A Very Small Holding

The Elliffs journey into the good life

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A very sick apple tree

I longed to be able to spend more hours each week managing our smallholding and preparing the allotment for the new year. Unfortunately we had bills to pay and I would need to work full-time for the foreseeable future. Katie was busy managing the house and caring for our young family.

I was fortunate to work from home and be self-employed, which allowed me to dictate the hours that I worked. When the weather was favourable I would postpone an afternoon behind the desk and take the short walk across the road to the croft.

During the afternoon breaks in my work this week I continued removing the weeds from allotment. Each time I pottered over there seemed to be several more that I had missed among the stones or an area I had not tackled.

The area between the field and the cattery after I had removed the first small tree

While I picked away at the ground I would stare at the handful of trees beside the cattery and wonder if they should be removed. The area was a waste of space between the field and cattery. Stones covered the ground, but as no membrane was beneath them the weeds had run riot. A mature chestnut tree was the dominant feature, but there were several other young trees trying to grow in its shadow.

It made sense to me that the fence to the field should continue in a straight line to the entrance of the cattery. The small cluster of trees would be moved into the field and the unused space made to be productive. The chestnut tree would be spared the chop, because it was a focal feature of the croft and we imagined that our children would enjoy collecting its conkers every autumn.

I decided to begin removing the smaller trees and harvesting the wood. I did not have a chainsaw or a wood-chipper, so I sawed down the first few trees, cutting the small trunks and larger branches into fire-sticks. The remaining twigs and foliage I placed in the household recycle bin. I left the tree stumps in the ground for future removal.

Our young apple tree, having survived the move in a plant pot, is transplanted to the field

When we moved we had brought with us two young fruit trees that Katie had purchased for a few pounds in the spring. They were only six feet tall and I had temporarily planted them in pots to keep them alive. They had been sat in the allotment for the past month waiting to be utilised. The apple tree had developed fruit, whilst the cherry tree had not, and did not look like it ever would.

I added the cherry tree to our growing pile of compostable greenery, but decided that I would plant the apple tree in the field rather than waste it. It had borne fruit this summer and may continue its progress next year. We had not planned where our orchard would be located, so I picked a spot close to the allotment.

Over the next few days the leaves began to wilt and the last apples dropped to the floor. I was aware that trees hated being transplanted. I had my fingers crossed that the downturn in the tree’s health would be temporary or related to the approaching autumn season.

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A very rotten chicken run

The chicken’s vacation was over when we returned to our old house to collect the hens from our neighbour’s garden. They briefly resisted capture as each hen was placed into a cardboard box ready for transportation. We had decided to dismantle the chicken run and take the remains for recycling. Their new home was complete, ready and waiting for them. It would have taken far longer to dismantle the run, to avoid damaging the rotting frame, and it required a second journey home. It took less than an hour to take the chicken run to pieces using a hammer, a saw and a brute force. I loaded the broken remnants into the car, tied the rotten frame to the roof-rack and drove five miles to the nearest recycling centre.

The cattery run before the chickens were released

Following a chat with our old neighbours to catch up with local events we drove home. We released the chickens into the cattery run and left them to familiarise themselves with their new residence. They quickly made themselves at home, scratching at the virgin ground and exploring the undergrowth.

There were so many tasks and projects that we wanted to complete it was difficult to know where to start. Matilda was in the care of Katie’s parents which allowed both of us the freedom to spend a full day on the allotment.

The previous owners had constructed three raised beds a foot in height and six feet wide. Each were a different size; thirty feet, twenty-four feet and twelve feet in length. The smallest bed had been maintained over the past six months. The other two allotment beds had been left in the hands of nature. The result was a forest of weeds eight feet tall. The smaller bed had raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb growing in it quite satisfactorily, with only a small number of weeds. It needed some additional care, but not major restoration work like the other two beds.

Raspberry canes, strawberry and rhubarb plants left to grow in the allotment

Katie set to work picking the ripe berries and clearing the weeds that were crowding the fruitful plants. Any dead, damaged or deceased plants or rhubarb stalks were removed and added to the compost. Katie’s tortuous pregnancy did not allow her to do too much physical activity so this task was more than enough.

I tackled the first of the other two overgrown allotment beds. The weeds were taller than me, but the roots were fairly shallow. The various grasses and plants had all gone to seed and therefore I expected a reasonable amount of regrowth after clearing them. I progressed from one end of the bed to the other, systematically pulling out the weeds, trying doggedly to keep the roots intact. It took the whole afternoon to completely remove all the weeds. Among the thistles, groundsel, chickweed, fat-hen were a dozen parsnips that must have been sown a year earlier.

I piled the weeds into a wheelbarrow and unloaded them onto the concrete base, with the expectation that they would be added to a compost heap. I knew it was a bad idea adding weeds in seed directly into a compost heap, but once they had been drowned for several weeks I would be able to utilise the organic waste in my heap. At present I had no compost heap constructed or a bin to drown them in.

The middle allotment bed after all the eight-foot weeds had been removed

The allotment bed had lost a fair amount of soil. It was clumped into the roots of the weeds that have been removed. I avoided disturbing the weed heads and roots to lessen the possibility that they would shed their seeds. We would be improving the soil in any case, adding compost and rotted manure once we had located a supplier or generated our own. We had no idea of the source for the previous owners soil. It seemed fertile as demonstrated by the exaggerated weed growth. It was had a slightly clay consistency and a loamy texture. To my amateur eyes it appeared to be good stuff, but without testing it we had no idea of its origin. We hoped no chemicals had been used to fertilise the soil, as we would eventually digest produce grown in these allotment beds.

Katie returned to the house after harvesting several bowls of strawberries, raspberries and a bucket of rhubarb stalks. She spent the evening baking several rhubarb sponge cakes. One cake was delivered to each of our immediate neighbours and the ice-breaker was very much appreciated. The berries were washed and frozen to be offered to friends and family who would visit our new home over the first few weeks.

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A very overgrown allotment

The entrance to the croft

We discovered that the allotment and the croft had been neglected for the passed six months. The weeds had taken over, some were eight feet in height and obscured the allotment beds from view. Grass and dandelions were consuming the ornamental stones that were supposed to suppress them. The entrance to the croft was almost hidden, the hedges had ballooned in size during the recent mix of sunshine and rain.

The overgrown entrance to the cattery

There was a cattery next to the field that had for the last twenty years been home to rescue cats. We were in no position to take this responsibility on, especially as Katie was allergic to cats and pregnant. The cattery building was obscured by vines that had been left to grow for many years into an organic roof covering. The wooden structure partially eaten and strangled by this relentless parasite.

The only areas that had been maintained recently were the old chicken enclosure and a small fruit bed containing several strawberry, raspberry and rhubarb plants. The previous owner’s chickens had eaten all the weeds and grasses in the enclosure leaving the ground clear. The surface was partially covered in bark, the centre had a concrete base that must have been intended as the foundation for an incomplete building.

During this first visit to our new allotment we happily picked all the fruit that had ripened on the plants and broke off the mature stalks from the rhubarb. Katie made several rhubarb cakes and we were able to harvest the stalks and berries for several weeks. Some were frozen, but most were offered to guests as they made their first visit to our new home.

Our first task in the house would be to work out that we had all the keys for all the locks of the property. The previous owner had left us a bowl full of keys. None of the keys were labelled, so we began by trying each key in every lock we found. We had already two sets of front door keys that Katie had collected from the owner on moving day. After an hour we had three sets of keys for the workshop, three for the conservatory, ten for the windows, two for the kitchen, one for the boiler and two for the garage. Once all the useful keys had been set aside we had another dozen that appeared to have no home and no purpose. I guess this to be a typical situation in most households. If all the orphaned keys were collected together from every home there would be a mountain of keys the size of Everest.

We performed the usual checks on the house to make sure all the services and appliances were functioning correctly. The house was in general good order, but one issue that we discovered immediately was a constant trickle of water escaping through the overflow pipe from the water tank in the bathroom. My dad decided to investigate and inadvertently snapped the cold water tank ball valve. He rushed down the stairwell into the kitchen to switch off the stop-cock and avoid flooding the house. The valve had broken because the float was too small and the valve was submerged permanently in cold water. Over the years the metal had corroded and a small amount of force snapped it clean off. A quick visit to the DIY store later, we fitted a new valve and a large ball float to prevent the water submerging the valve in future.

One of our ambitions for our dream house was to have an open log fire. We were lucky that this house had two chimneys and two log burners. Each multi-fuel stove appeared to be reasonably new and in working order. We had been left a receipt from a chimney sweep who had cleaned the chimney in the lounge, so we decided to test it out and build our first fire. The stove came with instructions on how to maintain the fire and optimise the heat it produced. We ignored them, piled in some coal, kindling, rolled up newspaper and lit the fire. It was not long before we had a roaring flame and the wonderful aroma of charred wood permeating the house.

The workshop building at the end of the garden that had been converted to house two greyhounds

There was a workshop at the bottom of the garden behind a two metre fence. The previous owners had used the building to house two greyhounds. The interior was partitioned into two pens, each with a raised wooden bed board and a door to access an external pen where the dogs would exercise. The building had running water and electricity. The power was provided by a fifty metre extension lead that wound its way down the garden from the conservatory. This was not terribly safe and at risk of a wayward lawn mover. We had an armoured cable and additional fuse wiring on our long list of home improvements.

The water pipe followed the cable down the side of the garden to the workshop. It was in several sections partly due to damaged pipe having been replaced. I am not sure how they managed to damage the pipe, which was an adequate thickness. A misplaced spade or edging tool perhaps. Despite the revisions we discovered that the pipe was leaking in several places where the joints were not sealing correctly and the plastic tap inside the workshop was dripping slowly into a bucket for the same reason. Initially we tried replacing the tap, but came to the conclusion that we were unlikely to need running water in the workshop. Therefore we saved some time and removed the long stretch of pipework. Where the external water pipe began we fitted an outside tap on to the utility room brickwork. With our old hose reel attached we had sufficient range to reach most parts of the garden. We kept the large blue water pipe, because we have learnt over the years that nearly every unemployed item of equipment will eventually have its uses.

The allotment beds growing eight foot weeds

The croft too needed some urgent maintenance. In was in danger of disappearing behind a wall of branches and weeds. The green veil made exploration a more exciting event and exaggerated its size, but we would need to clear the croft if it were to become a practical space to grow produce and keep livestock.

We hacked away at the hedges by the entrance and dug up the grass that had grown over the ground. There was now a clear paved driveway connecting the road to the croft gate, across a grass verge and where, we presumed, the hedgerow had continued. The wooden gate was rotten and in need of a replacement. It had a rubber wheel on its base to assist opening and that was all the prevented its weight from wrenching the rusty hinges from the fence post. Another item to add to our list of required improvements.

We would be collecting the chickens imminently so we had to locate an area within the croft that they would call home. The area where the previous owner had allocated for her chickens was reasonable large and open. The ground was bare, covered in bark and concrete. It did not seem like an appealing site or completely safe from an agile fox. The cattery seemed like the obvious choice. It was enclosed in wire mesh, safe from any canine, feline or winged invaders. The main area had two rows of pens, each sectioned off by galvanised steel mesh. Every pen had a lockable door, a shelf, a wooden cat box and an electric socket. One of the home-made boxes still had an electric blanket plugged inside. A gangway between the two rows led to the detainees exercise yard. It was another thirty feet long and completely enclosed. There were shrubs, small trees and grasses enjoying the animal free environment.

The two cat pens we converted into a chicken house

The cat boxes made perfect nesting boxes and each pen would be ideal for our chickens to roost overnight. We isolated two pens at the entrance to the run from the rest of the cattery by removing their doors and fixing them across the gangway entrance. Several round wooden stakes were used to create perches inside the pens and two planks of wood were rested against the shelves to allow the hens to walk up to their new nesting box. We put down a layer of cardboard on the floor and scattered straw inside the pens ready for their return the following week. The chickens would make light work of clearing the yard of weeds and grass. We were very fortunate to have the infrastructure already in place to house our birds and easily expand our flock in the future.