Monday, March 19, 2018

Winter 2017 - 18

We welcomed students from Hadlow College to plant up little nut trees in gaps in the rows - it's called 'gapping up'. They made light work of planting ten trees, in ground which was already moist from the October rains. But when it was time to leave, to everyone's dismay the college minibuses were unable to get a grip and churned up the grass of the pathway making deep ruts. They were stuck! A call for help was not in vain and soon arrived in the shape of a heavy-weight tractor, with driver and helper.  It soon had the buses moving and the students were safely on their way.  They seemed to have enjoyed that part of the day best of all.

The Gilly Jones brand of cobnut products expanded in the run-up to Christmas into local outlets, including Ide Hill Community shop and Plaxtol Village Stores. As well as cobnuts in shell, there were packets of roasted cobnuts, chocolate bars with roasted cobnuts and, of course, the original Granola-muesli.

The view from Ide Hill Community Shop

Cobnut products on display

Plaxtol Village Stores

Its New Year and already the main bloc of nut trees have been pruned.  Between the rows lie twigs, wands and branches which have to be cleared away before the grass begins to grow. February saw the return of the Hadlow students to help with this task.  They set to work with energy and enthusiasm, dragging piles of prunings on tarpaulin 'sledges', down to an open patch where a bonfire was already burning.
Collecting prunings

Bonfire is going nicely
Potatoes which had been pre-baked just had to go in the embers for 20 minutes and were so hot that the butter melted on contact.

spuds ready to go in the ashes

Very tasty!

Back to work again and the bonfire is revived
After that it was time to get back to work and another hour of dragging and burning.

Tutors working hard too?
Thank you Hadlow students; you did a brilliant job and we hope you'll come again!

Meanwhile, back in the nut store, the mice have discovered the sacks and are feeling hungry....

Raiders have been at work!

Although the furry monsters have helped themselves to a lot of nuts, not all have been consumed.  That long green thing in the photo below is a rolled up mat and when I accidentally knocked against it, out poured a veritable waterfall of carefully cleaned and stored nuts  I scooped them up - about 20 kg in all - and shut them away in a mouse proof bin: three crates like the one below in all. The mice had taken off the outer husks - and possibly polished them with a duster, they were that clean; no bad or empty nuts were found as the mice can tell (by the weight) and they reject any non-viable cobnuts.  

cobnuts collected and sorted by mice.

Thank you mice; you did me a favour.  and there's a post script to the story.  In March when I inspected two pairs of Wellington boots kept in the same shed, they too were full of cleaned cobnuts. 

This year, encouraged by the National Trust at Ightham Mote, I entered for the 'Taste of Kent' Countryside Award which rewards countryside businesses who caring for the environment, the soil, wildlife and the community.  It was exciting to receive a visit from the judging panel and to  be one of the finalists. 

At a dinner at the County Showground, the winners were announced and although we did not come out on top I received this nice framed plaque.  It is a reminder of how far we have come since starting in 2012, thanks to so much hard work and support by volunteers, friends and local organisations.

At the middle of March there was till work to be done on the plat and the Hadlow students reappeared, ready for anything. We were fortunate with the weather and apart from a few showers the day turned out mostly sunny.  More hardwork, another bonfire and a picnic lunch with baked potatoes.  Thank you, Hadlow students and tutors alike!  
A fine blaze

Picnic time again

We were indeed lucky with the weather for the very next day the snow was back. 

What a difference a day can make!

The bonfire site!

And as I conclude this post snow is still falling outside my window and the biting East wind is whirling it around.  Roll on spring!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Cobnut Harvest 2017

This year all the local cobnut-growers predicted an early harvest and the crop looked promising.

Plenty of nuts on the trees
 While some had started picking by mid-August I preferred to have the nuts at a riper stage and we started in glorious sunshine on September 4th.

Perfect nut-picking weather
A week later three volunteer pickers, students from Germany, arrived to help with the crop.  They worked enthusiastically and carefully.  

Sorting and packing

Of course they had time off to visit places of interest including Ightham Mote.  Here they are on bicycles setting off to visit Old Soar Manor: an easy ride from the plat but uphill all the way on the return. 

Good luck for the return journey!

There was more help from friends and relations 
including the very young who were not deterred by 
a wet and windy day.

Young helpers eager to lend a hand

A bucketful of nuts between the two of us is not too heavy!

Next, pickers from Hurstwood Farm arrived to tackle the main bloc, coming rather later than I would have hoped when autumn gales had blown most of the nuts onto the ground.They gathered most of them up but found the going tough.  

Those nuts have been de-husked and I understand are destined for M & S stores this Christmas: do look out for them!

 *   *   *   

With the harvest done I have started baking muesli again. 

the new-look label features the National Trust logo
The label has changed to reflect the National Trust origin of the nuts and the Bramley apples this year are coming from a grower very near to the plat,  Robert Mitchell.  My granola-muesli can be found on sale at Shipbourne Farmers' Market and at a new deli in Tunbridge Wells, 'Foodies delicatessen'  at 40 Camden Road. Other outlets are in my sights and there is a website now for ordering online at

On the last weekend of September Ightham Mote holds its Apple Fair and we were there as usual, selling cobnut oil and muesli as well as cobnuts in bags. Thank you to the volunteers who helped on the stall!

Finally, I am sending cobnuts again this year to Northern Ireland, this time to Belfast Zoo.  You might wonder what kind of animals require cobnuts and it is somewhat ironic that while my number-one foe on the plat is grey squirrels, in Ireland the endangered red squirrel population is recovering; and guess what they prefer as a tasty treat?  Last year my nuts went to a woodland in county Tyrone and to the National Trust property of Mount Stewart in county Antrim.  Word gets around in that part of the world and I was pleased to receive an order this year from the red-squirrel breeding programme at Belfast Zoo.

Loading the boxes bound for Belfast Zoo

And that wraps it up for the 2016-17 season but work starts again and this month I'll be welcoming students from Hadlow College who are coming to dig holes and plant up young cobnut trees to fill some gaps in the rows. There will be more about that in due course.

Wrapped up and ready to go

Monday, July 3, 2017

Open Farm Sunday at Mote Farm

June 11th was the day that a number of farms in the area opened their gates to the public - and Mote Farm at Ightham Mote was one of them.

The sun shone and the  public flocked in.  A cowshed which had been cleaned up for stalls selling produce provided a friendly meeting place for farmers and growers to get together and exchange news and views.

Phil Broad (blue shirt) and Debbie (back to camera) who farm here and organised the day
Cobnuts were represented with the Cobnut and Bramley apple Granola-muesli and the Hurstwood Farm Cobnut Oil selling well.

A friendly meeting place for four-footed friends as well
 The day attracted many families with small children learning where their food comes from,admiring the chickens and bantams and enjoying tractor rides to visit the cows with their calves.

 For small boys (and big ones too, probably) it was real 'tractor heaven'.

Just some of the tractors, balers and threshers on display
It was a great day and hopefully its success will inspire the farmers to do it again next year.

*   *   *   

Back at the plat, at the end of June the cobnuts are quietly growing.  The combination of warmth and interludes of rain seems to be suiting them just fine.  I hope it can continue and if it does we could have an early harvest.  

pink mallow is abundant at this time of year

Soon it will be 15th of July, St Swithin's day and traditional weather lore says the weather on that day sets the pattern for the next forty days.  I shall be watching the calendar carefully. 
doing what they do best....

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Hello again from the cobnut plat

It is June and the orchids are flourishing on the plat.

The Common Spotted are actually nothing to get over-excited about; the clue is in the name for they are indeed quite common, especially where there is hazel, or in this case cobnuts. Nevertheless they are a fine sight and the rows will not be mown until the flowers have set seed and no harm can come to them.

Growers of crops are reluctant to predict the harvest at this stage of the year but at present there are good signs of the little nutkins so fingers will be crossed.
Look carefully to find the baby cobnuts

After a long dry winter and spring, the rain of recent days has been very welcome, especially for the young trees which have been planted up to fill some gaps.
Blue markers indicate the newly planted trees

My value-added product goes under the name 'Gilly Jones's Cobnut and Bramley Apple Granola-muesli' , which is quite a mouthful in more ways than one. It can be found on sale at Shipbourne Farmers' Market and other local fairs and I'll be there with it at the Ightham Mote Open Farm Sunday on June 11th. You or your friends can also order by emailing me at

Cobnut and Bramley Apple granola-muesli

Things go quiet on the plat now until late August and early September, when the crop will be harvested but do keep in touch. Helping hands will always be welcome in September.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Harvest time

Three days after the KCA tea party, inspection showed, as suspected, ominous squirrel damage on both the old and the young bloc.  With two weeks to go until the pickers from Hurstwood Farm were due it was a case of holding your breath, fingers crossed and just hoping that they would not make too many inroads into the crop in that time. Hurstwood need the nuts to be well-ripened for their markets and for processing into oil; squirrels on the other hand go for them before they are even fully formed within the shell - as the photo below clearly shows.
The kernals in these nuts were still soft and undersize when the squirrels attacked

But harvesting could begin on the young bloc and a start was made on August 26th.  Next day I was joined for picking by another Nutter who spotted a fine grass snake, slithering away into long grass: not surprising but the first time I had seen one on the plat. I've been keeping a log book of everything including weather, and the following day was windless and sunny, with thermals rising. Three buzzards overhead were taking advantage of the thermals whilst at nut tree level dragonflies were cruising around.

 At the far end of the young bloc, where the ground slopes downhill, more squirrel damage was evident and the trees were almost bare of nuts.  At this end there is a band of wild hazels and the marauders can dart out and back without fear.  While the hazels are good pollinators it might be best to coppice them over the winter and deprive the squirrels of their cover. Meanwhile we keep picking.
nuts spread out for drying and sorting
Destined for Ightham Mote

The nuts are piling up in the shed where they are sorted and bagged up to go on sale at Ightham Mote. The shed is now watertight and squirrel-proof, thanks to Ightham Mote's head gardener and his team and to another supporter who kindly donated the materials for patching the holes in the roof and sides.

payment is made 'by donation' to the chained box

Daily deliveries are made to the stand outside Ightham Mote's Reception area to catch the attention of visitors and payment is made 'by donation' (with £2 a bag recommended).  It is interesting to average out the daily take!

At the side of the stand there are notices pinned up with facts, figures and recipes for cobnuts, like the one below.

A champion cluster with eleven nuts

Cobnuts grow in ones or twos and often in larger clusters. The record-holder this year was a cluster of eleven!

Mid-September was when the Hurstwood Farm pickers, thirty two students, were due to arrive but the weather had turned uncertain. Fortunately the appointed day, September 15, started dry, if overcast. Boxes were laid out  and the students were assigned in pairs, one pair to each row.

'Looks a bit like rain!'

A cheerful picker
On the second day it really did rain hard, all day and there was no question of picking: a day lost, and a day's earnings for the gang.  But next day was fine enough and the team were able to complete the task of clearing the whole of the main bloc.

At the end of the day, with a final burst of energy, the team loaded crates full of cobnuts onto the trailer.The farm's Landrover was temporarily out of action and it was this Audi that took its place.
The Audi that thinks it's a Landrover

Everyone lends a hand
There was time to fool around when the work was done.....

.....but some people were just too tired.
Eventually the trailer was loaded up but  the question was....

   ....following the previous day's heavy rain, would it make it up the muddy track to the gate and out onto the tarmac road?  We held our breath.....
Will it or won't it?

There was still picking to be done on the young bloc and students from Sevenoaks School came, as part of their volunteer programme, to help us out.

One of them had an interest in insect life and was fascinated by the numerous ladybirds, earwigs and shield bugs to be found among the nuts and - as far as I can see - doing them no harm at all.
How many shield bugs?

So how good had the harvest been this year?  Had it not been for the squirrels it would probably have been as good as last year and I can see that I am becoming somewhat obsessed.  But while you might enjoy looking at them in your back garden, grey squirrels are a serious pest to growers like us as well as to young trees and woodland.  Last season, perhaps because of a poor breeding year their numbers were reduced, but this year made up for it and probably a tonne of nuts was lost to them. We learn that grey squirrels fail to flourish where there are pine martens (though red squirrels live alongside the martens happily). Well, that's food for thought.

Good-quality, de-husked cobnuts
From the total harvest I keep a proportion of the cobnuts back for trying out new recipes; Gilly Jones's Cobnut and Bramley apple Granola-muesli made its debut at the Shipbourne Farmers'

Market in July and at the Apple and Orchard Day Fair at Ightham Mote at the end of September, and sold well.  A range of value-added products using cobnuts, including chocolates, confectionery and soaps, can be found at fairs and farmers' markets (not to mention high-class stores like Fortnum and Mason), so this is something to keep an eye on.

But now, at the end of a four year stint, and with renewed and hearty thanks to all who have worked so hard to restore the Ightham Mote cobnut plat; with two good harvests brought in and with the regular round of maintenance about to start all over again; now seems as good a time as any to say that this is where the blog terminates - at least for the time being!

Goodbye and thank you for following!