Friday, June 27, 2008

Comfrey – Part 2 or perhaps even 3? Yesterday, I promised to post instructions on how to propagate comfrey and make comfrey tea. Drawing heavily on the excellent booklet Comfrey for Gardeners published by and available from Garden Organic (Henry Doubleday Research Association) here we go:

I bought my “Bocking 14” Russian comfrey several years ago from Ragmans Lane Farm in Gloucestershire, England. Scarlet posted a comment yesterday to tell me that they’ve stopped selling it … shame. It’s important that you are sure that the comfrey you are getting is this variety, especially if someone is kindly giving you some, as Bocking 14 won’t spread all around your garden, unlike wild comfrey. I digress … I bought root cuttings about 5 cm (2 inches) long which I buried in the garden in the net bag I had them in (to preserve them) then dug them up a couple of months later to take to France. They got moved twice more and we currently very healthy bed of comfrey plants. Whilst Bocking 14 might not spread, it’s almost impossible to lift a plant completely: invariably you’ll leave a segment of root behind, which will regenerate. So, you need to choose where you want your permanent comfrey bed. Simply plant your root cuttings just below the surface, water them in and wait (you can mulch them with cardboard, as we've done here, see photo). One extra tip, use some anti-slug and snail strategies until the plants get up and going, as these gastropods really like comfrey (another of its uses to place cut leaves around plants as a slug barrier, as the slugs will go for the comfrey, in preference).

Digression upon digression, sorry! My preferred method of propagating comfrey once you have established plants (at least a year old) is to lift the whole plant and divide it into offsets and cuttings (see photo: offsets at the top, cuttings below) and then plant these as you did with your original cuttings, and don’t forget to put one bit back in the hole where you lifted the original plant from.

Making comfrey tea – liquid concentrate. I think that the video explains this, this photo shows the plastic dustbin full of leaves which reduces to the goo in the video, don't add water. Dilute to use, 20 water to 1 comfrey juice (by volume) when it’s thick and black or 10:1 if it’s thinner and brown in colour.

For further ways of propagating comfrey, making comfrey tea and other ways of using comfrey, buy the cheap booklet Comfrey for Gardeners.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

It’s been over a week since I last posted, whatever has been happening? A visit from venerable parents, putting the final touches to a complete re-write of the website for our holiday gite and building a new set of stairs out of some reclaimed wood (more on that soon).

Oh, and a silly football competition called Euro 2008, which our baker (boulanger) Jacky, and even more so his son Alexi, have been ribbing me about for ages because England didn’t even qualify. The French got knocked out in the first round, which could have meant I was living in “Gloat-ville” but, do you know, I’m really not that sort of guy. In fact it was just like supporting my own national team in that they promise a lot, then let you down. So I supported the Dutch, who play in a snazzy orange strip and they promised loads then got beat by the Ruskies, quelle tristesse! What a load of old nonsense and no excuse at all for delaying telling you, via your favourite permaculture blog, everything you ever wanted to know about Comfrey, but were afraid to ask.

Why comfrey? Have you ever wondered why useful plants are usually delicate creatures, yet weeds just thrive, without any care at all, and pondered wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was such a thing as a useful weed? Comfrey is it. Its deep tap roots mine the soil of nutrients, filling its leaves with minerals such as the holy trinity of plant food, nitrogen, and phosphorous and potassium, along with calcium and iron. It remains only to harvest it and make a comfrey “tea” (concentrate) to use as a plant food, use it as a mulch and even feed it to animals.

Which comfrey? Wild comfrey (Symphytum officianale) will spread … like a weed. So you should use the “Bocking 14” cultivar (Symphytum x uplandicum) of Russian comfrey, which contains more of the useful minerals whilst producing almost no viable seed, so it stays where you put it (rather than spreading everywhere and taking over).

When and how to cut comfrey? Use ordinary hedge trimming shears and chop it off 5cm (2 inches) above the ground. Think about wearing gloves as the bristles can irritate your skin. Cut in spring, when the plants are around 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop. Once the plant is well established—I’d give the plant a year to settle in before you start harvesting leaves—cut every time the plant reaches 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop and you should get several cuts a season. At the end of summer, stop cutting, letting the plant grow on and build up its strength to see winter through.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you how to propagate comfrey (remember, Bocking 14 doesn’t produce seed) and how to make comfrey tea. A big mention for the excellent booklet Comfrey for Gardeners published by Garden Organic (Henry Doubleday Research Association).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

“As the soil, however rich it maybe, cannot be productive without cultivation, so the mind without culture can never produce good fruit.” Seneca (Roman Philosopher, mid-1st century AD).

Wise words, echoed, in Patrick Whitefield’s explanation of the word “permaculture”: “Although permaculture started out a permanent agriculture, the principles on which is is based can be applied to anything we do, and now it is thought of as permanent culture.” Permaculture in a Nutshell, p 3.

So, leaving agriculture behind us for an hour or so, out of our working clothes and in our Sunday best, we took a trip up to the local bar / bakery (boulangerie) to dispense a bit of culture. Gabrielle with her violin and our friend Alastair and his guitar were invited by Jacky and Danielle to play in their bar. It was a great success (see video at top) and served as a good preparation for Gabrielle and Alastair, who are playing in Medreac this coming Saturday, participating in the countrywide Fête de la Musique.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

No-dig, raised vegetable beds. One of the reasons I was recently helping Paul, our pig-farming neighbour by driving a tractor is because it’s been unseasonably wet this spring and so the heavy clay soil around here has remained too sodden to work in preparation for sowing his maize (corn) as animal fodder. Other farmers that managed to get their seeds in the ground earlier, have watched some of their seedlings rot and will have to re-sow. Bearing in mind that we’re now well into June, as soon as the opportunity arose, it was all available hands on deck to try to get the seed into the ground.

I keep a record of our weather, with a simple rainguage and a maximum / minimum thermometer. We “should” have had 58 mm (2 1/4 ins) of rain in May; we actually had 139 mm (5 1/2 ins). Since January, we should have had an average of 323 mm (12 1/2 ins) whereas we actually got doused by 463 mm (over 18 ins); pass the snorkel, please.

Just a year ago, we created our raised bed vegetable garden. There were many reasons why we chose that form of laying out our vegetables but, as with most things in life, there are ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’. Joy Larkcom says that raised beds “offer a means of overcoming fundamental problems such as chronically bad drainage … [They] have good drainage and warm up quickly in spring. However, the sides are exposed to sun and wind and dry out rapidly–a factor to consider in areas of low rainfall”. (Grow Your Own Vegetables p. 23)

Luckily for us, the raised bed system has saved our vegetable production from being drowned, although on a few days, our potager resembled Venice. We hope that a heavy mulch will prevent drying out as we get into summer, and I’ve now piped in a tap, fed from our rainwater catchment system for any watering that we my need to do.

Can you think of Venice without having an instant Pavlovian desire for a conical ice-cream? For those who can’t, all together now:
“Just one Cornetto,
give it to me,
delicious ice-cream, of Italy,
vanilla and strawberry dream,
Give me Cornetto,
from Wall’s Ice Cream.

I couldn’t find the advert I wanted to illustrate my blog but I did find this funny video of someone’s dad giving it all, tenor-wise.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

David, a friend I met at university some ten years ago, and from our old home town of Brighton, has just come to stay for a few days. That's him with the green hat standing under the blue arrow buying a large slice of reassuringly expensive cheese. We invited him to write a guest blog, over to you, David:

Although I’ve visited Brittany twice before, I was struck by how verdant the countryside is: A broad-brush landscape executed in every shade of green. Woods and fields dotted with small hamlets. Long, empty, country roads. Huge skies.

I arrive chez Stuart et Gabrielle for the first time. Leur petit hameau est trop chouette! [literally, their little hamlet is too owl, the word for owl also meaning “great”, ed.] Being a friend and an avid reader of their blog, I know all the triumphs and failures they have experienced since settling here and so thought I would find myself somewhere very familiar.

To an extent, I was. However, when walking around their permaculture smallholding, I realised I’d had no real conception of where everything lay in relationship to each other. Stuart’s descriptions, his pictures and videos, of sheep being sheared, goats climbing Palet Mountain, pigs cleared for take-off etc., hadn’t given me a real notion of the topography.

So, I took it upon myself to create a map. It is somewhat naïve in execution, not totally accurate in depiction and wildly out in proportion but it will, I hope, give readers a sense of location when following the further adventures of Stuart and Gabrielle – Permaculture Agriculteurs Incroyables.

Much as a radio DJ invites a caller to dedicate their chosen record to someone, I shall take the opportunity, as a proud father and grandfather, to dedicate this blog to my younger daughter Emily, who gave birth to her second daughter the day before I left for my holiday. So love and congratulations to Emily, Danny and Amy, who’s now got a bonny sister!

Click on the image on the right, under "About Us" to get a bigger version.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

How is food our produced? The video at the top shows me helping out our good neighbour Paul, who’s been desperate to sow his maize (pig fodder) and been prevented by unseasonably wet (three times the average rainfall) weather.

A good friend of ours, who’s a farmer somewhere in Southern England, went on a Permaculture Design Course last year. How refreshing, that an established agriculturalist is open to perhaps learning some new ways of looking at things. Sadly, her three instructors weren’t similarly open to learning from her. They were vegetarian / vegan people who apparently refused to entertain the place of animals in permaculture systems as food items and took any available opportunity to have a go at conventional farmers, who were thus labelled as “the enemy”: in my opinion, a ridiculous point of view. Farmers are subject—like all of us that haven’t been born into money or won the lottery—to economic constraints.

(Watch the video at the top to see why I've included this pic of Jimmy Cliff!)
Personally, I don’t like the idea of chickens being factory farmed—especially as we are privileged to have the opportunity to have the land and the situation to let ours roam freely and also not have to earn our living from it—but I don’t think that farmers that factory-farm chickens are inherently evil. They are subject to unbelievable pressures from the supermarkets, who want to offer an over-ready chicken for just £2.50 (3€ / $5) and that’s the only way the farmers can provide the meat for that price and stay in business. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is currently conducting a campaign in the UK to try and get consumers to change their buying habits and so change the way chickens are raised; it has to change from the consumers first, rather than the producers.

Basically that means choosing to pay more for your food, precisely at the time that there is a global food crisis with prices of oil and food skyrocketing. The poor, whether in Europe or in lesser-developed countries, are the first to suffer. Back to me in the field: Paul and his wife employ just one farm labourer to help them look after about 100 sows plus their numerous offspring and produce the cereals to feed them. They are honest people, working unfeasibly hard for slim rewards and a broken tractor or a succession of rainy days, is a heavy burden.

I see it as a real privilege that I have the opportunity to see at first hand how food is produced and why this permaculturalist (me) will defend and support our industrial-farming neighbours. If you want to make a difference, you need to start paying more—proportional to your overall outgoings—for your food … sorry. This is a complex subject and I’d like to hear your views: please post a comment. The video below was taken at around 7.30 in the evening.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Permaculture for Animals. I enjoy writing this blog; in fact, I enjoy the process of writing and I aspire, someday, to write a book. Recently, I’ve been thinking that there is a large hole in the market, ready for a book about permaculture written specifically for animals.

What do I mean? Well here are two examples of animals not really getting the point of permaculture. First off, our chickens: they’re free-range and, it would be fair to say, they take full advantage of this and range freely. Consider our new rose beds. Made from some recycled hardwood boards supplied by neighbour Serge and planted up with very English hybrid tea roses—colour, scent, edible petals, soap-making, etc.—companion planted with violas—pretty, also with edible flowers, which give a mixed salad a really special touch. Add a permaculture mulch of cocoa shells, a by-product of chocolate production, and a doesn’t-need-mowing path of chamomile, sit back, pour yourself a glass of wine and reflect what a great permaculturist you are. Then introduce a peep of permacultural hens. (And that is a genuine collective noun for chickens!) Watch the top video and you can see what a disaster it was for us. We’ve had to lay a horizontal mesh which prevents the chickens from scratching the mulch away but doesn’t stop them eating the edible viola flowers.

My second example is our using the ubiquitous comfrey as animal fodder. Its deep tap roots mine the soil of nutrients, filling its leaves with minerals such as potassium, calcium, iron and phosphorous. It’s a real permaculture plant but, if you cultivate comfrey, you should use the “Bocking 14” cultivar of Russian comfrey, which is very productive whilst producing almost no viable seed, so it stays where you put it (rather than spreading everywhere and taking over). The Bocking 4 variety (which I’m still trying to get hold of) is recommended for animal fodder. We’ve got an established comfrey patch. The chickens peck at it en passant, a sort of “Drive-Thru” eatery, and Bunny Lapine scoffs it, so I recently thought I try out our pigs and goats on it. Watch the second video to get a flavour of the results of our taste test: “four out of five goats, who expressed a preference, preferred …

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.” Douglas Adams, author of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1952—2001.

Last blog, I’d just returned a tractor I’d borrowed to Paul, our pig-farming neighbour. If you want to catch Paul in, either before (when you’ll be invited to drink a glass of aniseed-tasting Pastis) or after lunch (when you’ll be invited in for a coffee) is usually reliable. The amount of wood we had to unload meant that at 2pm I hadn’t actually eaten, so I really wanted to just drop off the tractor and come straight home for lunch. It’s not easy to decline their hospitality but they have also got used to our English quirks—including morning and afternoon “tea breaks” which are as sacrosanct to us as the noon–2pm window of lunchtime opportunity is to a Frenchman—so would put down the fact that I hadn't yet eaten to my English eccentricities.

In fact, I found Paul not relaxing over a coffee but fretting over a second broken-down tractor. Paul has three tractors, the venerable Massey Ferguson, which I’d just returned, and two John Deere behemoths, about three times the size of the Massey. One JD had cracked an exhaust and the hot gases had melted lots of expensive plastic components so it needed more than an new exhaust. The second one had been overheating in the field and the mechanic-on-the-end-of-a-phone had suggested that he change the oil filter as a first, “easy” attempt to solve the problem. If you have ever successfully changed a screw-on cartridge oil filter on your car you’ll know how easy it is, so simple that it cannot possibly go wrong: I refer you to the quote at the top.

I’m not the type of bloke who can borrow a man’s tractor and, when returning it and finding him in a pickle, can say, “cheers for the borrow, best of luck with your problem” and just walk away, so, there I was, hungry, on my back, staring at the most inaccessible oil filter that now had a rounded off, previously square, hole where one is meant to insert a socket extension and unwind the ****ing thing. After three quarters of an hour, Paul sent me home to eat something and I returned half an hour later to find us no further forward. Philippe, carpenter, joiner and all-round general handyman had joined us and there we stayed until 6.30pm until, through mechanical Anglo-French cooperation and heralded by cheering and clapping of hands, the filter unscrewed.

Neither of them had seen the film Apollo 13, so I tried to explain how three men had to deal with a mechanical problem, much as we had, but crammed into the equivalent of the tractor’s cab and thousands of miles from Planet Earth and its delicious oxygen. Considering Philippe’s flatulence, I think it might have tested our friendship.

Whilst the top photo shows three happy, smiling, brothers-in-arms (L-R: me, Paul then Philippe) the reality was that Paul had lost a complete sunny day’s work on the farm, which, especially with the abnormally wet weather we’re having, is critical. Living here in the countryside I’m understanding more and more how our food is produced, how hard the farmers work and how thin their margins are. Never thought you’d find a defence of the industrial farmer on a permaculture blog, eh? More on that later …

Next blog: all you ever wanted to know about comfrey as permaculture animal fodder.