Sunday, December 24, 2006

“People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results.” So said Albert Einstein! In my blog of 3rd December, I introduced you to Monsieur Crespel (above) the local bucheron (woodcutter/lumberjack) who I asked to help me safely bring to earth a hanging tree in our woods, a tree felled, perhaps by the wind, which got entangled in other trees and is especially dangerous, at least to debutant treefeller like myself. We remade our rendez-vous for yesterday, which turned out to be particularly cold (-3ºC).

Monsieur Crespel, a short man but impressively wide, arrived in his impossibly small car with a very large chainsaw and a remarkable absence of safety wear. After the formalities of a French “hello” and a short walk into the woodland, he set about the tree and in less than five minutes had it safely horizontal and, wielding his chainsaw with the swashbuckling gay abandon of Errol Flynn handling a sword, chopped it up into 50cm lengths, ready for our stove and then left me to it. Wood needs to be seasoned, so it looses its inherent moisture before it’s ready to burn, else loads of energy is used to boil off the water before it burns, so defeating the object somewhat and the gases given off during combustion are more polluting. Apparently, ash is the one wood one can burn green but I’ve never discovered why that should be so. (If you know, please leave a comment and tell me!)

I had (still have) a heavy cold and my intention was to work until lunchtime, then come home and get a hearty fire going in time to settle down next to the radio and listen to the footy during the afternoon. Trying to be clever in a time-and-motion sort of way, I thought it a good idea to reverse the van up as close to the entrance of the woodland as possible as I was bring the logs out a wheelbarrow at a time. By the time my van was full, the front-wheel drive Renault wouldn’t budge an inch in the mud: time-and-motion calculations slightly wrong! Luckily for me, I had my mobile phone with me and, just as luckily, my pig-farming and tractor-driving neighbour Paul had his with him as well. He arrived within ten minutes to drag me back to the tarmac.

Over coffee and some mince pies that Gabrielle had made, he told me that he was trying to mend a new piece of agricultural equipment he’d bought second-hand. It was sprayer attached to the back of a tractor with huge folding arms that refused to fold up having been unfolded. I felt duty-bound to offer a coup de main (helping hand) which is how I ended up in a freezing French field in the middle of December with a stinking cold trying to work out the hydraulics and electrics of a huge farm folding thing with only a technical manual in French for guidance. Despite getting hypothermic, I felt I couldn’t leave before the problem was solved and it was six o’clock, some three and a half hours later, when we finished by torchlight and the arms swung closed on command. By the time I returned home, the footy was over but all was not lost, as my team (Arsenal) had won 6 – 2, hooray!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Stop Press: we’re looking after our neighbours’ four young chickens for them while they’re away for Christmas. Happy Christmas, Alan and Carole: voila, your very first egg!!!
Now, should we eat it or do you want it put somewhere cool to attend your return?

Just in the nick of time, before winter had officially started on 21st, our wood stove has been installed. The only other heating available is some electric panel heaters, common in France, especially rural France where there is no piped gas supply. I call it chauffage nucleaire (nuclear central heating) as France is the country which generates the largest percentage of its electricity from nuclear energy, at 78.5%, in the world. Whether nuclear energy is “clean”, safe and the answer to our energy problems is open to debate but it’s clear that burning wood can be a very environmentally friendly way of heating and as we have our own woodland it’s free!

Have a look at Steve’s Chickenshack Blog of Tuesday September 26th for an explanation of how wood burns in a stove.

One thing that annoys me (many things annoy Stuart says Gabrielle!) is the claim by people who don’t wish to reduce their energy consumption that planting trees can “lock up carbon” and so, if they plant (or sponsor the planting of) a few extra trees, this somehow negates their energy profligacy. Burning fossil fuel is releasing CO2 locked up millions of years ago, when the carbon balance in the world was completely different. In comparison, burning wood is carbon neutral, which means that when a tree burns (or decays by rotting) it only gives up the same amount of CO2 that it has absorbed during its life.

There is certainly more effort involved in cleaning the window of the stove, lighting a fire and keeping it burning all evening than turning the thermostat a degree higher but this is very evocative for me of my grandfather’s daily routine when, enjoying his first cigarette of the day—no doubt a Woodbine or Embassy No.6—he’d emerge from the dark and mysterious cellar with a galvanised bucket containing coal, newspaper, kindling and Zip firelighters, a mesmerising process for a young grandson. Talking of him, I suppose he set a precedent for my coming to France: travelling with some mates aged 18 (in 1918) staying twenty days somewhere near the Somme, before being shot in the face for his trouble and repatriated via an Australian Army field hospital. He’d be pleased to know things are altogether better now in the French countryside!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Yet another blog where I tell you what we actually don’t know! It’s not all our fault: we often find that people who write instructions in books about things that they obviously know how to do, miss out vital joining bits or make assumptions about the existing knowledge of their poor readers; you’ll understand what I mean if you’ve ever tried to assemble some flat packed furniture. Our geese are in the rudest and noisiest of health and, all summer, have had a diet of grass supplemented by wheat grain when they return to their house each evening. As Christmas approaches, geese are to be “fattened up” so need some additions to their diet. Before I go on to that, something I learnt about grass this year: with a dry summer, the grass didn’t grow that much but as the autumn brought rain, so the grass greened up and started growing again. It looks really lush now but looks can be deceiving. Paul, our pig farming neighbour, told me that during the summer there might be slim pickings but what there is, is very rich in nutrients and the converse is true of the autumn grass. Val, a smallholder from Somerset, said the same thing when I emailed her for advice, “the grass has no feed value left at this time of year so just treat grass as a salad for them!”

So, back to a fattening up diet. After discussing “proprietary pellets”, Katie Thear, in her Starting with Geese, says that alternatives are barley meal mixed with rolled barley (p74). The French word is de l’orge and the only form I’ve found this in locally is as whole grain. The geese eat their wheat as whole grains and so we thought they could have their barley the same way. As we’ve discovered before though, our geese our fussy eaters and turned their noses, or rather beaks, up at the barley. We contacted Val to ask what barley meal was and ended up grinding the whole grain up, half a cup at a time, in our coffee grinder. Still no luck, so I made a porridge out of it, as they have previously eaten our leftover oats porridge: again no. More alternatives offered by Thear include cooked potatoes, vegetables, spare milk mixed with barley or maize meal. In his treatise on self-sufficiency, Cottage Economy, first published as a series of pamphlets in 1821-2, William Cobbett suggests oats, along with cabbage and lettuce … fattening up with lettuce?

Which neatly brings me back to Val, who said that the autumn grass should just be treated as salad. She also said that “the protein level needs to be very high to fatten and it should have been high from about late Oct!” Despite avidly reading cereal packets at breakfast time when I was a kid, I have no idea what comparative levels of protein there are in the different foods suggested, other than potato is a carbohydrate and I don’t reckon there’d be must protein in a lettuce. As I said, our geese are fussy eaters but they do love cooked potatoes and bread soaked in water or milk. Just up the road we have a dairy farmer, and I’ve arranged for him to give us two litres of unpasteurised full-cream milk each day and we get stale bread from the bakers. So, our geese get as much grass as they want during the day, along with milk-soaked bread, cooked potatoes and any other treats as they come up and their usual ration of wheat in the evening when they go back to their home.

Photo is of the geese supplementing their diet with iron, at least that's what I think they're doing, trying to eat the wheelbarrow!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

In the last nine days, we’ve had 90mm of rain (the monthly average is 92mm) which means that 90 litres has fallen on every square metre of land leaving everything decidedly soggy! This does not seem the obvious introduction to some water saving measures we’ve taken this week but water conservation really is becoming a big issue environmentally and, as we pay for our metered supply, an economic one as well.

At the Saturday organic market at St Pern, between Plouasne and Becherel, a friend of ours, Béatrice Méra, has a stall selling natural cosmetics and essential oils; she also sells some water saving devices and water filters. Due to her snappy sales technique or perhaps we were feeling sorry for her on a cold autumnal day, we bought two devices to screw into the end of a tap (one each for the mixer taps in kitchen and bathroom) and an economising shower head. I’ve come across the tap fittings before but was wary about the showerhead, as I love the sensation of a getting really wet under power shower (both hot and cold water are mains pressure in France, so the effect is the same). She assured us the shower jet was strong and très agréable .

Fixing them all was easy. The mixer taps already have a diffuser screwed into them, easily removed with a pair of pliers, and there was an extra spacer ring that therefore gave two thread sizes to choose from and it was obvious what to do. Do be careful if your mixer head is plastic, as I almost cross-threaded the one in the bathroom, which would have made me very cross-headed! The showerhead was a direct replacement; thankfully all these plumbing fitting must be reasonably standard. The tap fittings aerate the flow, so you get the same sensation of getting wet, but using a lot less water. The shower was great, so much so that I was not at all convinced that with was saving any water and thought we might have wasted our 30€ (£20). Hence the measuring jug and watch experiment you can see in the photo above.

The taps changed from around 12 seconds a litre to 20 but the shower, of which I had my doubts, changed from 10 seconds to 28 seconds a litre. I haven’t worked out how long it would take to recoup our costs, which would depend on water usage and the price of water but Béatrice assures me that, on average, it would be well within the first year. What was interesting, apart from working out the savings, was how quickly a tap gets through a litre of water. Apart from water shortages, there is also the issue of how much energy and chemicals go into treating all water supplied to the house to drinking standard and makes the collection and use of rainwater for the garden and, e.g., car washing, such a good idea (see blog of Friday 4th August). You will find Béatrice most Saturdays at the St Pern market and you can email her at For everything you ever wanted to know about water, why not ask Santa for a copy of Judith Thornton’s The Water Book (pub. by The Centre of Alternative Technology)?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Seasons Greetings to all visitors to our blog, regular or occasional! Gabrielle has been busy with bits of willow, holly, rosemary, bay, ivy, pinecones and other odds and ends to make some decorative wreaths and has also hung up some mistletoe outside the front door. The photo is of our neighbours, Alan and Carole, who, sighting the mistletoe, have been overcome with tradition, emotion or perhaps both!

The name “mistletoe” means “dung-on-a-twig” in Anglo-Saxon and comes from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. We now know it is indeed spread by birds, either by seeds which had passed through their digestive tract or by birds wiping their bills on branches to displace the sticky berry seeds off their bills.

From the earliest times, it has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore: believed to bestow life and fertility, protect against poisons and an aphrodisiac. The mistletoe of the oak was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. Mistletoe was long regarded as both a sexual symbol and the “soul” of the oak. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas derives from Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. Old traditions include hanging branches of mistletoe from ceilings to ward off evil spirits or over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. In parts of England and Wales farmers would give the Christmas bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year to bring good luck to the herd.

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. If you want to do it properly, gents, the man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing … and the mistletoe should then be burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry!

Thanks to this site for the info.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Back in the Spring edition of Permaculture Magazine, I had an article published entitled “A Bedtime Story” on how we got to make our own duvet from organic sheep’s wool on a farm in the Sarthe region of France. In the latest edition of the magazine, I’ve had another article published, entitled “Far From Woolly Thinking” which describes how the first article lead directly to Val Grainger, a Somerset smallholder, finding a permaculture solution to her problem of what to do with wool that costs more to shear off a sheep than she can sell it for. Click on the links to download the articles in pdf format and here for Val’s own blog.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Wing clipping – Part 2. Back on 8th Sept, I told you how we’d clipped the outer wing feathers of our white geese as they were managing to fly for a few metres, the odd one thus finding itself outside the confines of the protective electric fencing and not then knowing what to do. We’d left the grey geese as they seemed too heavy to fly … until now!

If I could liken the white geese to the slim grace of an F16 fighter plane, then our grey ones would be the four-engined B52 bombers of the avian airforce, which seem too heavy to ever get airborne and yet, defying all intuition and aerodynamic logic, they finally lift off, in black clouds of exhaust, at the very end of the runway. Our geese often have a “funny five minutes” for reasons known only to themselves and the famous animal behaviouralist who specialised in geese, Konrad Lorenz. When we come to put them away in the evening, once out of their enclosure, they often race off up the field with lots of flapping of wings and equal amount of noise, then stop and return to us in similar fashion. They also do this in their enclosure, doing it across the diagonal for extra distance. Like the aforementioned B52s, our grey geese were getting airborne and, after three occasions of finding a grey goose (the same goose, marked out from the others by a quiff on its head) on the outside of the fence in the same week, it was time to take action.

As we knew what we were doing now, the clipping took place in double-quick time and the whole lot were together on the field in less than ten minutes. They still have their funny-five-minutes of racing about and screaming but without leaving the floor!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

We’ve been down to our woods again to collect some mistletoe for seasonal decoration and to size up our heating supply for this winter. There is a huge fallen oak in the wood which looks as if it’s been down for years and is therefore well-seasoned (dry enough to burn) and needs just to be cut up into logs and carried home to feed our wood stove, which we hope will be installed this coming week. The problem with this particular tree is that it has fallen on top of some other trees which haven’t dropped completely, so it is hanging and therefore highly dangerous to try to bring to the ground and definitely a job for an expert. Lots of mushrooms were growing on this dead wood and we cut some off with my ever-present Opinel pocket knife and bought it home for identification. Worried of some painful death from liver and kidney failure (poisonous mushrooms are very bad news) and even after we’d positively identified them as oyster mushrooms, I spent several hours poring over Roger Phillips book, Mushrooms to make sure there were no poisonous ones that we could possibly have confused them with. Wild mushroom collecting is a national pastime here but, for me, it was a big step to take to cook and eat a wild mushroom. We had some as a starter last night, fried up with a mix of butter (for taste) and olive oil (to prevent the butter burning) garlic, salt and pepper … and they were delicious. We’ve just done the same this evening, adding parsley and white wine!

I’d asked round locally and had been recommended to someone living conveniently close to the wood, who is an expert wood cutter. We went to his house yesterday and met him as he was just driving out in his “sans permis”. Sans permis means “without licence” and describes the car one is confined to driving if one gets banned from driving: a 600cc diesel two-seater that is restricted to about 30 mph. They are often associated with men who like their drink as one can drive them after being banned from driving! Apparently one can ultimately get banned from driving a sans permis!! It is a small car and our expert tree feller is a huge man. He was on his way out to deal with some dangerous poplars but he had time to make an appointment for midday the following day (today).

I waited until half and hour after our agreed rendezvous and went to his house. There I found his micro car parked up and could see the TV on thought the glass door. Repeated knocking and ringing brought no response before I noticed a foot hanging over the edge of the sofa. The mystery thickened. Louder banging and more doorbell ringing got not so much as a twitch and I plucked up the courage to enter and possibly encounter a huge Frenchman the worse for wear from drinking too much Pastis (an aniseed-based aperitif) but it was locked. Should I call the police and ambulance? The foot hadn’t yet one blue so I decided to return home and try again after lunch. Once home, I found his name in the phone book and called him, finally rousing him. He had flu, apparently, and made a new appointment for the following Saturday. I’ll let you know how we get on.

Friday, December 01, 2006

In recent weeks, I haven’t been posting blogs so frequently as before and my excuse is that I’ve been busy finishing off the barn re-roofing project, which I’m proud to say is now done. I shall return to the subject of the roof in a couple of paragraphs ...

The word sustainability, used in a context to mean environmental sustainability, was first coined by Lester Brown 25 years ago in his book Building a Sustainable Society. In the same context, the term 'sustainable development' was popularised by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its 1987 report entitled Our Common Future. (The WCED is also known as the Brundtland Commission, after the Chair of the Commission and former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland and was the direct precursor of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio). Sustainable development was defined as development that “meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Ever since, and particularly after the Rio Earth Summit, politicians have neatly twisted their obligations and commitments towards environmental sustainability into working towards economic sustainability, something very much more interesting to them.

All of which is a very wordy introduction to me saying that although much of what Gabrielle and I are trying to achieve here is to live our lives in a low-impact, environmentally sustainable way, we need to be economically sustainable too. To anyone contemplating a move to the French countryside in search of a better life, I would urge them to first consider how they are going to earn their living. Particularly down in the Limousin region, where I started out, employment was the prime make or break factor to them staying or returning to the UK. And too many of them came out to what was perceived as one of the last places to pick up bargain properties in France apparently having done no research and with just an idea that they could turn outbuildings into holiday cottages – gîtes– and wait for hoards of paying guests. It’s an under-populated, very rural part of France with many charms but also poor employment prospects and is not well known as a holiday destination. In our estimation, starting and maintaining new small businesses here is very hard with the level of taxation and social charges one has to pay from the moment the business is registered.

An alternative to earning more is to spend less (nothing revolutionary there!) and we hope to reduce spending on heating and water and are already noticing a reduction in our food bill (perhaps not the drink bill though!). So, back to the roof: we could have paid a roofer to do it. I would then have to work, paying taxes, to pay said roofer, who would also pay taxes on what he charged me and that’s if I could have found a roofer who could start work before 2007. Our chosen alternative was for me to do it, paying a roofer, by the odd hour, for expert advice to guide me in my project. I started work on 27th August and finished this week. I have endured many sleepless nights and wondered, on more than one occasion, whether I had bitten off more than I could chew, but it’s all over now and I have learnt another skill, which will be useful for our straw-bale house build. Worries and doubts apart, it was often quite enjoyable, with a high vantage point to view the surrounding countryside, just the noise of birdsong and cockerels crowing and I found hanging the slates almost meditative. I’ve added up all the bills and reckon I’ve done it for between 1/3 and 1/2 of the price a roofer would have charged: thousands of euros I don’t have to go out and earn.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Although we’ve been here since the end of April and have been busy ever since, and I’ve been telling you all about it under the title of permaculture in brittany I’m not sure that I could honestly say that we’ve doing permaculture. On their own, growing vegetables and raising chickens is not permaculture until you bring them together under some overall design. The first part of the process in creating that design is to do a base map, to scale, showing the current layout of the site (see my blogs of October 27th and November 12th). As ever, we’re using Patrick Whitefield’s The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain & Other Temperate Climates as our guide. (see Chapter 13, especially).

To be honest, we’ve been putting it all off because it seems so difficult and complicated. There are many obstacles to getting started and the textbook examples often shown in the pages of Permaculture Magazine are, for me at least, one of them. We’ve overcome our inhibitions and found that it isn’t half as difficult as we first thought and, once started, these things helpfully seem to take on a momentum of their own. Patrick suggests a listening and not doing stage of base map, site survey and questionnaire to be completed before moving onto the designing, decision-making and doing: evaluation, design proposals and re-evaluation.

Impatient, as always, we’ve managed to role the whole thing into one and have started and are continuing the first stage, whilst already making some decisions and getting on with some of the work. It may not be the “right way” or the best way but it’s our way and at last we can now claim to be permaculturing! The gite garden will be designed as an example of small scale permaculture, whilst also being part of the whole design, which also includes our woods, even though they are at a different site. I’ll explain the process, as it happens, over the next few blogs.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

In the hedgerow, right at the end of our property, mixed up in a holly bush and half-hidden behind a pile of tree prunings left by the previous owner, Gabrielle has discovered a medlar tree. So we read (in the July 2002 edition of Country Life magazine, amongst a pile handed on to us by our neighbour Carole) it’s an attractive tree with a gnarled shape, pretty spring blossom and lovely red and yellow autumn foliage. With that in mind, we’ll try and clear around it to expose it more to view. It’s an import to Europe but has been around for centuries and was, apparently, a common site in 16th century English gardens. It’s a relative of the hawthorn and pear and has a fruit variously described as like a giant brown rosehip and a cross between a small russet apple and an oversize hawthorn haw. The biggest talking point is that, in order to eat it, you have to let it go rotten first! It’s a shame that doesn’t apply to more things, when I think of how many times in the past that I’ve bought fruit to put in the fruit bowl with all good healthy intentions, only to throw it, uneaten and rotting, in the compost a few weeks later.

The fruits are picked in November, after the first frost but are solid as a lump of wood and therefore inedible. They need to be stored in a cool and dark space until they have gone half-rotten, a process known as “bletting”. The brown flesh can now be scraped out with teeth or a spoon and is a grainy paste with a hint of a prune taste to it. If that appeals to you, it can be eaten just like that, or cream and sugar added and they can also be baked whole as one does with apples, roasted with butter and cloves or made into a jelly that goes well with game (see also Food for Free by Richard Mabey, the foragers bible).

Gabrielle had already discovered it but, when Paul was delivering the tree stumps for our Guy Fawkes bonfire (see 7th November blog) he told us about it (it being the time to harvest the medlar) and how he’d had to persuade the previous owner not to chop it down. He’s got a cultivated version with fruit twice the size (the photo above shows a mixture of our wild ones and Paul’s). When Gabrielle was round their farm later in the day, having coffee, Paul fetched some of his medlars, one of had already started to go rotten on the tree. Their daughter, Rosanne, demonstrated to Gabrielle that it was the rotten bit that needed to be eaten, something Gabrielle found very counter-intuitive!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Way back on 19th July, I posted a blog on a visit to our woods by an expert forestier from the Centre Régional de la Propriété Forestière (CRPF). This department offer advice to the owners of woodlands on how best to manage them, what financial aid might be available and on any regulations applicable. They also administer the certification for sustainable wood, Programme Européen des Forêts Certifiées , which apparently is similar to FSC certification. One issue that was raised by Monsieur Girard was that if the original owner had had a state subsidy to plant, it could place restrictions on how the wood is managed, which would affect our own permaculture ambitions for the wood.

I’ve recently had another expert forestier from a different department, the Direction Départementale de l'Agriculture et de la Forêt (DDAF). The DDAF have a more general role in agriculture and also act in a regulatory role, enforcing directions and legislation. They work cooperatively with the CRPF and, helpfully for me, both expert foresters know each other well. Considering he works for a state department, in a regulatory role, and our wood is comparatively so small, I was particularly impressed with how helpful and ecologically spot-on he was. He spent over two hours walking the wood with me, was very receptive to our permaculture ideas for managing the woods while also offering advice and a practical exercise in how to choose trees for keeping and the felling pattern for those surrounding them.

He said that the original owner had received bad advice on what species to plant and no management at all had taken place since planting. The original file has disappeared and so the only restriction for us is that we can't cut all the trees down and change the use of the land, i.e., it must remain woodland. He suggested that we could possibly arrange a third meeting with both experts present and, in the meantime, I must come up with a management plan to discuss with them on site. The first part of this process is drawing a base map. Over such a large area, where the trees made it nigh on impossible to pace out distances in a straight line or visually join up different parts of it, this is one job (like all the base-mapping, in fact!) that I’d left. The not-particularly-ecological-easily-impressed-with-gadgets boy in me had thoughts of buying a GPS finder and plotting landmarks on a large sheet of squared paper but I received advice that the leisure models available for the money I was prepared to pay would be nowhere near accurate enough for mapping and would be further compromised by the tree canopy obscuring the sky and therefore satellite.

This advice has saved me money, as when I started mapping, it all made sense rather quickly. The land used to be pasture separated by hedgerow with trees, the French term is bocage. These dividing trees are mainly beech, for some reason, and some of them remain and others that have been cut to the stump have re-grown coppice-fashion. These lines of old beech correspond to the numbered parcels marked on the carte cadastrale (land registry map). The previous owner has planted up whole parcels with single species, so it has been relatively easy to produce a helpful map, see photo above.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

We’re recovering from a superb bonfire night firework party. We introduced our French friends and neighbours to a very English fête. Two of our neighbours couldn’t get their heads around the fact that we’d be outside all evening and so concerned was Paul, neighbour and pig farmer, that he arrived in his huge green John Deere tractor with several huge lumps of tree trunk and stumps to add to the two van loads of non-recyclable pallets that I’d collected from him earlier, to ensure that the bonfire burnt all night and kept everyone warm. With a huge barbeque made from half of an old water cylinder filled with bricks, borrowed from Thierry and Beccy, and our washing-machine fire (see photo above and blog of 2nd September) everyone kept adequately warm all evening.

We served mulled wine, then pumpkin soup prepared according to a Delia Smith recipe using a huge pumpkin grown by Andre, who was very proud both of the soup, which was very tasty, and the hollowed out and carved pumpkin on display (photo above). This was followed by spare ribs marinated and prepared to a Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall recipe and finally an apple and walnut tart with walnuts from Caroline and apples from Carole. Alan then helped me let off a good selection of fireworks. It’s perhaps a measure of how well we’ve integrated here since April that we had fifty guests.

It’s a lot different to my life in Brighton, which I enjoyed, but where I only spoke to the neighbours opposite and on either side, never had dinner with any of them and the relationship between the neighbours on one side and their neighbours on the other side developed into a battle over a loft extension and boundary that became so acrimonious it went to court and made the papers. We’ve changed country and moved from a lifetime living in towns and cities to the countryside, so I wouldn’t like to say which factors are at play. What I can say is that we have found a real community spirit here.

“Peoplecare” is one of the ethics of permaculture. On my permaculture design course run by Patrick and Cathy Whitefield, the “peoplecare” and “living in communities” sections were my least favourite bits, which is no reflection on the course but rather on me. I thought it all a bit too hippy and fluffy and wanted hard practical details on how to do permaculture. The living in a community is probably one of the most important things for us now and adds to our efforts to permaculture our lives immeasurably; I think, for example, that Annike, our 70–something neighbour who’s never heard of the term could’ve probably written the book, and it’s fun to see the expression on our neighbours faces when they look at some of our permaculture experiments, like the no-dig potatoes under a straw and cardboard mulch.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

I’d stopped writing an update about our woods to watch the first of Hugh Fernley Whittingstall’s latest series, The River Cottage Treatment on the TV. (We have access to English TV here via satellite). It was excellent and compulsive viewing and so tonight’s blog will be about our chickens … again. For those of you who didn’t see it, this chef/food-journalist-become-organic-farmer/TV presenter is presenting a series during which he tries to change the minds of fast-food loving townies; this programme was specifically about chickens. His guests saw, at first hand, the difference between factory farms and his own free-range flock, learnt how to cook free-range alternatives to their own ready meal favourites such as chicken kiev, curried chicken and spicy chicken bites (no more expensive and no slower!) ending in the killing, preparing and eating of one of his own. For a long time, I’ve thought that any chicken sold in a supermarket for just £2.50 (€3,60/$4.75) doesn’t leave much for the farmer but didn’t realise that the farmer sells them, on average, for just 3p (just over 4 centimes or 5 cents) per bird! Who’s winning here, certainly not the farmer or the chicken?

We’re now into full egg production here and so we keep them in their run until around midday, as chickens usually lay in the morning. The eggs are still variable, from impressively large double-yolkers, through regular to some in soft bags rather than fully-formed shells (see photo above). When let out, the chickens roam far and wide, returning mid-afternoon when we feed them with wheat and maize. Three weeks ago, Caroline gave us another two chicks to add to our flock. We kept them in for a week to habituate them to their new home and whilst they were definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, they returned after their daily outings without any problems … until a couple of days ago. The smallest and cutest was missing! We’ve already lost one chicken recently, perhaps to a fox or dog, and were sorry to see another go. We searched around and spoke to neighbours, without success. It was a full 24 hours later when she turned up at feeding time with the rest of the flock, which made us both unreasonably happy, I must be getting soft.

Chickens will scratch any restricted area bare over time, as ours have done with their run. They get access to fresh grass while they’re out but, as they’re spending a bit more time in during the mornings, we’ve added a thick layer of straw to their run which allows them to satisfy their scratching instincts whilst inside. The inspiration for this is the “Balfour method” of keeping chickens, as described by John Seymour in his The New Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiencyp120. In this method—suitable for a restricted space like a backyard—straw is spread in the pen as described above, with the rest of the space available for the chickens divided into two or three grassed runs with the chickens moved between them before the grass is scratched bare, thereby allowing the grass in the other pens to recover.

On a personal note, my mum tells me that some friends of the family, who have been arable farmers for many years, have started reading our blog. So, Steven and Joan (and anybody else, for that matter) please feel free to offer advice: for instructions on how to post a comment, have a look at the blog for June 28th.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Rabbits are seen differently here in France to how they are in England. In England, a domestic rabbit is a child’s pet and a wild rabbit, of which there are many, a pest. For everything from the ethics of eating game animals through to how to prepare the carcass to some recipes, have a read of Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall’s books, The River Cottage Cookbook pp 364,367 and The River Cottage Meat Book pp 150,177.

Here, rabbits are raised for meat, either farmed and sold in butchers and supermarkets or bred on a domestic scale in hutches in the garden. The meat, according to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, is “highly nutritious, low-fat, low-cholesterol meat rich in proteins and certain vitamins and minerals”.
Our friends Julie (in photo above) and Samuel have recently begun their meat production line with a breeding pair kept in separate hutches. A single female can produce from 25 to 40 offspring a year. Unfortunately, their female took an extreme dislike to the male and fought with him each time they were introduced rather than going at it like … rabbits! Their solution was to eat the female and buy another. In The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, John Seymour warns that the doe (female) must always be taken to the buck’s (male’s) hutch and never the other way round, “or their will be fighting” p 124. You can perhaps guess which way round Julie and Sam were doing it … oops!

As we’re in France, it’s high time that I started some bilingual blogging, and so I’ll attempt to put a link to the French language version.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Permaculture is a design system, which implies that some sort of design process should be involved. If I was a TV presenter I would probably describe our approach to permaculture as “organic” but I’m not and so I’ll be honest and tell you that it’s haphazard, to say the least. We arrived in our new house with furniture to make and buy to make the house habitable and all manner of permaculture ambitions like raising chickens and planting a vegetable garden. Spring was well under way, and we both suffer badly from impatience, so we bought chicks and planted vegetables with permaculture ideas in mind but no formal process under way.

Patrick Whitefield says that a permaculture design is usually presented “in the form of a map or plan of the design proposals” (The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain & Other Temperate Climates see pp375-400). The design process starts in a “listening mode” with three aspects: a base map, a site survey and questionnaire. Patrick says that these three stages “can be taken in any order, but it’s often a good idea to start with a base map, because mapping a piece of land is one of the best ways to get to know it. Making a map takes you to every part of the site and requires you to look at it carefully.” A base map is therefore a representation of the current situation and the final stage in the process is the production of the design proposal map.

We’ve got three maps to make, one of our whole site, one of our woods and one of the garden of our holiday cottage as we want to present an example of small space permaculture to inspire people staying with us. My own barrier to getting started often involves the fear of the unknown or the thought that the task will prove very/too difficult. This has been true of both the barn re-roofing and the mapping. However, once I’ve plucked up the courage to get started, I usually find that the task is less daunting than first appeared and that it starts to gain momentum. A good tip with a base map, particularly of a large area, is to try and find an existing map. This can then be traced and enlarged, with information added and deleted to suit. One method of enlarging is to tape the map over a large piece of paper, decide on a centre and measure every point out from this with a straight ruler joining the centre to the point, multiplying the measurement buy the same factor (e.g. x 2) and marking the new point on the same directional line. See the photo above and Patrick’s book for a fuller explanation.

Monday, October 23, 2006

I’ve been promising a blog on willow almost since I started posting, so on a very wet Sunday afternoon, with no chance of getting any work done on the barn roof, here it is. Willow, like comfrey (see 10th August) is a wonder product, with many uses. There are a huge amount of varieties from huge trees and shrubs, down to tiny dwarf mountain shrubs. I was hooked on my permaculture design course when, one evening after dinner, we sat down to an excellent chat with slides by one of the UK’s original willow experts, Steve Pickup of The Willow Bank.

Willow is probably best known for providing rods for basketry but has numerous other uses such as making living willow structures and hurdles (fence panels) providing hedges and windbreaks, providing quick growing biomass for fuel, stabilising river banks and cleaning soil and water courses. Willow can be a permaculture solution to damp area of land. Rather than install drainage at great expense, plant a fast growing willow variety, such as salix viminalis and cut the resulting biomass to heat your house: an example of designing with existing features rather than forcing the land to your wishes. Click on the links for English and a French examples of using willow – which is hungry for the nitrates which pollute watercourses – to clean up pollution, simultaneously providing a permaculture output of fuel wood, elegant solutions!

On the more recreational side, you can make beautiful garden structures from both living and dried willow. We did both of Steve’s courses, which were great fun and you can see one of the structures we’ve built here in Brittany for our friend Caroline and her children at their family holiday gites. The first pic shows it under construction and the second is just six months later. We’re hoping to build some willow fedges (is it a fence or a hedge?) and structures at our home this winter.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Preserving: If only fruit trees operated like chickens do; each morning a fresh apple to eat and for almost all the year round. Unfortunately they don’t and as it gets to the end of the season we have excess, which is rotting on the ground and the last tomatoes have stubbornly refused to turn red. One of the ways of making use of the fruit, enabling us to eat it throughout the year is preserving. Our neighbour Carol (previously referred to on this blog as the “Delia Smith” of St Maden) has been giving us pots of jams and chutneys for some time and recently lent Gabrielle the book she uses, Preserving by Oded Schwartz. Unfortunately, this superb book is out of print and the second-hand ones are going for silly prices on Amazon UK but we did find a copy in the US at a sensible price on

Inspired by the book, she’s gone on to make peach jam, peach chutney, fig chutney, orange marmalade with coriander seed and Triple Sec, marron glacé (chestnut purée) green tomato chutney and lastly, pink grapefruit marmalade. She’s also promised to try onion marmalade, which apparently doesn’t taste of onion! The peach jam didn’t work for a couple of reasons: she didn’t use a heavy-bottomed preserving pan, and hadn’t added additional pectin (peach is low in pectin, apparently). More by luck than design, we found we already had a preserving pan, which came in a set of saucepans we bought to kit out our holiday gite .

With marmalade, for example, the first stage is a long, slow cook to get all the fruit to soften and then, once the sugar is added, it’s a hard, fast boil to reach the setting point. One determines the setting point by talking a teaspoonful of the mixture and putting it on a very cold saucer and, as it cools, you push it around to see if a skin forms and goes wrinkly. Pectin can most easily be added by adding a chopped up cooking apple, core, pips and all, wrapped up in a muslin bag, and left in the mixture during the first stage of cooking, then squeezed thoroughly before removing. You can also buy special preserving sugar, which comes with added pectin. Boiling the peach jam in the vain hope of it setting, in the wrong saucepan, lead to a smell of burning and the whole lot going to the chickens. Gabrielle’s top tip is that you must stay next to the pan and concentrate during the second, hard boiling stage. If you come and stay in our holiday cottage you will have the opportunity of doing a half day preserve making course with the expert herself, Carol.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A general update on some of our permaculturing: for the last three weeks, we’ve combined the two 50 metre electric poultry fences that we have into one, giving four times the area (think about it!) which the geese have really enjoyed. I was moving their patch every three days and the thought of moving 100m of fencing every few days put me off but, helped by the recent rain making the grass grow, and the quadrupled extra area, it’s become a once-a-week job. They have become as noisy as they’re reputed to be and can sit quietly, munch grass contentedly or have a funny five minutes and race around their much larger protected area flapping their wings and making a right old hullabaloo. Their reputation that they’re as good as guard dogs is rubbish, as they make huge amounts of noise at the slightest disturbance, often of their own making, so that one gets to ignore it.

My report of the snails’ Great Escape was slightly erroneous as we only ever accounted for 19 of a total of 20, so one is still at large and we’re awaiting a postcard from Switzerland for news that he’s made it to safety! (WW2 filmic reference for anyone wondering what on earth I’m talking about, hence the pic above). For the other n-n-n-nineteen, Gabrielle combined them with some field mushrooms I found and some Shiitake mushrooms we’d cultivated ourselves, in a mushroom and snail risotto, one of Hugh’s recipes from The River Cottage Cookbook; which was delicious!

Gabrielle has been making preserves for the first time in her life: a fig chutney and a peach chutney, both with free fruit from our neighbours and an orange marmalade, which included coriander and Triple Sec. The key factor is having time available for these things and we feel immensely privileged to have both the time and space to do all this. Before, we would have both have been spending huge amounts of wasted time commuting to work in busy traffic, working to pay taxes and other people to do jobs we could probably do ourselves … and to buy things like chutney and marmalade. So, our food production, fun as it is, must reduce our food bill to make up for lost earnings. And my never-ending barn re-roof is saving us thousands, whilst proving both interesting and satisfying (and ongoing .... aaaaargh!)

I’ve got a list of other updates to write up very soon, including news about our woods and our attempts to start constructing some “base maps”, allegedly the first thing one should do in any permaculture design.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Egg-citing news, so we’re in cel-egg-breatory mood! Our harem of hens have not, until Thursday, produced any eggs. As I’ve said many times before on this blog: we are absolute beginners in just about every aspect of our permaculture project here in Brittany. We’ve received loads of advice, much of it conflicting: everything from how old they are before they start laying, that they need some pretend plastic eggs placed in the henhouse to encourage them (which we bought) that they may be too fat, that they’re already laying and hiding their eggs from us while free-ranging. Reading that chickens usually lay in the morning, we’ve been keeping ours in until midday, still without success, just bemusement from chickens that normally get let out when we get up. But the waiting is over!

We’ve been told that the first egg is often undersize and with the shell only partially formed so we were astonished to see that our first was huge, as you can see from the photo above, placed next to a standard egg. No surprise then that, when cracked open, it had two yolks. The hugeness of it, and it being her first an’ all, probably explains the huge amount of fuss and palaver that preceded it. The chickens had been let out at midday, Gabrielle was out and I was on the barn roof (the never-ending job) when I heard the chicken egg-laying noise, a sort of boc-boc-boc-boc-bocaaargh-boc-boc-boc-boc-bocaaargh. I came down from the roof and had a good look around for an egg, then kept a close eye on the chicken in-case it was yet to be laid.

When Gabrielle came home, we went upstairs for lunch, hearing, from time-to-time, banging and clattering from below, by the front door. A brown chicken was on her own and turning and scratching around but not for food. When we went down after lunch, we discovered the egg just by the front door: doorstep delivery indeed! The following day we got a standard-sized egg but without a proper shell, like a raw egg in a plastic bag. We've also been told that it is normal for chickens to lay strange eggs before they get into their new rhythm. We shall leave the chickens in all day tomorrow (Sunday) as the hunters—chasseurs—will be out and our neighbour lost two chickens to a hunter’s dog last week, so much for their help in reducing the fox population.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

We have a snail problem again … but in our lounge! I haven’t blogged for a few days as we’ve been really busy. I’m still on the barn roof every dry day, learning as I’m going how to re-roof it. And we spent this weekend just gone at a garden show with our yurt parked up next to a living willow structure we’d built earlier in the year to promote a possible business enterprise. (More on our willow soon). Gabrielle did face-painting for the kids again (see our blog of June 20th) and had some pine cones, sprayed silver or red and mounted on willow sticks for sale and my offering was a couple of dozen potted twisted willow plants and two panels with photos and words explaining the living willow and the yurt. We made our pitch fee back and the same again but the greater gain was all the people we met and spoke to and contacts and friendships made.

So, to the snail problem: perhaps inspired by my own brave tale of eating snails from my garden when living in Brighton, and getting evermore into permaculture and the idea of turning outputs of one part of the system into inputs for another, Gabrielle saved some snails she’d removed from the vegetable patch with the intention of eating them. I ate mine during winter, when the snails that I’d found in my garden were hibernating and were therefore empty. At any other time of the year, they need purging to empty their guts of undesirables. Our source of advice is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Cookbook. Gabrielle had hers on a regime of several days eating only lettuce, prior to 48 hours with no food at all.

She kept them in the kitchen, so as to remember to change the lettuce and clean them every day. She started off with a tight fitting lid on the plastic tub punctured with lots of breathing holes, then changed to a piece of netting, which seemed to be nicer for the snails! I got up early this morning, around 7.30am, when it’s still dark here, and went into the kitchen, somewhat bleary-eyed, to made a pot of tea, to be met with the great escape. I can now see the funny side, but wasn’t so understanding first thing! When Gabrielle came through to investigate my cursing, she counted 14, then informed me that she’d had 20 originally. We quickly found one in the sink—the one that first alerted me to the situation—one by the compost bin, one behind the fridge, one on the draining board, one under the sofa and, just as we sat down to eat this evening, one inside one of Gabrielle's shoes, which she discovered when putting the shoe on. All safely back inside their tub with the netting more firmly secured. Gabrielle will post a blog once we’ve eaten them … watch this space!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

“And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger…” (Leviticus 23:22, The Bible [KJV]) The verb “to glean” appropriately (for we are in Brittany!) comes from the Old French glener and means, in our country context, to gather grain left by the harvesters and, as shown by the quote above, it’s usually been associated with poverty. Patrick Whitefield, in suggesting a permaculture link suggests that if chickens are “let into the wheat field after harvest they will eat up the ears and grains that are missed in harvesting. We humans are not going to pick them up unless we go back to the drudgery of former years, when country people were so poor they were glad of the “gleanings”. Here the chickens are making use of a resource that would otherwise go to waste." Permaculture in a Nutshell pp10-11.

You’ll see from my blog of 25th September that I helped one of our neighbours out with the maize harvest. For the cows, the maize is chopped up—stalks, leaves and all—and they eat the lot. Paul’s a pig farmer, and for them, just the cobs are harvested, the stalks and leaves being shredded and ejected out the back of the combine harvester. Despite the computer age technology, many corn cobs are left on the field and, due to the scale of the operation (29 hectares [71 acres] in two days) there’s no way that the farmer can clean up afterwards, so they’ll just rot in the field. Knowing we keep chickens, Paul suggested that we could spend some time “gleaning” in his fields. Gabrielle went one time and came back all enthused. She took some help along next time, neighbour Carol, who’s also (just) got chickens, Carol’s daughter Emily and her friend Ann. They came back with a boot-load; Ann took to it so well, she said, “I love doing this” and then suggested that she could see herself marrying a farmer.

Permaculture is about inputs and outputs: making sure that the outputs of one part of a designed system become the inputs of another. Our gleaning is just using somebody else’s outputs as an input into our chicken enterprise. And far from the drudgery suggested by Patrick, it’s been, for us, a pleasant excuse to leave other tasks and go for a walk in a field in the sun with friends. Gabrielle made several forays and took Annike, our seventy-something old neighbour and her dog, Hugo, on one trip: Annike has an uncertain quantity of chickens, bantams and rabbits to feed. So, if, as Mark Twain once claimed, “Golf is a good walk spoiled”, might gleaning be having a renaissance as “an excuse for a good walk”? As part of my research for this blog, I came across a French film by Agnès Varda, The Gleaners and I [Les Glaneurs] which is described as a “marvellous film about gleaning as a philosophy - [which] is surprisingly beautiful and uplifting”, which we’ve ordered and are looking forward to viewing soon.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Autumn is mushroom season and it’s a common site here to see people with their baskets out early in the morning by the side of the road searching for fungal food. I think that, in general, the English have been scared off picking mushrooms by stories of deaths caused by eating wild mushrooms. It’s true, the most poisonous are absolutely deadly—the only cure seemingly a complete liver and kidney transplant—and there are cases of mushroom mortality in France each year: justification enough for leaving wild mushrooms well alone? In France, one can take any mushroom into a pharmacy for advice. For me, this has been a great example of theory versus the reality, as we’ve tried three times now, in different pharmacies, to identify fungi we’ve found on our land. In every case they’ve enthusiastically tried to help yet been unable to firmly identify the mushrooms (including, in my estimation, one wrong diagnosis) but have “failed safe” by advising us not to eat them. This is a sensible attitude to take but we are still hopefully searching for a pharmacy with a mushroom expert, and we’d love to do a guided mushroom walk.

It’s also possible to cultivate mushrooms. I did a two-day course with Bill Knight at the Sustainability Centre, East Meon a couple of years or so ago, where we learnt how to inoculate freshly-cut oak logs with the spawn of the shiitake mushroom and a wet soggy mass of straw and toilet rolls with oyster mushrooms. For the shiitake, holes are drilled in the logs, which are packed with the spawn and then protected with a painted on seal of food quality wax (the stuff some cheeses are coated with) then left for 18 months by which time the mycelium has colonised the entire log. The log is then shocked by submerging it in water for 24 hours to encourage fruiting and a few days later the mushrooms start to appear. In England, you can buy already-inoculated logs from Ragmans Lane Farm.

We recently bought some organic field mushroom spawn and followed the indoor growing regime to the letter. We could see that the mycelium had permeated throughout the compost and then had to “case” it: cover it with a 25 mm (1 inch) layer of half soil, half peat with a couple of handfuls of lime. It’s been a complete no show, and when we gave up and emptied the whole lot over our compost heap, the white fungal threads we’d seen before were absent, so somehow, we’ve managed to kill it all off. We’ll try again in the Spring and follow the planting outdoors instructions to see how that goes. In the meantime, we’ll be eating shiitake mushrooms!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

What came first, the chicken or the egg? We have the answer to this age-old conundrum: it’s the chicken, at least in our household. We’ve still had no eggs from our hens and, taking advice, have recently bought some plastic imitations to place in the henhouse to encourage them. And for the chicken? We’ve started eating them. This was always part of the plan and, as we have obtained all ours as small chicks, we didn’t know whether we were getting hens or cocks. There’s only room for one cockerel in the henhouse and so, when they’re eating size but before they’ve started fighting, they’re taken for the pot.

I feel obliged to come over all philosophical about this but will try and avoid the temptation, other than to say that I respect people who are principled vegetarians but we eat meat; and if one chooses to eat meat then I think one should care where it comes from and how it’s raised. Have a read of Jamie Oliver’s thoughts on page 210 of Jamie’s Italy and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “Meat Manifesto” on page 9 of the The River Cottage Meat Book, both of whose views I thoroughly agree with. We have seen and supervised our free-range chickens all the way from chicks to dinner plate and so have taken responsibility for what we eat.

Our good friends and neighbours Carol and Alan have had visitors this week. Carol’s daughter Emily arrived with her boyfriend Mike and friends Ann and Sam. During their stay, they asked to be involved with the preparation of a chicken for the pot and with thorough instruction and close supervision, Mike and Ann expertly and humanely despatched two chickens. Then, with Gabrielle, me and Sam, we plucked and drew the birds, hanging them for a day before marinating the cockerel in red wine for 24 hours for a very authentic French coq-au-vin. The one bird adequately fed eight of us as you can see from the photo above. We’re offering a course on preparing chicken for the pot to people staying at our holiday gite as very practical introduction to keeping chickens for eggs and meat.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Technology! I ended my last post by saying that I had a computer problem and would be offline for a while. Thanks to our friend Caroline, who had lent us a spare screen, we’re up and running again, at least for the time being; but it is a reminder of how reliant we are on technology and how life seems to grind to a halt if something fails! How did we ever cope without emails and the ability to access the Internet?

In exchange for some wheat for our poultry and diesel for our very small and very old tractor, I’d been asked to help out Paul, our pig-farming neighbour, with his corn harvest. By virtue of a heavy goods vehicle and coach entitlement, I’ve got a licence to drive a tractor but, before yesterday, I’d never driven one. Inside every man, is there not a little boy who always wanted to drive a tractor? Certainly inside this man! After the all-too-brief instructions, or lack of them, and in French as well (basically: “follow the combine and, when you’re full, go and empty the trailer over there”) I fulfilled my boyhood dream and drove a huge green tractor for two days and 29 hectares of cornfield.

Permaculture? No, not really but it was fascinating to see, and thereby understand, the scale of modern food production. There were five of us working: me driving the two tractors—reversing a full trailer onto the hopper and leaving someone else to unload it whilst I jumped into the other and drove back to meet the combine on the field—and the others piling the shredded-into-flour corn into a huge heap to be covered with a polythene tarpaulin. I’m not sure I could put into words the scale of it all, and I certainly couldn’t answer the question “is permaculture a real and viable alternative to modern industrial farming methods?” Another question I can’t answer is how, economically, modern farming and food production works. From our own observations here, the farmers work extremely hard, often without taking holidays for years on end, for slim rewards, and receive about 30% of their income from EU subsidies, without which, they couldn’t operate. Why? The food at the supermarkets gets cheaper and cheaper because, with their power of purchase, they are able to force down prices and squeeze the supplier, so the government has to subsidise the farmers, who would otherwise go out of business. We must be paying more taxes (to subsidise farmers) for the privilege of buying cheaper food. It’d be great to hear your views, so please post a comment.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

After a hard days permaculturing, every good permaculturer deserves a drink and, in France, that’s often a glass or two of red wine. Gabrielle came back from shopping today with a huge grin on her face, clutching a bottle of “Arse” wine. In faint subscript, the whole title was Seigneurie d’ARSE, which I have translated, with the aid of my much used English/French dictionary, as the “Lord’s Arse”. This wordplay is presumably lost on the French as I’m sure that they wouldn’t try to sell wine that apparently issues from the Lord of the Manor’s own bottom.

I’ve noticed that we have many visitors to our blog from the USA, where, for you, the word is “ass”. In England, an ass is a donkey, i.e., some sort of horse. I think that the extra “r” adds useful emphasis! In French, the word for arse, or ass, is “cul”, pronounced, “coo”. Thank you very much is “merci beaucoup”; problematically, a mispronunciation could be heard by French ears as “merci beau cul”, which translates as “thanks, nice arse”. However, I do think this would work adequately well in a restaurant, for example, when addressed to a pretty waitress or handsome young waiter!

That’s enough international wordplay for tonight. I have a computer problem, most of my screen has gone blank, so it’s off to the repair shop tomorrow and we’ll be offline for a while but please keep an eye out, as I’ll carry on posting as soon as it’s sorted. In the pipeline: I’ve loads to tell you about our woods, after the second French expert forestier came to visit. He’s employed by the state and a really super, right-on ecological guy and very supportive to our permaculture ideas for managing the woodland. And, I’ve got an update on our food production, with some shiitake mushrooms, and an answer to the conundrum “which came first, the chicken or the egg”. Back soon, I hope…

Friday, September 15, 2006

So what is permaculture? Historically, one has to go back to the 1970s to find a couple of Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who coined the term. I don’t think they’d claim to have invented it, as such, as a lot of what might be considered permaculture has either been around for a long time and/or sits under the umbrella of other definitions, such as organic gardening, architecture and forestry, amongst many others. What they did, is bring a lot of this extant wisdom together in a design system for the whole, where organic gardening, for example, is a method. It takes a good look at nature, to see how natural ecosystems function successfully and tries to emulate the interconnectivity and beneficial links one finds there. And its goal is to create an ecologically sustainable habitat.

Chinese peasant agriculture is certainly sustainable but might, with our eyes, be considered unremitting drudgery. Modern, highly mechanised, chemical dependant and subsidised farming is certainly unsustainable, both environmentally and ultimately economically as well, although it does provide a lot of food and at minimum price—at least for the moment. Permaculture suggests ways of designing sustainable food production systems, using our knowledge, intelligence and other advantages, such as, for example, different plant combinations not available to previous generations, a positive result of globalisation.

If we compare a modern Western wheat field with the equivalent area of natural forest we can see the inspiration for permaculture. The wheat field must be sprayed with herbicide, covered with nitrogen fertiliser, ploughed, harrowed, mechanically planted, sprayed with pesticides and so on. The natural forest requires no maintenance—no fuel-driven mechanised interventions and no chemical additives—yet will provide much greater biomass per year. Just before we get carried away, let’s remember that a much higher proportion of the output of the wheat field is edible. But what if we designed a nut and fruit orchard, which included many other edible perennial plants, along the natural forest pattern rather than the wheat monoculture? That’s called a forest garden, just one practical example of applied permaculture.

One tiny example of permaculture at work on our site, is our use of chickens to tidy up the goose house. As we lifted the dirty straw bedding in one of our weekly cleans, we noticed some maggots and a few other creepy-crawlies. Not sure whether they would create a problem for our geese, we wondered what we should do. Applying a little permaculture, we coaxed the chickens into the goose house, where they spent some happy hours scratching away at the floor and eating the bugs. We could have spent a lot of our own time and effort cleaning up to the best of our ability and probably applying some chemical product to kill bugs but instead, much as in a natural ecosystem, we just made a link between different parts of our system, problem solved!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

We have had varying success with our vegetable garden. We didn’t move in to our property until late April and found ourselves trying to create vegetable patches out of an overgrown flower garden next to the house. Despite the adverse soil conditions we armed ourselves with a box full of organic seeds and our new garden tools and did our best. One vegetable that we both love is butternut squash and we had saved seed from one we’d bought in a French supermarket and eaten months before. Lots of little seedlings popped up the tray and we planted the two strongest looking ones in patch of soil at the back of the garden.

In her book Grow Your Own Vegetables, Joy Larkcom recommends pinning butternut squash in a circle as it grows, marking the centre point with a cane for watering. We’ll be trying that next year, as ours had started to grow like a triffid before I got to that part of the book! It grew and grew and started to scramble out over the fence, down a slope and up the apple tree next to it. Flowers were appearing every day but after weeks of vigorous growth and continuous flowering we had no fruit to show. It seemed that all of the flowers were male and were not swelling.

Was our supermarket squash a sterile mutant, perhaps even GM? We kicked ourselves for not adding it to our original shopping list of organic seeds. We had all but given up on it when, weeks later whilst I was checking on the chickens, I saw a huge fruit hanging in the brambles, hiding under the equally huge leaves. I was so excited; I nearly called Stuart on his mobile! but managed to hold back my excitement until he came home when it was the first thing I told him. Tonight we are having an old favourite, butternut squash curry, with the first of our very own. As I said not everything has worked in our vegetable garden this year but this is one meal that we will remember.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Not yet half eight and we’ve clipped the wings of five geese before breakfast! The geese spend their day eating grass, dandelions and anything else that takes their fancy within the safe confines of the electric fencing/netting. They’re getting bigger all the time and have an impressive set of wings. We’d read that domestic geese are too heavy to fly and, for our five grey Toulouse, that seems to be true. However, with a good run at it, if a strong headwind is available, they can all get airborne to some degree, the lighter white Embden being the more successful. At the end of the day, if their patch is at the top of the field, their eagerness to get back to the barn and the awaiting wheat treat means that they hare off down the field, bouncing up and down as they get airborne for a short distance: very amusing. However, yesterday evening, as we were preparing to bring them in, I glanced out to the field and something was definitely wrong. I saw nine geese inside their enclosure and one white one outside, walking up and down the fence.

It was quite blustery yesterday and so, with a favourable gust just at the right time, it must have been enough for the goose to clear the fence, however, once outside, s/he was a bit of a loss what to do. The saving grace is that the geese always want to stick together, so having flown to “freedom”, all it really wanted was to be back with the group. Having got them all safely into their house, our thoughts turned to preventing a reoccurrence and the technique of clipping their wings. We emailed our Somerset smallholding friend, Val, for advice. We also looked at a couple of websites. One helpfully warned “NEVER CLIP A WING THAT IS GROWING BLOOD FEATHERS” saying that “you will bleed the bird to death”, frustratingly with a complete lack of explanation as to what they might be and how we might recognise them: not very reassuring! Happily, another site informed us what “blood feathers” were.

Armed with a book (Starting With Geese), a pair of kitchen scissors and some secateurs, we headed for the goose house. It was impossible to separate the grey from white, so we caught them one by one, taking the grey straight out onto the field but clipping the flight feathers (on one side only) of each white bird. There was loads of noise, as you might imagine, but it all made sense once we actually had a bird in the hand, so to speak! We were apprehensive before getting started but our confidence in goose keeping has grown immensely and we felt very proud of ourselves once it was all done.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Foraging – Part 3. Perhaps today’s photo isn’t quite such an attractive image as the last blog’s revolving recycled radiator but is sure to bring a smile to Alan and Bernie. Voila! Alan, our fellow-foraging friend and Gabrielle, uh, how shall I put it delicately, shovelling shit! After the aforementioned trip to the tip to dump the slates from half of our barn roof—and the simultaneous recovery of the washing machine drum—before disconnecting Alan’s trailer, we headed down to the local stables where, by prior arrangement, we loaded up with horse manure, excellent nutritious organic soil improver, and completely free! We did two trips, one for Alan’s and Carol’s vegetable plot and one for ours.

One aspect of permaculture is to consider the inputs and outputs of each aspect of a designed system, so that outputs of one component, e.g., poultry pooh from the chicken house, becomes a valuable input for the garden via the compost heap rather than a pollutant, which needs to be got rid of—possibly with a disposal cost on top—as happens with large scale chicken farms. What we’ve done here is simply to obtain a local resource freely, whilst simultaneously helping the stables to dispose of an unwanted product. With so many people growing vegetables locally, it amazed me that there was plenty available and that we didn’t have to pay for it, as happens in the posher parts of the south of England!

Bearing all this in mind, I was inspired by Mark Fisher’s article (in issue 48 of Permaculture Magazine) on his innovative permaculture design at the Ecology Building Society’s new headquarters. Excavating and cultivating the site to create his new design, he unearthed all manner of junk and then had decisions to make on how to dispose of it. He wanted to assume responsibility for this waste, so “Recycling where I could”, he says, “some had to go into the waste stream, but the tarmac, concrete and brick is neatly stacked and retained on site. I haven’t hidden it, but then I haven’t skipped it so that it ends up polluting somewhere else. With time, moss will grow over it and the structural vegetation will obscure its presence. And … some creatures will probably find habitat and refuge in it”. After an experiment to see if we could smash up the slates into small pieces without sharp edges, we decided to keep the second trailer-full of slates and store them here for future use constructing footpaths.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Foraging – Part 2. We’re re-roofing one of our barns at the moment. Christophe, an estate agent friend of ours, helped me to strip one side last Sunday. We threw the slates directly into a trailer I’d borrowed from our neighbour Alan, who helped again by coming to the municipal tip with me on Monday morning to unload into the huge bin. Whilst there, I spied a dead washing machine lying on the top of the almost full bin for metal waste. I have two uses for the stainless steel drum inside and asked the guy on duty if I could recover it. With a nod and a quizzical smile he assented and, with Alan’s help again, in I jumped to wrestle the heavy appliance out of the bin and into the van. Next to the bin where we dumped the slates was the wood bin, where I noticed a solid oak table top in three sections and I couldn’t resist asking if I could grab that as well.

So, what can one do with a dead washing machine, he asks rhetorically? First idea comes from Bob Flowerdew’s No Work Garden, p.125. He says that if a fig tree is planted in the stainless steel drum from a washing machine, its roots are restricted, thereby encouraging it to fruit well rather than producing “masses of long soft growth and little fruit.” It’s a method of keeping other plants small as well. We want to plant a fig tree, so a washing machine drum became a must-have accessory. Second use is as a brazier or fire pit. It’s an idea I saw on a gardening programme on the TV some time ago. The drum had been removed from the washing machine and mounted horizontally on a solid support, whilst retaining the bearing. It contains the fire—much safer than a bonfire—the perforations allow air in for good combustion and also sparkly orange and red glimpses of the fire, which become spectacular when the drum is spun (some sort of stick or fire proof glove would be useful!)

I’d removed the drum, which wasn’t desperately photogenic, and was searching on Google/Images for something to illustrate this blog, when I came across a great site dedicated to making fire pits and ovens out of old washing machine drums. Check out the galleries and Indian tandoori oven! And for the oak table top? It’s just a great piece of hardwood to hold onto until I’m making something and which will then be dismantled, cut to size, planned, sanded and ultimately oiled to make beautiful furniture costing nothing and saving on hardwood resources. The off-cuts will make great burning in our soon to be fitted wood stove, which will replace our current electric heaters to heat our home this winter.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Foraging – Part 1. Foraging experts would probably say that you can find useful stuff to eat the year round, but this time of year seems especially fruitful. Apart from all the wild goodies, several of our neighbours’ fruit trees are heavily laden and we’ve been invited to help ourselves; our fruit bowl is currently overflowing with delicious plums and mirabelles. Our two references are the classic by Richard Mabey, Food for Free and Wild Food by Roger Phillips.

I was doing some woodwork outside when Gabrielle came up to me with what appeared to be a four-leaved clover. I thought she was going to tell me what good luck we apparently have in store but no, it was apparently a sorrel and was edible and delicious, so she convinced me. She’d identified the plant via the Collins Complete British Wildlife and remembered from one of the foraging books that sorrel was OK to eat. I looked disapprovingly at this not-a-four-leaved-clover but she was very persuasive and so I tried it: a strong taste, a bit citrusy and not unpleasant but perhaps an acquired taste.

At the end of our working day, enjoying an apero, I looked up sorrel in Phillips book and saw a picture of a plant very different to the one I’d eaten! Thinking of scare stories with people eating mushrooms, I wondered whether I’d see the next morning and whether I should call an ambulance. Looking at the Collins Wildlife Guide I saw that what I’d been fed was wood sorrel! Happily, when I crossed referenced with Mabey’s book, I found that wood sorrel is also edible … phew!

We never got round to making elderflower champagne when the flowers were out—although we did make elderflower fritters a couple of times—so, with the trees heavy with juicy purple berries, we wanted to do something. Carol, one of our neighbours and the “Delia Smith” of St Maden, was willing to try; our only contribution was to lend her our foraging books with their recipes. The photo is of Carol next to a device straining out the juice, ready to turn into elderberry syrup, which can be everything from a cold remedy to something you can add to wine as an aperitif.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Chickens again. I promised, two blogs ago, to tell you more about our chicken tractor. It’s basically a moveable chicken run and I referred to Michael Roberts Poultry House Construction for ideas when I was designing it. It’s not a great book, in my opinion, but certainly useful and I’ve adapted and incorporated his ideas and dimensions into our original chicken house and the new tractor. I got all excited as I added two wheels to take this science to a new level, or so I thought, but before I could patent it, I’ve noticed that he’s brought out a new book called Making Mobile Hen Houses. Once you’ve got an idea of certain features and dimensions, relative to the size of breed and number you’ll be keeping, it’s relatively easy to design something rather than copying a ready-made plan down to the last detail.

The chicken tractor is parked over a recently cleared vegetable patch, where the chickens scratch around, thereby de-weeding it (ever seen the floor of a chicken run?) eat any bugs and larvae, and poop everywhere, so manuring it. The tractor can then be moved over to another plot, leaving the place where they’ve been ready, all but for a light cultivation with a fork or hoe, for re-planting. There are some additional advantages for us: we need separate hen accommodation for several purposes. If one of our hens goes broody (that’ll be after they actually start laying eggs though!) then it’ll serve as a broody coop. Or if one gets ill and needs to be separated from the flock; to let new youngsters grow to a size that they can stand up for themselves before being introduced to the established flock; and finally, it’s to allow our first chickens that are for the pot to put on a little more weight and become a little less muscle-bound, whilst still having plenty of room to move around.

Caroline, who supplied our first two black chickens, has given us a further four youngsters: three black and one speckled. We put them in the tractor, parked outside the chicken house, for a couple of days to habituate them all to each other. We’ve now added them to the flock, where they’re standing up for themselves fine, and have put one of our cocks and a hen, for company, into the tractor.