Friday, March 30, 2007

“All a musician can do is to get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws.” John Coltrane (American jazz saxophonist 1926-1967).

We’ve certainly been responsible for getting two musicians closer to nature this week but you’ll have to ask them whether they thus now feel more in communion with the natural laws. Two old (read “longstanding”!) friends of Gabrielle's, Tab and Nick, arrived on Monday in Nick’s battered old, vegetable oil-powered Mercedes Benz. They were just in time for lunch, where we were also joined by Remi (who I met on site when working on a straw-bale house build) his wife Solenn and their two-week old daughter, Enna. “Lunch” just doesn’t do justice to what the French usually eat around midday and, after four courses and coffee, Tab and Nick got out their guitars. The photo above shows them serenading Solenn and Enna.

Our guests might be on holiday but, for us, normal life continues and (very) long overdue on the list of things-to-do, was to finish planting the 150-odd trees I’d impetuously bought (see blog of Sunday, March 4th). Which is how we came to have two musicians in our woods Wednesday morning, getting “closer to nature” while offering us a coup de main (helping hand).

More than once, I’ve admitted that permaculture can sometimes be more theory than substance. I’d remembered seeing a planting diagram in one of my permaculture books that explained how, if one planted in curves (like a sine wave) rather than straight lines, more plants could be fitted into a given area. After rifling through many pages of many books, I found the diagram I’d been thinking of. Curves had been drawn to show the planting lines but, consider a join-the-dots diagram before the numbers have been joined by lines and what have you got: just dots. Not only that, but also the numbers mentioned and advantage claimed in the caption didn’t even match the diagram…hmmm. I spent some time pondering all this and, for a given distance between plants, an equilateral triangle seems to be the most space efficient. This reduced inter-row distances from 2.1metres down to 1.8m but still left us with straight lines of saplings.

That is, until we introduced our two musicians to the plot. It started well but then…
Call it “lack of concentration” or call it “improvisation”, whatever, but we moved into what I can only describe as jazz-planting. All the trees are now in the ground and watered in. This is months after they should have been, the best time being during November / December, to give the roots time to settle in before the growing efforts of spring. And all 150 saplings are squeezed in to the 1200 square-metre oblong at the correct spacings in a pattern that starts with the few neat rows that we’d planted a couple of days before, gradually changing into a much more satisfying free-form pattern.

For Nick’s own take on life, have a look at his Deadbeat Diaries and click here to read about Tab’s music.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

“To dig, or not to dig: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the veg patch to suffer
The slings and arrows of compacted earth,
Or to take spades against a sea of mud…”

From Hamlet by Billy Shakespeare (well, the lesser known gardeners’ version).

This is a complex issue and is at the heart of permaculture. I could try and explain the whys and wherefores, and the pros and cons of no-dig gardening, and perhaps not make a particularly good job of it, whilst boring you silly all the same. The basics are that we till the soil to relieve compaction, to incorporate compost, lime and manure and to create a tilth into which we can sow seeds. Additionally, farmers plough to kill and incorporate green manure and ley crops and kill weeds.

On the down side, tilling damages soil structure, kills earthworms and useful micro-organisms, over-aerates the soil, thus interfering with the ethylene cycle (which is not an alcohol powered two-wheel vehicle!) and causes soil erosion. On a farm scale, ploughing uses huge amounts of energy—to move over 7000 tonnes per hectare—and whilst ploughing in weeds might kill them, it also exposes loads of dormant weed seeds, which then germinate.

Most advocates of no-till growing do accept that it might be necessary to open up the earth at the beginning, which is how we came to ask our neighbour Paul to spend less than ten minutes with his tractor and plough turning over our proposed maincrop vegetable patch. Permaculture? Well it’s certainly pragmatic and will make the preparation of the soil and the raised beds with walkways in between (to avoid compacting the soil in future) much easier. It’s the first and last time this soil will see the plough and we believe that, on balance, it was the right thing to do. We’re waiting for the ground to dry out a bit before we continue the work, this time with spades.

To learn more about no-dig growing, have a look at The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook For Britain & Other Temperate Climates by Patrick Whitefield. pp 14, 50-58; the One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka; this article on Emilia Hazelip’s Synergist Gardening, her adaptation of Fukuoka’s ideas. And, even if you don’t understand the French commentary, have a look at this delightful 29 minute video of Emilia’s French vegetable-growing project.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

New parents can be so tiresome with their obsession in showing you photos of their newborns, don't you find? True to form, I couldn't resist posting today's photo of mother hen squashed flat over her brood of five two-day-old chicks, with one peeking out for a look at the world.

And now for some really reassuring news from the BBC news website: even armaments production is going green.
“Weapons manufacturer BAE Systems launched a range of 'environmentally friendly' munitions... with these immortal words: 'Lead used in ammunition can harm the environment and pose a risk to people'.” (pub. online 17.3.07)
…which has echoes of the product warning “this product may contain nuts” written on the side of a pack of peanuts! Strange world we live in, n’est pas?

Friday, March 23, 2007

STOP PRESS! In my blog of Sunday 11th March, I explained our confusion on how to recognise a broody chicken and which came first: the eggs or the chicken turning broody. Thanks to Gia and Monica for supplying comprehensive answers. (click on the green “comments” at the bottom-right of the posting to read what they said). I also told you how six of our own eggs came to be underneath our neighbour Annike’s broody bantam.

Yesterday, 21 days later (from the eggs going underneath, not me posting the blog) five assorted chicks arrived, the other egg made a sloshing sound when shaken: unfertilised. I spent all morning cobbling together a new home and run into which I installed the chicks and their surrogate mother—on “rental” from Annike until the chicks become independent—which will be for at least a month, she says. Now all look at the picture and go Arrrrrrrr, aren’t they sweeeeet!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

“We're all busy little bees, full of stings, making honey day and night, aren't we honey?” Bette Davis (two-time Academy Award-winning American actress, 1908 - 1989)

This is by way of an addendum to the last post. It’s always good fun to receive a comment on something we’ve posted and Monica, from her Small Meadow Farm in Georgia, USA, is one of our regular readers and comment posters. She said. “Neat bee house. You should do a how too for it.”

Gabrielle has had a “bee in her bonnet” (groans from the audience!) about making one of these for a while and so it was very timely that the latest issue (No.51) of Permaculture Magazine, has an article entitled, “How to Make a House for Solitary Bees”, by Marc Carlton. And we don’t do much around here without consulting Google, where we came up with two useful sites: this one is where we got the picture above from and is packed full of information and this one downloads as a pdf file and has construction details and other info.

In addition to the bumble bees and honey bees there are many species of solitary bees that neither sting (or it’s just the females that sting and then that’s only as painful as a mosquito bite…allegedly!) nor produce honey. They are very good pollinators and with honey bees suffering a reduction in numbers due to mites, gardeners should do what they can to help.

To build one, you need some off-cuts of wood; around 100mm (4inch) deep (real stuff, not wood composite materials like chipboard/ particleboard or MDF) into which you drill holes varying between 2mm (3/32inch) and 10mm (3/8inch) to a depth of around 85mm (3.5inch). Remove all sawdust and splinters, and smooth entrances to holes (with a countersink bit, perhaps) and, if you’re making it out of several bits of wood, mount them together with a roof to keep the worst of the weather off. Bamboo canes work well, but drill them out to remove the internal divisions therein. Gabrielle included some straw to attract earwigs, which eat something that is bad for fruit trees, but she’s not here for the moment and I can’t remember what it is!

In autumn, the boxes should be taken down and stored in a cold dry place to over-winter out of the way of predators, such as woodpeckers. Put them back outside in spring to continue the cycle. This is just a precis to show how simple it is; if you fancy making one, have a look at those links and the magazine article is good too.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

“I believe in a zone of privacy.” Hillary Clinton (American Senator from New York since 2001 and First Lady (to Bill, 1993-2001).

One of permaculture’s key planning tools, is the concept of “zones”. Patrick Whitefield explains it thus: “The principle of zoning is that whatever needs the most human attention should be placed nearest to the centre of human activity. Thus an intensive vegetable garden, which needs daily attention, is best placed in view of the kitchen window, whereas a timber plantation, which may not need visiting from one year to the next, can be far away.” The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook For Britain & Other Temperate Climates p27. The zones are (roughly) described as follows:
Zone 0, the house itself…perhaps the private zone Hillary is referring to!
Zone 1, the kitchen garden with herbs readily at hand to cook with and salad crops which need plenty of looking after.
Zone 2, stuff which requires more room than zone 1, yet still needs daily care such as poultry runs and maincrop vegetables.
Zone 3, larger-scale again, farmland, including pasture.
Zone 4, rough grazing and woodland, so with much less human influence than before.
Zone 5, wilderness, that bit of land left for wild plants and animals.

You can instantly see that not all designs would necessarily have all the zones and although the books often show diagrams of zones as neat, mandala-like concentric circles, there is often a lot of compromise necessary to do with individual site and circumstance.
Far from being completely untouched, I think that zone 5 can often be managed for the benefit of wildlife, i.e., to better effect than if just left alone, and this is particularly true of a small suburban garden, where zone 5 could consist of several separate elements such as a bird feeder and bath, boxes for birds, bats and over-wintering insects, and a pile of leaves and sticks left in a corner under a hedge for small mammals to hide and hibernate within. Part of the design of our holiday gite garden is to act as a demonstration of small-space permaculture and so I built a bird box and Gabrielle built a solitary bee box as part of our zone 5. Living actually in the countryside, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there were enough nooks and crannies, holes in walls and spaces under eves for all manner of insects and birds and such artificial houses were unnecessary but, as I say, it was the demonstration element that deemed them necessary.

So, we were mightily surprised and amused to see a solitary bee crawl (see photo at top) into one of the holes in Gabrielle’s creation today, just two days after it was put up in the garden. It spent some time in there, perhaps to lay eggs, before exiting and flying off. All this talk of places for wild animals to live unfortunately reminds me of the sometimes-unhappy time I spent in an old mill I bought (and sold) when I first came to France. It had edible dormice that lived in the attic and used to crawl out of holes in the wall and run horizontally along the walls, their grip aided by some weird French fabric wallpaper and a pine martin that lived above my bedroom and used to keep me awake at might. Then there were the wild bees and hornets, etc...a case of getting zones 0 and 5 badly mixed up, I guess!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Regard it as just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral. Frank Lloyd Wright (Famous American Architect,1867 – 1959). Actually, we’ve been building a rabbit hutch but you can never get a useful rabbit hutch quotation when you need one. We’ve had some strange goings on in our chicken house recently and some unanswered questions, so do post a comment if you know the finer points of chickens going broody. Ever since they started laying eggs, all our hens have been conveniently leaving them in the purpose-built and regulation-sized nest box. Even when let out to free-range, they dutifully come home to lay their eggs where we can collect them later. But spring is in the air and a young hen’s mind turns to having a family…perhaps? We’ve recently added some more young hens to our flock and whilst they settled in within a day or so and started to use the nest box, the speckled hen then made her own nest by our stored straw (one of those huge round bales) and started leaving eggs there.

Passing an egg always leads to a right old din with loads of loud clucking and bok-bok-bokking, which seems to be saying, hey girls, come and lay in my nest. The result is that there is one mother to a right old mix of chicks; our friend Caroline (who has given us most of our hens) had a hen with a mixed brood of no less than seventeen chicks last year. Our clutch got larger by the day with several hens now contributing but with no sign of any of them wanting to sit. Finally, we marked the existing eggs with a marker pen so we could remove the fresh eggs and still leave the clutch there in case one began to sit. The books we have were scant on detail on all of this but one did say that if one feels underneath a broody hen, she’d be very warm, as if she’s got a fever. Taking the opportunity to check this out in the evening, when the birds are on their perch for the night and quite sleepy and docile, we picked them up and felt underneath: nothing notable, temperature-wise.

Now for our question: what is a broody hen and how does she behave? All the eggs hatch in a clutch at about the same time, so we were under the impression that the eggs were laid over a period of days before the hen settled down to sit on them. But does a hen go broody first, then decide to make a nest, or make a nest and then go broody? Cecile, the sister-in-law of our farming neighbour Christiane, has offered us some fertilised Silky (see photo) eggs to put underneath one of our hens when she goes broody. We told her about the nest and a few days later she told us she had six eggs ready for us. It’s clear that ours weren’t sitting so we asked our neighbour Annike if any of her bantams were broody, which they’re noted for. She said no, so we declined the Silky eggs but a day or so later, she arrived at our front door with the news that she now had a broody bantam. This broody bird was sitting on an empty nest all the time, just making occasional forays out for food and water. We’d heard that hens that go broody stop laying, so how does all this work. It seems like another of those “chicken and egg” conundrums! In the end, we decided to give her six of our own hens’ eggs to put underneath the sitting bantam and so, if our cockerels is not firing blanks (he’s certainly making the chickeny-lurve regularly enough) we should be having our first chicks arriving very soon, courtesy of some surrogate mothering.

Read my updated notes on what happens when hen goes broody and other chickeny mysteries.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hippies are lots of fun, as long as they are not involved in commerce. Phil MacNutt.

Another well-known quote claims, “If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t really there.” Well, I was around in the 60s and I can’t remember much, does that make me a bona fide hippy then? No: in fact, as I was born in 1961 the reason I can’t remember most of the sixties is down to my tender age at the time and not to the regular consumption of hallucinatory pharmaceuticals! So why the talk of hippies? Is permaculture a harmless hobby for "weirdy-beardy-sandals wearers", or something practical and replicable on a farm scale? Who better to ask than Val, a smallholder with over 20 years experience, who currently has a flock of 50 sheep and an inventive wool business and has just been on a full permaculture design course run by three vegetarian/vegans. Here, unexpurgated, is her take on permaculture and her course.

I think the course at Monkton was actually very good in some ways and very bad in others…..what do I mean? Well for those who have/had no practical experience of farming, smallholding or even growing their own in their garden and who have not really considered what impact their lifestyle choices might be having on the planet it was a dynamic life changing experience and several of the participants on the course have radically altered their lifestyle as a result. Others were attending the course because they knew something about them and their attitudes had to change and were at a crossroads in their lives and wanted to DO something!

On reflection it probably even made me evaluate exactly why I do what I do and wonder if I could use permaculture design to sort 'the wheat from the chaff' of life and focus more closely on why I do what I do! It also helped to remind me why I am a WWOOF
(organisation placing volunteers on organic farms) host and why I run courses: basically to introduce sustainable living to those who haven’t really come across the idea.

From the point of view of someone who already works the land and farms the course was a bit of a disappointment. I am not in a position of having a perfect plot of land at my disposal and neither are many farmers so zoneing
(one of permaculture’s many theories) has to be very subjective! Also there was I felt on the course the same lack of understanding of small farmers that I interestingly encountered from a young 'oik' working for the Soil Association, (organisation that certifies organic status in the UK) which is that farming is divided in two: on one hand there are the permaculturists and their little plots or the organic farmers and on the other there are intensive monoculturist barons ripping up hedges, ruining the countryside etc! In reality this is total tosh! Most ordinary smallholders and small farmers live on a very low budget, with low inputs of anything artificial, cannot afford fertilisers etc and do what they have always done for many years but without a label! They produce good local produce and suffer at the hands of the middlemen etc and cannot afford to compete with organic farmers, nor can they afford the outlay to officially go organic but probably are as organic as the next bloke!

I felt the course really attacked farmers in general, which wasn’t good as the other participants could have been easily swayed to the view that all farmers are bad! I must have made the instructors lives difficult (I didn't mean to) by keeping on putting in my bit, e.g., that in zoning you could not possibly put cows up on the hill beyond the woodland! That it was important not to destroy delicate habitat to create something else. That if a chicken tractor was used hedges would NOT keep hens in and foxes out! And what DO you do with hens that are too old to lay if you are a veggie! I also needed hard case studies of established permaculture working on plots larger that 3-4 acres in the UK, not just Nepal(!) but with not much luck other than the wonderful Ourganix near Bridport.

All in all I think its great on a small and personal level but there needs to be more down to earth teaching of permaculture principles to farmers by farmers as they are not impressed by the “weirdy-beardy-sandals” image! This must be addressed if permaculture is to be achievable which it really has to be!

Thanks Val. I know that there are a few farmers or smallholders that read this—Steven and Joan, Pip and Janet, Monica and others—so please post a comment and let us know your views. (Click on the link for Val’s own blog).

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Part 2, The Sequel of our blog for short, cold and wet days when life seems to be less about going outside planting and digging and more about staying inside and reading all about it—last time our top ten books and this time some good blogs that might interest you. But first, a little about the 157 trees we’ve just bought (see photo). If you look back at my blog of February 21st, you’ll see that we now have a cunning plan for the woods but theory and practice can often be very different things. I sometimes (all too often!) think my enthusiasm (impetuosity) is an affliction and the prospect of 150-odd trees arriving soon while I was desperately trying to clearfell 1200 square metres (1/3 acre) of 15-year-old sycamores was yet another avoidable stress. On the other hand, that impetuosity (sorry, enthusiasm) can at least make things happen, otherwise I think one can often never get beyond the planning stage as there is always something else to consider before a decision is taken. As tiddly little saplings, they don’t represent a huge financial outlay, so any “mistake” wouldn’t be too much of an issue. And me ordering them has thrown into focus issues such as timing, a sort of learning one can only really assimilate by experience I suppose. And sometimes, having had experience of something, when one re-reads instructions, a deeper understanding is possible. For us, it’s illustrated that we need to start putting next winter’s cutting and planting into the diary, so as to not get caught out. Little bare-rooted saplings are best planted in November/December, to let their roots get established before the demands of spring. Cutting needs to be done in the middle of winter, when all the leaves have fallen and the energy of a deciduous tree is down in the roots. November was very mild, I’d barely finished my barn re-roofing and I’d planned to cut in January/February and then spring arrived early and primroses started to flower and sap started rising whilst still in February.

And so to our recommended blogs, in no particular order: First up, try Steve’s blog recounting life and permaculture at Chickenshack, a housing co-op based in North Wales. He is very knowledgeable, and has a lot of experience in permaculture, in fact they’re running a full Permaculture Design Course this year in May. He is also helping children build forest gardens in schools and if you look at the links on the right hand side of his blog and click on “RISC rooftop forest garden” (5th one down) you can read all about an incredible urban edible rooftop garden he helped to grow. For a different perspective from across the Atlantic, try Jenny’s Trailer Park Girl blog. She teaches permaculture at Texas’ Ecoversity and she’s also has a talent for finding interesting odd little websites tucked away on the Internet, for example, this site for some really small houses. Also in the US is Monica’s Small Meadow Farm blog with tales of running a small organic farm. Another smallholding, this time in Somerset, England: our friend Val’s blog. She has over 20 years experience of being a smallholder and currently has a flock of 50 sheep and an inventive wool business. A friend of Val’s also in Somerset with a different perspective on things is Neil’s blog, a Londoner who’s moved with his family to the countryside to set up a smallholding and the UK’s first organic halal business. And last but not least, a newcomer to blogging, Liz’s tales of running an allotment in Manchester, England.

All of these are well-written and full of interesting tales and information, plenty to keep you occupied if it's too cold and wet to go outside and inspire you to do something when the sun shines! Next blog will be a guest blog by Val, to give you an experienced smallholder’s view on permaculture.