’t think to check the month as well, I just assumed that a national chain of building supplies wouldn’t need nearly 2 months to obtain 88 flooring planks!  So ‘G’ and I put up the dozen planks we had obtained and the remaining planks arrived 2 weeks after he had left.

I put another dozen or so in on my own, a long task due to having to keep going up and down the ladder between measuring, cutting and fixing the planks and put in about the same again with the help of other friends over the course of late spring and early summer.  With ‘A’s’ help we put in all the remaining boards that we could, (I still have 3 support beams to replace before I can re-floor), and also removed an old pigeon loft which was in the corner of the hay loft.  We were then able to move all remaining planks onto the hayloft floor so they don’t have to spend another year outside.

As well as the hayloft, ‘A’ and I had another project, the polytunnel.  The instructions said it was a 2 day job for 2 people……. I beg to differ.

It took us around 3 weeks – not every day and not all day but long enough each day.  Making sense of the instructions was the first challenge.  It wasn’t that the instructions were lacking it was just making sure we got them right.  It would have been a lot faster if we’d put up a polytunnel before and knew what we were doing, so I was paranoid about making a mistake and ruining it.  Added to that the days were very hot and it is difficult reading instructions with sweat running into your eyes.  ‘A’ was very patient with me.

The site I chosen look relatively level and I’d rotavated the ground and raked it too, however once we’d put the support post in; a small matter of digging fourteen 30cm square and 50cm deep holes for the anchor plates, it became very obvious that the ground sloped quite steeply.

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The picture above shows the basic frame and the top of the boarding to the right is on a level with ground level on the left.  A lot of earth shifting was and still is required.  Thankfully the rotavator did and excellent job of digging into the rock hard ground and generating earth to backfill but I think that I will still be shifting earth throughout this winter before it is fully levelled inside and out. However:-

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The first planting is in :-)

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Gathering and Gleaning


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It’s that time of year again, when everything seems to need to be done at once – oh wait, it always seems to be like that!  But it is also a good time of year, seeing what there is to harvest.

Today had been booked to pick up some sheep for some friends of mine and entailed a trip to near Limoges, a trip of 2 and a half hours each way.  And as often happens, at the last moment, (in my case 7pm the night before), something happened.  I was just hitching up the trailer and readying it for an early start the next day when a car pulled up.  The wife of the farmer who’s been helping me with my soya explained that her husband had just finished harvesting a field nearby and wanted to do mine.

So the said combine turned up a short time later and harvested until 10pm when the machine was full.  I’d arranged with the farmer that he would finish in the morning while I was away, so tomorrow I need to track down where the soya went and how much was harvested.

Having got back from the sheep pick-up I took a wander out onto the field and took a look at the hedgerow at the far side and within a few minutes I collected the above.

To the left is a wild form of sorghum which the chickens like.  At the top are few hazelnuts; this year the nut harvest is not one of the best due to the summer drought.  In the middle are some of the soya beans that I gleaned.  I’ll collect some more over the next few days but I’m also going to let the chickens out onto the field too so they can take advantage of what has been left.  At the bottom are some rosehips to the right, and sloes to the left.  Not many of either but by the time I’d got to them I’d filled the pot I had and couldn’t carry any more.  But….

here are some I picked earlier.

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The sloes are nearly over, and many of the sloes on the bushes are shrivelled, again due to the drought, but I do have enough for one bottle of sloe gin.

The rosehips are destined for rosehip syrup; I don’t have enough yet for the syrup so will spend the next week or so collecting the necessary amount.

It’s also harvest time in the garden.

P9280005 tiny As you can see the butternut squashes are tiny but I’m really pleased with the giant pumpkin I’ve grown for Halloween.

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And finally for this post, my first almonds, all of them.  At the back are some quinces I had to take off a branch as there were far to many and the branch was in danger of breaking.  They are beginning to ripen and turn yellow, then it ill be quince jelly time, one of my favourites.

Friday, 10 September 2010

My First Grapes

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I know they are not much to look at but I’m really chuffed.  I’d planted the vine a couple of year ago in anticipation of installing a pergola.  The planting position is far from ideal for producing grapes  as it’s in the shade of a tree. 

The pergola is yet to go up but I’ve just let the vine do it’s own thing each year in order to produce a good root system and hopefully it will be quicker to cover the pergola once it is finally up.

P9100045 tinyThe vine has climbed nearly 20 ft into the tree over the year and produced the two small bunches of grapes down near the root, where I’d cut back the side growth.

I’ve planted more vines out in the fruit garden and I’m hoping for  further desert grapes next year once those plants are fully established. I’ll post a picture of those vines once I’ve got them all in and the support wires in place.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Rain, wonderful rain.

The weather can be a difficult thing to live with,  Over the last months there have been the harrowing accounts of the floods in Pakistan and other places, while here in my little corner of France I’ve been watching the skies searching for a rain cloud.

We’ve had around 3 months without rain;  all the irrigation ponds have been drained to try and save the plum, maize and sunflower harvests.  Farmers such as I who have no irrigation water have just been crossing fingers.  My neighbour harvested his sunflowers 2 days ago.  All of the flower heads were at least 50 percent smaller than I would have expected them to be.  Watching the combine harvester going round the field I was taken by how few times it made the trip to the transporter to discharge its load, and it wasn’t a large combine with large holding tanks.

In my own case I’ve been looking at my soya crop; the field is quite yellow and the leaves are falling off the plants.  The soya beans themselves are about the size of small petit pois so I think I’ll be lucky to break even on the crop. Such are the joys of small scale farming. Thankfully the weather has broken and the rain, about 30mm of it, has fallen steadily over the last 48 hours.  The ditches are still empty and the rain is soaking into the soil and not just running off the surface.

So what to do on a rainy day?  Well life is never boring here, there is always a new skill to learn and for my son ‘A’ and I yesterday it was tarmac-ing.  My friends ‘A’ and ‘R’ had been given a pile of tarmac in exchange for the department appropriating some of their land to store tarmac while they were patching the road, and a working party was arranged to get it laid before it went off.

While it may not have been a totally professional job, all 5 of us (we were joined by ‘B’ who is on holiday in the village at the moment), felt the drive looked pretty good afterwards and there was even some tarmac left over to make a start on another hard standing area.  ‘A’ put on a wonderful lunch and despite getting totally wet through the job took much less time and effort than we though it would.

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Sunday, 5 September 2010

Annual Update!

The New Year resolution to post more didn’t do too well, time to give up on cataloguing and just summarise the last year and start again I think; so what has been happening here over the last year.

Firstly the sad news; my beloved Snowy cat died last September. Thankfully though it was quite quick and I had my son G here too but I miss her. After her death I decided not to get any other cats as I would like to get down to just 2 cats at a time since vet fees and cat food are getting so expensive these days. I’d also decided that I wouldn’t get another white cat or long haired cat due to the amount and visibility of fur they leave. Enter Jewel.

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She chose me; she was an abandoned kitten who was brought to a friend’s house. Looking at the abrasions they all had we’re pretty sure she and her 3 siblings were chucked out of a car in the village centre. One of the siblings was run over before anyone could catch them but the other 3 found sanctuary at Ann’s. I went round to visit and this under-sized ball of flea and worm infested fluff curled up beside me purring the whole time. I fell for her hook, line and sinker and the long-haired ball of white fur, who is as mad as they get, is now a fully fledged member of the ‘FHTE’ society. And yes, she does have one blue eye and one yellow eye.

The next major occurrence was having my car written off. I was around 150 mils from home and of course I’d managed to forget my mobile, (put it on to charge especially for the journey and walked out the door without picking it up!), and someone went straight across a junction in front of me. I T-boned into the side of them pushing them 10-12ft up the road while they spun me through 90 degrees. Thankfully though I was not going fast, 50 mph or so was well strapped in and the impact was head on for me. I had a slight graze under the chin from the airbag and couple of tender spots on my arm and leg where I assume I must have hit the padded door handle.

The other car was lucky too, the centre of my car hit their door pillar and that protected the person in the passenger seat. The police and first-response medical units were brilliant and what was nice too was the police officer who made a point of coming over to me before I left to tell me very strongly that it wasn't my fault.

There after ensued a couple of months of sorting out the paperwork for the old car and finding and buying a new one. Sounds so simple written like that but it would take more than one post to go through the paperwork involved, stress and cost, so I’ll sum it up in one word for all the areas – lots.

My computer also decided to try and die too! Luckily I had purchased a laptop as I’d realised my computer was getting old. I’d also backed up everything on the main drive, or so I thought. My second drive on the old computer finally failed. It as then I realised that when I’d migrated to the new C drive that I’d installed in the old comp many moons back, Outlook was on the new drive but the contacts file was on the D drive still. I’d not bothered taking a paper copy as I thought I’d backed up everything when I made the C drive copy…. ho hum!

While I’m on this trail of disasters, the hay harvest didn’t happen this year. Everything was going superbly, they grass was at peak condition, I’d got it all cut and dried, took the baler down and it just wouldn’t tie knots round the bales. The weather broke a couple of days later before anyone else could finish their fields and come and bale mine. It then rained for a couple of weeks. I do still have some of last year’s hay and have bought couple of small round bales that I hope will see me through to next spring.

Next up is the ongoing tale of trying to get health insurance.

My file on that is now nearly 3 inches thick. At the end of last year I gave up on trying to get into the French system and applied for private cover. After a month or so the firm got back to me and refused me as they said I was eligible for state cover and by law they couldn’t insure me. So I was back doing the rounds between MSA and CPAM. MSA still saying that although they were the department that insures registered farmers I didn’t have enough land to qualify and needed to go to CPAM. CPAM then sent me on a paper chase collecting 2 years of French tax returns, 3 years of proof of paying local taxes etc before finally saying, after I’d gone down to the head office because every visit to the local one came up with a different set of paperwork to collect, that as I was a registered farmer they couldn’t insure me. The then said that one of the pieces of paper I’d got from MSA saying that I didn’t qualify for cover would mean that the private insurer could cover me.

So, re-applied to the private insurer with the new letter – 2 months down the line they’ve just rejected me again saying ….. I’m employed and therefore………aaaarrrrrggggghhhhhh!

So I’ve given up on trying to support the system here and have applied for cover from a UK based company for people living abroad. All fingers and toes crossed that this goes through.

Apart from the above, life is good if rather busy and I do remind myself that actually I’ve been very lucky. My crash could have injured me, and with no health cover it really doesn’t bare thinking about.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Another Quarter Turn

That wheel just keeps on turning. The sun shone today and to celebrate I thought I would make a Brigid’s Cross.

While collecting the twigs for the cross, I came across this in the flowerbed. I think it’s a young weasel so I guess the tail-less decapitate one I found back in June 2008 was a weasel too.

My apologies to everyone who’s commented on my previous posts for not responding, I will try and do better. I’ve now put in the e-mail filter/rule on Outlook to separate out all the blog comments so I can easily respond to them rather than the notifications getting buried in amongst all the e-mails I get (sadly usually junk).

Nothing really major to report over the last week apart from enough rain to keep the ground unworkable but at least the ponds and ground water should be replenished. I’ve been working on my planting list. This is a very simple Excel spreadsheet, based on one from the Tiny Farm Blog, where I list all the seeds I’m planting along with when to plant, planting distances, where in the rotation they are going etc so I have all the information in one place on a few of sheets of paper. One advantage of this is that I can automatically work out how many of each plant I need for each row I want to plant in my pottager. As part of this I've also been through all my seeds and sorted them alphabetically so I can find them when it comes to planting.

I’ve also started to knit a scarf with the wool I spun from Chestnut. I know I’m biased but alpaca wool is just so lovely and soft and warm, it’s a joy to work with it. I'll post a picture when I've finished it.

I’ve also just had another delivery of oak for the wood burner and that will keep me busy for the rest of the week cutting it to size. The logs are all in the barn at the moment to keep them dry but I need to cut them and move them out so that the barn is available for the alpacas should I need it.

Lighting is provided by the floodlight as even with the door fully open and the single light in this part of the barn there is not enough light to work safely. The saw horse is a real boon, I was using a couple of hay bales but this is a much better height plus it also has a ruler so I know that I’m not cutting the logs too big. The cooker takes up to a maximum of 45cm so the 1m long logs are cut at roughly 35, 35 and 30cm; the two longer ones going to the wood-store and the shorter ones into the pile for immediate use. Sounds a bit odd I know but it’s the only way I’ve found to get the wood-store pile to stack properly.

So as you can see, everything is set; 2 cubic meters of wood, an electric chainsaw (no fumes in the enclosed space), heavy duty wheelbarrow to transport logs to the wood-store, face-guard, ear-defenders and Kevlar gloves on the saw horse. What you can’t see is me hobbling around like a penguin in my Kevlar chaps – smallest size and still they are too long - and steelies. Hopefully I can get most of it cut before my midweek trip to the chiropractor as I’d like to give my back a chance to settle once it’s been straightened out again.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Spinning a Yarn

I’m not doing too well on my posting am I. Time is just flying by and there just seems so much to do.

Over the Christmas period I took some time out to do a little knitting and taught myself to knit in the round on 4 needles (post on that to follow). I then thought it was time to get on with teaching myself how to spin since I have fleeces and more to come in a few months.

So this is the first bobbin courtesy of Chestnut.

A little uneven and bobbly in places but overall I am very pleased with it.

I then plyed it and washed it.

And now have two hanks ready to knit.

As I said, overall I’m pleased with the result for a first attempt; like most things in life it was a learning curve. The thing that I realise most now is the importance of proper ‘skirting’ of the fleece. I wasn’t rigorous enough in removing the guard hairs or the second cuts so it’s not as smooth as it could be, but there is always next time.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Stardate 27th May – 1st June

The grass was green, the sun shining and dry weather promised for a week so it was time to make the hay.
I then found out what happens when long grass gets wrapped around the PTO

The cleaning kit

And an hour or so later with help from the chickens

Cutting continued followed by the tedding and ….

By the next day it was drying well and didn’t clog the tedder.

Another day of tedding and it was ready to bale.

The next day it was time to start bringing the bales in. I’d had lots of people who had said they would help with the haymaking but, the week of good weather, coincided with the week everyone was unavailable - sod’s law really. So off I set to the field.

The set of steps is essential as I’m too short to get onto the trailer without it. I could only lift the bales as high as the base level of the trailer, so I had to leave a gap at that level to place the bales onto the trailer and to get on and off the trailer. Added to that, the planks on the floor of the trailer are pretty rotten so I had to be really careful not to fall through. It took about 4 days but eventually I got all the bales, 250 or more (I lost count), into the hay loft – and only fell through that floor once.

It was hard work but I had a real sense of achievement at the end; the hay looked and smelt lovely and best of all, the alpacas loved it.