Saturday, March 21, 2015

Things that go bump in the night

Observation is the keystone of permaculture designing but even the most assiduous of observers has to get some sleep. We need a night watchman. Or an infra red scouting camera (a present for my 54th birthday from my mum). The first night, I rigged it up under our covered area that runs down the side of our house, just to try it out (I knew there'd be sure to be a few cats stalking about). When I checked the camera the following morning, I was surprised to see our little foxy visitor. Round here, they're proper countryside foxes, not like their bold city cousins, and won't approach built-up areas during the day. In nine years of living here, we've never lost a chicken to a hen. During the dark hours, when foxy comes nosing around, the hens and ducks are snoozing safely behind the wire netting of their runs.
Barn owl - Tyto alba

I tried for a few nights in our woodland, without success. I was still getting used to the settings and I wonder if my regular visits weren't leaving my scent to put timid night travellers off. Next stop was near neighbours Zied and Cécile, who run a dog kennels in our village. A while back an overly zealous official from the veterinary sanitary service demanded that they cleared a hay loft ... by Friday or be shut down! The hay had probably been there for over 30 years and had become a cosy home to a pair of barn owls. They had no option but to tidy up and, with the ever-helpful neighbour Paul and his venerable Massey Ferguson (older than the hay) we scattered the lot in our woodlands to dissolve into humus. Our only hope for the owls was to construct a suitable nest box, install it once the loft was cleared and hope for the best.

Zied has since seen owls flying in and out of the loft and there are pellets on the floor. The IR camera seemed a good way to see what was going on.
Pygmy owl - Glaucidium passerinium
After changing batteries, I forgot to reset the clock, so I can't say what hour they were photographed, just that they were ten hours apart. We were mystified why only one photo in a 24 hour period; surely, if they were nesting, there would be an outward journey followed by a flight home. We believe that these two species of owl are, at least for the moment, just using the barn as a quiet place to digest and regurgitate, hoping up onto the balcony of the nest box, prior to flying back outside.
Badger (bottom left of frame)

Having got the hang of how to set up the camera, I returned to the wood and found a little path clearly used by deer (plenty of footprints in the damp but firm earth). Sure enough, there's a male roe deer along with another pleasant surprise, a badger. Wild boar move around leaving their distinctive footprints, roughing up the woodland floor with their snouts and smoothing the bark of their favoured rubbing posts; I'm determined to catch one with the camera.

I'll return to the empty hay loft, with the clock properly set, and leave the camera for a week, so see if I can get a better idea of the nightly routine of the two owls; watch this space.
male roe deer

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Permaculture Principles – (Not) The definitive list.

There is a permaculture special in the Jan/Feb edition  of the French organic gardening magazine Les4 saisons du jardin bio and I have written an article on permaculture principles. 

As space is always at a premium in magazine articles, and as the principles of permaculture run to several different lists, I decided to translate them into French and host them on the French language version of this blog, with a link at the end of the article to guide readers to the resource on the Web.

The principles of permaculture are important as they guide our designing but we don't have a definitive list. To understand and then explain why in my article, I researched the history of the origins of permaculture. Back in the 70s, Mollison, who was a senior lecturer at the University of Tasmania, Australia, encountered David Holmgren, a student at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education. (I put in this detail as it is often wrongly stated that Holmgren was Mollison’s student at uni, in fact, there's a lot of errors and misconceptions out there!)
In an apparently short yet intense association, these two created the backbone of the permaculture concept. After the publication of Permaculture One – a Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements in 1978, they went their separate ways.

The charismatic, and sometimes provocative, Mollison continued to develop the concept by publishing several books, including The Designer's Manual (1988), then a concise version, Introduction to Permaculture (1991). Meanwhile, Holmgren, remained somewhat in the shadows, tested the theory on his property, called "Melliodora" in Hepburn Springs. He re-emerged into the limelight in 1995 with the publication of Ten Years of Sustainable Living at Melliodora, which details his own experiences of life on a smallholding designed using permaculture. In 2002, he published the reference book, Permaculture - Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, which quickly became very popular.  
If you research the history of permaculture and the relationship between these two men, you will come across people expressing strong emotions and opinions. There are some trainers who say they teach using Mollison’s principles and others who say they teach the twelve principles of Holmgren. Do we need to treat them separately, or are they complementary?
  Permaculture One, the only book they published together (in 1978) does not contain an explicit list of principles, but most of the concepts that were later included in the list of principles are described therein.

In 1988, Mollison published, Permaculture: A Designers' Manual. Although “principles” do not appear in the table of
contents, in Chapter 2, under the subheading “The application of laws and principles to the design” he lists “certain design principles that have been condensed for use in permaculture.” Under each heading is an explanation.

In 1991, with Reny Mia Slay, he published a concise manual, Introduction to Permaculture. Chapter 1 is entitled “permaculture principles.” The principles are the titles to each section. For the principles (but without the detailed explanations you will find in the books) have a look at this page from the Permaculture Association.

In 2002, Holmgren released, Permaculture - Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, in which he sets out and explains, with academic attention to detail, his twelve principles. They are set out here on his own site. As he introduced his 12 design principles, Holmgren said his group varies considerably from those used by most other permaculture teachers.” 

The subject deserves further study in order to be fully understood and applied correctly. A good start would be to read Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture, Holmgren’s Permaculture - Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability and Patrick Whitefield’s The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and Other Temperate Countries (which is my favourite). Their sets of principles are quite different, yet complementary, and other permaculture writers and teachers have since adapted, added to and restated them. 

Permaculture principles, then, are not hard laws written on tablets of stone but they will provide you with a good initial guide to get you designing while you learn the underlying ethos of permaculture. Therefore, don’t feel restricted by these lists of principles rather research and, respecting the philosophy of the concept, synthesize the key ideas, observe and experiment, and so develop your own permaculture.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Real permaculture ...

I’m giving this blog a makeover, aiming to post a bit more regularly. Life, article writing and other projects have served as excuses but I believe that one of the reasons I’ve blogged less is my commitment to blog bilingually. My French always needs correcting and I lean heavily on the same friends for my articles, so I feel reluctant to ask for the blogs and, anyway, it somehow loses spontaneity. Permaculture en Bretagne has its own website now and I’ll be putting useful resources on there, such as a list of permaculture principles in French.

In addition to the continuing tale of our experiences on our permaculture smallholding, I’ll be commenting on permaculture. In my opinion, there’s a lot of fluff and nonsense out there purporting to be permaculture. If there is something meaningful behind the hype then it should be able to withstand some decent questioning. I have recently read a magazine article where the author, stuck on a camping trip without sugar or milk, suggested a solution arrived at through permacultural thinking was to substitute a bit of cheese and an mint imperial. This isn't a permaculture that I recognise.

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference of French authors and it was illuminating to see that, amongst this experienced group of organic gardeners, permaculture does not have a very good reputation. In order to persuade them otherwise, we need to show them what extra possibilities are opened up to us through a permaculture approach.

It was a convivial and constructive meeting and I’ve made some new friends. From one of them, I received an email this week asking my opinion on a paper “Including insects in Organic poultry diets” and posing the question whether we (writers) should encourage amateur chicken keepers to rear insects to balance their winter rations. It reminded me of a Geoff Lawton video where he visits Vermont compost king, Karl Hammer, who produces organic compost at the same time as feeding a flock of chickens. A great example of what I understand as permaculture designing. Geoff returns home and creates a smaller system that uses the same basic idea as Karl’s setup, but on a scale that better suits his situation. This idea could be scaled down even further, creating a pair of compost heaps in the chicken run, for example, allowing them access to only one at a time, while the population of nutritious creepy-crawlies builds up on the other. We’d been thinking of incorporating something similar in Gabrielle’s chicken habitat design that we’ll finally get round to implementing this winter (click on “Gabrielle’s PDC design” in the menu bar above to read more).
I’ve yet to receive a reply back from my sceptical French writing friends but I hope that they’ll be suitably impressed with this real example of permaculture, something a lot more meaningful than adulterating a cup of black tea with a slice of Roquefort and a Fisherman’s Friend !

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Finally, the barn renovation is finished

It’s over. After around 8 years of work, we finished the renovation of a barn into a gîte (holiday cottage to rent) with just 30 minutes to spare before the first holidaymakers arrived. As it got more and more busy and stressful towards the end, with not a day off for weeks and progressively longer days, we asked ourselves how we got into this situation. Maybe it had to be like this as without a deadline, I’m sure other jobs would have intervened and diverted us from the barn and we’d still be working on it at Christmas.

We now have the opportunity to start catching up with a long list of things that have been ignored, like separating the sheep from their winter coats. It’s never a job I look forward to as, with only a few to do each year, I never become really expert and I’m always wary of cutting them. That’s easy to do, especially as our pint-sized local breed Ouessant sheep are too small to hold between the knees, Bowen-method style and, being a rustic breed, they seem to resent being manhandled and wriggle more than normal. Happily for me and him, the ram was particularly easy this year as the wool had already detached itself in several places. The belly neck and legs were already clean and with a quick whizz up and down both sides, he was shorn for another year.

I’m hoping to have a little more time available now for my pastimes of writing and photography and shall make an effort to keep this blog updated much more frequently. I also need to update the “Magazine Articles” page. My latest forays into print are a couple of articles in the current edition of Les 4 Saisons du jardin bio about
keeping pigs and dangers in the garden and in the autumn edition of Permaculture Magazine is an article discussing Zone 5 where I suggest that it’s not actually a place but rather an informing idea.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Where's Wally ? ( ... or find the Queen)

Where's Wally ?
The barn renovation-into-a-gîte project that, I’m embarrassed to say, started way back in 2006, is entering its final phase. Last Sunday, on a sunny day he should have better spent relaxing in the warm bosom of his family, our friend Bruno generously gave up his time, his expertise and his personal recipe to help us trowel earth plaster onto the wall between the bedroom and the living area.

We started promptly at 9 o’clock, wetting the walls again, tacking mesh to the inside of the doorway and then mixing riddled subsoil rich in clay with building sand, a few handfuls of chopped up flax stalk and a mug of flour paste. This was smeared onto the walls with a float and, when it had dried off a little, polished with a dainty, handmade, flexible Japanese spatula.

I left Gabrielle and Bruno to go and light the barbeque. As I approached, I heard the unmistakeable, heavy buzz of a bee swarm and looked up to see a swirling cloud of bees. Smallholding’s a bit like that. Fully absorbed in one task, with not a moment to spare for anything else, something presents itself, requiring immediate attention.

Voila! One swarm, still attached to the branch.
We started the year with two healthy hives. At the beginning of April, we opened them up to mark the queens with a spot of paint and noticed that one colony was particularly strong. It was therefore likely to create new queens soon although there were no queen cells at that time. 

Bad weather prevented us from looking again and the very day that we had agreed to conduct an artificial swarm (where we control what’s happening) they beat us to it and swarmed. Now we had three colonies. A cast swarm followed, which we failed to collect and bee life settled down again. We had no idea that the weaker colony had put on such a burst of fecundity and were ready to swarm.
I throw the bees onto the board

They swarmed onto the outer branch of an oak tree. I erected a scaffold tower, made all the more difficult as I was wearing full protective clothing on a hot day. As I got ready with loppers and pruning saw to go up and cut the swarm down, I noticed they’d gone … into a nearby myrobalan tree. I moved the scaffold tower and Gabrielle joined me at altitude to carefully remove the branch to which the buzzing ball of bees was attached. I’d placed a ramp up to the entrance of a “Nuke” (nucleus) box and with a violent shake of the cut branch, dumped the whole lot. Seconds later, the bees started moving upwards to the hive entrance. It’s normally the old queen—which we had marked—who leaves with the swarm. 

While I was filming, much like finding Wally, I suddenly spotted the queen amongst the crowd, which was both exciting and reassuring that things were playing out as they should. We watched her all the way into the hive.

Back to the barbeque, lunch, and then the afternoon earth plastering. We now have four hives of bees and a beautiful deep orange wall.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Why I have not been blogging for a while – excuses 7, 31 and 302b

To add to the usual excuses of being busy with our permaculture smallholding and barn renovation and distracted by writing magazine articles, I have recently started another blog. Clive and Wendy first came to visit as paying guests in our gîte. They liked it so much they came again. They came as volunteers. Then as friends. This Christmas gone, they looked after our chickens, sheep and cats, which allowed us to leave together (for a change) to visit our mums in the UK.

Soon after they got home, Clive fell ill. The shocking news is that he has a cancer of the brain, which, among other traumas has rendered him blind. Clive is a professional photographer and senior lecturer in photography at Leeds Metropolitan University. 

I have started a project to get one of Clive’s own photographs—which he has in his head—into a tactile image that he can feel. We quickly raised all the money we needed for that and Clive has asked that we put on an exhibition of his work and that of his students in both conventional and tactile images, so make accessible the world of photography to those who are visually impaired. If you’d like to read more about Clive and his project, click over to the blog “A Tactile Image for Clive”.

I got carried away with Photoshop !
As regards permaculture (i.e., this blog) I have loads to tell but so little time to type. All the lambs are born, three Ouessants and a pair of Ouessant x Belle Isle twins. The barn renovation project has taken huge leaps forward since I last blogged about it. We’ve added another 15 metres to the forest garden windbreak. All the new spring salads are up, so are the tomatoes and Gabrielle’s waiting for slightly better weather before planting out the courgettes and squashes and we’re right in the middle of asparagus eating season.
We’ve a colony of midwife toads in residence in the polytunnel and saw a kingfisher perched watching our pond today. Next week, we have some friends helping us to harvest the wood cut last winter and this winter just gone and the bluebells are out, in their ever-extending beautiful carpet of blue.

The new (Summer) issue of Permaculture Magazine is out and I have an article in it about my visit to Martin Crawford’s forest garden in Totnes, Devon, UK last year. An article written by Patrick Whitefield also mentions us. I promise to carry on blogging here a little more often, so watch this space.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Learning about permaculture

Version française à suivre bientôt

What is permaculture? Search in books for definitions of permaculture and you will find many variations; permaculture means different things to different people. I think that worries some, who would rather add rules and regulations, checks and balances, to make sure that permaculture is the same wherever you happen to be, like a Holiday Inn hotel.

But permaculture is site specific, so why not person specific? In order to find out what permaculture means to you you have first to learn a bit about it and for that, there's no better starting place that a well-run Permaculture Design Course, run by someone with loads of experience. You will learn about its ethics and principles.

Patrick demonstrates how to use an A-frame
You'll also learn about the practical tools you'll need to employ, such as how to measure your land topographically for level and contour, and then map that information. You'll learn how to design using permaculture principles and will probably leave the course inspired, impatient to get designing and eager to tell everyone else what a wonderful thing permaculture is.

Permaculture courses and books will provide you with an ambitious wish-list of things you'd like to include on your land. However, there's another part to all this learning, made more difficult if, like us, you haven't come from a background of horticulture and agriculture and that's learning about all the individual plants that you want to include in your permaculture design and all the animals that will be involved (both the planned domestic ones and the ones that just turn up, on wings, feet or just wriggling on their belly).

An idealised layout (© Mollison's Intro to Permaculture, p.102)
Books can give you neat, mandala-like suggestions of how to arrange your site but real life doesn't really work like that. If you want to avoid making some of the mistakes we've madehaving plants die and having to relocate others a year after planting—it's best to learn about their needs, what conditions they require to thrive. In this way, once you've surveyed your land and its soil, discovered the microclimates and how they change through the year, you can plant something where it'll be happy. In the windbreak at the bottom of the field at the exposed end of your property, you'll choose something that is hardy to cold temperatures and harsh winds and doesn't mind its feet wet in winter and plant blueberries only in soil that's acid enough for its taste. Make no mistake, this is a long journey, requiring you to delve deep into plant encyclopaedias, nursery catalogues and conventional garden design books.

screenshot from Patrick's online course
Returning to Permaculture Design Courses (PDCs): we both did our PDCs with Patrick Whitefield, I did my course residential at Ragmans Lane Farm in Gloucestershire and Gabrielle studied online for hers.
In an article in the new edition of Permaculture Magazine  Gabrielle and I compare and contrast online Permaculture Design Courses to the conventional face to face models and explore available online options and what they actually offer students. You can buy the magazine as a hard copy or a downloadable PDF

Monday, January 13, 2014

Finding time to write

There has been a hiatus since my last blog and, not for the first time, I find myself wanting to start a blog with an apology, shortly followed by a weak excuse. Sorry! (… and now the excuse:) Hot on the heels of a couple of articles in French (so always longer to write) I plunged into another article. It involved several phone and Skype interviews with people in England, the Netherlands and the Lebanon and long email conversations to Spain and Australia. This entailed transcribing these conversations (I don't use shorthand or have other skills to speed this along) and then stitch this all together into a magazine article where there is always a squeeze on word count. It's fun, I always learn loads but it's time consuming. And time—with our busy smallholding lives and building projects and the winter tree-felling season upon us—is not something I think I have much spare of.

Un certain temps c'est écoulé depuis mon dernier blog et, ce n'est pas la première fois ! Je me retrouve à nouveau à vouloir commencer le blog avec des excuses, rapidement suivies par l'explication.. Désolé ! Et maintenant le pourquoi du retard : dans la foulée de la rédaction de quelques articles en français (donc toujours plus longs à écrire), je me suis plongé dans un autre article. Il nécessitait plusieurs entretiens par téléphone et Skype avec des personnes en Angleterre, aux Pays-Bas et au Liban ainsi que de longs échanges par courriel vers l'Espagne et l'Australie. Il a fallu transcrire toutes ces conversations (je n'ai pas de compétence en sténographie ni dans aucun autre domaine qui pourrait accélérer ce long travail) et les rassembler dans même un article pour une publication dans un magazine où il y a toujours une forte pression sur le nombre de mots. C'est amusant, j'apprends toujours beaucoup mais ça prend beaucoup de temps. Et le temps nous manque avec la vie sur notre petite ferme familiale, des projets de rénovation et de construction et maintenant la saison de l'abattage et de l'élagage des arbres dans nos 4,5 hectares de bois.

A Christmas present from Gabrielle—efficiently delivered by a white-bearded Scandinavian chap—has inspired me to (try to) change my daily routine to find a little more time. Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work by Mason Currey, details the daily habit of 161 writers, artists, composers and productive and creative people. It seems that people work best at a particular time of day; like many, I work best in the morning.

Un cadeau de Noël de Gabrielle – livré efficacement par un homme de Scandinavie avec une barbe blanche - m'a inspiré pour essayer de modifier mon quotidien afin de dégager un peu plus de temps. Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work by Mason Currey (lit : Rituels quotidiens : Comment les Grands Esprits prennent le temps, trouvent l'inspiration, et se rendent au travail) détaille les habitudes quotidiennes de 161 écrivains, artistes, compositeurs et autres personnes productives et créatives . Il semble que ces gens travaillent mieux à un moment donné de la journée ; comme beaucoup, je travaille mieux le matin.

Black coffee, cigarettes and alcohol feature often in these cameos, with some artists seeking stronger stimulants. Exhausted by too much work, wine and cigarettes, John-Paul Sartre turned to Corydrane, a combination of amphetamine and aspirin, crunching on twenty a day, at a rate of two pages written per tablet. 

Café noir, cigarettes et alcool composent souvent dans ces camées, mais quelques artistes cherchent parfois des stimulants bien plus forts. Épuisé par trop de travail, le vin et les cigarettes, Jean -Paul Sartre se tourna vers le corydrane, une combinaison d'amphétamine et d'aspirine,. Il en croquait jusque vingt par jour, à une fréquence de deux pages écrites par comprimé.
With a mind whirling with ideas and all this extra stimulation, sleep didn't always come easy, and both W. H. Auden (amphetamines) and Marcel Proust (caffeine) turned to sedatives to help them sleep, what one friend of Proust described as “putting your foot on the brakes and accelerator at the same time.” If this sounds an unhealthy lifestyle, you'd be right. Toulouse-Lautrec told an acquaintance, “I expect to burn myself out by the time I'm forty.” But he was in his grave at thirty-six.

Avec un esprit tourbillonnant fourmillant d'idées et ce genre de stimulation supplémentaire, le sommeil ne vient pas toujours facilement... W.H. Auden (amphétamines) et Marcel Proust (caféine) se sont d'ailleurs également tournés vers des sédatifs pour les aider à dormir ! Ce qu'un ami de Proust décrit comme « appuyer le pied sur les freins et l'accélérateur en même temps. » Si cela vous semble un mode de vie malsain , vous avez sans doute raison . Toulouse -Lautrec aurait dit à un ami, « à quarante ans, je serais certainement épuisé. » Il était dans sa tombe à trente-six ans !

Time management seems to be the key and probably the most repeated theme in Currey's book is that of self-discipline and a routine to try to make the most of the day. That's not at all easy and even the great Samuel Johnson readily admitted to procrastination and a lack of discipline. I've resolved to try a little harder this year to spend less time aimlessly surfing on the Internet (usually when I wake up in the morning and when I'm tired at the end of the day) and see if I can't free up time elsewhere.

La gestion du temps semble être la clé et le thème qui revient le plus souvent dans le livre de Currey semble être celui de l'auto-discipline et une routine pour essayer d'en faire le maximum chaque jour. Ce n'est pas facile du tout et même le grand Samuel Johnson a admis volontiers sa procrastination et son manque de discipline. Cette année, jai pris la résolution d'essayer un peu plus de passer moins de temps à surfer sur Internet sans but (généralement quand je me réveille le matin et quand je suis fatigué en fin de journée) et voir si je peux libérer du temps ailleurs.

The answer might be during the night. Gabrielle and I have both noticed changing sleep patterns, which we put down to getting older. It was at first frustrating to wake up and from our warm cocoon of slumber hear the soft three, four and even five o'clock chimes of the clock in the lounge. We'd drop off to a deep sleep again, struggling to open our eyes at 7 am. 

La réponse pourrait être au cours de la nuit. Gabrielle et moi-même avons remarqué un changement dans nos habitudes de sommeil. Nous pensions que cela venait de notre âge grandissant. Nous trouvions frustrant de nous réveiller bien au chaud dans notre lit douillet et entendre les doux carillons doux de trois, quatre et même cinq heures de l'horloge du séjour. Pour nous endormir à nouveau profondément et avoir du mal à ouvrir les yeux à 7 h ! 

We've recently read that the 8-hour sleep wasn't always the expected norm and that it was very common to sleep in two chunks with a wakey-up bit in the middle. Currey reports that several artists seem to make use of this time, what Marilynne Robinson called “benevolent insomnia”: “The world is quiet. I can read or write. It seems like stolen time. It seems like I have a twenty-eight hour day.” I have once tried switching on the light and reading for an hour, after which I easily dropped off again but I've yet to have the courage to exit a warm bed to go and sit at the table and write. 

Nous avons lu récemment que le sommeil de 8 heures n'a pas toujours été la norme et qu'il était très fréquent de dormir durant deux périodes séparées d'un temps d'éveil. Currey signale que plusieurs artistes semblent faire usage de ce temps, ce que Marilynne Robinson a appelé « l'insomnie bienveillante » : « Le monde est calme. Je peux lire ou écrire. Il apparaît comme du temps volé. Il semble que j'ai une journée de vingt-huit heures. » J'ai essayé une fois d'allumer la lumière et de lire pendant une heure, après quoi je me suis endormi de nouveau facilement, mais je n'ai pas encore eu le courage de sortir de mon lit chaud pour aller m'asseoir à table et écrire.
The other tip I've gained from the book is to write regularly: as Gertrude Stein said, “If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year.”

L'autre astuce que j'ai acquis grâce à ce livre est d'écrire régulièrement : comme l'a dit Gertrude Stein, « Si on écrit une demi-heure par jour, cela fini par faire beaucoup année après année. »
What I have been writing / qu'ai-je écrit récemment :
La Passerelle Éco Nº 50 Automne 2013 “Visite d'un jardin-forêt”. A guided tour around the forest garden of Martin Crawford / un tour guidé du jardin-forêt de Martin Crawford.
Les 4 Saisons du jardin bio Nº 204 jan/fév 2014 “Faire son savon” How to make your own soap / apprenez à faire du savon en utilisant le procédé à froid.
(for the English version, see Permaculture Magazine Nº 74 Winter 2014).

… and another due out this month.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Many hands make light work / L'union fait la force

I was recently drinking coffee with Bruno and Mélanie in their wonderful straw bale house**. Cécile popped her head round the door as she'd come to collect one of their kiddies to take to drawing class with her own daughter. She started talking about a new idea she'd read about of creating a vegetable bed using rotting logs and used the 'permaculture' word, something I don't hear often, so my ears pricked up. The long and the short of the conversation that followed is that we now have ourselves a gardening group.

J'étais récemment avec Bruno et Mélanie, autour d'une tasse de café dans leur magnifique maison en bottes de paille**. Cécile passa la tête par la porte alors qu'elle venait chercher un de leurs enfants pour l'emmener à une classe de dessin avec sa propre fille. Elle a commencé à expliquer une nouvelle idée qu'elle avait lu sur la création d'une butte de légumes enutilisant des tronçons enterrés et a utilisé le mot «permaculture». Une expression que je n'entends pas souvent ici, donc mes oreilles se dressées ! A la fin de cette conversation, nous avions décidé de créer notre propre « groupe de jardinage ».

There are a couple of proverbs that seem to contradict each other: many hands make light work, whereas too many cooks spoil the broth, so perhaps there's an optimum number in any task-driven situation. For us, it's four couples along with assorted small children—that require feeding, entertaining and otherwise managing but don't provide any useful labour—who meet up to share good food (we're in France, remember) ideas and energy. For me, a perpetually busy but sensitive soul, a huge benefit is that of the morale support one gets in a group: if a long list of things to do can be overwhelming, there's no better antidote than a smiling group of friends turning up bearing tools.

Il y a des proverbes qui semblent se contredire les uns les autres: « l'union fait la force », mais « autant de têtes, autant d'avis. » Alors peut-être existe-t-il un nombre optimal pour chaque tâche. Pour nous, c'est quatre couples ainsi que les petits enfants—qui nécessitent l'alimentation, divertissement et gestion, mais ne fournissent pas de travail utile—qui se retrouvent pour partager la bonne bouffe, des idées et de l'énergie. Pour moi, une âme perpétuellement occupée, mais sensible, l'avantage énorme est le soutien moral reçu via le groupe : si une longue liste de choses à faire peut être écrasante, il n'y a pas de meilleur moment que lorsqu'un groupe d'amis souriant arrive chargé d'outils.

Our first event was fittingly at Cécile's and Antony's where we tidied up an area to be given over to chickens, built compost bins out of pallets and prepared a vegetable bed for next spring. Previously covered with old lino (a damn fine mulch, I have to report) the bed needed just a light fork over with a grelinette (broad fork) taking the opportunity to remove thick, spaghetti-like roots of bindweed, then a couple of boards pegged on the back and one side, levelled with a rake and a covering of chipped willow to cover the soil until next spring.

Notre premier chantier de groupe a été inauguré chez Cécile et Antony. C'est là que nous avons aménagé un espace pour des poules, construit des bacs de compostage à partir de palettes et préparé une « planche » de légumes pour le printemps prochain. Couverte bien avant notre chantier d'un vieux lino (un paillis sacrément efficace, je dois le signaler), la planche n'a eu besoin que d'un léger passage de Grelinette (large fourchette), profitant de l'occasion pour enlever les racines épaisses et celles formant un réseau dense de « spaghetti » comme chez le liseron. Puis nous avons placé quelques planches de bois sur chant au niveau des bordures de la terre travaillée que nous avons nivelée au râteau puis couverture de taille de saule pour couvrir le sol jusqu'au printemps prochain.

Yesterday, we joined up again at Bruno's and Mél's to double-dig a crescent-shaped vegetable bed, plant a row of autumn-fruiting raspberries and a handful of bare-rooted fruit trees. Swinging mattocks, we removed the turf, dug out a spit (spade's depth) and carted it to the opposite end. The idea of 'double' digging is not to turn the soil over to two spades depth as you'd risk mixing precious topsoil with subsoil, what you do is remove the top layer and then decompact the lower layer before replacing the fluffed up topsoil on top. 

Hier, nous nous sommes à nouveau retrouvés chez Bruno et Mel. Nous avons créé une nouvelle planche de légumes en forme de croissant utilisant la technique du double bêchage et pour planter une rangée de framboises (qui portent des fruits en automne) et quelques arbres fruitiers à racines nues. Avec une pioche-hache, nous avons retiré le gazon, puis creusé sur la profondeur d'une bêche. L'idée de « double bêchage » n'est pas retourner la terre à deux bêches de profondeur car vous risqueriez de mêler la précieuse terre arable avec la terre jaune ; cette technique permet de retirer la couche supérieure pour ensuite décompacter la couche inférieure avant de replacer la couche arable sur le haut.

At one end, the soil was beautiful, dark, silty loam all the way down. By the time we'd reached the other end, things had changed a lot: the subsoil was very clayey (in a concrete sort of way) and couldn't be penetrated by the broad fork nor a tarmac fork (a useful tool as it has a metal shaft, so you can give it a real heave-ho to break up the lower layer) so we had to swing a pickaxe at it to achieve what we wanted. Into the mix, we threw the matured contents of their compost toilet (nitrogen, with some phosphorus and potassium), wood ash from the stove (potassium) and some chipped willow (carbon). Once raked even, the bed was covered with a thin layer of black compost (the darker it is, the more organic matter it has) and a protective deep mulch of straw. The straw will be removed in spring prior to planting so as to let the soil heat up and to remove the ideal conditions for slugs and snails. Job done as the winter sun went down, we retired inside for goûter, which is what our French friends call afternoon tea.

À une extrémité, la terre était belle, foncée, limoneuse jusqu'au fond. Au moment où nous avons atteint l'autre côté, les choses ont beaucoup changé : le sous-sol était très argileux (comme un béton) et ne pouvait être pénétré ni par la grelinette, ni par une fourche de macadam (un outil utile, car il a une manche de métal, de sorte qu'on peut le tirer avec beaucoup de force sans le casser, pour briser la couche inférieure de terre). Nous avons donc dû utiliser une pioche en premier pour obtenir ce que nous voulions ! Dans le mélange, nous avons jeté le compost mûr de leur toilettes sèches (azote, avec un peu de phosphore et de potassium), de la cendre de bois (potassium) et du BRFbois raméal fragmenté(carbone). Une fois ratissé de niveau, le lit a été recouvert d'une fine couche de compost noir (plus il est foncé, plus il y a de matière organique) et une couche épaisse de paille. La paille sera retirée au printemps avant la plantation afin de laisser le sol se réchauffer et ne pas favoriser les conditions idéales pour les limaces et les escargots. Une fois le travail fait et le soleil d'hiver en train de se coucher, nous sommes allés à l'intérieur pour goûter, ce que nous appellons « the tea break » !

**A little digression: it was a sunny Saturday morning and was so warm inside the house I asked whether they'd had a fire in the woodstove the evening before. “No” was the answer. You really have to experience first hand a passive house in action. With all the talk of rising energy prices, I never hear a politician, nor a journalist on the radio or TV, say that we now have the knowhow to build houses that don't need (almost any) heating even in our grey European winters. Thermal mass on the inside, a huge overcoat and hat of insulation on the outside and large windows facing south. Mélanie's and Bruno's house achieves this using straw bales and mud—this is clever but it's not rocket science—and they heat their water with solar and wood.

**Petite digression : c'était un samedi matin ensoleillé. Il faisait si chaud à l'intérieur de leur maison que j'ai demandé s'ils avaient fait un feu dans leur poêle à bois la veille. « Non » fut leur réponse. À mon avis, on a vraiment besoin de se familiariser avec une maison passive pour bien comprendre son fonctionnement. Avec tous les discours sur l'augmentation des prix de l'énergie, je n'ai jamais entendu un politicien, un journaliste à la radio ou à la télévision, dire que nous avons maintenant le savoir-faire pour construire des maisons qui n'ont pas besoin de chauffage, même dans nos hivers européens gris. La masse thermique à l'intérieur, un énorme manteau et chapeau d'isolant et des grandes fenêtres face au sud. La maison de Mélanie et de Bruno le réalise en utilisant des bottes de paille et de la terre cruec'est si intelligent, mais ce n'est vraiment pas sorcieret ils chauffent leur eau avec du bois et le soleil.