Thursday, 7 January 2016

Historically thinking, Sissinghurst 2011 - Exciting times!

The year began in mists and mellow fruitfulness.... hang on? Wait that shouldn't be right?
but it was....
Entrance to the plot March 2011

Productive polytunnels, March 2011

Productive polytunnels, March 2011

Looking towards the tower, March 2011
After the hard winter we were treated to a beautiful warm spring. Which of course meant everything was growing like billy'o!
Amy, realising my OCD's, had let me loose in the polytunnels over winter and everything was growing in beautifully straight lines not a weed in sight. So satisfying & productive. Now it was time to start harvesting the Rhubarb which we had forced under non traditional but very useful black plastic bins and finishing any of the jobs on the fruit we had run out of time to achieve the previous year. We made a great team and had bonded in those long winter months. With the volunteers fully committed to its success and our seasonals soon to rejoin we hit the ground running. This year we had a cunning plan!
Ready and waiting! The volunteers start the Rhubarb harvest.

Pruning and training the Blackberry x's
Our cunning plan was a 3 stage one and the first part involved straw, lots of straw! I'd had an idea of using it to smother the weeds in between crops, thus reducing the amount of time we would spend weeding and it would also act as a mulch on our beautiful clay soil, vastly reducing our need to spend hours watering. Id done something similar at Ryton but no where near this scale! It was going to be a huge undertaking but we hoped it would mean that we could increase production and yield over the site. We were working in experimental and exciting times, not just in Organic terms but in National Trust terms, as i mentioned before, this venture was a huge step for them and quite frankly it made a few people nervous, quite rightly as it was Sissinghurst it reflected on and we all knew that.
Prior to spading, straw bales positioned around the field April 2011

Straw laid out and planting begins! April 2011
Also this was the year we expected our newly planted Orchard to start producing results. We finished planting with the Cherries and Gages, the last few rows of Apples had been planted out in early March in horrible conditions, the planting holes filling with water as soon as they'd been dug but we'd done it. Now we all took a moment to sneak up there to see the blossoms as they turned to fruit.
Orchard April 2011

Great expectations, April 2011
By June though the weather turned unseasonably cool, we all reverted to wearing jackets on this windswept site and worries over progress of the crops increased. It was hard to watch Pumpkins and Squashes struggle, unable to do anything about it. My giant Pumpkins, from special seed saved from Audrey (an absolutely ridiculously huge pumpkin id grown at Ryton) were sulking in their little nests id built them but they were surviving, just. In the polytunnels the Tomatoes, many of them H.S.L. varieties were happily fruiting but not colouring up as yet and the melons had suffered, although the Cucumbers were coming along beautifully. The onions which we experimented with a straw mulch were not doing as well as wed hoped, the straw was too thick and we'd placed it too close, they wanted more dry hot weather to really develop. Salad crops however were loving this cool weather and the Lettuce beds although a tad weedy were incredibly productive. The fruit was and had been going well for a while, the warm start had given us a bumper crop of Gooseberries, black and red currants and now the Raspberries! Keeping up with harvesting was a full time occupation.

Being a lover of warmth i tend the Cucumbers, June 2011

Tomatoes putting on good growth and fruit, June 2011
 Our hardy seasonals and volunteers donned jackets and toughed it out until the weather improved.
Karen looking windswept & glamorous as always

Mike our oldest and most determined volunteer

The potato crop although looking promising failed to live up to expectations

July brought with it warmth and once more buoyant spirits! I was given ownership of the Herb Garden as well as the polytunnels, my increasing responsibility reflecting Amy's confidence in my abilities (i hope) and also allowing her more time to devote to the organisation essential to the smooth running of the plot and also to the demanding tasks of budgets and meetings etc essential to working in the Trust. We often worked in tandem with the volunteers, Amy would set the tasks for the day, we would explain what was needed together and sometimes she would be able to work alongside us,sometimes not. Other times i would go off to spend my day strimming, relying on the seasonals to guide the vol's activities. Together as a team we were improving not only productivity but also the publics perception of this vast field!
July 2011

Herb Garden, making progress, July 2011
We also for the very first time had some awesome piglets come to live with us. These guys were great, they were housed on our fallow land and did a great job of clearing weeds but more than that, they gave visitors a chance to interact with them. They were loaned to us by the resident farmer and were Saddleback's, due to the high amount of interaction they received from us and the visitors they became incredibly friendly and would run over to have their bellies rubbed just like dogs. This in some ways was a little tough as they were always destined to become part of the food chain and to not get attached to them was so hard. An important lesson to us all though, as i really believe that if you are going to eat meat you should be very aware of what this means. I am very committed to animals being raised in a good environment as these guys were and i think we should all be aware of the horrors of factory farming. I myself eat meat but i know this is hard for some people to understand and sometimes even harder for them to take emotionally and sadly I've lost a friend over this in the past.

Piggies lost in the grass! July 2011

"Have you got food?" July 2011
Then before we knew it Smallholders was on us again! Where was the year going? This year i was happily able to be fully involved and had prepared a few props to decorate our stall, we were all so excited to showcase our production.
The veg pallet beds, growing Organically in a small space

Our cut flowers sold like hot cakes

As did our Organic produce

The team, happy and relaxing, with a small local beer
Its fair to say the year had been a success but we weren't prepared to sit on our laurels.... or marrows for that matter. So as the year pushed on we implemented operation 2 of "The cunning Plan!"
So what was this?
Well firstly we wanted to make sure that as the cold weather dropped in on us we didn't drop off the radar of our visitors, they may be put off visiting the plot by the cold and the mud but we could always showcase the veg garden to them. This we were going to achieve with Audreys babies. Not as big as their mama they were still pretty spectacular and earlier in the year we had slid pallets under their great mass to allow better growth and air circulation. It worked and now the time had come to harvest them. Also we had managed to persuade the PTB that as the pigs had been a success with visitor interaction perhaps something more permanent could be introduced in the form of ex battery hens, given a new free range home.
One of Audreys babies

The ex batts came to us in a shocking state.
The chooks when they arrived were in very poor condition, scared of being outside for the first time in their lives, never knowing a kind touch. They were horribly underweight, beaks clipped and nails overgrown but made great progress very quickly and as soon as the moult was over started laying over a dozen eggs a day from 9 of them. Sadly there were 10 to start but one was in such a bad way she never made the transition.

Audreys baby 1 outside the plant shop

Audreys baby 2 in residence outside the restaurant

Florence Fennel
At the close of the year we could very proudly say it had been a success, we had increased production overall, increased visitor engagement and enjoyment. We were getting positive feedback at last! Experimenting with different growing methods had overall been a great success and even the ones that weren't were a valuable learning experience. The feather on our caps for this year was an amazing crop of Florence Fennel, notoriously difficult to grow and seen as a premium crop we had discovered the trick to not only growing it well but to a size far greater than that available in your local supermarket. Now was time to implement stage 3 of "The Cunning Plan!"
To be continued.....

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