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Most smallholdings have some grassland but all too often it is neglected so that rank weeds such as thistles, bracken, nettles or ragwort have become established.
The ideal pasture should be well drained and have a pH value of 6.5. It is worth carrying out some soil tests in different areas in order to establish the relative acidity/alkalinity. If it is very acidic, it will need an application of lime.
Any waterlogged areas should be drained, unless they are associated with a natural feature such as a hollow with pond and stream. On level land, the problem is often surface ‘panning’ where the earth has been compressed so hard that water collects on the surface. This is frequently the case around field gates where there is a lot of human or livestock traffic. Breaking up the panned area allows water to drain through more effectively.
Grassland may be permanent pasture such as that found on some traditional dairy farms where it is used for rotational grazing and hay crops. More often it is made up of temporary leys that include meadow grasses, clovers and herbs, which are periodically ploughed and reseeded.
There are many types of rotations in use, depending on the site. One example might be: grass/clover ley for 3 years – potatoes – legumes – brassicas – green manure – roots – back to grass/clover ley. There are also many different seed mixtures available, including hay mixtures or those suitable for specific grazing animals. Short-growing grasses, for example, are more appropriate for free-ranging hens that cannot cope with longer growing ones.
Using pasture crop rotations in this way increases organic matter in the soil, builds up fertility, keeps weeds under control and disrupts the life cycle of parasites. If the area is only a small field that is to be kept as permanent pasture, it still needs to be properly maintained. Rank weeds need to be removed, the grass should be kept mown or topped and periodically scarified (rake scratched) as is the case with a lawn.
Bare patches can be reseeded and the pasture fed with an environmentally acceptable fertiliser such as calcified seaweed. Where animals and poultry are given access, it should be on a rotational basis with a period of ‘rest’ for the land to recover.
The kitchen garden and orchard will also benefit from soil testing. They need to be sited in sunny areas that are not affected by frost pockets. Fruit growers often refer to the necessity of ‘atmospheric draining’. This is the practice of having protective hedging or netting such as Tensar or Rokolene so that cold air from frost pockets can disperse. These protections also allow some wind to pass through them, reducing its force but without contributing to a downward spiral that can occur with more solid structures.
Plan the growing area and work out the crop rotations in the kitchen garden. If produce is to be sold, then concentrate on fruit and vegetables for which there is a demand in the area. This will entail some research before going into production, but organic produce will bring the highest return. It may be possible, for example, to set up an ‘organic box’ scheme where regular customers take a selection of whatever is available at a particular time, and on a regular basis. Some will collect them from the farm gate, while others will wish to have them delivered.
It’s a good idea to choose modern varieties that have been bred for resistance to disease as well as good flavour. Study the catalogues! Where fruit trees are concerned, choose those on shorter rootstocks such as M26 or M27 so that they do not grow too high for picking.
It’s also important to have a range of apple, pear and other fruit varieties that will pollinate each other and provide crops over an extended period. For example, the dessert apples George Cave, James Grieve, Cox Orange Pippin and Adam’s Pearmain provide crops from early, through mid-season to late in the year.
The crab apple Golden Hornet is a useful tree, not necessarily for its own fruit, but for the fact that it is a good pollinator of other apple varieties. Buy fruit trees and bushes from specialist suppliers who will provide expert information based on experience.
Poultry do well in orchards, although young trees may need to have protection while they are becoming established. Trees provide shade and wind protection, and also encourage the birds to range over the whole area, rather than just outside the house. Guinea fowl are particularly good at getting rid of insect pests.