Monday, 26 July 2010

Oh yeah! Oh yeah!

Mother and baby doing well!
Well last week I left the blog on a cliff hanger, and I am glad to say that we do indeed have an announcement to make, we had a new baby tractor delivered on Friday and mother and baby are doing well despite the difficult birth courtesy of the lack of instructions. The instructions for putting it together were not quite so comprehensive as we would have liked, having opened the box to find the dear little thing in pieces to be assembled. The little tractor also happens to be a natty blue colour the same as the bigger tractor even though they are not the same make.We decided on a new two wheeled tractor primarily to cut hay on the really steep slopes of our land and in the awkward places between trees which are too vast to cut with the strimmer (bushwhacker) and not safe for our regular tractor. It also means we have a lightweight machine to manage small areas that won't damage the land in quite the same way as the other tractor, something we have found over the last year during the wet seasons when our regular tractor churns up the ground and makes a mess of it. The two of them together are going to make a great team.

Emma and Ben on adventures new!
Talking of great teams, I actually have more than one announcement to make and this one of course is far more important; our daughter Emma, our eldest child, got engaged recently to Ben and so it now means that two of my three children are engaged. Our second child, Mark will be getting married in October but no date has been set yet for Emma's wedding. It has been exciting though hearing all the possible plans for the wedding, unfortunately I can't be there to help as she now lives in Australia. I am sure they will indeed make a great team and set off on adventures new and we look forward to hearing the tales they will tell.

A neatly turned over potato plot
I can also announce the result of our experimental plots of potatoes on our land and the result is............ that pigs like potatoes! Well we knew that and we were warned but they were potatoes that were heading for the compost heap anyway. It is quite amazing how neat the pigs have actually been by excavating a neat rectangle that the potatoes were in without disturbing the ground around. In fact we have decided we must have a better class of pigs this year as even the ground elder has been neatly cleared in several places with the ground elder roots piled neatly to one side instead of the usual big holes they dig. Pity they won't do that all the time instead of making random holes in the ground which a tractor can tip in. At least we did get the chance to use our two wheeled tractor to see how the potato lifter worked to see if the pigs had left us any potatoes and we found a grand total of about 5! Not sure though whether that is because there were no potatoes to find as they were a bad batch of potatoes or the pigs are very efficient. We have one more plot of potatoes on the land but they are right next to an electric fence, although not inside it, so it will be interesting to see if they find them. 

Oh it comes in bits!
It has been very hot again this week meaning we are still working early in the morning and later at night but at least we have had the rain to water the plants, so no lugging buckets of water around on muggy days. The garden is starting to produce enough for us to eat beyond just salad leaves of various kinds and so it has been nice to have some extra help to pick beans and weed the plots. A young lass I have got to know through my work with an English online school mentioned she would love to try gardening and of course, as you do, I said she was welcome to come and help me in my garden especially as we happen to live in the same country (a rarity in my job). She has worked really hard and loved eating the fresh veg out of the garden, who couldn't when there are fresh tomatoes to eat which actually taste of tomatoes? 

Heh! These make rather snazzy cup holders!
We are still constantly evaluating what we do and how we would do things differently to maximise our output. Our rampant melons next year will be grown upwards and not allowed to sprawl over the floor, we will then be able to grow them closer together but also keep them tamed and watered more easily. It seemed a nice idea at the time to grow cucumbers up the middle and let the melons grow on the floor between them and we thought it would save space, how little we knew about melons! Still there are quite a few little melons ripening nicely but no idea how much longer we will have to wait. 

Now what?
We did eventually get it put together, or rather Ian did with some encouragement and the occasional helping hand from me
Practising using the potato lifter on our ex-potato plot
The sum total of the first run through of plot number 1
One teensy weensy little potato. Fortunately in the end
we had just enough for one meal bulked out with some
carrots from the garden.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Going home

I was going to post this earlier and forgot but seems right now as the Swifts start congregating, getting ready to take off back to sunnier climes.

Going Home

Why do the notes of the song cause me to well up?
Why do they cause my heart to yearn?
My soul to reach out?
Because I am a traveller,
My journey not complete, 
The song whispers of home
A home I do not know
A place I am heading to
A song of the distant mountains 
that meet the sea
A place of peace
A place of rest
I travel on
in this journey of life
rejoicing in glimpses of home
moments of stillness
golden moments 
that speak of an eternity to reach
a home where the father waits
with arms open wide

Monday, 19 July 2010

Things most welcome

We have had a scorcher of a week with the temperatures in the 30s and high humidity levels. Adopting the Mediterranean pattern of working does not come easily though and we were both left drained despite drinking plenty of fluids. Mind you Ian assures me that his need to take time off in the middle of the day is nothing to do with the fact that he has just taken out a months subscription to Eurosport  to watch the Tour de France on his computer even though he usually revels in the heat. He does assure me the humidity has really got to him this time.

The plants in our polytunel haven't suffered from the heat though and you can see the progress over the last two months in our polytunnel from the photos but taming the rampant melons, the mega sideshooting tomatoes and the prolific cucumbers has been very challenging as working in the polytunnel has been like working in a sauna.

19th April they were still working on the polytunnel
29th May The plants are in there believe me. We had hoped
to have had plants started much earlier this year though.
9th June and the plants are just
beginning to take off but they have been
well watered by water leaking in to the
polytunnel or over watered as the case
13th June and the plants are now well established and the
over watering during storms sorted.
18th July The tomatoes under the fleece at the front are now
over 5ft tall the ones at the back are over 6ft tall. Even the
aubergines are beginning to take over at the front and the
bush tomatoes well! The fleece is for shading - I am not
climbing up the outside to paint on some shading paint.
18th July Our 6ft tall sweetcorn or maybe
they're taller but since I am
only 5ft tall what would I know!

A beautiful, misty, rainy day
The fresher temperatures of yesterday and today with the rain has been most welcome. It has certainly paid off to put straw around many of our plants to retain moisture in the soil in this dry-ish summer but water has still been a constant worry as we have needed to frequently water the plants in the polytunnel and sometimes outside too as the temperatures soared and the rain held off. The guys working on our barn have also been using the water for mixing concrete, so it was alarming to see the water levels drop in our pond as we extracted the water. The rain has  filled up the ponds nicely again fortunately and so we are safe for another couple of weeks of watering and the concrete is nearly all mixed which will help. It does mean though that we are not going to get the second pond lined just yet as once again it is too wet to deal with for at least another week but then again there is a possibility that we won't have to. A friend of ours related that he and his father had dug a pond and initially the water level kept dropping away but eventually it stopped draining and started retaining the water as the silt worked its way into the gaps and plugged it. That might explain why our first pond suddenly started holding water much better despite our recent high temperatures as the silt load from the last lot of rain was really high. Now we just need the silt to block up the second pond and we will be very happy.

A very delicate looking snail, and this was okay it wasn't
on my cabbages
We don't often get people to send things from the UK as we manage quite well with what is available here in Latvia but one thing we have desperately needed is insect repellent. Normally it is readily available but just lately they have been running out due to the epidemics of first mosquitoes and now horse flies. I am also not really sure what is in the repellents as I think most of them contain DEET which I hate using and is not really supposed to be that good for you, so I asked my Mum to send some Avon SoSoft and some citronella based insect repellents. Avon SoSoft is used by the forestry guys up in Scotland to deter midges and is supposed to be highly effective so thought I would give it a go here. I have used it while gardening and it seems to confuse the horse flies but I am not sure if it puts them off completely if they are determined and I am not sure if the number of horse flies has now gone down or not so not too convinced yet if it is really working but I shall continue trialling it and see what happens. My Mum also sent me a Dutch hoe which I have not seen outside the UK. There are all sorts of other hoes but not this sort, the Latvians use a stirrup hoe that you can push and pull (didn't know there were so many types of hoe until I was looking them up, you can see how many here) but I wanted a hoe that I was familiar with and knew how to use, funny the things we get used to! Other essential items included some more mossie proof tops for Ian, a very early birthday present but he's not complaining.

The new door in the Soviet style hallway.
Progress this week means we now have a nice new door to our other apartment, I forgot to take a before picture, sorry! But you can see the new door. At least we shouldn't have a howling gale of cold air coming in through it in the winter, nice at this time of the year but not when it is - 29C outside. It is also a proper outside door and not really an interior door with a lock on like the last one. Shame there has not been any more progress inside unless you count the fact that I washed the floors to get rid of the plaster dust, our friend is too busy on his farm at the moment. Doh! (To quote a famous cartoon character)

A close up of a male broad-bodied  chaser dragonfly

There has been progress on the barn, but the poor guys are up with the lark to work, go home for lunch and don't come back until later on in the early evening due to the heat. It would not be my idea of fun but at least they are sticking with it and working which is helpful. They have certainly not had the weather that has been kind to them, from the rain as soon as they started sinking holes turning the area into a swimming pool and the rain storms we have had in between - great for our gardens but not for the builders, the ground just gets dry enough for them to work and then it pours - and now the heat which has been too hot for the concrete. The next week should be good though as they are forecasting temperatures in the mid 20s and not much in the way of rain or thunderstorms.

Viper's Bugloss - what a glorious name
As you may well know Latvia is in the middle of an economic crisis, in a crisis there are things that should be cut in order to balance budgets and there are some things which should never be touched as it will be detrimental to the future too. Libraries are one of those things which are often under pressure when money is tight and yet the future generations need the knowledge they contain to help themselves build for the future and so I applaud the efforts of the Latvians to continue building their library and with it build a vast storehouse of knowledge. Of course there needs to be some realism in the construction and it most certainly needs to have the finances checked and rechecked to ensure every penny, sorry santim, spent is spent on the library and not lining someone's pocket but a storehouse for the future is a good thing to build when times are hard. This library is also becoming a beacon of hope that the white knight of legend who battled the black knight and plunged into the Daugava will one day rise again bringing with him the Castle of light, the library has become known as the Castle of light, as light is synonymous with knowledge, energy and awareness. If building of the library in the face of adversity brings hope to the nation then it will be money well spent.

A view from outside our other flat towards the allotments
Really felt a change of season this week as if the year had turned. I know in the UK the summer has barely started as the schools are only just finishing but for many of the European countries the schools have been on holiday (vacation) for a while now. There was something about the noise in the trees and the quality of the air that whispers that the summer is turning and it is now late summer and yet it doesn't seem that long ago since we were planting everything up. Something in my spirit feels the turn too and I feel it is time to be ready for harvest time. I am not talking about the great harvest that some people are waiting for but the reaping of things we have sown, sparse though that has been as we are still in the preparing the ground stage. Our land is showing us that there is much to prepare to be ready for an increase in production but to be honest there is not much point in sowing huge amounts now until our water situation is sorted, the preparation means that we will be able to cope with what grows up. Poor preparation now would mean we could lose everything. As it is in the physical so I think it will be in the spiritual. In many ways this year is a year for collecting seeds from the small amount we have sown, they will then be re-sown next year to produce a bigger harvest. Some of the decisions and choices we make this year will shape what grows in years to come, obvious really but it is not a time to do this flippantly but needs to be done with a certain amount of care and consideration, not that we can't experiment too.

Next week we are hoping to be able to make an exciting announcement, so do check back! (Nothing like leaving a blog on a cliff hanger heh!)

Monday, 12 July 2010

Surprising finds

Our three ponds full!
We are amazed by the amount of life in our ponds even though they are new and can spend quite a while gazing at the busy water boatmen, backswimmers, pond skaters, frogs and now a newt. Where do they all come from? Frogs I can understand because they are all over the place and right now the whole of the countryside seems to be alive with tiny tiny frogs, but where did the newt come from? It must have travelled quite away. Water boatmen and backswimmers can fly as I discovered on the internet, so that explains their presence (what would I do without the internet?). Unfortunately we also had some very unwelcome pond life this week in the heat, algae! I made up some mini bales of straw and chucked them in the pools and it seems to be helping, no idea why that idea works but it seems to, and I can't even remember where we first heard that gem of advice but I know it was a long time ago maybe even pre-internet days. At the start of the week we had some blessed rain  which filled the ponds, all three of them, that is a lot of water over a day and it emphasises that we don't just need a soakaway around the polytunnel we will need storm drainage. Pond number 2 though, we found out, does not hold the water and drained away quite quickly, so it looks like we might need to line that one, we were hoping the clay filled soil would retain the water but obviously not. So our ponds remain works in progress as we reshape and dig more out until we have something along the lines of what we need that will keep the water in. Eventually they will get landscaped and seeded which will also help with water retention, the ground cover helping to keep the ground moist and therefore less likely to steal the water from the pond in the dry spells.

Member of the pea family
After the rain the temperatures rose and it has been very hot up to 31C (88F) in the shade that has meant a switch to Mediterranean type work practices - up early to work in the garden, home for lunch in the heat of the day and even a siesta one day then work in the cool of the evening. We are not eating like the Mediterranean's though with very late meals, instead we continue to have an early evening meal and then Ian eats his way through the evening. Trying to keep his weight on is a challenge at the moment but at least we don't have the normal problem that in trying to keep Ian's intake up high enough to keep his weight on mine goes up to compensate, mine is dropping too thank goodness. How much of it is sweated off, I have no idea. I do try and keep the fluid intake up as I just drip most of the time. Okay enough information there!

Not sure you can really see the detail in the hat, but it
pretty. Honest!
Had quite a successful week of purchasing items that normally I cannot get easily, first it was steel capped work boots for me, and considering I am a size 4 (37 European, 6.5 American) they are not the sort of thing that are readily available. At least I can now stop digging in my good walking boots, and I don't have to wear wellies (rubber boots) all the time. The next successful purchase was a hat, again I have problems as I have a small head (shame my girth is not as dainty as my feet and head - whoops sorry too much information again) and so when I was living in Colorado and managed to find an Australian hat that fitted I bought it. It was great for keeping off the sun and fitted in nicely with the culture but somehow it doesn't quite fit in here when walking to the shops or at the agricultural show we attended, fine for on the land but not around town. So now I have a pretty hat, that I can wear out and about that doesn't come half way down my face. Also the perfect travel hat too as it folds up without crushing!

These blackcurrants are huge, they are the size of a small
grape. The teaspoon gives an idea of scale. They are from
the garden at the other flat and a surprise find last week.
I mentioned that we went to an agricultural show this week, it is so long since I have been to one of those and it brought back memories of some pretty hot days working on my parents jewellery stall that they used to run at agricultural shows in England. Sometimes we were in the shade of a hot sticky craft marquee and sometimes in our own caravan. There were some good times but mostly it was actually quite boring, once you had seen one agricultural show you had seen them all, well that is what it felt like as a teenager; the upside of it was the wonderful settings for some of them and the earnings were good. My favourite memory was getting up early for the Rose show at Cartmel in the Lake district and seeing the mist clearing away as the sun rose, and the deer making their way across the parkland, it was magical in a magical setting. I think they moved site since so don't know what it is like now. This Latvian agricultural show was just a local one with the usual big tractors and huge implements, makes us wonder what many Latvian farmers with their small plots of land make of it all. Some of the tractors are so huge they would barely turn around on our land and we have 33 acres, admittedly it is a long narrow strip with forest down one side but still a standard size for a Latvian farm. It just appears that the tractor companies are not really interested in the small farmer, probably because they do not make much money and they cannot get credit for the type of farming implements they could really do with.

A tasty way of using up a radish glut courtesy of Sophie  Grigson
only I used a red grapefruit instead of an orange as they didn't
have any oranges at the local supermarket and I added some peas
Thanks to a kind comment by Denise Thornton on last week's blog I found out all I needed to know about the wild parsnip  and that confirmed to me that we don't want it around. It is hard to believe that seeds are for sale - don't buy them whatever you do! A friend of ours was strimming by the lake when he felt his arm burning and rushed up to the house to clean off whatever it was that was burning. When we were talking about the wild parsnip he showed us his arm with little burn marks all the way up it, he didn't know what had caused it at the time but he does now. Denise's blog seems to be a mine of information and it is interesting to see someone trying to manage land from a conservation point of view but in a different country and yet some of the issues we face are the same like the wild parsnip. Another piece of infomation I found out on her blog was that you don't have to preserve wood. At first I found that hard to believe, especially in such a wet country like Latvia but when I think about it, there are lots of grey wood buildings around and they have been around a long time. Often the barns and houses are unpreserved wood but they might be raised up off the floor on stone foundations - makes sense when it can be under snow for a long time during the winter. Mind you does the wood rot in the cold? I guess it might not and it might only be at risk of rot setting in during the cool wet spring and autumn days rather than over winter as you might think. A challenging thought to our throw chemicals at it way of life of the 21st century.

Another surprising find this week is that clay pot irrigation is 10 times more efficient than surface irrigation. We are struggling at times to keep the polytunnel watered properly and it set me thinking about some drip feed irrigation when I came across the article above, it would be interesting to find out how efficient this system really is and whether we can make some easy low tech plant watering systems. We have commissioned some pots from a local potter to try some ideas out, so watch this space!

Monday, 5 July 2010

New Gardening fashion

The mosquitos have been bad here in Latvia this year and I am still waiting for my insect repellent from the UK, the sort that does not kill you at the same time as repelling the bugs (heard today it is on its way. Yayyyy!). I hate DEET! In the meantime I thought I would design the perfect gardening wear to defeat the little blighters, unfortunately with the high temperatures we have at the moment I think I would cook in it.

At your nearest medieval stockist - out now!

Wild parsnip - this one is just a baby but they do not
grow to the same height as the giant hogweed.

Giant hogweed - very nasty stuff but an impressive,
statuesque plant
We have also found another invasive pest out on the land, the wild parsnip. This, like the ground elder that we constantly battle with, is another member of the carrot family some of which are downright dangerous like the giant hogweed and hemlock. Giant hogweed is a real nuisance in Latvia after it was introduced for animal fodder by the Soviets and animals fed on it have a slight aniseed flavour. Unfortunately giant hogweed sap reacts to sunlight causing nasty burns on skin where it comes into contact, as well as completely taking over areas with its massive leaves. It is an impressive looking plant though when it does flower and you can understand why the Victorians introduced it into their gardens. Wild parsnip is not in the same league as giant hogweed but it can still cause burns and so we are having to make sure we cut it down before it seeds itself. The other invasive pest has been back, the wild boar but this time they actually did us a favour, they very neatly took the ground elder out without digging their characteristic big holes. Pity they can't be trained to do that all the time.

Our three ponds in series. Still need some landscaping
as you can see but progress nonetheless.

We managed not to get the tractor stuck this week, thank goodness! But what we do have is the beginnings of two new ponds. It is easy to understand how we got so stuck last week as the bottom pond has filled up quite a bit considering we haven't really had any rain, a passing very light shower maybe, but no rain. The lack of rain is a problem as I have had to plant some leek seedlings out and the sun was guaranteed to cook them so I have had to put fleece down, not to protect from frost but to protect them from the sun and hopefully keep the moisture in!

Butterfly! I don't know the name of this one either. One day!
You will be relieved to know this one did escape our
We are finding a  problem with our polytunnel is it is a magnet for butterflies, there are so many of them that it sounds like it is raining on the plastic and many of them don't survive. I try and rescue some that I can reach but not sure how much good that does them, failing that if anyone knows what we can do about our butterfly emporium or a use for lots of dead butterflies then do let me know. We have also had progress with the barn, we now have boxes ready for concreting for the foundations which is encouraging. Poor guys though it is so hot and not ideal working conditions as the area is a little suntrap and at lunchtime they decided to go home and not come back until the evening. Can't say as I blame them either.

Another mystery plant but I love it. I
rescued it from an area where it was
going to be destroyed to make way for
the barn road. Hopefully it will seed itself
We had some good news from the tax authorities, they have decided we don't have to pay taxes on our house that we sold last year as we had lived in it for so long. The laws in Latvia are often confusing which is why it has taken sometime to find out what the situation is, but that is partly because it is such a young country and there are not enough cases to test the laws made. It is easy to complain when laws are not clear but understanding the process of law making and how there are always unforeseen circumstances which test the limit of the law and highlight gaps in the law helps when dealing with the authorities. Making good laws that can stand the test of time takes time to work their way through the system. I know corrupt politicians do not help the process but not all of them are corrupt and even if they weren't the process would still take time.

Male broad bodied chaser dragonfly! Success! I managed
to find out what this one is called.
Talking of taxes, earlier on this year someone accessed the tax records of many of the politicians and business leaders of Latvia and published them online. He called himself Neo and was hailed as a modern day Robin Hood by some. It certainly threw up some anomalies such as how the head of the heating company for Riga got a bonus whilst cutting wages of the ordinary workers. "Neo" has given an interview to Baltic Reports where he explained that he hadn't "hacked" into the system as the system was not protected anyway - a little worrying but at least some good came out of it all by highlighting the problem and the arrogance of the elite. Caused quite a storm really.

Fortunately the owners of these feet
weren't in them at the time despite
what the picture looks like. Gave me
quite a shock when I looked out.
A friend of ours posted a link on Youtube of a video put together with the  sound track "Beyond These Shores" by Iona. It took me back to the early years when I got the album "Beyond These Shores" as a present and I used to listen to it a lot. When I first heard the song I was a young mum with three young children and the song spoke to me of how God wanted me to launch out beyond the shores of my comfort zone. At the time the most adventurous thing I did was to co-lead a 3-5s children's group at a big event, there were a 100 of the little treasures. At first I wouldn't use the microphone as I was afraid of it but by the end of the week I even managed a double act with a puppet monkey (I didn't operate the monkey just talked to it) complete with microphone. Little did I realise that the song would take on a deeper meaning through the years as I really did leave the shores of country where I grew up. If you had told me all those years ago that I would be writing a blog about the life I lead in Latvia, having already lived in Denmark and the US and visited Brazil, I wouldn't have believed you. If you had also told me that I would preach in each of these countries and used a microphone, I think I would have been scared witless but God is good, he only gives us enough for the step we are on and prepares us gradually for what is ahead.

Chopping wood
Finished strimming
Mowing the orchard
These last three pictures are of Ian at work, somethings never change as these are the same things he used to get up to when he was in England, only he used to do these every now and again, not most of the time. Nowadays he works at what we jokingly call his real job, ie one where he earns some money one day a month and chops wood, strims, mows grass and plays in his tractor the rest of the time. Hopefully one day these activities too will provide us with an income. At least they do provide us with the means to eat and stay warm which means we don't need a huge income to live off. Nice!

Just a final comment to say thanks for all the sympathy regarding the toothache from last week, it has definitely improved and I only occasionally need some painkillers now, still grumbles a bit but at least it is so much better than last week. I wasn't a happy bunny!