Category Archives: Gardening

Chicken Update – 7 weeks later!

We are about 7 weeks into our chickens and it is going really well.  I think eggs are more expensive (with all the additional costs of keeping chickens) but I’ll do a proper reckoning when we have a better estimate on how quickly we go through bedding.  But we are enjoying having them so much and our compost production system is now getting to levels which might meet as much as 1/3 of our needs.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gardener with a veg plot is in want of more compost.

So here is episode 6 of Tales from Westwick all about chickens.


Hot composting – not so hot

Becky and I are obviously very keen to produce as much of our own compost as possible, given how much land we’re trying to keep nicely fertile. I’ll be writing about plans for composting all our garden waste in a later post, but here I want to talk about composting our food waste.

Almost anything you can eat will compost down eventually, but a lot of food waste isn’t put onto traditional garden composters because it will attract rats and other nasties. Moreover, some composting advice indicates not to compost meat, for instance, as it will not break down properly.

However, some modern plastic composters are designed to be used with food. They are protected from pests and designed to build up heat to a level where even meat will break down quickly. In theory, that is.


At our previous home, we had a Green Johanna, a bin shaped like a dalek which claimed to be able to compost food. We merrily chucked in whatever we felt like – peelings, stems and so forth, of course, but also leftovers, bones, and more. Perhaps unsurprisingly in retrospect, this did not compost terribly well, and attracted lots of flies that seemed quite happy to live inside the compost bin. It didn’t get hot. We did eventually get out some very compacted, muddy stuff out of the bottom which seemed to have broken down ok, but took a very long time about it.

Once we arrived at Westwick, we discovered that the local council did not do food recycling (an oversight they have recently rectified), so that all our food waste would have to go to landfill. Naturally we were keen to get composting again as soon as possible, but wary after our experience from before. I decided to invest in a Hotbin, which is essentially a massive hollow block of polystyrene with airvents.

A shiny new Hotbin.

With the Hotbin, I got a bit more serious about composting. I read up about what you should put in, brown vs green waste, nitrogen-rich vs carbon-rich, and so forth. I realised that it wasn’t at all surprising that our Green Johanna had failed to come up with the goods; indeed, it was us that had failed, not the composter. A few things we got wrong:

  • Not including sufficient “brown” waste i.e. wood and other high-carbon material.
  • Not cutting up either the “green” or the “brown” waste into small enough chunks (we would throw whole pineapple tops into the composter, for example).
  • Putting things in the composter, like bones, that would take too long to compost even at high temperatures.

It took us quite a long time to get started with the Hotbin, even so. The instructions say you need a “base layer” 40cm deep to get it to heat up. This turned out to be quite a lot of waste, which, built up over time, didn’t then magically get hot straight away. Once again, we underestimated the amount of brown waste required, by a significant margin. However, once we had realised our mistake, we started adding a lot more, we got the composted cooking, and soon it had reached 40 degrees C, and later 50 and even occasionally 60. These are the temperatures you want to reach for hot composting. We have been using straw from our pigs as brown waste, which certainly seems to do the trick temperature-wise.

Digging this lot out took quite a while.

Digging this lot out took quite a while.

Nevertheless it took too long to get started and the waste at the bottom of the composter never heated up – we were composting at the top but with putrifying food at the bottom. I dug the base layer out , let it dry for a couple of hours and returned it to the composter with large amounts of brown waste added.

Since that time we’ve had the composter operating at a high temperature most of the time. But for whatever reason, the bottom layer is still not fully composted – and has gone compacted and cold. There is a significant amount of uncomposted food amongst what looks like otherwise decent compost. Brown liquid has been leaking out of the bottom, with a smell not altogether dissimilar to raw sewage, and the “compost” itself stinks – not a good sign. We still don’t have anything we could put on our garden, and the composter is pretty much full.

Not what our compost ought to look like.

Not what our compost ought to look like.

I’ve had to dig it out again, and because of the weight of material above, this meant digging the whole thing out, since as I dug out the waste at the front, the stuff above collapsed down blocking access to the older waste at the back of the composter. This time, I’ve waited for a sunny day and laid the waste out on a tarpaulin to dry in the sun. I’ve put it back in with a bit more straw added, and am hoping this will do the trick.

If not, there’s one more trick to try. The instructions for our Hotbin mentioned using shredded paper as “dry” waste to balance out the “wet” waste (i.e. cooked food). We had been assuming that straw would be perfectly good as a substitute since both appear to be “brown” waste. But we’re now wondering if the paper’s absorbency helps to mop up excess fluid in a way that straw can’t. If necessary, I’ll dig it out a third time and add shredded paper.

Our Hotbin is now completely full, and indeed I’ve had to put some of the waste from it into the council’s food recycling bin to make space for additional straw. We’ll have to throw things into the recycling that we would have liked to compost. It has been quite a learning curve and we still haven’t mastered it. I’m hopeful that we’ll get there in the end, but at the rate we’re progressing it may be that we will have had our Hotbin for a year before we get the first usable compost out of it.

The Good Things

Elizabeth from the Margot and Barbara blog (I can’t tell how you much I *love* that title!) has suggested people write happy posts, about The Good Things.

I wholeheartedly support the idea of recording The Good Things and so here is my first post, as unlikely as it seems…

1. Weeding the Vegetable Patch

"I think you'll find those are *my* weeds."

“I think you’ll find those are *my* weeds.”

Why, on Earth, would this be a good thing?

Well I can tell you it wasn’t always a good thing and there are still aspects of it I don’t like – namely all that bending over. But this is the first time I’ve had a vegetable patch next to a pig pen.  It is a revelation! I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to pull up a handful of weeds and casually toss them into the pen only to have the pigs race for the fresh greens as if they were the most delicious treat.  Listening to them grunt and snuffle their way through the pile of weeds is so satisfying.  Composting weeds is all well and good but having the animals get such enjoyment out of eating them is great and makes me feel closer to fulfilling my Permaculture principles – Maximum yield, minimum cost and effort.

The Good Things

My Other Shed is made of Wood

I really think that getting back into my gardening groove has helped our luck.  After yesterday’s extravaganza of planting, today I worked out a whole list of plants I can plant now to fill the gap in the brassica section (and bought some seeds to fulfil my plan), I planted 3 large pots of parsley, 1 pot of clary sage and 1 large tray of kohl rabi.  I’m starting everything in pots so I can better protect them from the evil slugs.

So the good news is that we met some lovely people today who might… might want to keep a beehive in our orchard!  This is very exciting news.  It might come to nothing but it would be so exciting to have some bees buzzing around pollinating all our vegetables. I also found a spare packet of basil seeds that I forgot about!

"Two Sheds" Josh.

“Two Sheds” Josh.

When we first moved here the house came with a shed.  But it was far too small for our needs.  Keeping pigs and planning to keep hens comes with a need to store equipment, straw and feed.  Then we have all the garden tools you would expect from people who have a huge garden and vegetable patch.  So fairly early on this year we bought a new and bigger shed to which we transferred all most of our gardening equipment and the broken chest freezer (thanks Freecycle!) we use for storing pig feed.

But I was determined to keep the old one, it was the green thing to do after all. The new-old shed was in good working order, just a little small, and I knew we would outgrow the new shed very quickly.  We keep 2-3 bales of straw around at a time and I really wanted somewhere to put all that straw – somewhere that was not our verandah.  Verandah’s are for lounging on with cool minty drinks, not for storing straw, kindling and other bittes and oddses (ours is a work in progress!)

After successfully scavenging free concrete slabs for the base of the new-old shed, Josh was fired up to get it up as quickly as possible.  In a relatively short space of time he’d finished putting the shed up and filled it with the bales.

I feel like we have made incredible progress on our Tinyholding in just the last 6 months and having the pig hutch, the new-new shed (with water and electrics) and the new-old shed all up and working contributes a lot to that.  We are not DIY naturals but Josh in particular is getting really good and picking up new skills all the time.

Looking down the garden now I can just see the end of the new-old shed begging for a bit of bunting to cheer it up!

In other news I went up a ladder and had a good squeeze of our Parma Ham which is drying the verandah.  This is the first time I’ve dared do it (I still haven’t opened it up for a sneaky peak).  To my delight it was really solid and hard with no soft or spongy sections (which I’m assuming would imply it was rotten).  We only have about 1 month to go before eating it!

Full Steam Ahead

Yesterday I wrote about a number of minor setbacks catching me on the raw.  Thankfully they were all silly and minor but obviously minor things don’t always feel that way.

I was determined to make sure I had a great day today… no matter what! I made sure of it 🙂

Golden Sweet Mangetout - so close to being ready!

Golden Sweet Mangetout – so close to being ready!

Firstly our roof was fixed.  It has been leaking for ages, we have been through many temporary fixes and this time I think we have cracked it.  Fingers crossed.  Getting the work done was simple, quick, painless and not too expensive.

Secondly it was Transition Chesterfield’s repair cafe today.  I didn’t sit on the repairing crew this time (next time I’ll volunteer for clothes mending).  I won’t say too much about it as I want to do a separate post on the whole Repair Cafe (which was awesome!) but I got most of my bike fixed (and I know what is wrong with the rest), I got told what was wrong with an old bottle steriliser (should be simple to fix once we get a small part) and I came away with 2 replacement courgettes, and a bag full of denim scraps for patchworking and mending some of our own jeans.

Big basket of denim scraps and a nearly mended steriliser.

Big basket of denim scraps and a nearly mended steriliser.

Then we walked back in the sunshine and I took a quick break before hitting the garden… and hitting it hard!

I potted out the 2 courgettes from C, 4 tomatoes, 1 mountain mint, 1 french tarragon.

Lots of tomatoes - really tiny still but I'm hoping they'll make it.

Lots of tomatoes – really tiny still but I’m hoping they’ll make it.

I sowed 4 pots chives, 2 pots summer savory, 2 pots of basil, 1 pot of bergamot.

Lots of mint - all safely tucked up in pots.

Lots of mint – all safely tucked up in pots.

I’m starting everything in pots because it is easier to protect them my Nemesis – the slug!

Then I had a quick visit to the pig pen and admired my mangetout and redcurrants – they are both so very nearly ready and looking grand!.

Dark skies, red currents.

Dark skies, red currents.

AND I got another sock mended. Back down to 10 socks to mend.

Catching you on the Raw…

“Catching you on the Raw.” It’s a funny little phrase we have in our family for describing something minor which happens when you are already feeling low and spirals into something which feels much worse than it really it. Or when lots of little things add up and you get the same effect.

Today things have been mostly catching me on the raw.

I know I am lucky that we have a decent income and don’t depend on our tinyholding to feed us.  I’d like to source most of our veg from the tinyholding but we don’t have to and on some level I know we need to build up slowly to get where I want to go.  But as I sit and watch a million and one prolific and abundant vegetable plots emerging throughout blogland at this time of year I will admit to feeling tired, jealous and a little down.

I decided I would write a post about the days it goes badly – with all the glorious bad pictures, because otherwise blogland can look unattainably perfect. Once I’ve put this all out there I can pick myself up, plant some more seeds and move on.

Thing the first… bread making

See that white stuff, that is a flour crust on a loaf with the texture of a brick.

See that white stuff, that is a flour crust on a loaf with the texture of a brick.

We make all our bread in a bread maker.  Maybe one day I’ll get back to handmade bread but for our current lifestyle (read: busy chasing a baby down every 5 seconds – how can he crawl so fast!!!!) a bread maker is perfect.  We can time it so that it is fresh and ready to eat when we get up and we still avoid eating any bread which has more than 5 ingredients in it (unless we add something weird like sun dried tomatoes or raisins!)

But sometimes the bread maker doesn’t work and this is the “bread” you get.

The kneading part of the programme failed and when that happens in a bread maker you lose the whole loaf – you can’t rescue it as you might with hand kneading.  Mostly our bread maker is reliable.  But sometimes it isn’t.  Annoyingly I’ll have to make another loaf to check if it was a one off or a wider problem and risk wasting more ingredients. It also mean another guilt ridden trip to the expensive mini-tescos.  Gah!

Thing the second… Slugs


This *was* my biggest and best Cavelo Nero.  I'm hoping she can recover and survive.

This *was* my biggest and best Cavelo Nero. I’m hoping she can recover and survive.

I know I’ve been mentioning my hatred of them on this blog for sometime.  But this morning when I went to feed the pigs it was just a disaster.  The brassica patch (the largest part of the veg patch this year) has been decimated.  Maybe some of the seedlings will pull through but I just wanted to cry.

All over the place everyone’s vegetable gardens look amazing.  Mine looks bare, with plants that are struggling to get established or half eaten.  The peas and potatoes are doing fine but everything else looks terrible and just today I have been struggling to maintain optimism about it. I’ve been growing veg on and off for a while, so I can’t claim to be a beginner but it just looks like I don’t know what I’m doing.  This morning all I could see was all the time, energy and money (on seeds) which was totally wasted.  I’m not even keeping a tally of what the slugs have eaten now it is too depressing and measured in whole packets of seed gone to waste, I can literally cost out how much money they have eaten.

Thing the third… holes in socks.


tiny hole - still takes 30 mins to fix!

tiny hole – still takes 30 mins to fix!

I’ve a big post planned on darning socks.  I had a pile of 12 pairs to mend a couple of days ago and managed two pairs in the last two days getting the pile down to 10.  As of this morning it is back up to 11.  Darning feels never ending at the moment.

I’d be able to take more joy in the simple work if a) there wasn’t so damn many of them! and b) the bread and the slugs.  But when I get through the whole pile I will feel amazing.  So I guess I have a date with a darning mushroom again tonight.

I know I need to get back out there and sow some more stuff.  I know the only thing I can do is push through this, keep going, plant more, put down more slug traps, go out in the evening and pick them off one by one.  I know gardening is a slow process and what happens this year will be different to next.  I know I just need to have faith.  I’m just glad that I’m not having to rely on it to feed us.

I’m not looking for advice, I just wanted to write out the frustration . If this blog is going to be worth anything to me I need to write the bad days along with the good days.

I’ve got a 101 solutions to try next year.  But sympathy is much appreciated.

I did eat my first peas today.  A little early but sometimes you need a pick me up!

yum yum!

Variety: Hatif d’Annonay.