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.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

We’re proud of our permaculture potatoes! On our very first blog entry was a picture with our permaculture potato patch in the background, with the promise that we'd tell you more it soon. However, it wasn't until our blog of 28th July that we finally got round to explaining what we were up to.

And what we said was that we didn't really know! The idea is to mulch an area of ground with sheets of corrugated cardboard, cover that with a layer of compost, then lay the seed potato directly on the compost, after prodding a hole through the cardboard below each potato to allow the roots to descend and cultivate the soil (saving digging and preparing the ground for a vegetable patch to follow). The whole lot is then covered in straw. (See pp194-196 of Patrick Whitefield’s The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates for a fuller explanation). Neither of us had ever grown potatoes before and didn’t really know what to expect from our experiment and what signs might herald the harvest.

Our free-range chickens had taken an increasing interest in eating the leaves and the slugs seemed to have returned in force so the plants were suffering. We were meant to spray the foliage with seaweed extract but that just stayed on the list of things to do, so the other day Gabrielle suggested that we rummage through the straw to see what was happening. The last time we did this, we only found the seed potato (!) but this time we were elated to find lots of healthy tubers, about 3 1/2kgs (8lbs) of them: not enough to make us self-sufficient in carbohydrates but certainly a few meals worth, experience for next year’s planting and a lovely feeling of satisfaction. Photo shows our permaculture chickens coming in after the harvest to eat any bugs they can find.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Permaculture is definitely about making links between different components in a system. “Chickens and other poultry are perhaps unique in the number of beneficial relationships which can be set up between them and other elements of a household, smallholding or farm”, Patrick Whitefield, The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates, p248. As you can see from the photo, ours are fully integrated into our vegetable garden. In fact, it would be true to say, a little too well integrated!

Permaculture chickens aren’t meant to wander freely around vegetable gardens as they will be quite undiscerning about what they scratch up, and what they eat. Where they are sitting is where I had planted some salad vegetables but the cultivated earth mixed with compost has been just too irresistible because of the possibilities it offered for a regular dust bath. The fresh green shoots of the salad crop would have been nibbled anyway, if they had survived. Having accustomed the chickens to courgettes—we give them any excess or those monsters that hide under the big leaves and grow into marrows—they’ve now started to eat them on the plant.

Fencing would be the answer, whether we fence in the vegetable plot or fence in the chickens but there are too many other jobs for the moment, so we are putting this one down to experience and are just enjoying their company and have netted off high risk areas, like our latest salad sowing. Next year, we hope to develop a chicken forage system, which will consist of a large fenced area, containing plants that provide chicken fodder naturally. A way of successfully introducing chickens to the veggie plot is to use a “chicken tractor”, basically a moveable chicken run. We’ve just completed making one and have been promised four more young chickens from Caroline, our friend who supplied the first two black ones. More on this next post…

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

“One year’s seeding makes seven years weeding”, so goes the nineteenth century proverb. So when we saw our field covered in dandelion clocks (their puff-ball seed heads) soon after we’d moved in and before we’d got round to mowing the field, we were concerned. A permaculture approach is often to try to see the solution in the problem rather than trying to change things. Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, offered one example: “you haven’t got a excess of slugs, you’ve got a deficiency of ducks” (who love eating slugs!). And I remember one from my permaculture design course when Patrick Whitefield suggested that one shouldn’t think immediately of a “solution” to an overly damp area of land—i.e., digging trenches and installing drainage pipes—but rather think of it as an opportunity to plant up a willow plantation for fast-growing fuel wood.

Do we have a dandelion problem? We’ve got loads of them but they’re certainly not a problem as our ten getting-bigger-and-hungrier-every-day geese just can’t get enough of their leaves. Due to a lack of rain the grass is looking very thin and brown at the moment but the dandelions, with their long taproots, are sprouting and growing prolifically. As we move the electric fence around the field, the dandelions are eaten first and we also give the geese a bucket of leaves with their wheat grain when we shut them up in their house each evening. A veritable “cut and come again” salad vegetable for our birds. They are edible for us as well and we often add a few young leaves to a mixed salad; they’re a damn sight easier to grow than lettuce!

The name dandelion originates from the French for lion’s tooth but modern day French has moved on and they are called pissenlit here, which literally means “wet the bed”, echoed by the English folk name, "pissabeds", all apparently due to it’s diuretic properties; we haven’t noticed any nocturnal problems after eating them, happily!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Two blogs ago (below, with the photo of the straw house) I mentioned the phenomenon of peak oil and what the future might look like: the past, perhaps! We took our friends, Luke and Erica and their kids to the fête du blé at Pleudihen this weekend where we saw demonstrations of how harvesting was done in less mechanised times. For sure, it was at a fête and it did look like hard work but everyone seemed to be having a laugh working together and many people were taking a real pride in what they were doing and showing off their knowledge. Photos are of a group working around a horse-powered “combine harvester” and of Max being shown how to make a tie out of straw to bind the cut sheaves together.

It’s a while since I read it but I found The Corrosion of Character: Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism by Richard Sennett very illustrative and thought-provoking if a little depressing as he describes how some of the pride and pleasure of working has disappeared from the modern workplace. Compare the traditional baker, adjusting proportions of ingredients according to, say, changes in the weather or different flour available, to turn out consistently good bread. A more modern bakery might be highly mechanised and thus the baker is demoted to the role of machine watcher, reliant on the repair mechanic if things go wrong. The modern day farmer suffers a much higher suicide rate than average (see also). I wonder how this compares to the farming industry in years gone by, with large groups of people working together as in the photo above? Erica has suggested we read News From Nowhere by William Morris, “is the tale of William Guest, a Victorian who wakes one morning to find himself in the year 2102 and discovers a society that has changed beyond recognition into a pastoral paradise, in which all people live in blissful equality and contentment". Please post a comment if you have read either of these books and what you think of them or have other book suggestions!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Comfrey: a “wonder-weed”. I started my French adventure down in the Limousin region. I’d already bought some willow rods and comfrey before I decided to move and start again, so I was lucky to have some good friends who let me plant up my stock to preserve it. Luke and Erica, with their children Max and Laurie, arrived last night with, amongst other things, our stock of comfrey lifted from their garden that day and carefully wrapped in wet newspaper. It really isn’t the right time of year to move plants but I couldn’t pass by this opportunity to get our comfrey patch started. Our experience of moving reasonably robust plants in summer is to pre-water the hole, water them in, then keep watering regularly and, although the plant will wilt terribly and look awful, new shoots will appear within a couple of weeks and the plant will survive.

Why comfrey? The rhizome and its finger-thick branched roots mine the subsoil of certain nutrients. It’s best known for potassium but also accumulates calcium, iron, and a little phosphorus (see pp49-50 of Patrick Whitefield’s The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates. These mined nutrients become available in the leaves and can be used to improve topsoil and feed plants by: cutting and laying the leaves to wilt and decompose on the surface, filling a plastic tub with leaves and letting them rot down to become comfrey “tea” or simply adding leaves to the compost heap; all of which release the nutrients. Grazing animals can even benefit from eating it.

Comfrey is a vigorous plant and, if you’ve ever wondered why useful plants don’t grow like weeds, then this is one exception. However … “it’s almost impossible to remove once established”, so be sure where you want it before planting and always use Russian comfrey, which doesn’t spread by seed as ordinary comfrey does and is propagated by planting short root cuttings. This is the strain we have and we bought ours at Ragmans Lane Farm and it’s survived a couple of transplants. Comfrey also, apparently, has several medicinal uses, my favourite being the suggestion by Gerard, who wrote in 1597 that Comfrey should be ...given to drinke against the paine of the backe, gotten by violent motion as wrestling or overmuch use of women".

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

House of straw. One of the many reasons that attracted us to our current plot was that part of the land is constructible, i.e., it has outline planning permission to build a house. We have a certificat d’urbanisme and, once we have designed our house, we will apply for a permis de construire.

If you’ve visited our blog before, you’ll know that we’re both afflicted, to varying degrees, with a lack of patience. So, with architects costing so much, and the infamous French bureaucracy to contend with, we thought we’d just get on and do it. We didn’t even read the books, I mean, how hard can it be? But we did consult three little porky friends of ours who have various building skills. You can see the results above. Beware the wolf … and I’m not so sure how waterproof it’ll be!

The house is, in fact, one of many straw sculptures that have just appeared to celebrate the harvest, I assume, and also to promote various fêtes, the most famous of which, round these parts, is the 30th fête du blé at Pleudihen. There will be food, music, demonstrations of old machinery and skills and a Fest Noz (Breton for “party night”) at the end, a sort of Celtic barn dance.

We will be particularly interested to see the demonstration of old machinery and methods of bringing in the harvest. We’ve seen the local farmers driving huge tractors, following even huger combines, and then producing the massive round bales which need said tractor to load onto huge trailers. All of this relies on fuel and with prices rising, instability in the Middle East and the phenomenon of peak oil we may yet see men and women with scythes and pitchforks back in the fields, loading up horse drawn carts, in our lifetime.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Rainwater harvesting – Part 2. In our blog of 8th July I talked about our "cobbling together a budget solution" for a rainwater catchment tank but that we had yet to choose a filter. Of choice, we would like to have bought a WISY downpipe filter but it just proved too expensive for our budget. So, in keeping with the rest of the system, our filter was assembled, with a bit of imagination and ingenuity, out of a variety of components.

First off was a cheap plastic downpipe collector sold for use with standard guttering and garden water butts. This has a rudimentary filter that will strain off particles larger than about 3 x 3 mm and a diverter, which can send all the water down the drainpipe, useful in winter. I attached some large-diameter hosepipe to this, leading into a small plastic bucket, which was a tight fit over the inlet to the tank. Inside this was a fine-mesh basket used for planting in ponds (also a tight fit) which I lined with some hessian sacking. I hope that this will strain out any remaining particles and I will rinse out or replace the hessian as appropriate.

With the aid of a ladder and watering can, it’s tested and works and so we are just waiting for the next rainfall. I’ve also installed a standard 300-litre water butt in the garden of our holiday cottage. When I re-roof the barn later this month, I’ll install another butt there too. As I’ve said before, for a really informative and pragmatic approach to all things watery, I cannot recommend Judith Thornton’s book The Water Book highly enough.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

We’ve just gone large with our composting. We use straw for bedding in both the hen and goose houses and so are accumulating large amounts of it, along with grass cuttings, far too much for our one metre cube compost heap. I’d built that out of old pallets and wire mesh to make it rat-proof (see 30th May blog. With a combination of just dirty straw and grass cuttings, I don't think that there will be such a risk of encouraging rats as with the mix that contains kitchen waste, so we were able to use a different design.

On the “Solutions!” page of issue 48 of Permaculture Magazine was a letter from Chris Dixon of Wales, who explained how he dealt with large quantities of manure (!) and therefore had a similar problem to us. His solution was to create a very simple compost “bin” out of some old sheep fencing and some cardboard. We don’t have any old sheep, and hence any old sheep fencing, so I bought 6 metres from a local hardware shop. If you are a regular reader of our blog you might have started to see a pattern in my design process and so, not to disappoint, I did cock up yet again. Despite carefully employing the formula for the circumference of a circle (2 x π x r) I managed to confound radius with diameter (yes, I do know the difference, just made a mistake) so we’ve ended up with a huge compost heap with a diameter of 2 metres and so an enormous capacity of just over 3 metres cubed.

Not by design then, but we had enough material to fill it up, so it turned out well; what some friends of ours, Eva and Alan, call a “good bad’un”, a golfing term, apparently. Our experience with the first heap is that it will rot down at a rate that we can add more material without running out of space. We transferred some of the already rotting material from the base of the first heap to the new one to introduce useful bacteria and organisms. We now have adequate composting capacity and now know we can add another very easily when required. To make yours, form the wire fencing into a circle, bend over the ends to hook over the other end, then line with cardboard to retain the compost and fill up (see photos above).