Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Lists of things to do. We’re at the beginning of our aim of designing our new home and land according to permaculture principles. One of the objectives of this is to use thinking and design skills to reduce the human input of time and effort for each element. Until we get there, I can easily feel overwhelmed by all there is to do; Gabrielle’s a bit calmer about the process.

Lists are the thing and it’s a very satisfying moment at the end of the day when I put a line through jobs done. Beware though: Gabrielle warns me that it is all too inviting to choose the smallest and easiest jobs each morning, giving the impression of getting lots done but procrastinating over the more important jobs.

This blog is another help, and one of the reasons to write it. Just when I think that we’re not getting anywhere, looking back over our blog entries helps me realise how far we’ve come since we moved in at the end of April.

Another reason for the blog is to invite comments: encourage, advise and inspire us please!

Posting a comment is easy:
1. click on the green “x comments” at the end of each post
2. type in your comment
3. below your comment, where it says “choose an identity” click “other” and in “name” write your name or alias
4. click “publish your post”
I get to check them first, so there will be a delay before your comments appear.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Slugs and snails. Like all gardeners, we’re not without our nocturnal slimy visitors. The Centre for Alternative Technology’s tipsheet on slugs says that, in their experience, “unfortunately there is no single magic formula that guarantees success” and that different approaches and combinations work best at different times.
Our number one method is to go out after dark with torches and pick up as many as we can find. Permaculture being about inputs and outputs, we tried feeding (inputting!) these undesirable outputs of our vegetable patch to our chicks. We started by giving the snails to our neighbour, Annike, for her chickens who only eat snails. Strange but true, we’ve found that our chicks only touch the slugs, so we share them out accordingly and Annike always tries to press eggs or lettuces on us in exchange. In addition to our night time sorties, we also check underneath stones and other such hiding places during the day.
We have also bought some nematodes to try. They cost £17/€25 (including p&p to France) to treat 40 square metres, must be used at one hit and provide cover only for six weeks. The economics must also be considered, however, and these sorts of expenditures could make our home-grown vegetables very expensive.
We’ve just started to free-range the chickens during the day and it has been a heart-warming site to see them thrashing through the undergrowth of hypericum on the bank adjoining the garden, frequently emerging excitedly with a slug in their mouths, which cuts out the middle-man!
One more thing we do is to disturb the soil around any plants that have been chomped. According to the CAT tipsheet, slugs and snails follow slime trails, so plants that have been attacked stay victims, often until completely devoured, even though plants wither side remain untouched.
This isn’t a scientific comparison, and so we can’t really say what’s most successful. We can, however, say that we noticed a distinct reduction in their population and the cultivation of soil around victim plants does seem to work: we’ve managed to save some plants, which we’d have otherwise lost and have gone on to completely recover.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle. Having only recently moved in from furnished rental accommodation, we needed to acquire some furniture, more than usual as we also needed to equip our small holiday cottage or gite. The days of finding stylish bargains in French brocantes (second-hand shops) seem to be long gone, in our experience, and what we could find, either new or second-hand, was either too expensive, constructed from undesirable materials such as chipboard or MDF, not to our taste and, frequently, all three!
On the latest of our twice-yearly trips to England to see family and friends, we visited the Brighton & Hove Emmaus returning to France with a van full of solid but cheap furniture. We spent nearly three days sanding then oiling, waxing or painting the items sometimes adding new handles or other bits of trim.
So we’ve repaired and reused somebody’s cast-offs and ended up with some lovely, characterful furniture thanks to Emmaus—click on the link above to find your nearest.
One thing I really miss is the Brighton & Hove Wood recycling project where I used to buy most of my timber. Secondhand is sometimes better: older pine, for example, is usually closer grained, therefore better quality, and untreated. I try to grab any scrap wood I can get my hands on, pulling a really solid pallet out of one of the bins at the municipal tip today, ideal for making things like goose housing, one of the next jobs on my list. Click on this link to find your nearest wood recycling project in the UK … I’m still searching for one here!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Meet the people. Permaculture certainly isn’t about running to the hills and being self-sufficient alone but is definitely about communities. In his Permaculture in a Nutshell, Patrick Whitefield illustrates how the permaculture principles of inputs and outputs and making links within a system can also be applied to people. For us in France, learning the language is vitally important if we are to integrate fully.
So, soon after we arrived in Brittany, I found an opportunity for some voluntary work on a straw-bale house in Bazouges sous Hédé: a total immersion in the language with the opportunity to learn useful skills for our future house-build. The mayor of that village is very keen on ecologically-friendly living and, as a result, they have one of Brittany’s first ever eco-friendly housing estates. This lotissement is for twenty self-build houses, which must adhere to certain eco-criteria, such as no PVC allowed in the construction and each plot being provided with a huge underground rainwater catchment tank.
Introduced by the straw-bale build, we have made some good friends and useful connections there with like-minded people. Pascal, who I met on the building site, was organising an “Eco-Festival” entitled “Convivial Art” and asked us to do a workshop on our living willow structures. That’s a winter activity, so I made up a poster showing and explaining (in French!) what we do with willow, we took our yurt and Gabrielle offered to do face-painting (maquillage fantaisie) for the kids.
It was a great day, warm and sunny, with good food and music and went on until the early hours. One guy who came in to admire the yurt, and whose children got turned into Spiderman and a butterfly, has told me where I can buy willow rods (from a water purification plant nearby) which is a good example of those links I mentioned earlier.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Fruit trees – part 2: a couple of years ago, I did a two-day course, “Renovation Pruning of Old Fruit Trees”, organised by Brighton Permaculture Trust. Run by Bryn Thomas, it was very practical and one of the best courses I’ve ever been on. The other source of wisdom for today’s blog is the Royal Horticultural Society’s book, Pruning and Training, by Brickell and Joyce. It’s full of good advice but I find the diagrams of where to cut just a bit too frustrating, trying to relate the twigs and branches I have to the picture in the book!
Plums must be pruned in the spring or summer, depending on age, as disease can enter through the wounds if pruned in the winter, unlike apples, for example. This tree was in a right old state. The reasons to prune include: to reduce disease, improve health, re-invigorate tree, encourage fruiting (less fruit but better quality) to control height and shape, letting air and light in.
Pruning should remove damaged, diseased and dead wood, twiggy and unproductive growth and prevent crossing branches. The approach is slowly, slowly: assessing, cutting, stand back and assess again, and prioritise, as you mustn’t take off more than 30% of living wood (some advice quotes 25%). I’m a beginner, and only pruning a few trees, so I make a pile of dead wood (which doesn’t count) and another pile of live prunings and take a digital photo of the before (and after) to try to monitor what I’ve removed. BEWARE: it’s all too easy to cut too much as one becomes absorbed in the process. In fact, I find it very meditative due to the high level of concentration involved whilst stuck in a field with only birdsong for company.
I may have taken off a little too much but it is looking a lot better. I shall mulch and sticky bandage and keep a close eye on it during the following months. Due to the rot damage to the trunk, it may not survive and need replacing next year; I’ll let you know!
PS : don't forget to clean and disinfect your tools afterwards, so as not to spread disease when pruning other trees.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Sorting out the existing fruit trees was today’s task. We hope to design an orchard / forest garden in our second field but, for now, I wanted to improve the health of the existing fruit trees: a small apple tree at the back of our vegetable garden and two more apples, a small peach tree and a neglected plum tree in the field.
According to Patrick Whitefield in The Earth Care Manual, “Grass is the worst enemy of young trees. Older trees can co-exist with it quite happily, but young ones can make little or no growth for years if planted directly into a grass sward”(p.327). So, the first job was to cut the grass around the trees and mulch with a layer of cardboard topped off with six inches of straw and, for one apple (to compare performance) layers of newspaper. Although it would’ve been better if they’d had them over the winter, the trees will still get some benefit from the sticky bandages I tied onto their trucks, which will trap ants and earwigs over the summer.
Bob Flowerdew , in The No Work Garden, explains that, for the tree, the seed is important, both for reproduction and for the energy expended creating them (p.112). He suggests that, if you remove nearly half of the fruit before it fully develops, you’ll still get a similar weight of crop, meaning that the fruit you eventually pick will be twice the size. The tree puts less effort into the (mainly water and sugar) flesh that we enjoy eating than the seeds, so is less exhausted on a good year and more likely to crop well again the following year. It’s easy picking off marked, nibbled or diseased fruit but a bit more nerve-racking to thin those in good condition.
The plum tree was in a state of neglect and two branches hadn’t been properly cut back to the trunk when pruned in the past. This has allowed them to die back and rot has entered the trunk. Desperate action was called for, and I’ll tell you what I did next post but, for the moment, the World Cup calls!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Not particularly permaculture, but we've just identified Spotted Flycatchers nesting, tucked away in the corner of the eaves of our holiday cottage, which is exciting.
An update on the compost: the main pile has shrunk amazingly and so the need to build a second one has diminished for the moment. I emptied the bucket of wee (nitrogen) and oak sawdust (carbon) onto the compost heap but there was absolutely no smell of urine at all, just a touch of oak on the nose! The sawdust (normally very slow to decompose and not at all the right thing to mulch with raw, as it draws nitrogen out of the soil as it breaks down) is already turning dark and crumbly. Both human urine and chicken poo are great compost accelerants, so I am now putting the chicken house sweepings in my bucket for further treatment before it goes onto the heap. Hopefully we'll end up with some very rich compost soon!
Loads of things to do, including re-roofing a barn this summer, and just the two of us to do everything ... and I thought permaculture was a design system that saves effort! Thanks for the two postings on the pros and cons of keeping goats, keep the advice coming!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Grass! And not the sort Clinton smoked but allegedly never inhaled. No, this is the stuff that’s now waist high and which grows every time our backs are turned: constructing chicken houses, working in the vegetable garden and writing this blog, every time we look at it, it seems to have precociously added another few centimetres, covering a large part of our land.
In The No Work Garden, Bob Flowerdew says, “In gardening one of the biggest makers of work and wasters of time is the grass which I reckon needs cutting about thirty times a year” and, in Introduction to Permaculture, Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay claim “The American lawn uses more resources than any other agricultural industry in the world. It uses more phosphates than India, and puts on more poisons than any other form of agriculture” … and we’ve got nearly two acres of the stuff.
I finally managed to sharpen and re-attach the blades to our “topper” (basically a huge Flymo) and attach that to our tractor, (a 1963 vintage Renault) both of which came with the property. Not being familiar with agricultural machinery, nor having a helpful manual, it took me ages to work out how to connect the topper to the tractor. There is a deafening hole in the exhaust manifold and it’s not particularly fast so, whilst our first drive round on the tractor was a fun and novel experience, sitting on some sort of very noisy, fossil-fuel dependant grass cutting device for several hours every week neither fills us with anticipation nor is very “permacultural”.
Permaculture design includes the idea of linking outputs and inputs. So where long grass is an undesirable “output” of our fields (as long as it needs cutting regularly) if we can link it into the input of another part of the overall system, we can reduce the undesirable input of time and fuel and actually make it productive. Which is how we came to order the ten geese I mentioned on the last post! Once installed, they’ll turn this “problem” into happy geese and, ultimately, meat for the table.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Good old Google! Thanks to Google, and some clever deduction, Gabrielle has identified our willow eater larvae of the sawfly (Nematus capreae), apparently responsible, so a link to the BBC News page tells us, of a plague on willows around Wolverhampton in 1995! Our potted twisted willows have survived the attack and the adjacent willow tree also attacked seems untroubled.
We bought four more chickens today, to bring the total up to 10. The four we bought last week are in very good health and have settled in a treat with the older ones. Thinking of meat as well as eggs, and with plenty of spare capacity in the hen house, we decided that adding a few more was a good idea. Once adult though, it will not be possible to add new chicks to the henhouse—I think we only just got away with adding the four to the larger (but not fully grown) original two—so I’ll need to build some sort of kindergarten for any newbies in the future.
We’re impressed with the supplier. The man who sold us ours seems to care about his animals: their kept in good, clean conditions and arrived in good health. So, we’ve gone ahead and ordered 10 geese, 5 grey, 5 white, ready for putting out to pasture in a couple of weeks, just enough time for us to build a fox-proof goose shelter, essential for daytime shade from the sun, shelter from the wind as well as night time security.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Disappointments: Permaculture is a system of design, which includes defining the area you live in by zones. Zone 0 is the home, and 1 the nearest to the house, which would include, for example, things needing to be monitored or watered often.
This spring, I potted up some twisted willow cuttings, hoping to grow them into shrubs, thereby adding value, before we sell them. As they’ve become bigger, they need watering more but, as they haven’t been in view, they’ve been allowed to dry out a few too many times and have suffered as a result. Disappointed, I re-potted the worst affected and have moved them to where I’ll trip over them and have since been keeping them happily moist.
Disaster struck again today, as we found a hoard of hungry caterpillars munching away on the few leaves left. We’ve yet to identify them, although Gabrielle has had great success previously using the ”What’s This Caterpillar” website, so we’ll keep trying; please post a reply if you know what they are.
I’d placed them by a full-grown willow tree and, when I looked up, I could see the tree full of similar caterpillars. Whatever laid the eggs on the tree didn’t have far to go to find more vulnerable hosts.
We picked off the caterpillars by hand (only a few plants) and fed them to our chicks and moved the plants again. In fact, it’s not a complete disaster at all and I have just got to be a little (a lot! – Gabrielle) less sensitive if not everything turns out exactly like it says in the books I’ve been reading.
We have more to tell you about our cultivation of willow and construction of living willow fences (fedges) and structures, but today’s caterpillar incident has reminded me to phone our friends, for whom we erected 20 metres of fedge by their straw-bale house in the Lot this February but who also had a caterpillar problem last time we spoke.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

We have wanted chickens for a long time and now we have six! The shell of an old hen house or ‘poulailler’ was already here in the garden and we worked hard to make it fully functional. The first two chickens came from a friend who lives locally and we added four younger chicks from a local farm that also sells geese and ducks. The new chicks are about 6 weeks whilst our other black hens are about 10 weeks, so we have a way to go with them before we can expect any eggs. This should start to happen when they are about 20 weeks so we shall keep you posted. We want them to eat our slugs and snails but unfortunately they don’t seem very interested in these at the moment! We certainly hope they develop a taste for them, as they grow older.

We started naming them but have run into two problems. The first is that everyone says that we shouldn’t name them if we intend to eat them and the second is that because they are growing and changing it is becoming more difficult to tell them apart and remember who is who!

It wasn’t that easy adding new chicks in with existing hens even though they are only weeks apart in age. There was a bit of ‘handbags in the hen house’, the older ones did peck at the youngsters and we found ourselves sitting in with them to prevent any damage! After only a couple of days they have settled down but we know now for sure that we would have to separate younger from older hens and be careful when introducing new stock to old. This is simple stuff but one really has to do it to learn it. I am sure there are many of you who have much more experience with hens and we would be very happy to receive advice.