Monday, February 26, 2007

“I find television to be very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.” Groucho Marx.

This was going to be a winter blog, a blog for short, cold and wet days when life seems to be less about actually planting and digging and more about reading books about growing vegetables, and perhaps looking at the TV and the Internet. Actually, it’s been uncharacteristically mild and dry and we’ve managed to be outside a lot recently, working on our various projects. It’s certainly making up for it at the moment though, pouring with rain; it also blew a hoolie over the weekend and our house creaked like a square rigged ship at sea in a storm, actually quite pleasant sat around our wood stove.

But I’ve been caught out: winter is officially over. To get our permaculture design for our woods under way, we’d planned to cut two “cants” (areas cut in coppice cycle) of 1200 square metres (1/3 of an acre) and plant up with our chosen coppice plants of ash, hazel and sweet chestnut. I’ve just about finished the first and wanted to employ a local bucheron (lumberjack), Monsieur Crespel, to help me cut the other. He’s helped us before, just before Christmas, in safely felling a “hanging” tree (see blog of Sunday 24th December) and I met him again at the wood on Sunday. He pointed out that the primroses were blossoming; a sure sign indeed (apparently) that the sap was rising and spring was here. He scratched the bark of a sycamore to confirm his prognosis and pronounced it was already too late to cut, a job for next winter.

So, if not for a winter’s day, perhaps for a wet and windy spring day, here’s our top ten permaculture reads (not in any particular order).

The Earth Care Manual, Patrick Whitefield’s all-encompassing guide to temperate climate permaculture.
The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, John Seymour’s classic which contains just about everything, including how to tell a cow’s age by her teeth.
The Woodland Way, Ben Law’s permaculture approach to woodland management.
Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. Our vegetables, fruit and animals are for eating and, in the kitchen, Delia is Queen!
The River Cottage Cookbook. Hugh Fernley Whittingstall makes a direct connection between growing vegetables, raising animals and the food on our plates.
Creative Vegetable Gardening, if Delia is Queen of the Kitchen, then Joy Larkcom is the “Delia” of the vegetable patch and this book is heavily influenced by the French “potager” system.
Building Green, only just published green building guide by Clarke Snell and Tim Callahan. This is THE BEST book on the subject I’ve come across for a long time.
I Bought a Mountain, by Thomas Firbank. Outsider buys sheep farm in Wales, wins respect of the locals and makes it work. First published in 1940 and truly inspirational.
Wild Health, Cindy Engel gives us loads of evidence that, given the freedom to range, wild animals can keep themselves healthy by choosing to eat that which might cure an illness, very balanced and scientifically argued.
Penguin Lost, a novel by Russian Andrey Kurkov. Very amusing, the plot turns in the last sentence of the book and you can’t see it coming… What? Did you really think we only read books about permaculture?

In part 2, “The Sequel”, I’ll tell you about our favourite blogs to visit and how we bought 157 trees today.

Friday, February 23, 2007

(the picture is of "Yorkshire folk", the reason for it will become apparent below)
A few years ago, I went to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, North Wales to do The Whole House Course: an excellent few days during which we were taught such topics as ecological building design for low energy consumption, green building technologies, healthier habitats, the use of environmentally friendly building materials and water efficiency, conservation and drainage. I remember that towards the end of the course, we watched a video about house maintenance, not nearly as glamorous as solar panels or reed bed sewage systems but an essential part of making and maintaining an ecological house. Which is a rather long-winded introduction to me telling you how I finally took the water trap underneath the shower apart yesterday and removed a large black slimy hairball (I’ll spare you a photo!) which means the water now drains properly. Before, the tray would fill up while taking a shower and then take an age to drain and Gabrielle developed a technique of half filling the basin with cold water then draining it, which created a watery momentum and helped: literally throwing water down the drain!

Why had it stayed on the list of “things to do” for so long? Because often, when one disturbs plumbing joints they don’t easily go back together, or need a new washer, or perhaps I’d need a complete new trap … so it just got left. And why did I decide to take it apart gone seven in the evening with guests expected within three quarters of an hour and me still in my working clothes and needing a shower, especially after my last plumbing event (see the blog for February 9th)? Precisely because it had been on the list for so long and was now on my list of “things to do today” and also because, for some unfortunate reason, blokes seem to be pre-programmed to embark on projects like this at awkward times! For once, it all ended happily and took less than ten minutes, now drains properly and doesn’t leak.

David, a friend who lives in our old hometown of Brighton, has suggested a way of spicing up the blog and as today’s has perhaps the dullest of subject matters for a while, I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a comic translating website that converts text into a British or Irish dialect and works quite well. Now follows the paragraph above, translated into a Yorkshire dialect; it works best if you try to put on the accent whilst reading it. If you’re one of our readers from elsewhere in the world, this will probably make no sense at all, sorry!

Why 'ed it stayed ont' list o' “things ta do” for sa long? 'cos often, when 'un disturbs plumbin joints thee don’t easily nip on back togetha, or need eur new washa, or 'appen i’d need eur complete new trap … sa it just getten gallock. 'n why did ah decide ta tek it apart gone seven int' evenin wi' guests expected within three quarters o' an 'ahr 'n uz still i' uz wukkin cleeas 'n needin eur showa, especially afta uz last plumbin event (see t' blog for february 9th)? precisely 'cos it 'ed bin ont' list for sa long 'n wor naw on uz list o' “things ta doa today” 'n alsoa 'cos, for um unfortunate reason, blokes seem ta be pre-programmed ta embark on projects li' dis a' awkward times! for once, it orl ended 'appily 'n tuk less than ten minutes, naw drains properly 'n dunt leyt.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Can’t see the wood for the trees. First there was a dream, then a cunning plan, and some impetuosity and now it’s all hard work! I first told you about the woodland back on 19th July and then gave you an update on November 12th. We came across 4.5 hectares / 11acres of mixed woodland for sale while searching for a place to live. We wanted a building plot for our planned straw bale eco-home and enough agricultural land for our permaculture dreams of fruit, vegetables and animals. This combination (of building plot with enough land) proved elusive so we looked at anything at all promising and the woodland was for sale with a building plot and 17th century presbytery. The building and plot weren't right for us but when we did find our home nearby and realised we still had some money left in our pockets, we remembered the woodland. At first, we tried to be very logical about it and attempt to justify its purchase in economic terms but realised that, above all, every time we went for a walk in the woods to ponder whether we should buy it, we ended up with big smiles on our face. Then we got all dreamy and thought of all the things we could do with the woodland; that was the easy bit!

Having signed for it, we then needed a management plan for it which, for us, meant a permaculture plan. Our first point of reference has always been 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. You can download and read our permaculture design proposal by clicking here. Basically, two of the planted species are wrong for the location and therefore have not been a success, the sycamore maples especially are already showing signs of exhaustion. No access routes were planned or maintained by the last owner and the largest trees, some Larriscio Pines, are the furthest away from the road. The woodland is not large enough to earn its keep from conventional high forestry management and so permaculture solutions were needed. It’s expensive to create rides (access ways) in the woodland large enough to take the large machines necessary to harvest and cart away fully grown trees and this would also involve bridging several drainage ditches. But if the cut lumber were of a size that it could be carried out on a shoulder things would be altogether easier.Rather than selling the raw commodity too cheaply, we could add value to some of the wood by turning it into something else first, anything from the bed (see photo) made by our friend Jim from the first sycamore we cut down, through to artists’ charcoal; it will also provide for all of our heating needs for the rest of our lives.

One of the expert forestiers, Monsieur Eon, pointed out to me many ash and oak saplings which had germinated naturally, hence it is nature—the soil and the conditions—which are choosing what’s right for this site. Our plan is therefore to work with nature to turn the woodland into coppice, with ash, hazel and (trying this year to see if the tree likes the soil) sweet chestnut, all under oak standards. The wood than then be harvested on a cycle of say seven years, yielding poles that can easily be carried out manually to be used to make things, like the ash yurt frame pictured.And the impetuosity I mentioned? When talking to Alain at a nursery near here in Broons, on the spur of the moment, I ordered 50 saplings each of ash, hazel and sweet chestnut. To coppice correctly, one must clearfell at least 0.12 of a hectare (1/3 of an acre) to allow enough sun in to promote re-growth; if individual trees were cut, when the surrounding trees leafed up in the Spring, the stump (or stool in coppice terminology) would die. It’s already later than ideal to plant saplings and a job really to be done in winter, which used to include February, but it appears Spring is already here and so I’m frantically trying to cut down a quarter of a hectare (2/3 of an acre) of sycamore trees so we can plant those saplings. Oh, and one other minor point: once I started cutting the sycamore trees down, I could then see the wood - hundreds of tiny ash saplings growing naturally and I've already ordered 50! The yellow “X” marks a tree to come down (a red circle warns me off the ones we’re keeping) and the photo at the top shows our (currently unfinished) attempt at some deer fencing to protect the new trees. Time to get back to the chainsaw!

Friday, February 16, 2007

14th, Valentine’s Day, Saint Valentin here, was a wet one, and so a time to pick out some inside jobs off the long list of things to do. The lighting in our combined kitchen/living room was by way of many small halogen lights. They give a lovely quality of light and don’t seem to be too greedy energy-wise, just 20 watts a bulb, but with two rows of five, and three more powerful ones lighting the other half of the room, the total for the room was an astonishing 450W! It annoyed me almost every time we turned them on and especially when they got left on by mistake. On a recent trip to IKEA (a decently-priced Swedish home ware store) we bought several lamps and low-energy bulbs to go with them.

If permaculture is anything, then it’s a design system. Whilst Gabrielle's design skills in selecting cheap, stylish, funky and functional lighting might not quite fit the definition of permaculture design per se, the end effect certainly was: we’ve replaced 450W with just 73W and, to be honest, it’s brighter where it matters.

Valentine's Day is also a day to be romantic and I’d put Gabrielle off the scent by being all blokey and uninterested the day before but came up trumps on the day by bringing her tea in bed with flowers and a card. Her present to me was a runcible spoon! The word was invented by Edward Lear in his whimsical verse, The Owl and the Pussycat and then took on a life of its own and now refers to a cross between a fork and a spoon, particularly useful in consuming fruit, I assume.

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat:
They took some honey,
and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.

……(several verses later)

"Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon
; and so it continues…

Quinces are inedible raw but apparently delicious and aromatic when cooked. They’re originally from Persia and Turkestan and still much grown in many parts of Europe. Their pulp makes Dulce de Membrillo or Marmelo, the origin of the marmalade we now make from citrus fruit. Quince trivia courtesy of Bob Flowerdew’s excellent Complete Fruit Book p.32. Now I’ve got a “genuine” runcible spoon, I suppose we ought to think about buying a quince tree!

I’m off to the woods with my chainsaw today, so in my next blog I’ll give you a full update of our permaculture design for our woodland.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

As I told you on my last blog, we’ve had our first guests in our gite a young couple from Derby, both doctors, and it was a pleasure to have them around. Their visit also meant that we were able to run our very first course, “Preparing Chickens for the Pot”. The inspiration for this was my own first experiences despatching a chicken and the inadequacies of instructions written in books; this is something one needs to be shown as it is essential—in our view—that the animal does not suffer unnecessarily during slaughter. Another inspiration was Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s recent River Cottage Treatment, a series of three hour long programmes on English television, where Hugh, an articulate and chatty ex-public schoolboy turned organic smallholder, showed fans of fast food where their food came from and tried to convince them—successfully in most cases—to care about how their meat was raised, killed and cooked.

The idea of our course was to allow a participant to eat a very French coq-au-vin (chicken cooked in red wine) having started with a live chicken and followed every stage in between. The “live”chicken was in fact a dead chicken I’d arranged to collect immediately after its humane slaughter on a nearby free-range chicken farm, neither plucked, nor drawn (dressed). That way we could discuss and try out the neck-wringing method of slaughter without stress to bird or person. We’d been though the legal requirements of slaughter, the guidance offered by the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) and various devices one can buy and their relative merits. The HSA, for example, recommends stunning followed by bleeding or neck dislocation. However, a hand-held electric poultry stunner costs around £650 (€950/$1200) which is way out of reach to someone raising just a few chickens for personal consumption. From what I read, I was also not convinced that electric stunning is either 100%reliable or any more stress-free that other methods. As something that we occasionally have to do, and in preparation for the course, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on researching this. One of the people I spoke to was Neil who moved from London to Somerset to start producing organic Halal meat for sale and I think you might find his point of view interesting: “What is “humane” at the end of the day is cultural. The UK seems to think electrifying everything before it dies is humane, the rest of the world doesn’t. I go to the abattoir once a week and I hate stunning – I think it is painful and cruel but have to accept that unless I move to Birmingham or build my own abattoir I have to put up with it. When it comes to poultry I do them all at home. It is very simple – sharp knife across the top of the neck and they are dead in a second. Arguably they feel less pain than they do when getting electric currents through the brain.

After we’d discovered (happily with a dead chicken as aforementioned) that a 4kg chicken is just too big to have its neck wrung by hand, we plucked it, comparing dry and wet plucking (dunked in a bucket of very hot water for a couple of seconds, the feathers just fall out) and then eviscerated it, variously called drawing or dressing, i.e., taking all the innards out. As I was with a hospital doctor, I was prepared to learn something myself and “Ann” (I have used a pseudonym so as not to embarrass Zoë if any of her colleagues should chance on this blog) very competently cut off the neck then cut around the vent and put her hand inside the carcass to withdraw the giblets or offal. Withdrawing one rather impressive and pale object, she remarked, “Oh, that’ll be a kidney. Now readers, you should know that Zoë, I mean “Ann” is a nephrologist, that’s someone who specialises in kidney diseases. As subtly as I could manage, I pointed out that what she was holding was not a kidney, but rather a cockerel bollock, a testicle, all very impressive as there’s two of them and they are at least as large as a man’s. The single, much smaller and purple kidney emerged moments later. “Ann’s” laughter at her own mistake or perhaps amazement at the size of the testicles was so loud it brought Gabrielle to the window to see what was going on. “Ann” swore me to secrecy, so don’t you tell anyone!

That fun moment aside, Gabrielle and I are both meat eaters and firmly believe that animals should be raised and slaughtered humanely and if you can’t take responsibility for all stages of the process as we are able to with our chickens, then perhaps that means only buying organic free-range non-factory farmed meat. For a challenging vegan point of view, visit VIVA’s website. Please do post a comment if you have something to say on this subject.

Friday, February 09, 2007

We have our first guests in our holiday gite this week and so last Saturday were checking all was going to be ready and welcoming for them. We switched on the fridge and the heating, put on fresh bedclothes and had a bit of a dust and so on. When I went to switch on the hot water tank, I remembered that I’d spotted the tinniest of leaks from one of the pipes coming out the bottom of the tank last time I’d looked, which I’d temporarily solved by switching off the water supply to the tank (not forgetting to also turn off the heating element, of course). Consulting The Water Book by Judith Thornton, I read that “a slight drip wastes 30 litres a day and by the time the drips have built to a trickle, it could easily be 300 litres a day” (p19). In the UK, the water regulator (OFWAT) estimated that nationally, 3625 mega litres per day in 2002/3 were lost in the distribution system, that’s 127 litres per property per day! (p16).

Now, despite all that, it wasn’t for ecological reasons that I decided to do something; in fact, I really don’t know why I interfered. Have you ever watched a horror film where a character hears a noise from the basement and decides to go and investigate? And you watch through your fingers, muttering, “don’t go down the stairs, don’t go…”, and you know, because it’s a horror film, that there is something very bad down there, and you know that, despite your protestations the character really is going to go downstairs and maybe the lights will fail and there will be a very bad thing down there and it will all end in tears … and inevitably does? So, having seen many TV programmes about people going abroad for a new life, and renting out holiday accommodation, and having booked guests before the building work is finished, and seen, time and again, the rush to plumb in the bathroom at the very last minute, you’d think I’d know better. And as it wasn’t even a drip, just a weeping joint, perhaps a whole drop appearing twice a minute and that I could have put something to catch those drips for the week and deal with it when they’d gone, you’d think I’d know better. But my brain was as separated from my fingers as the viewer from the screen character in the horror film, and I got my toolbox out. It’s Saturday evening, and they arrive tomorrow morning!

The joint connects two pipes. It’s a compression joint, that means it has a nut on either side, and to do it up, you tighten each nut relative to each other. In the middle, there is a piece of brass or copper like a wedding ring, which provides the seal in the middle. Just a tweak with a pair of adjustable spanners and all would be done. The drip became worse. From experience, if you undo the nuts a bit and then retighten, the joint can settle down. The drip was even worse; in fact it had become a 300 litre a day trickle. Ah, b------s! When I was just a boy, in moments like these, one had only to call out “Dad, Daaaahd” and an omnipotent being would appear and resolve the problem. But I’m 45 and my father lives in a different country. I was lying on my side in a cramped cupboard with a wet shirt sleeve and I called out to Gabrielle to come and give me moral support. She logically listed our options, which included expensive emergency plumber callouts and me doing something about it myself.

I undid the joint completely, pulled it apart and stuffed my thumb over the end. French hot water tanks are under mains pressure and scaldingly hot. The joint did not contain the expected olive but rather a very knackered washer. With an uncomfortably hot thumb, I asked Gabrielle to go and fetch my box of assorted washers, which contained (just) one of the correct size and temperature rating (now you don’t get those breaks in the basement of a horror movie!) A quick sleight of hand and the new washer was introduced and the joint refastened—no more leak—hooray. (None of which changes how stupid I was, of course).

Back to permaculture for the next few blogs, when I’ll tell you about my day cutting trees in the woods yesterday, our first course, and some great blogs by other people that you might find interesting.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

It’s been very dry recently; just 30mm of rain fell in January rather less than the average of 81mm. It has meant that we’ve been able to work outside a lot though and we’re making progress with the gite garden. The photo shows me using some wood ash (it was just what was to hand, sand would be just as good) and a length of string to mark out a curved bed, transferring the plan to the actual garden. It’s an interesting stage as, despite all the care and consideration that went into the planning, once it’s actually marked out in full scale in the garden itself, the proportions might seem wrong or the size for a particular item either too big or too small. And how did we deal with the concrete hard standing I told you about at the end of the lasts blog? I dug around and marked its limits with some canes, then measured up and transferred them to the plan, as an overlay on tracing paper (actually, it was greaseproof cooking paper) and we reconsidered the placing of certain features.

As we were keen on our original design, one solution might have been to hire a digger and driver to remove it all and then cart it down to the tip but that’s not a permaculture approach. Neither did it seem particularly “permaculture” to spend a lot of time digging up bits of it to place beds where we’d planned and then mixing concrete to form paths where there was good soil. A couple of things inspired us: an article in Permaculture Magazine issue 48 and an innovative reclamation of an old industrial site here in Brittany.

The article—Native Landscaping —describes Mark Fisher’s permaculture design at the Ecology Building Society’s new headquarters. Digging the ground to prepare for planting, he found all manner of junk and tells us, “recycling where I could, some had to go in 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 abdicated responsibility by skipping 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 since wild nature is often blind to our perversity, some creatures will probably find habitat and refuge in it.” One of the French woodland experts who came to our woods told me about a project—called Le Transformateur in the town of Redon, here in Brittany, where an old industrial site is being reclaimed as a public open amenity space using an interesting approach: “au Transformateur, les règles sont simples : faire avec tout ce qu'il y a sur place. Toute chose peut être une matière première…” Which is to say, “with the Transformer, the rules are simple: work with all that’s already there and that everything can be useful as raw material.”

So, without too much disruption, we’ve modified our plan and where we really want plants where the concrete is, we’ll smash a few drainage holes with a pickaxe, then put raised beds on top. Another part of the concrete slab will be home to a barbeque made from one of two old oil drums given to us by our French dairy farming friend, Yves (the other is going to be converted into a charcoal burner) and a cob pizza oven. Most of the path now runs over the concrete and there’s just a little to break up where we want to plant a living willow structure.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

“The best laid plans of mice, men and inexperienced permaculturists…”. After the electrifying excitement of the last blog entry, it’s back to the plan for the gite garden. The design questionnaire asks what we want to keep and what we want to get rid off. A dark green laurel hedge—as wide as my span between outstretched fingertips—running the length and across the bottom of the garden is top of the list to go. The cherry laurel—to give it its full name—is an excellent hedging plant, very tolerant of shade and happy in heavy clay soil, both “problems” of its situation in this garden. However, it’s also “a greedy plant, inhibiting the growth of nearby plants”. (Thanks to Ken Fern’s excellent Plants For A Future website for the details. Structurally, it’s large and dark green and overwhelms this small garden, so it has to go. The same goes for a huge cypress tree, which also has a negative impact on the daylight that reaches our own home. There are many other smaller shrubs but, as these don’t fit in with what we want from this garden, they are on their way out as well. In fact, we can relocate these shrubs (not the laurel, that’s for the chipper) to other parts of our land. This is a bit of a “scorched earth” approach but, because it’s such a small garden, we feel that shouldn’t be a problem.

We’re keeping the water butt I installed last year, the gravel circle directly in front of the balcony and several lavenders for their beautiful scent. These plants have gone “leggy” and so we’re going to try a tip I saw on a gardening TV programme which suggested burying the plants up to the foliage and, after roots have grown on the newly submerged woody stems, they can be cut off and replanted, thus obtaining several new and well proportioned lavender plants from an old an overgrown one. We’re also keeping some wooden fencing panels, which we'll repair, then protect and colour with a water-based wood preservative.

We’ll be planting a nut tree, a fruit tree and a soft-fruit bush. Herbs will go in, for their scent and for the gite guests to use for cooking. We’ll sow some perennial salad vegetables—a very permaculture thing as they provide food yet without the intensive inputs required for annual salad plants in the height of summer. Courgettes and tomatoes will feature as, despite the fact that they’ll need daily watering when it’s hot and dry, they are easy to grow and prolific producers.

If you remember, I’d said that we’d missed out some of the features of the site survey in our rush to get started. One of the missing bits of information was a soil survey. We should have dug a few holes around the plot to determine the type of soil and subsoil—structure and pH—the depth of topsoil and drainage. We didn’t, and so it was a great surprise to put a spade in the earth—whilst starting to dig out those laurels by their roots—and hear the clang and feel the jolt of spade against concrete. An exploration of the rest of the garden has revealed a concrete slab covering the lower half of the garden. Back to the drawing board …!