April has been an incredibly busy month here at Lackan Cottage Farm, as for the first time we’re keeping pace with all the jobs that traditionally need done before spring arrives properly. Finally the ground is drying out, and all the plants are coming back to life.

As always we’ve been fortunate to have some incredible volunteers from across the globe to help us along.

Willow planting

One of our first jobs was to finish planting all the basket willow. We cut all of last year’s growth in March, and planted the living willow fences, but had a few hundred cuttings left to plant back in as part of the basket willow crop. Also we wanted to replant any cuttings that didn’t take or got eaten by horses last year. Ideally the willow needs to go in before it all begins to bud, and we pretty much managed that. Having said that, we’ve been back up to Omagh and collected another load of willow cuttings, this time a variety used mainly for short rotation coppice (SRC), and that is all budding cheerfully so will have to go in the ground over the next few days.


I’m sure somewhere I read that you should “Put it all away by the end of May”, or something similar in order to give the wood time to dry sufficiently to burn well next winter. A lot of it was split by hand (or at least, a splitting maul) but there was a huge amount that was just too large, gnarly to do without breaking me, so we hired a hydraulic splitter for a couple of days and got it all done and put away in one go.

It’s incredibly satisfying to see the woodshed so full, and now all we have to do is lift some birch that is over in the woods, and we are set for the year. Of course, the search is now on for a tree for next season…

Preparing the veg garden

This is a biggy. Last season the poor old veg plot took a back seat while we got the cottage and truck up and running properly, so there was serious work needed to recover it from the grass and creeping buttercup. As I mentioned in a previous post, Tasha did sterling work weeding, and then Helen came and volunteered and got another whole section done.

The final big push was with our volunteers from Mexico, who helped get all the remaining weeding done, and did the truly epic job of hauling our mountain of old horse manure down and adding it to the beds and polytunnel. We also got the rest of the cardboard covered down in the orchard and forest garden.

Claire has hundreds of seedlings coming on in the propogators, many of which are ready to plant out. We always tend to get one late, hard frost here in May, so some of them won’t be safe until June – its not going to be a long growing season this year, but we are well ready for it.

Food and drink

We’re coming to the end of much of last year’s produce – we’ve some potatoes left, a few squash are going into soups, and the odd apple has made it through. We ran a hedgerow wine making course with Leo Cullen which was great, and came just as we got hold of a load of wine making gear.

Inspired by the course, I took advantage of a couple of sunny days to pick gorse flowers and dandelions, and so we have a gallon of each starting to brew. Hopefully come the autumn we’ll have something drinkable.

Power generation

We’ve added some more solar PV to replace the panels we lost to storm Ophelia, this time secured very firmly to the roof of Birch Cottage. All our other panels are angled at around 45 degrees, but we’ve experimented this time with fixing them more or less flat, to see whether greater exposure to the sky and bright conditions under cloud, makes up for not having them get as much direct sun.

We’ve also added a couple of 80w panels to the roundhouse. These are our original panels, one of which is a bit cracked but still manages more or less normal output. They are charging a couple of 6v batteries which together can run some 12 volt lighting in the strawbale barn.

Simple but effective. An old, basic charge controller, 2x 6v batteries and analog voltmeter are sufficient to get power into the strawbale barn

The only LED’s handy at the time, but we’ll find some proper lights

Another important task at the end of the winter is making sure our batteries are well maintained. Short days and a lack of sunshine mean that despite the wind turbine keeping us going, the batteries don’t really get a proper charge, which if not corrected will shorten their life significantly. They’ve been topped up with distilled water, and given an equalising charge, which is essentially a controlled period of overcharging. Testing the specific gravity of the electrolyte in the battery with a hydrometer gives us an accurate idea of the state of the batteries.

Testing the specific gravity on the main battery. This 2v cell is in the white section, so around 75% charged.

A new toy, the rotary hydrometer. Easier to read for those of us who cant read the tiny writing on the regular kind

Our batteries are 24v, but for half a day (a handily sunny and windy day) we turn all the dump loads off and let them sit at 33 volts. They bubble away merrily producing vast quantities of gas so its not the most pleasant thing but they’re lot better for it. The sunny days also let us run the distiller, to build up a store of distilled water to keep the batteries topped up.