Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Treasure grove

After eight months of hard graft we have had a slight change of tack work-wise to take advantage of the improving weather and approaching summer. 

It started with an improvement to the approach to Grove Farm  itself  - a new cast aluminium sign. A symbolic and visual improvement of the entrance to our driveway , giving a sense that things will be changing for the better with the investment of effort and attention to details.

It was only when it was up that I thought it looked just a little bit "National Trust"-ish which is no bad thing I suppose.

 (The reflection in sign corner is Dalhousie castle  )

An email from the manufacturer said they "liked the quality pillar" which sort of summed up what I was trying to achieve in a strangely amusing way.

More importantly it now means delivery drivers can find us  !

The woodland to the right side of the pillar was originally marked on maps as "Fancy Grove Woods" . Since the 1950's , about two hectares of woodland had been removed to create fields more than halving the woodland in size . Not only that, but many of the larger more mature trees within the surviving woodland have either died or been cut down. Unfortunately there has been no obvious recent planned replanting so there is little in the way of the "Fancy" left. The woods nearer the castle certainly contain a more impressive selection of different trees and we intend to plant some new stock at some point in the next few years.

The lack of recent woodland management has meant that the rhododendrons are quickly monopolising the area. Although this is proving very beautiful, (at the moment they are all coming into flower),  their beauty hides the fact that the woodland is effectively dying underneath them. The rhodo's crowd out the native plants light , absorb their nutrients and effectively 'poison' the soil to all but other rhodo's.

I'm not sure of the variant names but there appear to be at least three distinct colours - this lurid reddish pink type; the standard purple R~ Ponticum and a white variety as well.

As soon as we had finished rebuilding the end of the big shed I was keen that we did some woodland work to re-invigorate our  enthusiasm for what was "the grove" rather than "the farm" part of "Grove Farm".

So first the barn... (being re-built - not  further dismantled !)

then starting to recover the soil next to it...

April has now planted sunflowers and a pumpkin and squash patch on the above spot.

The topsoil had been buried for many decades under the old silo shed and concrete so we're not expecting much from it this year. The wall in the lower corner of above photo is probably part of an  original building from 1807 that we uncovered and will retain.

Remember it used to look like this ...

The pumpkin patch would be immediately behind this shed where the grain silos once stood. The newly discovered wall was under that concrete slab wall in the above photo !

The great pile of manure has been supplied by "the beasts" that are helping in their own way to revitalise the place in a sustainable way. I suspect theres been many hundreds of tonnes of manure shovelled by former inhabitants here over two centuries so it is starting to feel more like a walled garden than a derelict scrapyard.

The mules have also been giving Willow some entertainment although she has already upgraded her aspirations by discussing with our neighbours six year old daughter on going half shares on the pony !

(Maybe I'll fill the fields up with trees instead ! Quickly !)

Another interesting discovery was this white glass bottle I found lying in plain view under a rhodo bush in the wood.

Some internet sleuthing  revealed it is an Edwardian tooth powder container , design registered in 1884 so certainly over 100 years old. This was quite exciting , until I found another for sale on eBay for £3.25 ! It sort of lost its  "treasure" aura after that !

Another found gem in the woods is the most mature rhododendron tree by the entrance from walled field into the woodland track to the castle. I'm intending chopping down all the purple rhodo's over the next few years since they are classed as an invasive non-native plant and there is some modest funding available to help remove it. It will be no mean task I suspect and my funding (if I get it) will be spent on sharp tools,  beer and food to supply a hungry volunteer workforce.

Is that enough to encourage you down for a days hacking on a sunny day ?

Yes, you !

Originally the walk through the door above into the woods was almost impassable. With a few days work (to get a sense of the difficulties that may lay ahead) we have cleared a small area of the rhodo's and cherry laurels which had grown into an impressive impenetrable mess. The last one in that area is about to meet the chainsaw in photo below !

It now looks like this ... (CTRL+ click to enlarge further in new window)

This has opened  a completely new area for the kids to play and I've been busily distracting myself entertaining the kids using my Boy Scout knowledge of camps, pioneering and knot tying !

I almost impressed myself with my creativity... give that ex-Scout a badge Skip !

In fact this recent "work" has been perhaps the most enjoyable part of being at Grove Farm so far.  I suspect its because it truly fits with the real reason that we moved here.

The building work can be satisfying and the restoration work is important from a historical perspective, but most importantly it is becoming a fantastic place for the kids to grow up and supply a wealth of positive memories for us all in the years to come.

So it turns out there really is treasure in the woods ,

"these are my jewels"...

and it looks like the pirates have found them !

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Going green

"I love spring ,
I love spring,
I love the way the flowers grow ,
Tulips and daffodils all in a row,
I love spring !"

Well ,it arrived at last, and Willow's nursery song just about sums up the excitement of everything coming back to life after the harshest winter in years. Welcome back Spring !

The recent digging, although still turning parts of the farm into a brown dustbowl, has now been surrounded by lush green. It is our first Spring at Grove Farm it is wonderful to be greeted every day by something entirely new to us. The photo above shows the first time this doorway has been opened for many decades. It had been ivy-bound, partly buried, nailed and jammed shut with a large rock.  It felt quite symbolic for a new family to be stepping through it, as many must have done in the last 200 years.

 The valley opposite turned into a many-hued wall of green with generous daubings of white blossom from the  wild cherry trees. All the trees mean we have become almost entirely invisible to other houses again, just a few distant street lights can be seen at night.  The farm was described to me by as being like  "an oasis" and it is certainly starting to feel like that in the recent hot weather ! The brick walls were designed to catch the heat - its already topped 30 degrees Celcius in the conservatory (with the doors wide open !)

The cats are gorging themselves (and puking up) on  mice and shrews; the pigeons were eating the neighbouring cornfield  and then being eaten themselves by hawks and hunters. The swallows have returned to live in the old low barns and Dad thinks he saw an otter in the river. Several pheasants have been strutting around comically and some holidaying ponies have joined the mules to munch the verdant looking field. A rather idyllic pastoral scene indeed.

All sorts of things have been springing up. Not sure what this is but theres quite a lot of it !
(I have now bee told its...Equisetum arvense, commonly known as the Field Horsetail or Common Horsetail)

First up, of course, are the weeds. A small stand of Japanese Knotweed , the terror of land managers and developers everywhere, has been earmarked for imminent herbicide poisoning but before doing that I found out online you can make both 'fool' and tea from it.
Mmmm, healthy ,rhubarb flavoured tea... (Itadora tea in Japan)

Better known is making stuff from nettles of which we now have LOTS- think an acre or two !
Being busy I decided to make use of the local labour force to pick some choice nettle tips...

which quickly went from this... (thats only half the nettles I used !)

into this... first attempt at homebrewed booze. Recipe here if you want to try it.

40 pints of nettle ale at over 5% alcohol. It needs to sit for a week or so yet to settle, so I dont know whether the effort was worth picking another load. Not so sure the local kids will be prepared to pick those stinging nettles again  though ! "Mum, I've stung myself AGAIN!"

One thing the kids have enjoyed is picking stuff from our small "test" veg patch. This is the very first thing that came from it - a radish ! (Or a "wee MacGregor" if you watch Mr Blooms nursery on CBeebies) It felt somewhat triumphant (even as an adult!) to have grown something after recent "building" work

Plenty more where that came from, the glasshouse is starting to be put to good use as well. These are  April's latest seeds underway. At the other end Dad has a variety of things underway as well. 

Strawberries, courgettes ,melons, parsnips, radish, lettuce, onions, garlic, carrots, peppers,salad, sweetcorn, six types of potato, cabbage, peas, beans, six types of tomatoes, sunflowers en masse and probably more besides . There were about 20 pumpkin plants as well (honest!) but the frost killed them, so we still have lots to learn.(Although that has saved me spending a week carving them all at Hallowe'en!)

The vines are coming back to life thankfully- amazing after the hacking I gave them to get them back under control ! They really are a symbol of rebirth if ever there was one. Just HOW do those wizzened old sticks turn into such explosive growth and then grapes and wine !?. Just a joy to behold the transformative power of the new season.

Plenty of other hacking has been going on. Any excuse to burn yet another big pile of wood  !

The cedar tree winter damage is now all sawn up for next winters logs or burnt. Very pleasant it was too , having a fire down by the river. Smile if you agree ! 

The fields and woods have come alive in succession with snowdrops, daffodils and narcicuss, primrose, bluebells, sorrel, wild garlic, wood anemone ,gorse, broom,violets, wild strawberry and so much more beside I've just bought a spotters guide to wildflowers - I must be going green myself !

Our latest diversion (from real 'work') has been grafting (for 'fun') at clearing the entrance to woods from the walled field. Its a jungle in there ! When we first visited it was actually impassable  - I have now almost finished opening the track up to tractor-width through the whole woods, so we can extract some winter fuel and start manageing the horrendous rhododendron sprawl. The rhododendrons were the first to meet yet another power tool in my hands !

No, not the chainsaw - I'd hardly started with that before my green stick-like glasses went winging their way into the green stick-like undergrowth. Lucky I had just been given a metal detector the week before  (funny how these things happen !) Would you have spotted them before blindly treading on them?

It been a real pleasure having this as a weekend diversion because it is an area which has become derelict (in human terms) through the incessant power of Nature and not through the casual untidyness of previous owners. Having said that, both the rhododendrons and cherry laurel were planted deliberately during the gardens heyday- this was obvious when they were hacked hard to the ground - all neatly spaced and ironically showing signs that a previous owner had also hacked them right to the ground at some point - and even set fire to them. Whether they're still there for future owners to vent their destructive weekend energy on remains to be seen ! It was also good because April can equally assist in clearing the fallen branches while the kids learn to play in the woods. (No photos to prove that , sorry !)

One job did come to a sort of final conclusion, the big caravan is now plumbed and powered up and we had my brothers family (which is also  April's sisters family!) come and stay for a weekend. So if you're in need of a caravan break and dont mind chopping, digging, sunbathing, gardening or just being here then get in touch !

Still in the yard, much of the last month entailed digging up the seemingly endless layers of demolished sheds to try and find some soil underneath. There were at least three distinct layers of buildings in the area that originally held the big metal silos (see earlier blog posts). They comprised  two layers of concrete slabbed sheds and then a cinder pathed original building of brick and sandstone - of which just three courses of foundation brick and a long stone wall remained. We'll keep the stone wall intact ,the bricks and tonnes of earthy "hardcore" are now up the hill on the massive pile. The ground level has dropped over two feet in places !

And below all that ... soil ! A pH and soil test today reveals it is "Depleted" of everything so we're not done yet. But at least the heavy lifting is done for a while, it was getting ridiculous !

The digger had to go back to its owner , many thanks for its generous loan Martin ! Hopefully it will come back to play again in the future - theres still plenty to do.  

Green is good but red diesel power is better !