Monday, July 31, 2006

This week’s mistakes, or should we try to put a positive slant on them by euphemising them as “negative situations with positive learning experiences”? As you can see from the photo above, I’ve made the door to the goose house (and, unfortunately, the chicken house as well) too small to get the wheelbarrow in. I even measured other doors around the house by way of comparison, and the width of my shoulders, etc., before deciding on a relatively small width in the hope that they would be more rigid, i.e., less prone to sag. With ten birds in each house, there’s a lot of dirty straw heading towards the compost heap and clean stuff going the other way. Being able to wheel it straight in would have been so much easier!

And the next? One of our vegetable patches has been noticeably less successful than the others, and we are struggling to get our rocket (a salad vegetable that normally grows as easily as a weed) and pak choi (cut and come again Chinese cabbage) off and running. When Gabrielle was searching around for information on the Colorado beetles (see July 23rd blog below) she discovered that sage has an allelopathic effect on other plants and can inhibit seed germination and plant growth. We had ripped out a sprawling sage bush to plant up this particular bed, which might explain our problem. We’ve removed the failing plants, added more fresh compost and started again.

(Pauline, with a house in Morbihan, Brittany: thanks for your email but we've been unable to email you back, for some unexplained technological reason. Please try to contact us again.)

Friday, July 28, 2006

Welcome to any new visitors to our permaculture blog. We’ve placed an ad in the latest issue of Permaculture Magazine with the aim of inviting more people to read our blog and offer advice, encouragement and inspiration. So why the blog? Stuart’s done a Permaculture Design Course with Patrick Whitefield and we’ve got a collection of books and a minimum of experience growing some vegetables; other than that, we’re beginner’s in all of this. We hope that other beginners may be reassured by our stumbling progress and inspired to give it a go, rather than be put off by the perfection of the experts. (See Liam’s comment on the 28th June blog, and my posting of 13th July in reply).

We could also do with any help you have to give. Turning theory into practice isn’t always easy, and instructions have an annoying habit of often missing a vital detail. An example is our first attempt at growing potatoes using a “grow through mulch”. See pp194-196 of Patrick’s The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates for an explanation. Basically, we’ve covered the ground with sheets of cardboard, then a layer of compost, placed the seed potatoes on top and covered the whole lot in straw. And the book says: “Extra mulch is sometimes needed later on, when dug potatoes would need earthing up.” (p.196) Why sometimes and not others? What should we look for? Having never grown potatoes before, we don’t even know when “dug potatoes would need earthing up” by way of comparison. After just a few weeks, Gabrielle was ferreting around in the straw for evidence that something was growing (neither of us have much patience, unfortunately) and got all excited to find our first tuber, only to discover that it was, in fact, the seed potato!

Joy Larkom’s Grow Your Own Vegetables and advice from our neighbours who are growing potatoes the traditional way has answered this particular problem but, as you can see, we really are beginners and would welcome hearing your comments. Posting a comment is easy:
1. click on the green “x comments” at the end of the relevant 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”
We get to check them first, so there will be a delay before your comments appear.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Networking. In the Spring this year, I had an article published in Permaculture Magazine on a course Gabrielle and I had done in France on how to make an organic wool duvet. Subsequently, Val Grainger, a smallholder (with her husband Pete) in Somerset (UK) was talking on BBC Radio Devon about her efforts to find ways of directly using the wool from her own sheep rather than selling it for next to nothing to the Wool Marketing Board. Apparently, in this strange world of global trade we live in, a huge amount of raw British wool is exported abroad, whilst an equally huge proportional of manufactured wool products are imported. Ecologically, all this transportation makes no sense at all, and the economics of it is a bit of a mystery to me as well. Val wants to prepare the wool locally, do something to add value to it and sell locally, thereby increasing her profit and reducing the transport distances dramatically.

After the show, a “little old lady” phoned in to say that she had read an article (ours) in the latest issue of Permaculture Magazine about how a French farmer had revived a lost skill and was making duvets from her own farm’s pure organic wool. Our contact details were in the magazine, which is how Val got in touch. She has helped to obtain a government grant for the Somerset Rural Women’s Network to set up a social enterprise project to find new uses for local wool and is going to do a course with Catherine Guillot later this year.

She is over in France on business and so paid us a visit today, with her four-year-old son Charlie. It was great to meet her and hear of their smallholding and her plans for the duvets and other things, such as courses she and Pete have started to run. Her experience of smallholding spreads back to her childhood and she was able to give us loads of valuable advice on our own project, from the current quality of the pasture and how to maintain it, stock fencing, hedge-laying, complimenting us on several things we had already done (reassuring) and offering suggestions.

Contact details for Catherine Guillot are in the article and I’ve added a link to Val’s and Pete’s website in the links section. The photo is of Charlie and Val with our ancient tractor.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

One potato, two potato three potato, four … We’ve been asked to look after our neighbours’ (Carol and Alan) garden for a week and, as they have a Colorado Beetle (CB) infestation on their potatoes, one of the tasks was to pick them off by hand each day. I was shocked to see that every plant had at least one of two fully-grown beetles and there were also plenty of larvae munching away, so I set to armed with gloves and a jar of soapy water (Stuart just squashes them between his fingers … ugh!)

Knowing almost nothing about CB I looked on the web for information and organic controls. I found a great site from America, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, which has some excellent free downloadable resources on many subjects. According to one study, mulching with straw might reduce the beetles’ ability to locate potatoes, and also creates an environment that favours the beetles’ predators. By a happy coincidence, we’ve gone for an experimental ‘no-dig’ straw-mulched bed for our potatoes so I was delighted to learn that this was probably also protecting us from this pest.

It also said that CB has several natural enemies, but they are rarely seen in commercial potato fields because of heavy pesticide use and lack of habitat to support them. Increasing habitat for natural enemies by providing pollen and nectar sources along borders can increase the effectiveness of these biological controls. The generalist predators—ladybird beetles, lacewings, spiders, etc.—provide some control although they will probably not completely control them.

A number of herbs and herbal extracts are also reputed to repel or inhibit the beetles, though it was stated that research has been far from thorough. Among the plants believed to have some effect are: catnip, tansy, sage, hemp, oak extract, wild potato (Solanum chacoense), and citrus oils. This made me think that if sage juice will help deter the Colorado, perhaps it would be a good companion plant for the potato patch. I will definitely be planting more sage around the garden and we’ll see!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The rhythm of the countryside. We had invited some friends, Caroline and Yves, and neighbours, Paul and Christiane, around for dinner tonight. Yves is a dairy farmer and Paul raises pigs; both grow crops as well. Firstly, an apologetic Christiane cycled up to cancel as Paul was working non-stop on the harvest and storms were forecast. So muggy was it, I lay awake for much of last night and could hear the rumble of the combine harvester in the distance and the constant to and fro of Paul’s tractor and trailer well into the early hours of the morning. And then Yves cancelled for the same reason. His problems were compounded as, just when the test batch had been checked for being dry enough, the clutch went on the contractor’s combine. They worked through the night to replace the part, only to discover it was the wrong one and so followed a desperate return trip to Paris to collect the correct part, all the time with bad weather forecast. As I type this, the threatening storm clouds have passed and, with luck, he should get the harvest done tonight. Only the onset of dew in the morning will stop work, as to pay to have the grain dried almost makes it not worth the effort to harvest it.

So how is this relevant to our permaculture blog? We’re discovering that the countryside doesn’t conform to the calendar and diaries, but to other rhythms, like the weather. We can also see how hard the farmers work here and with slim margins. With our own small scale of production, it is viable to go and collect snails by torchlight each night, and to pick Colorado beetles off our neighbours potatoes (a little favour whilst they’re away for a couple of days) but these options aren’t available on farm scale production that puts the cheap food on supermarket shelves that nearly everyone seems to expect.

The risk of rain tonight, relative to the wheat harvest, has affected us directly. Our mayor (of our commune of just 206 people) has kept his small baler in addition to the one that produces those huge round bales that are more commonly seen on the fields nowadays. We ordered 50 from him to test the quality for our planned house build (all the books stress they should be as tightly bound as possible) to try out a few techniques and also because we need straw for the chicken and goose houses and the small bales are easier for both of us to handle. He turned up without warning this evening, at the end of a hot and tiring day for both of us, to tell us that he had prepared the small bales and did we want to collect them as rain was forecast overnight. All now done, and I’ll sleep well tonight. We hope Yves gets his harvest done in time!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

If you go down to our woods today… As I’ve previously mentioned, my main reference for a permaculture approach to managing our woods is Ben Law’s The Woodland Way: A Permaculture Approach to Sustainable Woodland Management and my course notes from his introduction to permaculture and assessing a woodland course that I did a couple of years ago. As I understand it, there is “high forest management”, where trees are grown over a long time frame, selecting the best quality trees and selectively and successively thinning the rest, and “coppice rotation”, which might be cutting a crop of ash or hazel poles every seven years or so, or a combination of the two, giving say, hazel coppice grown under oak standards.

Our woods were planted up about 24 years ago by the previous owner as a plantation of pine, maple, wild cherry and American red oak. There are several other, older trees: some yews, for example, traditionally planted in churchyards, associated with the seventeenth-century presbytery, which marks the entrance to the wood. There are some old beech which mark out the original field divisions when it used to be just pasture. There are also many self-seeded ash, a wonderfully versatile wood and ideal for coppice rotation. No management is evident since planting and it is high time that some thinning was done. Monsieur Girard, the expert forestier has advised me on the strategy to achieve this and will come back to the wood to spend half a day helping me choose suitable trees to save and a timeframe to thin the others.

No access routes—rides—had been planned for, so removal of large section timber will be a problem. Coppicing is ideal if access is restricted as poles can be carried out by shoulder. I would like to convert sections of the wood into coppice, using existing ash and planting more to get the spacings correct. By the second cut, I’ll be 59 and, hopefully still fit enough to cut and carry out such a harvest. There may be a problem here, as Monsieur Girard explained: if the original owner had a state subsidy to plant, it could place restrictions on how the wood is managed. I’ll know more after I’ve had a meeting with the Directions Départementales de l'Agriculture et de la Forêt. Whatever the restrictions, there will be a sustainable permaculture approach to manage this woodland.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The geese have their freedom now. Well, relatively speaking: ever since we decided to have geese, we’ve been racking our brains on how to fence them. Conventional stock fencing is expensive and, with the clayey ground baked rock hard by the sun, would be difficult to install. To make it fox-proof it apparently either has to be six foot (1.8 m) tall, dug into the ground and with an overhang or, if lower, then electrified by two strands top and bottom. We make no bones about being beginners in just about everything we’re attempting at the moment but it’s interesting how much the advice we read in books or hear from friends who’ve kept geese varies: apparently, foxes won’t touch a heard of geese or, in fact, they love them and can’t keep their paws off them. And we’ve seen foxes and their cubs around nearby, even during the daytime.

I’ve spent a long time recently staring at the shelves of local agricultural suppliers trying to find a solution. Searching on the Internet, I came across Anne’s and Phillip’s Electric Fencing Kits website. We bought 50 metres of electrified poultry netting, the like of which I’ve been unable to source locally. It’s installed and working perfectly:
1. It keeps the geese in,
2. It keeps the foxes out (allegedly, we’ll have to see how may we still have by Christmas)
3. It’s moveable, so we can successively mow the field,
4. And it gives them plenty of space to move around in and wasn’t, comparatively, too expensive.

With our experiences with the recalcitrant chickens, Gabrielle laughed when she read in Katie Thear’s Starting With Geese that geese are “easy to drive” (p69) but so it’s proved to be (see photo) helped by the fact that they always stick together.

One question we have: there is some feather pulling going on from time to time. Is this a sign of stress and will it stop once they settle in to their new home and daily routine or are they trying to assert a pecking order, or something else? Please post a comment if you have any advice.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Getting Started. I’ve been meaning to write something on this topic for a while and prompted by Liam’s comment on the 28th June blog, here goes. The perfect examples one finds in books, courses and especially TV programmes can be enough to put anyone off. Bob Flowerdew reckons that “one of the major problems that has beset gardening has been the plethora of artificial and unrealistic standards set by garden designers and the grow-it-for-show exhibitors.” He goes on to say “Television programmes are the most misleading as it so easy for them to cheat. Do not believe all that you see…” The No-Work Garden pp8,14.

There are many ways to get started and your chosen method must suit your own character; I have to say that I’m unfortunately very impatient and am keen to get away from the planning process (so important in permaculture) and into the action! So, it was music to my ears to read (a long time ago, so I can’t remember which book) the industrialist and company trouble-shooter, John Harvey Jones explain one of his theories, which goes something like this: two teams are set the same task. Team A decides to remain seated (perhaps in a semi-circle of beanbags, complete with a flip-chart) until they have thrashed-out and agreed on the “right” way to go. Team B, however, after a much more cursory discussion, get going. JH-J argues that, by virtue of the fact that they are doing something, and therefore by experiential learning, Team B will discover that they are moving in the wrong direction will turn around and head in the right direction and overtake Team A, who are still talking.

This works for me and explains our bumbling progress, full of mistakes and frustrations but at least we’re doing it. The photo above is of me trying to sort out the electric goose fencing and, yes, I did give myself a shock when trying to work out how the fence tester worked! For more inspiration, read Michael Guerra’s article in Permaculture Magazine reflecting on how he was both exhausted and confused by his Permaculture Design Course. Also inspired, however, he has gone on to become perhaps Britain’s best-known small-space urban permaculturist and has published The Edible Container Garden. So, don’t be put off by the experts and start permaculturing!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The geese are here! Yesterday was a busy day, first a visit to our woods by an expert forestier. Monsieur Girard from the Centre Régional de la Propriété Forestière arrived to advise us on possible strategies for our wood. I’ll expand on that very useful visit in future blogs.

After that, we returned home for a cup of tea and then set off to collect the ten geese we’d ordered: five grey Toulouse and five white Embden “growers”. After the stress of the move, they seemed to settle in very quickly. They will stay in their fox and rat proof shed for three days to habituate themselves to that being their new home, then come out into the field for just an hour the first day, working up gently to spending full days out eating the grass, with a shelter from wind and sun and surrounded by electrified netting to protect them from foxes. They will, however, continue to spend their nights safely locked up in the shed.

From a permaculture point of view, the geese are here to eat grass and so avoid most of the necessity to mechanically mow from now on; the outputs will be happy geese, meat for the table at Christmas, breeding stock for next year, a huge amount of entertainment and pleasure in the keeping, oh, and loads of noise: they’re already behaving like a crowd of teenage kids!

When writing our permaculture blog, We're torn between wanting to put loads of information in yet not wanting to make each entry too long. So, we’ll try to keep the posts comfortably short but please post a comment if you want to ask a question or want us to expand on a point.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

“The thirsty earth soaks up the rain / And drinks, and gapes for drink again.” So wrote the poet Abraham Cowley in 1656. Last year, France suffered la Sécheresse (a drought) pretty much all over. When we were looking for somewhere to settle, one of the criteria we considered was the climate: and Brittany looked wet enough to grow our veggies.

However, just when all our young plants were trying to establish themselves, last month just 24mm of rain fell into our rain gauge, whereas the average (according to the official France Meteo website (and click on “Caractéristiques climatiques”) is 42mm. For July, 37mm is expected and, on Tuesday, we recorded a massive 32mm. With another 9mm overnight, we are already over the “target”.

Whilst we and the local farmers are pleased to see the rain, having so much fall all at once onto baked hard earth isn’t ideal as most will run-off without infiltrating. What we need to do is find someway of smoothing out these peaks and troughs of supply and avoid having to use expensive, treated tap water to water the garden: rainwater harvesting is the thing. Looking around at some of the options, the infrastructure and cost is daunting: huge great plastic tanks needing to be buried in the ground, pipes, pumps and filters and all at a cost which suggests a payback in decades.

Cobbling together a budget solution (for about 1/5th of the cost of a ready made system) we’ve bought a 1000 litre (220 gallon) tank and built a support to raise it up to avoid the need for a pump. We just need to buy a filter, which I’m researching at the moment, then connect it all up and hope for some more rain. For a really pragmatic approach to all things watery, and the formulae to calculate how big a storage tank you need relative to size of roof and water requirement, I cannot recommend Judith Thornton’s book The Water Book highly enough.

For another perspective on permaculture from a different part of the globe (Texas, USA) check out “Trailer Park Girl’s” blog .

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

They say you learn from your mistakes and now that it’s midsummer in the veg garden I can clearly see where things have gone wrong! I started with a basic knowledge, having grown some fruit and herbs in the past, Stuart had done the same but we’d attempted nothing on this scale before. I used Joy Larkcoms excellent book Creative Vegetable Gardening for inspiration (see also Grow Your Own Vegetables, also by Larkcom), which expands on the French potager system and is for those who want a garden that is beautiful as well as productive. Joy uses examples from past and present, Europe and America and shows gardens brimming with vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers some magnificent and formal, others funky and creative.

My taste tends towards the ‘creative and funky’ approach and wanted to have the brimming beds I had seen in the book. I experimented by filling beds with mixtures of plants, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Now, however, everything looks a little too funky and overcrowded and is not doing as well as I feel it should be. I planted marigolds around everything to attract hover flies and inter-planted French beans and sweet-corn with nasturtiums as I like the taste of the leaves and flowers in salad.

Unfortunately the soil was so improved for the sweet-corn that the nasturtiums are refusing to flower (my mother always told me they prefer poor soil), the aubergines are being dwarfed by the cornflowers and the salad I planted beneath the sweet-corn is already lost in permanent shade! Another point of learning was the okra. The first batch of seed was, I know realise, planted too early, when it was still too cold. Once transplanted, seedlings went into the bed where they soon looked sickly and pale yellow and never recovered. So I pulled it out and started another batch in small pots in a cold frame which all came up. However I have now read that okra really don’t like being in pots and resent being moved so I will see how these ones fair but will start again next season a bit more prepared.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Freedom to roam or “why did the chicken cross the road?” We have let the chicks have their freedom during the daytime and their confidence has grown quickly. It wasn’t long before they ventured further than our own garden. They wander along the verge, and so Gabrielle has made up a sign to warn motorists, they also wander into neighbour’s gardens and one got detached from the others this week and was found climbing a neighbours stairs. Thankfully, none of the neighbours are bothered by this but we must monitor the situation to make sure their foraging doesn’t damage the gardens. And their ranging is taking them closer to the fields where the foxes approach from. We do wonder whether some kind of enclosure might be a good idea.

This made me wonder what “free range” actually means. The DEFRA website makes distinctions between
“Free Range”, “Traditional Free Range” and “Free Range - Total Freedom” for poultry. I think ours are in the “Free Range – Perhaps a bit too much Freedom” category. I didn’t manage to sort out a similar definition for the French terms: “Poulets Fermiers”,“elevées en plein air” and “élevées en liberté”.

A permaculture solution is a “chicken forage system” perhaps combined with a “chicken tractor”. Read more about the ideas in Patrick Whitefield’s The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates and I also found Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual useful. Basically the idea is to fence off a sufficiently large area for the birds well-being and then plant it with trees, shrubs and other vegetation which will provide food naturally for the chickens. If fruit trees are added, the chickens will do much to reduce disease by eating bugs and larvae, and weed and fertilise the soil at the same time (The ECM pp 246-53). Designing such a system on our site will go on the list of things to do, and planting it will have to wait until winter now. In the meantime, has anybody seen our chickens recently?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

To mend an old tractor, first drink the beer! Our first grass cutting adventure with the 1963 tractor left us with ringing ears, due to a couple of holes in the exhaust manifold. Rather than solve the problem, I wore ear defenders for my next drive. After just a few minutes though, one hole had widened to the size of a ping-pong ball and I could see flames shooting out … time for a repair. An advantage of an old tractor is that it’s easy to work on; a disadvantage is that I can’t just go to my nearest tractor dealer and buy a new part off the shelf. There will, no doubt, be scrap yards or people selling second-hand parts and engineers who can copy or repair bits for me but, in the meantime, I had a tractor to mend.

Luckily, I’d been hoarding some exhaust repair putty for years, and I had some wire, so all I needed now was an aluminium can. We drink wine, beer and cider, all of which come in glass bottles, so Gabrielle went off to a neighbour to try and find one. She arrived back with a can and a big smile. Our neighbour only had one, which she was happy to give us; the only “problem” was that it was full. Which was how, at 10am one Saturday morning, we came to be sharing a can of beer whilst pondering our repair strategy!

As you can see in the photo above, it’s not pretty but it works: our beer can has reached the parts other beer cans cannot reach. Had it been a different brand, I could have claimed that my exhaust repair is probably the best exhaust repair in the world!

An update on our woods soon, as we have an French expert forestier coming on 10th July to offer us advice and I’m busy re-reading Ben Law’s The Woodland Way and my course notes from his introduction to permaculture and assessing a woodland course that I did a couple of years ago. An update soon also on the geese as we’ve ordered some (allegedly fox-proof) electric netting and the goose house is well under construction.