Saturday, April 28, 2007

Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant. Robert Louis Stevenson (Scottish poet and writer 1850 – 1894).

I have been sowing seeds. Stuart worked himself into a sweat and some degree of temper creating a fantastic raised bed vegetable patch for us following the example of Emilia Hazelip (To learn more about Emilia’s method, click on the links for an article or video [in French only] ). It’s currently mulched with straw and once we have our sheep we may use wool as a mulch which is something I’m keen to know more about.

In France planting by the moon seems to be common practice. Maybe this because we are living in the countryside and France has a very traditional cultural life that naturally preserves its ancient practices. Or maybe it’s because our immediate neighbours are two old ladies who have been raising vegetables for (apparently) hundreds of years! Whatever the reason I have decided to try and follow this way of doing things for, as much as anything, it’s giving me a structured timetable of action and means that I’m not being overwhelmed by feeling I have to do everything at once.

The theory behind the practice is that increasing moonlight is best for annuals that bear their fruit above ground, and decreasing moonlight is best of those that are root crops. The full moon and the new moon are considered "barren" signs when no planting should be done at all. Some books will tell you not to plant on a Sunday either but I’m not sure about that and feel this particular ‘rule’ may have been added later by the local priest!

The phases of the moon are divided into quarters, each with its own specific planting schedule. The first quarter or the time from the new moon to about half- full is for leafy plants that produce their seed outside the fruit such as asparagus, cabbage, celery, endive, and spinach. During the second quarter, or the time from the half-full to the full moon, plant annuals that have above-ground yields which are vining and produce seed inside the fruit such as beans, peas, peppers, pumpkin aubergine, tomatoes, and cucumbers. The third quarter, from the full moon to half-full, is the time to plant biennials, perennials, bulb and root crops, any crops which are planted in one season to winter over and produce yields the following year, trees, and shrubs. Some third quarter plants include onions, potatoes, rhubarb, grapes and berries. And the fourth quarter, from half-full to new moon, is the time to cultivate, pull weeds, destroy pests, and turn the earth.

I’ve been planting my seeds in old toilet rolls and paper pots made from newspapers, which I’m then planting straight into the earth. I’m both using up a waste product and leaving the roots of my young seedlings undisturbed. It takes about 50 old toilet rolls to fill a seed tray so I shall be asking all my friends to save them for me ready for next spring! The photo shows Camille, the 5 year old daughter of our neighbours Celine and Michel, helping me.

Lots of plants have popped up already including two varieties of sweet corn, sunflowers and nasturtiums to plant with them, beans, peas, pumpkin, tomatoes, carrots, leeks and broccoli to name a few. I have been given some great seeds from friends and neighbours including some beans with wonderful names: “Cherokee Trail of Tears” and “Ruth Bible” – the latter a climbing cornfield bean from Kentucky 1832! In fact, because I have been given so many I have a few of these left and I am happy to send four of these magic beans to the first two people to comment on the blog.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Hard work never killed anyone. What a load of rubbish, I’m dead on my feet here. For too long, we’ve been adding things to our “to do” list quicker than we cross them off. I can see a natural break coming up when we’ll have a moment to take breath and see where we’re at, when the vegetable patch is finished and planted up and the fencing constructed to keep in the two ewes with lambs that we’ve ordered but for the moment it’s madness. And we’re not the only one’s busy round here: all the farmers are desperately busy trying to get the soil prepared and crops sown, waiting their turn with shared machinery whilst keeping a concerned eye on the weather.

I had Monday “off”, a much-needed break but there was also a reason to sit around. We’ve taken delivery of six geese late last week and it was their first time out on the grass, surrounded by the electric fencing, and I wanted to be on hand to free them, if they became entangled before they became habituated to it. One was also a bit under the weather and I wanted to keep a close eye on its state. My “work” for the day was therefore to sit on the new swing that we’ve hung under a large old oak tree, nursing a glass of wine and reading a book. It was a warm day and looking up at the different dappled greens of the new oak leaves with a clear blue sky behind was an absolute delight, as was listening to the contented chatter of the geese and hens, the cockerel crowing and wild birdsong.

Tuesday should have seen a return to work and “the list” but there was a ring of the doorbell (a replica of an old ship’s bell) at 8am sharp and it was Paul, our pig-farming neighbour, asking if I could give him a hand: he wanted me to drive a tractor and harrow a field, which would give him time to do other things and still be ready to sow the maize (for animal fodder) by mid-afternoon. You might well wonder what driving a huge diesel-guzzling tractor drawing machinery aiming to pulverise the heavy clay soil into a tilth ready to receive the seeds has got to do with permaculture. One of permaculture’s ethics is peoplecare . To quote Patrick Whitefield on this subject, in his The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook For Britain & Other Temperate Climates,
“Many people consider the [ecological] problem lies with political and economic institutions and their policies, rather than the actions and feelings of individuals. But ultimately the two are the same, as society, including the big power bases within it, grows from the billions of day-to-day actions of ordinary people. We get the institutions we deserve.”
Which is to say, I think, that saving the planet begins with mutual respect and fostering good relationships in the community. I also get to understand how modern farming works and how technology, production, demand and prices all conspire to mean that Paul and his wife Christiane can afford to employ just one labourer to help manage a huge farm and are obliged to work seven days a week. In turn, he has offered to help me with our sheep fencing and the dismantling of the pigsties I told you about in the last blog. Both these favours involve the use of that huge tractor: I might be a permaculturalist but I’m not a Luddite!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Reduce, reuse, recycle. We spent yesterday morning at Caroline’s house where we’ve been dismantling an old fruit cage / pigeon house (in fact , we’re not sure what it used to be) with the express intention of recovering all the chicken-wire mesh for use in future projects, such as building more poultry housing. My dad has been a life-long hoarder of (supposedly) useful bits and bobs, which filled a garage, an attic and a junk-room (spare bedroom) before my mum eventually managed to turn the tide. Like many in his generation, this habit might have been inspired by growing up in post-World World II austerity: where things were either unaffordable or unobtainable and clever adaptation and making do were essential skills. I think that I’m a bit tidier than my dad, a quality I’m sure Gabrielle is relieved about, considering our immense capacity to store “rubbish” in two barns and acres of land.

We returned home to find our new next-door neighbour, Philippe, working in his back garden to get it ready for when he and his family move in properly at the end of June. He had a large pine tree and a dark laurel bush taking up too much room in a relatively small garden, so I put on my safety clothing and got out my chainsaw and in less than half an hour the whole lot was horizontal and logged up. We dragged the brash, what’s left, onto our land where, when we’ve got the time, we’ll chip it and use it either for pathways or, only when well rotted, as mulch. If it’s not fully rotted, it’ll rob the plants of the nitrogen they need to grow in order to decompose. And today, I’ve started helping him dismantle two pigsties to provide even more room. They are of traditional cob and stone construction and I’m swapping my labour for the stone, which we plan to use for the base of our straw-bale house build.(See before and after photos for both days’ efforts, with Gabrielle, Caroline and then Philippe)

So much for reusing and recycling, I came upon a news story on the BBC website the other day that was entitled
“Pig fat to be turned into diesel: A solution for the world's energy crisis may come in the form of a pig.” The companies are quoted as saying that their pig-fuel will be “cleaner than conventional diesel” and that it “has lower Carbon Dioxide, it is zero sulphur, so many positive benefits for the environment.” All very emotive stuff, as all selling is (as our ex-advertising exec friend, David, tells us) and whilst I can understand the companies using all the “green” words in the dictionary and singing its praises, I’m sad to see the journalists don’t challenge the idea and use such a misleading, if sensational, headline. It really doesn’t bear much analysis at all. Modern intensive farming uses huge amounts of energy. Apparently, it takes 3.5 litres of oil to produce half a kilogramme of steak (couldn’t find any piggie figures!) and it will take additional energy to render and convert pig fat into vehicle fuel. So, whilst it might prove to be an interesting by-product of agriculture, it’s certainly not the panacea claimed and the most important word in dealing with oil running out, before or after global warming gets us, is reduce (our consumption), the first of the three “Rs”, which doesn’t yet include Rendering piggies to drive your car!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I’ve loads of things to blog about and I was either going to write further about disappointments or pests or update you on our ever expanding menagerie but all that will have to wait as I bring you a Sporting News Flash on an English / French rugby match. (For our US readers, rugby is a bit like American Football but without the protective clothing).

Celine, daughter of our pig-farming neighbours Paul and Christiane, lives and works in Paris and is currently here visiting her parents. She came round for a chat the other day, with her dog, Vladimir (see photo). We showed her the permaculture garden we’ve created for our holiday cottage—complete with camomile lawn and living willow arbour and fence—and were engrossed in conversation when we saw our white hen race past very closely followed by Vladimir, all accompanied with dog growling and terrified chickeny shrieks. Our chickens are completely free to range where they will, including roaming beyond our boundaries. They’ve always been like that and it didn’t occur to us for a moment that Vladimir might cause a problem. Maybe, coming from the banlieues (suburbs) of Paris, he had a hard-man reputation to live up to or maybe he was thinking of his namesake, Vlad the Impaler or, of course, perhaps he was just doing what comes naturally to a lot of dogs.

Celine (representing the French rugby team, Les Bleus) and I set off in hot pursuit but with different “balls” to chase, me hoping to get a protective hand around our hen and Celine to tackle Vlad. Like nimble wingers, the two animals jinked aside to avoid our efforts and their rapid changes of directions had me flat on the floor more than once. Quite against the rules of rugby, whilst aiming to grab the hen, I did stick out a foot and managed to trip Vlad more than once, before Celine got a firm hand on him and I was simultaneously able to grab the hen.Vlad had removed a mouthful of feathers from her rump and although she was left rather breathless and a bit out of sorts the skin wasn’t broken . By the following morning she showed no signs of suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome, and is happily free-ranging with the rest of the flock. All of this provided exciting entertainment to our watching neighbours.

In all the time we’ve been here (a year, this coming Saturday) and been keeping chickens, we’ve only lost two out of a flock of around eight or ten birds. I’ve never found remains or signs of a fight and our Somerset smallholding friend Val says that it is therefore likely to have been a fox. We have seen foxes around but hopefully they are a little less habituated to human contact than the many urban foxes in the UK and so more fearful of approaching the houses in our hamlet. The chickens get put away in the late afternoon and not let out until it’s properly light in the morning. We’ll keep monitoring the situation, as we like to see our characterful chickens roaming where they please. We’ll also be a bit more away of people visiting with dogs, asking for them to put a lead on.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

“Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun.” Christina G. Rossetti (English poet 1830-1894)

It is always great to get a job finished, and in my experience the longer one has been thinking about a job, the greater the pleasure in getting it done. Many years ago, nearly twenty in fact (i.e., the lifespan of my daughter Christina, pictured above with quilt) I started a patchwork quilt with the help of an elderly relative. In my head it was a magnificent warm and colourful piece, luxurious with a mixture of recycled scraps of satin and velvet and backed with polar fleece. It stayed both in my dreams and in pieces in a bag, growing, very slowly every few years, but never came close to being finished.

When I came to France I found I had both the time and the inclination to complete some of these longstanding creative projects, which have been in my head for most of my adult life. It was still a bit of a struggle to keep sewing at first, as I found, like the housework, the results are great but the work itself is a bit of a drag! I persevered and despite the fact that I had no real plan and just stuck it together as I found it, it worked! And just before the depths of winter, quite magnificently I finished it.

It’s been on the bed all through the cold months and marvellous it is too! We needed the extra bedding as we have recently switched from small electric panel heaters to a wood-burning stove in the main living room. The stove is great and very cosy and stocked with our own wood is very economic and sustainable but it is a little fresh in the mornings to say the least. Normally Stuart braves it first and brings me a cup of tea in bed after lighting the fire (I love this man!) The mornings are dark and especially long in France with the sun rising at 9 am in December and as the winter draws on it becomes harder and harder to get going. However there is nothing like the dance of a real flame to warm ones toes and heart.

The quilt looks magnificent on the bed and works really well keeping us toasty warm all night so for me it’s a real work of art, both beautiful and functional. As soon as I finished it I decided I needed to make another one in a different colour and Christina has also requested one for her twenty first birthday! So I fully intend to have these quilts finished in much less time! (And to explain the timeshift: Gabrielle wrote this blog some time ago but had been waiting for her daughter to visit to take a photo as it seemed fun to illustrate the age of this "work in progress" by way of comparison. Spring is here so the mornings aren't cold any more and Gabrielle's even started making the morning tea!)

Friday, April 13, 2007

“Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes” Oscar Wilde (Irish writer 1854-1900)

We’re at home to “Mr Cock-Up” again! One the field adjacent to our house, and next to the maincrop vegetable patch (a work “in progress”) I planted three false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia, also called Black Locust) trees, a large one and two tiddlers, no more that 50cm (20inches) tall. They are nitrogen fixing (see my last blog) provide fodder for bees, drop seeds for the chickens, provide quick-growing durable hardwood and are also beautiful to look at. We’d arrived home late in the afternoon and decided to cut the grass—a job that we hope, before too long, will become unnecessary, when we’ve assembled enough grass-eating animals with fences to keep them in. Gabrielle chugged round on the sit-upon mower while I used the more precise walk-behind one. Already fearful of unwittingly mowing down one of the saplings, I took particular care to carefully cut a swathe around them before continuing. My concentration dropped for a moment and, in a flash, I spotted an un-mown tussock and rubbed the mower back and forth, so scything off one acacia just above its roots. Just how stupid can you get?

Meanwhile, Gabrielle was having technical problems with her mower and decided to stop. Already disappointed with myself and sad about the dead tree, I got the toolkit out. The second nut I tried to unscrew just spun around without undoing and, as it had a “captive bolt” which means you don’t have to put a spanner on the other bit as it’s held in place and prevented from turning (allegedly!) the solution wasn’t simple and involved getting even more tools out and me getting ever more frustrated and tired as the afternoon turned into evening and jobs weren’t getting done. When I finally got it sorted, I decided to finish the mowing so that at least one job was complete. The noise brought our neighbour Kysinia out. Also English, she’d seen that there was live football on the television and with a boyfriend and dad both avid fans, thought that I should be in front of the telly with a beer and not out cutting grass on a field: how very thoughtful. Tottenham were playing in a European cup match and, as they are arch-rivals of my team and my team have already been knocked out of Europe this season, you might understand that I wasn’t really missing anything, but it’s the thought that counts.

I told her about my mistake with the acacia and the mower and she told me she’d done exactly the same thing with a little tree in her own garden, which made me feel a lot better. Why though? The Germans have a lovely word, schadenfreude, which means taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. Now I wasn’t at all glad that Kysinia had lawn-mowered her tree but it was somehow reassuring that some other intelligent person could have made the same mistake. The following day, Nigel and Penny, currently holidaying with us in our gite, told us how they had cut down a whole row of gooseberry bushes in their orchard while cutting hay one year. Even more reassuring, as they have loads more experience of smallholding than us: the experts also get it wrong sometimes. So, whilst these tales of others misfortunes were good to hear, they are not examples of schadenfreude, whereas hearing that Tottenham had gone on to lose their match was!

Pic is of leaves and seedpods of a false acacia.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

“Who travels for love finds a thousand miles not longer than one” Japanese Proverb (allegedly!)

I’ve got into a habit of starting each blog with a quotation but I don’t think I’ll be delving into the archives of Japanese proverbs in the future, based on this example. I’ve been in England over the last week, principally to see my parents and deal with a list of odd jobs for them and, having spent plenty of time travelling by ferry and in the van, it truly feels like I’ve travelled a thousand miles. It’s good to be back and I’ve been impatient to start work here again. I can see a big difference in our five chicks and the rabbit is settling in well; the guinea fowl seem to have gone from neurotic to completely mad. (I’m a bit behind with the blog, so haven’t yet told you about these latest additions to our menagerie).

And so back to blogging with a tale of subterfuge and intrigue, perhaps even “theft” in the countryside: a foot on the spade whilst keeping an eye out for les gendarmes. This is not the tale of the “Pink Panther” or other famous diamond but rather of the lowly shrub gorse (Ulex europaeus). This prickly plant is currently brightening up the roadsides with its yellow flowers. It’s a legume, which means its roots, courtesy of bacteria-containing nodules, fix nitrogen in the soil and nitrogen, of course, is a plant fertiliser. Gorse also produces seeds, which are of interest to our chickens, and it also encourages wild birds. Not bad, for what many consider to be a weed or pest plant.

When ordering trees for our woods recently, I asked Alain if I could buy some gorse. He laughed at me and told me to just go and dig up un pied (literally, “a foot”) which I took to mean “dig some up by the roots”. Suddenly, everywhere I drove I could see loads of the stuff and was making mental notes of reasonably sized, accessible examples, with adjacent parking place. Eventually, I remembered to pack a spade… and the rest of the suspense (such as it is) relies on my guilty conscience: nervously trying to dig up a small example, with a beating heart, under the curious gaze of passing motorists whilst rehearsing my story should one of them turn out to be a French eco-policeman. I’ve dug in three plants, watered them in and am now waiting impatiently for improved soil, sated chickens and a plethora of visiting wild birds, I’ll keep you posted!