The trials and tribulations of a novice propagator

This year was my first time using a second-hand home-made propagator. The theory seems excellent – get seedlings started early under artificial temperatures and light before moving them to the polytunnel. The tomatoes liked it, but the aubergine and peppers have sulked to a slow death not helped by an erratic hardening off period.

What lighting regime works best for seedlings?

My well insulated box, tucked in a dark shed has kept a steady 18-20 degrees C and the fluorescent tube has been glowing 14 hours a day. I didn’t let the light regime run 24 hours a day as I thought the plants would need some time to breath. The pepper and aubergine seedlings popped up and then seemed to stop. Consulting my polytunnel bible I decided that this was ‘normal’ perhaps because the root systems established.

Woodlice love bell peppers

Well, after years of considering woodlice harmless humus makers, I now discover that they are sneaky little pepper predators. Part of the reason for my ailing crop is that I used old compost apparently filled with yet-to-be-born woodlice. Of my seedlings they preferentially demolished the tiny hearts of my pepper seedlings. The aubergines, melons and tomatoes remained woodlice free. I’m not sure if this was the luck of escaping being planted in old compost, but even over the course of three weeks the woodlice never moved on from the peppers.

Tender plants in the wrong sort of weather

Having firmly taken on board the fact that of my seedlings tomatoes were the hardiest, I spent over a month trying to shield the aubergines, melons, cucumbers and peppers from the miserable May. They barely went out (surely I shouldn’t let them suffer temperatures below 18 degrees after the protection of the propagator?). The result seems to have been that I nurtured  vulnerable dwarf seedlings unable to cope with any stresses.

Finally, when the sun did come out and I felt it was safe and appropriate conditions for my mediterranean plants, I enthusiastically put them out on the south-facing terrace to let them soak up real daylight. This was two months after planting and perhaps three weeks after potting on.  Instead of thriving, I lovingly left them out to sun burn.

Real daylight and weather

After this set back the plants barely tried and I then coddled them yet further in the propagator so that by mid June I still had miniature plants with barely four leaves each. I lost all enthusiasm and understood that even if they now survived they would not crop.  At this point, a trip to the garden centre was in order. There I saw 20cm tall peppers and aubergines standing out in the weather barely covered by a roof! What I learnt was that real steady daylight is the stuff that plants need more than a constant temperature.

How do they produce plants for veggie boxes?

I have a new plan for next year. I’m going to give myself a break. So that I can focus on learning to rear plants and take them to fruiting I am going to stop propagating seeds. I should have taken the advice of a friend that grows organic veg for a box scheme. She always buys in plant plugs. She does this because it is less ‘frustrating’ and doesn’t cost much more than seeds and seedling compost. More importantly you are guaranteed to get  strong healthy plants early. Why did I ignore the advice of an expert?

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Top ten excuses for not updating my blog

1. My cat ate my blog

2. Spring time is a busy time on the shared smallholding!

3. Begin self-employed requires greater self discipline than I have

4. Writing a blog requires greater thought and creativity than I imagined

5. The dream becomes everyday life and,  oops, there is another day gone

6. In this landscape, working freelance behind a screen by day and blogging behind a screen by night just seems wrong

7. How many polytunnel and propogator tribulations can one person write about

8. Moving to a spectacular place in the countryside brings endless delightful visitors

9. Being part of a community (with a tithe barn) brings other commitments including hosting weddings

10. Habit – you have to get into the habit to write not into the habit of waiting to write about the right thing.

Thanks to my neighbour for noticing I’d been quiet (ta Ben 😉 and pointing out I could be brief (there’s a thought).

So if you want to know what has been going on check out the gallery

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The past month or more in pictures

This gallery contains 12 photos.

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The joy of cooperative food

Everyone enjoys quality at a bargain price, so with great excitement I studied the Suma catalogue and have then reigned myself in as this wasn’t going to be a one-off splurge. It turns out that my lovely housing association has a well established relationship with cooperative buying  and run a food group with Suma.

Fitting some Suma stores in

Since I’ve got a raw ingredients / vegetarian approach to cooking (yes I know the pigs, but the pork is for my family), the idea of getting retail prices on some of my favourite  food is a winner. Everything from kilos of cashews to boxes of butter are tucked away in cupboards and freezers for a third the cost of supermarket bought equivalents.

Suma, it turns out, is a cooperative organisation in an increasingly uncooperative world. and it is the UK’s largest independent wholefood wholesaler and distributor. As a workers’ co-operative the business is jointly owned and managed by all. Everyone is paid the same and they collectively do all the jobs that need doing, whatever they happen to be. And the lovely Zac who delivers our stores even helps us work through the stock take (thanks Zac).

So if you want to enjoy some great food at discounts prices set up a Suma food group with neighbours or friends. There is a bit of work in separating and temporarily storing the goods of different group members and in divving up the shared bulk buys and finding places to store the un-shared bulk buys. But in my experience its a straight forward and painless process. Since I missed the start of the food group here, the best reference I have found to starting up a group is on the Suma website from Claire and Lucy McDonald of Crumbs feed your family

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What is it like living in co-housing

One of my neighbours spotted this on the co-housing network’s site; it makes me smile in recognition.

So you think you want to join a cohousing community?

In general, do you embrace—

  • Knowing your neighbours very well – knowing what they are like when they are under stress, tired, out of sorts as well as what they are like when life goes well
  • Being known in this way – and when you lose your job, split up from your partner, have other personal problems
  • Contributing to managing the community – attending meetings regularly, paying service charge, managing some communal function, taking on cooking duties
  • Having to agree everything with people who are wrong but think they are right
  • Having people to call upon right now to look out for the children, lend a pint of milk, give you a lift into town, lend you a dvd, show you how to…
  • People who notice if you appear or not and do something if you don’t
  • Pet care while you are away
  • Supper made next door because you were getting back so late
  • An instant on site social life
  • Work days at weekends
  • Home grown organic veg, eggs …
  • On site arts events
  • Enough people for a scratch 5 a side game
  • Free range children
  • Other people’s stuff (practical and emotional)
  • Other people’s kids…and pets…and friends…and music…and opinions…and dietary needs…and cars
  • 6 months to decide where to put the raised beds
  • 25 emails a day
  • parties
  • Shared things which you probably wouldn’t otherwise have had – pool table, costa style coffee machine, chickens, hall with sound system and theatre lights, swimming pool (we wish!), river.
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Community life

The shared courtyard

I live in a rural housing association, well a bit more really, a community, not to be confused with a commune. My neighbours are independent, private people who value being surrounded by a beautiful space, enjoy having the time to enjoy that beautiful space, and who are willing to share their time and consideration with their neighbours to keep it that way.

Some communities have a shared philosophy, religion or spirituality, that is not the case here. I moved here less than six months ago, but what I believe I share in common with everyone else here is an attraction to the old fashioned sense of community: contributing to, caring for, and sharing experience with neighbours. It is not about being in each others pockets, houses or lives, it is more about sharing the enjoyment and consideration of each other and creating a sense of place.

A house with many community 'flats'.

We live together as a co-housing community, there are eight private homes in the house, but we have access to shared sheds, a tithe barn, the great hall and 15 acres of land including a walled garden. With these benefits, we understand, comes the responsibility for maintaining it all.

Each month we have a WWOOF  weekend and, depending on the season, we either tend to the garden or work on parts of the estate – perhaps mending stone walls or building wood stores. Also each month we have a community day. This is about community members getting further jobs done without the help of WWOOF volunteers.

WWOOFers help tend the organic kitchen garden

WWOOF volunteers are warmly welcomed and are an important part of the community. We enjoy sharing the space and working alongside them and especially enjoyed the social evening with a shared home-made buffet. This is an important part of the exchange for volunteers labours, along with board and lodgings for the weekend and flowing tea, coffee, biscuits and cake!

The community is our home life, and those who are not full time parents or retired, spend time working, but perhaps not as full time as they could or might. We spread our energies more widely to less lucrative, but sometimes more satisfying, areas than employment. It seems to me that most community members moved here to satisfy different needs. To balance the attractions of the physical/natural world with the economic/career imperative and blend family life with a broader community – even beyond our home – so that we and our children thrive.

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The flock

pet sheep

Plain and friendly

Have I mentioned our new sheep? It’s now been over a month since Muckle and Flugga arrived. With names like that you’d be right in guessing that they are Shetland sheep, brought in for their hardy nature and rough-grass mowing abilities.

They are much smaller than our old girls who are now reaching the end of their arthritis free lives. Pretty and Plain have spent years gently mowing the succulent orchards and fields and will follow anyone with a bucket and a crust of bread. More accurately they will nuzzle and push you to make sure you don’t have bread.

Muckle and Flugga

Our Shetlands by contrast are more skittish and hardy so will mow some of the rougher and steeper areas that old sheep and lawn mowers can’t reach. Somewhere under that wool they hopefully they are also nurturing our future flock, although they weren’t scanned before coming here.

The fun will really start at shearing time. The wool is excellent, but in my experience sheep wrangling is not for the faint hearted. Suffolk crosses come at you with the momentum of a prop-forward: 10 stone of mutton charging at you is a fun game to watch from the other side of the fence.

The plan this month is to move our the pregnant Shetlands to the orchard/chicken run just before lambing. This is fox proof and, being small sheep, our expectation is the lambs may be bite-size. So we have a month to get them relaxed enough to be willing to follow a bucket of ewe nuts to the lamb nursery…either that or we’ll have to get a few willing sheep herders to arm wave and be prepared to dash and bob to encourage them in the right direction.

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