Saturday, 20 October 2012

Keeping Pests out of the Greenhouse

After I lost most of my tomatoes to pests this summer, I've decided that one way I can avoid this happening again next year is to completely re-design the inside of my greenhouse.  I believe that the inside of my greenhouse has, over the years, become a little too pest-friendly and I need to make sure that the pests don't get the upper hand again.  At the same time, I'm putting together my own good practice notes for greenhouse growing to keep on hand for the future (for information - my greenhouse is unheated and rests on old railway sleepers).

Greenhouse Pests

These include aphids, white flies, mealybugs, caterpillars, ants, spider mites, slugs, snails, mice and rats.

The old floor is dug out.

Re-designing the Greenhouse

These are my key tasks for re-designing the greenhouse:

1.  Take down the netted shading.  This was put up some time ago after my tomatoes were scorched through the glass one summer.  Since then, a hedge has grown up close to the greenhouse and I realise now that the extra shading is no longer needed.  So the netting has to go; I believe it's created shady conditions for slugs to flourish.

2.  Create a hard floor and grow tomatoes in pots.  Years ago, I started to grow the tomatoes in soil in the greenhouse, but I believe this has encouraged a range of pests to feel at home there (from mice to slugs).  I now want to create a hard floor and grow the tomatoes and cucumbers in pots and I'm fortunate that I can source some bricks for free from a family member who no longer needs them.  Putting in a hard floor is very much a trial and I'm aware that I must keep these pots well watered otherwise, in greenhouse conditions, they could dry out very quickly.

3.  Re-fix the chicken wire over the lower part of the entrance.  Because I have a problem with rabbits on the smallholding, I've put this in to keep them out just in case they're tempted to venture in and have a look.  It also keeps out rats.

4.  Repair any broken glass panels in the greenhouse. 

Good Practice Notes for Each Year

Spring Cleaning (i.e. from autumn to early spring!)

With clean water and an eco-friendly washing up liquid, I'll do the following:

1.  Scrub the greenhouse glass, inside and out.
2.  Scrub the staging.
3.  Clean out the pots for the next seedlings, tomatoes and cucumbers.
4.  Sweep/clean the new floor.

The new floor starts to go in.

On-going Care for the Growing Season

1.  Maintain daily vigilance for pests, but thoroughly check over the vegetables each week.  Keep a good book handy that has clear illustrations of pests, so that I can quickly identify exactly which pest has appeared (if it has!)

2.  Hunt those pests down! Look for slugs and snails in dark corners, under pots etc.

3.  Keep organic pest control solutions to hand.  Make sure pre-prepared pest controls don't use harsh chemicals that are harmful to beneficial insects and that will also enter the food chain.  Have mouse traps, slug beer traps and jam jars with a small hole in the top (i.e. these are wasp traps that can be effective for catching slugs) to hand.

4.  Make sure that the tomato plants don't become too overcrowded when they grow to create shade for pests and conditions where pests can spread around more easily.

5.  Keep the greenhouse well ventilated for the health of the plants and to stop pests flourishing in airless conditions.  Check the air vents and the door of the greenhouse are open in warm weather.

6.  Keep a daily eye on the pots to make sure that they don't dry out at all.  Create a drip irrigation system to keep the soil moist.

7.  Keep up companion planting i.e. other plants and flowers that can also be planted in the pots to draw insects away from the main vegetables.

8.  Store soil well and always use fresh soil for new planting.

9.  Check over any new plants, brought in from a nursery or garden centre (or other source) for pests and diseases.

10. Promptly clear away any old plants and vegetables at the end of the growing season to prevent overwintering bugs and the possibility of disease developing.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Making a Chair from our Hazel Trees

We're fortunate to have hazel trees on our smallholding and we've made the most of the timber from them.  This is straight-grained and hard; and as well as making walking sticks from it (for older family members), we burn it for firewood.  We've also used the timber to make a high-backed chair from a very simple (i.e. made up as we went along!) design.

The Hazel Tree

Hazel was one of the first trees to recolonise Britain after the last ice age, helping to form the early wildwood.  As one of our oldest trees, it's the subject of plenty of folklore.  The Celts believed hazel trees were trees of wisdom and poetry and hazels were thought to be found in places where the boundaries between the worlds were thinnest.  Wizards' staffs were thought to be of hazel, and hazel twigs were used to fend off witches, to point out thieves and to seek for buried treasure.  Today, they are still used by diviners to find water.  Until the middle ages, hazel nuts were associated with fertility and could also be used to reveal the health of a marriage!

Hazel is deciduous, shedding its leaves each year.  It likes heavy soil, although this mustn't be waterlogged - and because it comes from the ancient wildwood, it tolerates shade (our hazel is found in the shadows of large oak trees).  A hazel will live about 60 years or so before it dies back, but it lives much longer if it is coppiced (and we coppiced our trees this year).  We've also included hazel in a new hedge we've planted on the smallholding and we've had to protect this from rabbits, deer (especially muntjac) and our own sheep.  Hazel nuts are seized upon by grey squirrels.

Hazel in a new hedge

Making the Chair

We cut a few whips of hazel back to the tree stump and used the wood at once i.e. it wasn't given time to season.  We then sawed the wood into the lengths we wanted and pre-drilled holes into the wood before screwing (to avoid splitting).  The lengths/height are detailed below. 

Finally, the wood was varnished, not so much to give it extra protection, but for appearance.

The chair is robust, and, with cushions, comfortable. We've placed it in the kitchen/rest area of our new barn, where we're making most of the furniture ourselves from local wood (with more, DIY designs!)

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The South Essex Plotlands - Smallholdings for Londoners?

I'm fascinated by landscape history and in particular, by lost places e.g. lost and forgotten villages, woodlands, boundaries, lands etc.  Usually, these are from centuries ago, but I was recently reminded of the Essex plotlands - lost settlements from the early to mid 20th century, which were in (what is now) Basildon.  I grew up several miles away from there, but I know some people with connections to this area and I've listened to their anecdotes and memories.  So - having been reminded of the plotlands existence - I wanted to find out more, particularly as they were established by Londoners looking for their own "good life".

The plotland movement was essentially Londoners buying pieces of land to put on huts and cottages for either weekend use or permanent living. The impetus was to escape from the slums of the city for a quiet life in the country where residents could grow a few vegetables, keep animals, forage for food and live a simple life.  Most of their houses, though, were of a very basic construction and didn't have services, such as running water, roads or power.  

Arable land on the edge of the former plotlands area.
This land was known as "three horse land" because it was so difficult to work.
The land for the new plotlands movement had started to become available following the late 19th century agricultural depression, when many farmers had been forced to sell up because of an increase in cheap imports of wheat.  The Essex farmers in this area grew wheat because it was suited to the heavy clay soil (this area became known as "three horse land" because it was so difficult to work).  When the land was sold off cheaply, the speculators moved in and formed companies to buy and sell the land in plots at auctions.

The move into the countryside was also made possible by the development of the railway in this area and the land companies teamed up with the railway operators to set up "champagne auctions" where they seemingly lured in potential buyers by offering special train tickets with alcohol.  The height of the plotlands movement was the 1920s to 1940s (and I don't suppose it's a coincidence that this followed the horrors of the First World War, in which many of the men would have fought.  Nor was it too long after the migration of their fathers and grandfathers from the country to the city looking for work during the agricultural depression).   Buildings were supposed to meet housing and planning bye-laws, but they were often constructed regardless and the local councils would come to regard them as shacks springing up in a rural slum.

The Second World War changed the nature of the plotlands development.  Agricultural land that would have been sold off for more plots was now returned to farming.  At the same time, many people moved to the plotlands to escape the bombing in London.  Once the war was over the "rural slum" nature of the plotlands began to occupy the minds of the local councils and they joined forces with the London councils (which were dealing with a post-war housing crisis) to lobby for a new town in the area.  In 1949 the Basildon Development Corporation was formed and the plotlands were earmarked for development.

The Haven: Once a Plotlands Home - now a Museum.
Many plotlanders were ready to move on from the problems of such basic living to a place in the new town.  As more and more properties became empty, crime (especially vandalism) began to increase in the plotlands area and many no longer felt safe living there.  But many more plotlanders didn't want to leave their rural life; the homes they'd often built themselves and the pieces of land where they'd kept animals and grown vegetables - to move to the high density development of a new town. These people formed residents associations to oppose the building of Basildon New Town and I know from anecdotal evidence that they were devastated by the compulsory purchase of their homes and land and the destruction of their rural dream: "Basildon was built on heartbreak" was a familiar expression.

Today, much of the former plotlands area is under Basildon New Town; some of it has been made into a nature reserve and the rest is now a mixture of housing and arable land.  A small, plotlands museum, a few cottages and a plotlands trail around grassy tracks with the old "road" names are all that's left of this modern, back-to-the-land movement.