Friday, December 26, 2008

Winter Greens : A few years back, during a guided trip around the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales, the head gardener, Roger, proudly told us that he was able to put green salad leaves on the table for the staff and volunteers every day of the year. It is with similar swelling of my breast that I can tell you that the head gardener here, Gabrielle, is accomplishing a similar feat, conjuring up a variety of fresh salad leaves and winter greens.

Back in a warmer and sunnier July, Richard and Leigh came to stay in our gite. Showing them around, we approached the vegetable garden and I asked them whether they grew any vegetables. In the quiet, modest way he talks, Richard told me that he’d had an allotment for nearly 30 years (the photo below, sent to us by Leigh, show’s Richard in his allotment in Sussex). Humility is a wonderful human quality and I slipped seamlessly from talking mode into listening mode. He surveyed our raised bed system, asking questions to which I didn’t have the answer: this is Gabrielle’s domain. A day or so later, he gave Gabrielle a few packets of seeds that he’d saved from his allotment, plants that he found particularly useful over the years. He also sent some more to us once they’d returned home.

Richard gave us:
◊ “Green in Snow”—what a great name for a winter green—its Latin name is brassica juncea var. multiceps and, in Chinese, it’s xue li hong. It’s an Oriental mustard, a very vigorous, hardy and fast-growing winter green; young leaves are pleasantly spicy in salads but the more mature leaves can become a overpowering raw, while remaining useful if cooked, in a stir fry, for example.
◊ “Giant Red Mustard”, another Oriental mustard, in Latin, brassica juncea var. rugosa and aka taka-na
in Japanese. It’s a large and prolific plant that can be harvested in the winter but will grow faster in warmer weather. Use the leaves as for the other mustard.
◊ “Ragged Jack” kale, also known as red Russian kale (brassica oleracea acephala. From what I’ve read (this is our first season with it) the plants won’t keep growing all winter, although the plant should over-winter; we’re still cropping ours for the moment. It has a milder, sweeter flavour, in contrast to the peppery mustards and can be used in salad or boiled greens.
◊ Polycress (lepidium sativum) is a quick-growing cress and not, in fairness, a winter green, as such. We’re still cropping it but it is coming to an end.
◊ Land cress, also known as American cress (barbarea verna) which can be used in salad as ordinary cress or cooked, like spinach. It’s a hardy biennial, meaning it takes two years to complete it’s lifecycle. Therefore, it overwinters and, apparently with the aid of a cloche, will provide winter leaves. We don’t have a cloche but are still cropping.
And a couple that we had ourselves:
◊ Rouge d’hiver lettuce (Lactuca sativa) an old French strain of lettuce with a sweet, mild flavour, which is very frost tolerant.
◊ Perpetual spinach, which is not, in fact a spinach but rather part of the beet family, hence its other name, “spinach beet” (beta vulgaris cicla). A cut-and-come-again self-seeding, biennial. These two qualities together could confuse you into thinking it was a perennial (perennial = permaculture gold stars) it certainly acts that way. It was my veg-of-the-year last year, as we had a small slab of it, about 2 foot (60 cm) by 2 foot square, which kept us in fresh spinach-like leaves all summer. We are still cropping this although new leaf production has slowed.

So, thanks Richard, for pointing us in the right direction and supplying some seeds. We look forward to learning of other plants to add to our current winter collection. Mentions due to Joy Larkcom’s Oriental Vegetables and Ken Fern’s Plants for a Future book and Internet database.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Prescient programming : Last week, Thursday evening revolved around the television, to the exclusion of all else: not an admission you might expect on a permaculture blog? It was definitely culture though, the denouement of the BBC’s excellent serialised adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, Little Dorrit. In brief, it's about reversals of fortune and how characters cope with both poverty and wealth. The episode began with the sudden collapse of Mr Merdle’s bank, leaving the thousands of people who invested in him facing financial ruin. It was set around 1855–57; in December 2008, we learn of the fall of another financial empire, not of the fictional Merdle but rather a very-much-real-life Madoff and his fraud of around $50 billion, leaving some rich clients penniless. A case symptomatic of the recent catastrophic near collapse of the global capitalist system.

I think it would be right to say that Gabrielle and I inhabit the middle classes. Normally, we read of bad news but don’t directly suffer: there exists a comfort zone between bad news and personal experience. On Wednesday, following days of a fair ski-slope of a decent in the value of the pound, I clicked on the website I habitually use to keep an eye on the £ / € rate to find it had tumbled a further 3% during the day. (Our revenues, including renting out our holiday cottage, come in £s.) So it is beginning to hurt. I’m not asking for any sympathy nor beating my breasts but I’ve found the experience rather sobering and instructive.

Cushioned from the stark realities, many middle class greenies—which includes us— are encouraged to believe that we can consume our way to a better world: Buy Fair Trade coffee. Buy organic bananas. Maybe even justify a long-haul flight on the basis that it’s eco-tourism. But, you know, that really isn’t the answer, whatever it is that we buy. You’ll be familiar with the eco-mantra “reduce, REUSE, RECYCLE” but, I suggest, we forget too easily the first and most important of these: REDUCE.

David Holmgren, co-originator of the permaculture concept, has it as “refuse, reduce, reuse, repair and recycle” (Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, p 112). Now I don’t profess to really understand how Capitalism functions but it does seem to be predicated on consumption and growth—implying accelerating consumption. To quote Holmgren further:
The industrial processes that support modern life can be characterised by an input–output model, in which the inputs are natural materials and energy while the outputs are useful things and services. However, when we step back from this process and take a long-term view, we can see all these useful things end up as wastes (mostly in rubbish tips) and that even the most ethereal of services required the degradation of energy and resources to wastes. This model might be better characterised as “consume–excrete”. The view of people as simply consumers and excreters might be biological, but it is not ecological.

So we now have an extra incentive to reconsider our consumption. While I’ve got my head in Holmgren’s book, Gabrielle is currently studying Rob Hoskins’ The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience”. She’s been shocked by what she’s read and has moved from someone who thought she was pretty aware about climate change and peak oil to someone who is in no doubt of the situation, the challenges that face us and the need to take action. We’ve agreed to swap books when we come to the end and I’ll write again on the subject when I’ve read it.

Next blog, I’ll tell you how Gabrielle is still putting fresh green leaves-either as salad or cooked—on the table, two days before the winter solstice.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Oh Deer! A very strange thing happened to me a couple of Sundays ago. Gabrielle was out and I was up on our barn roof, laying slates (renovating the barn into a new gite) when I heard a noise from the sheep paddock below. There, we have four (castrated) male lambs born this year and an elderly ewe—who can’t have any more lambs and so can’t run with the ram. It’s not unusual for the boys to be boys—despite being disconnected from their testicles—and charge each other, clashing heads with something between a “clack” and a “crump". I assumed that was what it was but stopped slating and turned to look anyhow.

What I saw wasn’t two little boy lambs in a testosterone-style stand-off but all five sheep standing together, as sheep are want to do, staring at something else … and then I saw it, a flash of russet brown running headlong into the sheep netting (that’s the metre-high galvanised wire mesh fencing that encircles the field). It got up and raced off again, before piling in once more to this barrier, either invisible or incomprehensible to it. It was a chevreuil (roe deer - like the one in the photo above) that had obviously leapt the fence to get in but couldn’t now work out that it had to do the same to exit and was clearly becoming more distressed and disoriented by the second. I got off the roof as quick as I could and ran into the field.

The deer continued in its unsuccessful and painful attempts and I realised I had to do something. I opened the gate to the field and calmly walked behind the deer, arms outstretched, in the hope that it would tend to go away from me, towards the open gate. This didn’t work and I realised that the deer really would hurt itself soon if I didn’t do something a little more proactive. I tried shepherding it into a corner and, after a particularly heavy impact into the fence, which left it stunned, I threw myself headlong upon it, arms wide and managed to grab it, encircling its legs with my arms and holding it tight to me.

Have you ever been in a situation where you do something, because you thought it was the right thing to do, but now you’re left holding the baby, so to speak, and you haven’t a clue what to do? It was one of those moments, with bells on. Wildlife is something you observe at a distance, perhaps with the aid of binoculars. I had a live roe deer in my arms, about the size of a large Labrador dog, panting heavily, heart racing and a bit bloody around the mouth. I do remember thinking how beautifully soft the coat was. I looked up at the countryside beyond the sheep paddock and saw a couple of hunters, guns over their arms, with their dogs some way in the distance but clearly looking at me. Even if they weren’t specifically hunting for deer, it would have been them that spooked the deer into jumping into our field. So I made my way out of the sheep paddock in the opposite direction, having to squeeze past my scaffolding, deer in arms, all the time wondering what to do. When I got to the end of the lane, I turned right, walking through a neighbour’s garden until I could release it into the valley below. It bounded energetically out of view, so I assume it wasn't that badly hurt.

Sorry I didn’t get any photos of what was an amazing experience but I had my hands rather full! Next blog: what have Charles Dickens, Capitalism and Permaculture got to do with each other?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Permaculture Zones :
With so much going on, and so much to do, I’m sometimes guilty of not following up on a project or experiment I’ve started, which can lead to a disappointing conclusion. An example from this summer is my attempt to propagate some dwarf box hedging plants (Buxus sempervirens "Suffruticosa") from cuttings, the idea being to make a knot garden, filled with herbs some years hence. (photo ref) I took advice from the nurseryman who sold me the original plants, I read instructions in Peter Thompson’s book, Creative Propagation and I took care in taking the cuttings and planting them in two pots of differing media, covered them with tented polythene bags—which act like mini-greenhouses and keep the moisture in—left them in the polytunnel … and promptly completely forgot about them.

Zoning is one of your permaculture basics, David Holmgren describes them thus: “Permaculture zones are more-or-less concentric areas of intensity of use … The closer to the centre [i.e., the dwelling], the more efficient and intensive is our use of the land; the further away we go, the more or less we must rely on self-maintaining elements that require little input from us …” (Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability p 138). So, you plant your herbs by the kitchen door, your annual salad leaves not much further—so you walk past them often and notice when they need watering or cropping—and your fruit orchard much further away. The explanatory diagrams in some permaculture books look as neat, as regular and as organised as the photo of the beautiful knot garden above but even David Holmgren, co-originator or the permaculture concept, accepts that one has to compromise “due to the nature of the site and effects of title boundaries.” (ibid.) It's the idea that's important.

So you have already worked out the answer to my problem, or problems more like: having too many things on the go and a short-term memory already fading as middle age takes hold … now what was I saying? Adapting the zoning idea, I need to put important stuff along the paths I regularly walk, which is why you see me inspecting a Prosciutto-style ham hanging above an oft-used route, drying in the winter air. The ham has already spent a month in a brine of salty water, flavoured with apple juice, cider, sugar, juniper berries, bay leaves, cloves and black peppercorns and must now slowly dry over the next few months, before we can pare off tasty slices to eat with next summer's tomatoes and melons. It’s all a bit touch-and-go though, as if it’s too humid (winter in Northern France!) the meat could go rotten, yet if it dries too quickly, the dry surface locks in a wet middle, which goes rotten. When we tried it last year, we were told by more than one French friend that this was not possible in Brittany. Happily we proved them wrong, see photo of last year’s ham. The point of all this is that vigilant surveillance is what’s needed, hence all the chat about zones …