Category Archives: Growing

3 Years On

Orlin Dusk and Monty reducedIt has been almost three years since my last post and rather a lot hasOld Dairy before happened. Things all went a little crazy when we took over a vegetarian café in Carmarthen in November 2014, then had another baby in July 2015 and Dusk had a litter of puppies in December 2015 (of which we kept Monty, who is in the photos). After that we embarked on converting our old barn into a self contained granny Old Dairy duringannex (where my 92 year old gran will move into in June). So it haOld Dairy afters been go go go as always!

We have continued breeding Oxford Sandy & Black Pigs and have now had over 100 born here at Penybanc. We had a little foray into sheep for one year, but we realised that sheep might be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, so even though we did love the sheep and learnt a lot, we had to sell them on.

jack2zwartbles ewes

Spring has rolled around again and everything is blooming, we are busily getting seeds sown and bracing ourselves for all the mowing that is about to kick-off. We had so much going on for the last three years that the veg growing suffered a little, so after being almost completely self-sufficient for veg, we took a little step backwards, but we are hopefully back on track now.


If you read this, please do leave a post so that I know it is worth while. I will try and do more regular posts from now on.

Orlin and MontyMelinka and Orlin


Ash Dieback – a slow motion catastrophe

To those in a nice flat in the city Chalara Fraxinea, or Ash Dieback as it is commonly known, is probably a (brief) discussion point over a gingerbread latte before returning to the truly important topic of ‘Strictly’. For those with a few trees it becomes at least relevant but for people like us it is a huge huge disaster. We have over 2 acres of mature woodland that is roughly 90% ash. The aim is to coppice the woodland to provide us with all of our heating and hot water needs. If we lose our ash trees not only will we have a decimated woodland which will take 10 years to restore but we will have to buy in wood to heat the house over that time, which we can ill afford.

Ash is my favourite wood – so much so that it is the logo of our website. This is due to its wonderful burning properties, beautifully light and open canopy that encourages undergrowth and clean subtle grain, strength and workability for furniture and building. Not only would we be in trouble from a self-sufficiency point of view if we lose our Ash but, in a truly tree-hugger way, we would be very upset at the loss of some graceful, powerful and, not to mention, old trees.


So a quick update on the facts (thanks wiki):

  • -The disease is characterised by leaf loss and crown dieback in the infected trees
  • -First discovered in Poland in 1992… yes, 20 years ago!
  • -By 2008 the disease was also discovered in Scandinavia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Germany, Austria and Switzerland
  • -By 2012 it had spread to Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Britain and Ireland.
  • -The number of sites has doubled in the UK within the last month
  • -Young trees will usually die in their first year. Older trees may survive a few seasons but will succumb eventually
  • -A proportion (<5%) seem to have a genetic resistance to the disease


The reason for the title of this post is that I have rarely been more annoyed at the government for such ineptitude and slowness to react to an impending disaster. As the disease has spread across mainland Europe it has been clear that there is no easy way to stop it…  but we have one clear and obvious advantage – we are an island. So when, you might ask, did the government stop the import of ash trees from Europe knowing, as they did, that the disease was progressing inexorably towards us (And that we could quite easily produce enough of our own ash saplings)?…October 2012. WHAT?!?! That’s 8 months after the disease had already been found in the UK at sites that had received saplings from nurseries!!
Now we have to watch a farcical show as various committees discuss strategies on how to close the gate after the horse has bolted, had a few foals, retired to the seaside and written a postcard to the committee about the new extension to the stable and how glad they left that gate open so many years back. The government is being sued for its lame response – but that doesn’t do us small-fry much good. And most strategies now being discussed are focussed on how to replant all those woodlands that will undoubtedly be ravaged over the coming years.


Here at Penybanc we are keeping a close eye on our small-leaved friends and trying to form our own strategy to manage it but, needless to say, the outlook is bleak…

Slug War – Update

Hi Folks,

Quick update on the onslaught of the slimers.

Up until a few days ago the weather was with them and it seemed like we were hardly making a dent.  Most of the fodder beet and a good chunk of onions were dispatched. But as soon as the sun came out and things dried out a bit we have regained our position and things are growing like mad. Huzzah!

I also forgot to mention a couple of points:

– Mulching. Everyone tells you how GREAT and how IMPORTANT it is to mulch whenever you can. ‘Wow, it’s just so ace. It keeps the plants moist, suppresses weeds and fertilises all in one. Get with it man!’. Yes, this may all be true, but none of these benefits are worth diddly if you have no crops because the slugs have eaten them all. Mulches provide a perfect breeding ground for our foe and a nice hiding place during any patrols. I’m now only going to use mulches over winter months I think.

– Sowing direct vs. modules. I’ve often found that sowing directly into the final resting place or even into a seedbed can have distinct advantages over growing in modules and then transplanting, particularly for those hardier crops that can be outside getting all of the sunshine that they can from early in the year. However, this does put them at the mercy of the slimers when they are at their most vulnerable. What was a neat row of carrot seedlings can be turned into a neat row of not very much in one evening. SO… the plan here is to bring up as much as possible in modules, taking full advantage of staging in the polytunnel to get plants to a decent size before moving them out. This is, of course, still pretty tricky with the likes of carrots (due to size, number, root depth etc)… so they’ll just have to take their chances.

– ‘Slugs won’t go for that…’. Don’t believe anything anyone tells you about what slugs will and won’t eat- it’s all lies, damn lies. I’ve heard that they won’t eat alliums, particularly garlic – RUBBISH. I picked at least 15 off my onions and garlic this morning. I’ve heard they don’t like the tiny hairs on squashes… still doesn’t seem to put them off. I’ve not knowingly found anything they won’t go for. Perhaps those in the know can update me?

A new battle in the war… the SLUG WAR!!

In the last week or so we have changed tactics in our long running war against the gastropod molluscs that are determined to end our simple dream of growing enough vegetables for the family. If you live anywhere nearly as slushy as Wales and you have ever tried to grow anything outside you have probably had your own private and, I’m betting, passionate encounter with our slimy friends. Well we have, literally, tonnes of them wandering happily around our land munching through everything they come across and, fairly regularly, that has been our veg patch.

[Warning: For those of you of a squeamish disposition, this may not be the post for you]

In the last year, through a lack of time and understanding and a unprecedented onslaught, we had to resort to the use of slug pellets to protect the more vulnerable of the seedlings. Now, this is like trying to pay off a debt problem by spending more – it might ease the pain in the short term but it’s sure going to come back and bite you later. As we discovered, slug pellets do kill slugs (and snails) very effectively but, come a bit of rain (which it normally does very soon) and the toxic chemicals are washed away into your soil and you are quickly having to replenish them. But this is the least of your worries – worst of all you are indirectly shooting at your own men. All the critters that are on your side, munching up loads of slugs every day, such as the toads and slow worms, are more than likely killed by eating poison-ridden bodies. Needless to say, this makes your challenge all the harder.

So… new tactics were required for this spring. As the seedlings go out, the weather warms and the rains come, an army of slimers is stirring under the grass. The backbone of our approach is to try and restore some sort of sane balance to the predator / prey ratio in the garden and so keep on top of the problem without the use of pellets. Here are the key points in the plan:

– No more pellets unless the crop is covered and it is strictly necessary

– Morning and evening rounds collecting all slugs from in, on and around the veg patch. These fellows are then placed in a covered bucket of water to meet their grisly end. The photo is of ONE morning’s worth of collecting, which gives you an idea of what we’re up against – this is a glamorous life…

– The water from the above is used on the veg patch itself. The high level of parasitic nematodes in the water will add some protection to the soil.

– Comfrey is heaped in small piles near the most sensitive crops. These act as ‘traps’ for the slugs who love to feed on it and hide under it, so can be collected easily.

– Some old copper tube is laid around a few small areas. Slugs are not supposed to like climbing over it. We’ll see!

– Grass edges are kept short and potential hiding and laying spots are kept to a minimum (this included firming down loose ground on the edges of the patch

– In the not too distant future we’re going to dig a duck pond in one corner of the patch. We’re hoping for some khaki campbells, or similar, that make very good slug eaters. These guys can then be let out into the garden to forage as suitable.

– And finally, be prepared to take some collateral damage. We have to be realistic and realise that we’re going to have some significant losses to the slugs and, eventually, they’re going to win the war.

We’ll keep you posted on how it goes – I’m sure you’re desperate to know!

It comes form WHERE?!

Free range chickensWe often get asked why we made the slightly unusual decision to try and become self-sufficient and start a smallholding. Well, the truth is that there are many reasons why we are doing what we are doing, but one that often gets overlooked in its importance is, quite simply, FOOD.

It’s hard to overestimate how important food is to our lives and we think that is how it should be. Perhaps these days we all take it for granted too much as the time and thought spent on food gets squeezed by all the other pressures in life and the big supermarkets try to sanitise and unify everything that we eat (have you noticed how the choice of vegetables gets smaller but they stock them all year round. Gah).

In my opinion, the key to food is knowledge. Do you know what is in the food that you are eating? Do you know where it came from? How were the animals kept that went into it? What were they fed on? Sometimes you may be able to tell the contents and origin of what you are buying but scratch the surface and the reality is pretty scary and normally overlooked.

Free range pigsChickens seem to have hogged the limelight – so more and more people now buy free range. Good stuff, but hang on a minute… what about pigs? Pigs are larger and a whole hog more intelligent than chickens but next time you go to the place that Shall Not Be Named (rhymes with fresco) try asking at the deli how much of their ham or bacon is free range. I asked in Morrisons last week – the answer ‘None’. Oh, and here’s another one – notice how you might track down some pork that claims to be ‘Outdoor bred’. Hmmm, funny wording you might think – and you’d be right. That’s a clever bit of supermarket spin to con you into thinking that the pork was brought up free range, but actually it, most likely, means that the litter was had outdoors and then as soon as the piglet was at weaning age (or younger) it was brought right on inside into a nice small stall to fatten for 6 months. Nice.

So pigs, for one, have slipped under the radar. Interesting. But what about food that you buy in restaurants etc. Well, don’t assume anything, even in the poshest places – make sure you ask. We asked in the last Chinese and Indian takeaways whether their chicken was free range, fully expecting them to say no of course. Their answers surprised even us old cynics:  “I don’t know, it comes from Brazil” and “I don’t know, it comes from Thailand”. Ha. Now call me a lefty tree-hugging hobo but that isn’t for me.

In fact, we’ve found that the only way to really, comfortably know what you’re putting in you and your family’s mouths is, you guessed it, to grow it yourself!