Digging a hole or two

If ever I would stop thinking about music and assorted sporting activities, as The Disposable Heroes of Hiphopresy almost said, I'd get on and open some seed catalogues. I feel happier doing it now I've sorted the plant orders for the coming year - you've got to do the big stuff first. After the snow and the big freeze I've no idea if I've lost one, two or 3000 plants, so I may have plenty more to order in a few weeks. It'll reveal itself in spring when at least I'll have a little sunshine to cheer me up if the news is bad.

The weather station recorded -14C on two nights which is pretty special for this part of the world. The snow may well have been the saviour, duveting the ground and the roots below. Time will tell. The cold did bring the fox(es) a little closer than normal - tredding a snowy path through the vineyard.



So, ahead of any additional replacements the spring reveals, these are the plants coming to the farm for planting in the next month or two:

1400 replacement grape vines - thank you, once-in-a-hundred-year flood
750 grape vines for the sweet wine vineyard
30 quinces to extend the quince orchard
60 almonds
2 Asian pears
a few blackcurrants
a couple of jostaberries
2 Mirabelles
15 perry pears
a load of raspberries
140 rhubarb
11 plumcots
2 pears
1 plum
1 American bladdernut
4 edible fuchsias
2 Worcesterberries
1 Crimson Chaenomeles quince
1 Gold Chaenomeles quince
1 Cido Chaenomeles quince
1 Nivalis Chaenomeles quince
2 Chinese dogwood
2 Chinese mulberry
17 Mahonia aquifolium
100 swamp cypress
2 coleworts
2 daylilies
2 ostrich fern
2 Great Solomon's Seal
2 winters bark
1 snowdrop tree
and 59 sweet chestnuts.

I think there's more but I'm a little too snoozy to remember.

It would've been 60 sweet chestnuts but I forgot I was ordering one for Lia Leendertz, and given that the ordering conversation was in french and my french starts and ends with La vache qui rit. I'm happy to live with an odd number on account of it being a nut. Almost interestingly, the lovely Italian liqueur Nocino is made using rocket fuel and walnuts picked when you can slide a knitting needle into the centre without their shell stopping it. There's a competition each year in Italy which has two limitations: to enter you must be a woman, and your Nocino should be made using an odd number of walnuts. I'm putting my own vodka-based version into the book - DiacoNocino I think I'll call it. Some sugar and a few months are all that's between you and a dark sweet liquour that'll take your ears off if you go for a gulp rather than a sip.



The vines, all 2150 of them arrive at the end of April and they're barerooted so we have to get them in sharpish. Me, Trent and two trowels.

A couple of years back Ernst and his team planted 3500 in a morning but they had a clean field (the metal framework the vines grow on went in afterwards) and all the gear to do it professionally. I think it might take Trent and I a little longer.

The other 500 or so plants have to be planted, mulch matted, staked and tree guarded where appropriate in 8 days in March - 8 days being the intersection of when I'm done with the book and when Trent's here. That's 31.25 each a day; 4 an hour. It doesn't sound too hard, but many have rootstocks a good metre or so across so a fair size hole in unploughed grassland for each is the order of the day.

Until then it's mostly writing and eating the pork rillette made with the five spice powder I made using szechuan pepper from out by the veg patch *polishes halo*



Almost forgot...all this working at home means my contact with the outside world is limited. There's no time not to be not writing the book and everytime I go to do anything that isn't write the book I feel guilty. My diet is shored up with dried apricots and rooibos tea. The air can get a little interesting in the office as you can imagine. I open the window. I tweet. I ration my tweeting as my attention span is that of a 2 year old.

I has given me the opportunity of fulfilling a small ambition. I am not shaving. As opposed to growing a beard. Growing a beard implies an active involvement, something more than simply not doing something. I'm just watching to see what's going on. 15 days now. The longest I've ever been since shaving became something more than an optimistic teenage pursuit. I'm wearing a hat too, as extended periods without having to see other people have given me none of the necessary compulsion to tend my appearance in any more than a perfunctory way. I have homeworker's-hair. Hair and beard means I look a little like Badly Drawn Mark.

I'm sort of liking it in a not-having-to-do-something-I'm-not-that-interested-in kind of a way. I'm going to let it go for a while longer, probably until approaching the Soil Association conference next week when shame will get the better of me. On the Sunday before (I think it's the 31 Jan) I may offer myself a few hours of free pleasure by shaving it into certain styles. Perhaps inspired by great cricketers of yesteryear. The ordering of facial styles is vital - with a little care it means I could do a Merv Hughes followed by an Ian Botham - although rumour has it that an Australian barmaid has already managed that feat.

Suggestions for notable moustaches/beards welcome.

You're sylvan

I've had a fabulous Christmas and New Year, thanks for asking. It was dominated by more than my share of Christmas pud, our nation's finest sportsman winning his 15th world title (which I think made him quite happy, the ref perhaps less so), my 4 year old asking me to marry her, and receiving a very fine preserving pan. Not quite all the ingredients for a film with either Martin Sheen or Michael Sheen playing me, I know.



Talking of Hollywood stars (seamless stuff eh) Warren Beatty reckons he's slept with getting on for 13000 women. After calculating my own slightly lower tally (he is a few years older than me after all) it got me wondering (in that end-of-year way) about a couple of other tallies - how many plants I'd sunk into the soil in the 5 years of Otter Farm, and the visitors to this website.

Apparently Warren deems it beneath him to include "daytime quickies, drive-bys, casual gropings, stolen kisses and so on" in his total. Oh the luxury. Upon such rocks is my own (currently) less-than-Beattyesque total built. But when calculating the Otter Farm inventory I will take a leaf out of his book and discount all passing fancies and commonness - so there'll be no annuals, broadcast-sown perennials, or anything vaguely falling near to but not quite into those two categories.

Handily, Warren's list doesn't exclude any that are no longer alive, and I feel to veer away from Warren's guiding path at this point would be churlish. I'll find an evening to add them up this month and let you know, avid reader.

Like Warren, I do like to make a clean breast of things once in a while and as we stride happily into New Year it seems as good a time as any. In Spring last year I mentioned that some of the olives had died, others were doing ok, and probably more interestingly the debt I owe a researcher on 'Richard and Judy'.

Before the coldest weather arrived this last month I decided to take some action. 120 olive trees went in 3 years ago - a third are now dead, a third ok, a third thriving. Some died due to wildlife and my dimness, most departing due to the combined effect of a couple of disappointing summers - olives keep much of their energy in their leaves, so even if there's a harsh winter they tend to be fine if they have the chance to put on good new growth in a good summer. Two years on the trot they didn't.



6 varieties were planted, some hardier than others, and the split of 'dead' to 'so-so' to 'happy' follows the varieties pretty well, and I now know where the lines between 'viable', 'reasonable gamble' and 'too vulnerable' lie.

Up came the dead third. Excellent kindling they make too. One in the eye for Warren: I bet he doesn't start his open fires with olive wood. Read em and weep Mr B.

Which left me a choice - infill the grove with other olives, infill with other trees and make a mixed orchard, or think more creatively. Uncharacteristically I went for the last option.

Up came all but the end two rows, where the happiest variety is growing. The rest are now in pots in the polytunnel, awaiting Spring, when they'll be scattered around the farm in ones and twos - a few in the forest garden, one by the veg patch, a few as you come into the first field, one or two in the perennial allotment etc. Already it feels like sense - the place needs a little random character, and although I sometimes give the impression that it's otherwise, Otter farm is (amongst other things) supposed to be a sensible business - and as an acre-sized grove the olives weren't pulling their weight.



So, a spare acre. Not only that, the best acre of the 17. South(ish) facing, with well-drained soils on river gravels dumped many thousands of years ago as the path of the river moved east.

It took me about 4 seconds to decide what would go in its place: two hundred of the very promising new Spanish olive variety (of which more soon) and 750 vines for dessert wine. We make precious little of it in England and I think that way something lovely lies. And a cheeky 100 or so Riesling vines just to see.

The rest of this year's plant wishlist has already started to arrive - more about them soon too.

In the meantime, I should come clean about one more thing: for the last 2 months I've done little else but write the book. So all the digging up, the repotting, and the vine pruning has been done by Trent. Happily I'll be out there more when the big planting starts. Until then, out in the cold, two days a week, Trent has made himself indispensible.

The other tally: the visitors to this website. There were almost 60000 unique visits to the Otter Farm website last year. A person coming to the site and looking at 10 pages counts as one visit; that person coming back the next day counts as 2. I suspect that this total isn't made up of 60000 people making one visit a year, or 3 people making 20000 visits a year. It seems to me to be a rather large total, especially given that nothing is sold here.

To Trent and all you visitors, thank you: I rely on you.

Go to Otter Farm | by Mark D