Saturday, 18 December 2010

More snow

It's been a cold day in the barn today selling Christmas trees and though there are still lots to choose from, we've taken down some of the racks and the barn is beginning to look a little emptier. I haven't chosen my tree yet and the one I had half an eye on was sold this morning so I expect that, as usual, we'll have the Christmas tree that nobody else wanted. The snow started to fall this afternoon and the buildings look very pretty at the moment  with a white dusting.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Mistletoe & Christmas in a Box

Despite many attempts to get mistletoe to grow on our trees, we've never been successful and we have none growing anywhere on the farm. Luckily we know someone who has masses and today a big box arrived, which has now been bunched up ready for sale.

We are also selling Christmas in a Box containing a snowflake banner, sweetie, bell, balloon and paper star with room to slip in a Gift Card. For details look at

It looks set to be a busy weekend for Christmas tree buying so the barn is jam packed with Nordman and Fraser firs, Norway and Blue spruce, wreaths and garlands.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Little brown hen

 We had a few problems on Friday when two lorries got stuck in Blackley Lane as they couldn't get up the hill, but the snow was cleared from the road  and though it was still a little slippery, the lorries moved off and the traffic jam disappeared.

There is still snow lying on the fields and along the bridleway, but in the yard it has melted away and the hens have decided it's okay to leave the shelter of the hen house. My little brown hen came out on Friday and rather than walk through the snow she flew onto the roof of the barn, where she perched all day and night looking like a weather vane. The next day she crash landed onto the roof of the greenhouse, then perched in an apple tree until she was frightened off by Morris the dog and spent the rest of the day in a hedge. I have no idea where she spent the next night and day, but when I shut the hens up yesterday evening she was snuggled next to the cockerel on the perch looking none the worse for her adventure. Earlier this year I found a fox in the garden with this same hen in its mouth; faced with a woman shouting and waving her arms as she ran towards it, the fox dropped the hen and ran off and the little brown hen picked herself up and went to sit very quietly in the nesting box for two days. Quite an exciting life for a hen.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Christmas Trees

Outside, the trees are covered in snow but luckily the trees already lined up in the barn are clean and dry, filling the air with a wonderful smell. This year we have some tiny Picea Conica trees in pots that are ideal for tabletop displays, a wide range of Nordman firs, traditional Norway spruce and some Frazer firs and of course plenty of stands for the trees. Blackley Lane was a little snowy under the bridge this morning, but lots of vehicles have negotiated it without mishap so it's not proving a problem. We open from 9 in the morning until 6 in the evenings Monday to Saturday and on Sunday from 10 until 4.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Frosty Day

frozen puddle
across Grove Field

 Here in Essex we escaped the heavy snowfall yesterday and instead we awoke to a beautiful frosted landscape. There was no wind and the sun was out some of the time making it a good day for a quick walk around the fields.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat ...

At Christmas time we sell geese and turkeys produced by Howard Blackwell of Coggeshall. If you are driving near Herons Farm during the autumn slow down to look at the geese as they graze in the paddock by the farm. Yesterday morning Howard was featured on the Farming Today programme on Radio 4, explaining how he rears his geese. If you're interested, listen on the BBC i-player.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Hunt the Christmas Tree

searching for the tree

found it
This morning we've been choosing a Christmas tree with children from a local nursery group. We searched through the trees to find a tree the right size and finally the children found the tree with the Christmas fairy perched in the branches. The tree was measured to make sure it would fit into the nursery, then cut down and carried back to the barn where it was netted up.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Green Tomatoes

 I've pulled out the tomato plants in the greenhouse, hung the peppers from the roof in the hope that they'll ripen and opened the greenhouse door for the chickens. The ground outside is wet at the moment so the hens will go into the greenhouse, eat the last of the squashed tomatoes and scratch in the dry dirt having dust baths and sit around taking the sun like old ladies at the seaside.

The tomatoes have been stripped from the rather withered looking plants and red ones were made into tomato soup, with a few left for sandwiches and if I have the time and inclination I'll make some tomato and onion sauce for the freezer. The green tomatoes have been made into mincemeat, which sounds disgusting but is surprisingly good in mince pies or made into a large tart with a coconut topping.

The recent wind has blown most of the leaves off the trees so everywhere is looking rather bare. There are a few apples still on the trees but I picked up some windfalls and used them with my ever dwindling supply of walnuts to make some walnut & apple bread.

Starting to prepare for Christmas trees

tagging trees for customers
It's only just over a fortnight until we open for Christmas trees, so preparations are in full swing. Orders are coming in from schools and businesses and one or two people needing very large outdoor display trees have come along to the plantation to choose the one they'd like cut down.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Sloe Gin

There's been a bumper crop of sloes in the hedgerows this year and I've watched the sloes ripen in the summer, with their beautiful blue bloom that has gradually turned purple and almost black through the autumn until they're ready to pick. The berries look so attractive it's hard to believe they can be so astringent but a tentative bite through the purple skin to the green flesh below will dry your mouth out.

Culpeper recommended sloes for a sore mouth and to fasten loose teeth, but I think they're best used in a mix of fruits to make hedgerow jelly or best of all, in sloe gin. After several years of experimenting with different amounts of sugar, I've decided the best way to make sloe gin is to nick the skins of the sloes with a sharp knife (or stab with a needle) and put them into a demi-john to the half way mark. Top up with gin (probably about 3 litres) and then split three or four vanilla pods, scrape the seeds into the gin and then throw in the pods. The demi-john is then sealed and left in the kitchen for a week and given a shake every day before putting into a cool, dark cupboard for at least three months, though in reality it's usually left until I start searching for the demi-john to make the next batch. The gin then needs to be strained into bottles and sweetened with a little sugar if it's to be drunk straight away. Sloe gin mellows as it ages, so if I'm storing it for a while, I don't put any sugar it when I first bottle it as what tastes right when I'm bottling can taste distinctly syrupy a year or two later. You can drink the gin three months after it's been made but it's definitely better after a year; we have one bottle left of 2006 vintage that we're drinking at the moment and it is glorious.

Picking Sloes

Did you know that the name Great Slamseys originates from the Old English meaning "enclosure of the sloe (tree) hill"?

Friday, 29 October 2010


What sort of person thinks it's a good idea to leave their rubbish like this in the middle of the countryside? Litter picked up today along a half mile stretch of footpath in two fields:

Tied to footbridge: Carrier bag containing empty Tesco Chicken Sandwich wrappers

Discarded on the ground: 3 plastic drinks bottles, 1 plastic sandwich container, 1 cigarette packet, 1 blue plastic carrier bag, 1 sweet wrapper, 1 plastic sleeve from drink, 1 plastic drinks carton

The Countryside Code is very simple - Litter and leftover food doesn't just spoil the beauty of the countryside, it can be dangerous to wildlife and farm animals and can spread disease - so take your litter home with you. Dropping litter and dumping rubbish are criminal offences.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Christmas trees and reindeer

Yesterday we went to Suffolk for a British Christmas Trees Growers Association meeting where we were ferried from one plantation to another by a tractor and trailer driven by Father Christmas.  We saw the Shropshire sheep in the plantation where they help with weed and grass control and picked up tips on growing and pruning trees. Back in the yard we looked at the reindeer with their enormous feet, went into a barn filled with an amazing display of Christmas decorations, met lots of other growers and helped decide which grower will supply the Christmas tree for Number 10.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Pork and Nuts

I could forage all day long and not keep up with the fruit, nuts and fungi about at the moment. While Morris the fox terrier sniffed out rabbits this morning in Lakes Field, I picked a carrier bag full of crab apples for our next apple pressing day and later picked up a few sweet chestnuts, which I'll heat up on the simmering plate of the AGA. The apple trees are still laden and if I pick carefully, there's still a few blackberries to be had.

 The peppers in the greenhouse are finally ripening, so I used one of them together with some of the walnuts I picked at the weekend to make this sauce for pasta.

Last week we took the three Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs (Dave, Clegg and Harriet) to be slaughtered.  They'd spent summer in the grass paddock digging holes, wallowing and generally lying about but at six months old were ready to go.  I do miss going into the field with their food; at the sound of the latch being lifted on the gate, three heads would go up and as soon as they saw the bucket of food they'd run over at quite a speed with their ears flapping.
But the point of keeping pigs every summer is so that I know the provenance of my meat and yesterday I collected seven boxes of pork from the butcher. Three of those boxes were filled with sausages and the other four were joints of various shapes and sizes. The remaining pig (and I know it's Dave because he was the biggest) is being cured so in a couple of weeks I'll have bacon and ham to collect. Not surprisingly, we had sausages for supper last night and very good they were too.

Thursday, 14 October 2010


Rolling in Gardeners Field after the wheat has been drilled.  Rolling breaks down the big clods making a finer seedbed for the grains of wheat to germinate and grow in.  Compacting the ground also makes it less hospitable to slugs.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Drilling wheat

Drilling Great Forest with wheat
It's been a glorious autumn day; the fields are drying out well and the contractors have been drilling (or sowing) wheat.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Walnuts and chillies

It's getting difficult to go into the greenhouse as the tomato plant in the corner is fighting its way out. I know I should have cut it back, but my enthusiasm for the greenhouse tomatoes wanes from September onwards and I'm just happy to pick what I can find and let the plants run riot. Yesterday, I made my way through the tomatoes to the chilli plants and picked all the chillies, which I threaded onto string and hung up to dry. These chillies seem of variable heat; I put one chilli in a dish one day and it's so mild we can hardly taste it so the next time I put two chillies in and I can still feel my lips tingling an hour after I've eaten.

I've seen so many squirrels carrying walnuts across the garden that I decided I should start picking while there's still nuts left on the tree. At the same time, I picked the pears before they dropped and as the quinces have already started to drop, I picked a few up from the ground. I've left the pears to ripen and the quince are sitting in the bowl until I get round to using them. I have a big basketful of walnuts so we had Waldorf salad yesterday and coffee & walnut cake for tea tonight.
This afternoon was glorious so we walked across the fields to see if they're ready to drill (they are) and then checked the fences in the paddock as one of the horses escaped into our neighbour's garden yesterday.  There's a broken post and some loose wire alongside their garden and further round, the horses have eaten right through one of the rails, so it looks as if there's a little fencing work to go on the list of jobs to do.

Thursday, 7 October 2010


The pigs were brought inside last night from their rather muddy field and were tagged with their identification numbers and left to clean themselves up on the straw overnight.  Then this morning we loaded them up in the livestock trailer, completed all the FSA and defra paperwork and took the pigs off to the abattoir.  Luckily we only have to go five minutes down the road so it's all pretty stress free. We had to wait a few minutes while a trailer load of sheep were unloaded and then Dave, Clegg and Harriet were walked into their pen in their usual unhurried style.  Forms were completed and handed over, details chalked on the pen of the gate and we went off to wash out the trailer, leaving the pigs to their fate.  They will be slaughtered today and hung in the cold store until they are cut up on Monday.  One of the pigs (Dave probably as he was the biggest) will be cured so that we get bacon and gammon, while the other two will be cut into pork joints and made into sausages.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Apple Pressing

The apples are ripening and falling from the trees, much to the delight of the chickens and pigs who eat the windfalls, so armed with trugs and baskets we set out on Saturday morning and picked a variety of apples.  

Sunday morning we assembled our Apple Pressing team and chopped and sliced our way through the piles of apples in the sunshine until it rained and we all had to move into the garage.


The apples were then put through the (very clean) garden shredder and the resulting pulp went into the press. 

After a bit of hammering and pushing and pulling, the screw was tightened and the juice flowed.  This was collected and transferred to large plastic fermenting bins.



The spent pulp was spread around the bottom of the hedges, in the hope that a stray pip might germinate and produce some wonderful new apple tree.

At the end of the day, all the equipment was pressure washed clean and we sat down to supper washed down with bottles of last year's cider.  Meanwhile, the juice is frothing and bubbling away, slowly turning to cider.

Friday, 1 October 2010


  My vegetable garden looks wet and bedraggled; even the scarecrow has flopped over as if it's just too much effort to stand any longer. I pulled up all the tomato plants this morning so now have a mountainous compost heap and a basketful of tomatoes in a myriad of green, orange and red colours. 
 Meanwhile, I'm still deciding what to do with my knitted carrots and peas. Maybe I should make them into brooches as a veggie take on a corsage or … well, I'm not really sure what else I can do with them.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Hedgerow Cordial

Eager to beat the devil before he spits on the blackberries, I've been along the hedgerows picking blackberries, elderberries, crab apples, hips, haws and sloes to make cordial and I now have three bottles of beautiful deep inky purple liquid, which I hope will taste as good as it looks. It seems to sum up autumn. Sadly, the same dark residue under my fingernails looks less than attractive.

Pruning Christmas Trees

It's been a nice sunny day today for pruning Christmas trees. These trees are about five years old and Bill is pruning them so they keep a good shape.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Monday, 13 September 2010

Making Bread

For the past few years I have made most of the bread that we eat and though to start with my loaves were a bit hit and miss, which could explain why my children were always keen to eat school lunches instead of taking sandwiches, I persisted and now there are only occasional comments about the weight of a loaf. I was buying my flour from the local miller, even though we grow tonnes of breadmaking quality wheat on the farm, so decided to try milling some of our own wheat. We use a handmill to grind up small amounts of wheat to test it for moisture but it takes such small quantities that it took an hour to grind enough for one loaf.  So that was a non starter. Then I found a beautiful wooden electric grain mill that grinds wheat at the press of a button, so now I make flour from the wheat that is grown on the farm.  I only grind flour as and when I need it, as the oil in the wheatgerm will make it go rancid if it is kept too long and from June I stop using our wheat as I worry that it will warm up too much and start going off. So after a summer of using bought white flour, this weekend I baked the first batch of bread using this year's wheat and it smelt delicious – just like harvest all over again. It tasted pretty good too.

Monday, 6 September 2010

seed cleaning

The mobile seed cleaner arrived on Saturday.  Wheat that was combined last month goes in one end of the machine and has all the debris and light grains taken out, then gets a chemical dressing to protect it, before emerging down a chute into the waiting bag. This wheat will now be sown in the ground to make next year's crop. 

Friday, 3 September 2010

Harvest is over

The wheat was finished ages ago, but we've been waiting for the beans in The Ley and Lakes to dry.  Bill tested them last week and said they were as "soft as soup" but they finally dried out and were combined today.

 I love this time of year when harvest is over and September begins.  This summer seemed to alternate between rain and sun, which made harvest particularly difficult and unpredictable, so it's good to get back to normality now all the crops are cut.  Far from the romantic notion of harvest conjured up by television and The Archers, no-one here has the time to drop into the local pub for lunch or sit in the field with a tea-time spread conjured up from a wicker hamper provided by a doting wife.  It's more a case of wolfing down warm sandwiches and a melted chocolate biscuit in a spare moment and cursing because the Thermos flask has got stuck under the tractor seat again and shattered the inside.

September is about new beginnings whether the new shoes and pencil case of schooldays, new school or college, new netball season (surely we must win our division this year) or new crops in the ground.  I love to open the back door in the mornings and breathe in the damp air with the slight smell of apples and that lovely earthiness when they're ploughing.  The blackberries are ripe for picking, the autumn raspberries are so abundant this year I'm struggling to keep up and life is good.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Making blackberry freezer jam

The blackberries are starting to ripen in the hedgerows so I picked some and made freezer jam

ripening blackberries
crab apples

hips, haws & berries

The earliest blackberries are alongside the bridleway in Great Forest and there's lots of rosehips, hawthorn berries and sloes in the hedges too.  The photos were taken by the footbridge into Lakes Field.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Lemon & Marrow Marmalade

The vegetable garden is looking rather chaotic and disorderly at the moment. The sugar snap peas and the rhubarb leaves are dying off and the coriander is going to seed. The climbing beans are providing us with enough for supper every evening and the beetroot is growing faster than I can keep up with but there's only a couple of carrots left. Earlier in the week I missed the courgette hiding under the leaves and by the time I saw it, the wretched thing had grown enormous and everybody moaned at the prospect of another stuffed marrow. So today I've made some Lemon & Marrow Marmalade, which sounds disgusting but tastes wonderful. The marrow turns translucent and infused with lemons so that you really wouldn't know it was marrow at all. I sometimes eat it like a sweet chutney with goats cheese or a chunk of Wensleydale, but generally spread it on my toast.

Ploughing Great Forest field

Today we are ploughing in Great Forest.  We need to prepare the land for the seed and use the plough to lift and turn the soil, creating a line of furrows in the field.  This loosens the soil and buries the remains of last year's crop and weeds.