Thursday, January 29, 2009

Honey Locust, Gleditsia triacanthos: This short blog is by way of a thank you to all those who posted comments to my blog of 24th November on black and honey locust trees. There are many interesting comments, so do have a read if these trees interest you.

Permaculture is site, situation and person specific, so what’s good for someone might be a problem for somebody else. Kate, who lives in western Washington State, USA, told us that black locust trees are extremely invasive and the number one weed in her garden. On the other hand, she does admit some benefits: “They do however fix nitrogen and I am grateful to them for the wonderful soil they have left behind. They might also make a nice tree for coppicing, as the stumps sprout prolifically and the wood is very strong, rot resistant and makes great firewood.” And on the toxicity, she feeds “the leaves from the sprouts to my chickens and they love them. I haven't had any ill effects in two years of doing this, so the leaves at least are not toxic to chickens.”

Hargi, who lives in Hungary, is a fan: “here in Hungary the best honey is from black locust. Its wood is used as pole, tool handles, stakes etc, because it is relatively rot resistant, and for firewood as well.” And regarding toxicity, she told us, “the leaves of black locust tree are not toxic to rabbits (first-hand experience). The flowers can be eaten without problem, even for humans.” She also said that Honey locust is used there as a hedging plant.

A perfectly useful plant, can often be more successful in a new environment that it apparently is not adapted to. So while Japanese knotweed, gorse or black locust lives in equilibrium with other species in its homeland, it can become an invasive nuisance when it grows in another country, perhaps deliberately introduced as an ornamental. For this reason, one should be ready to question the advice in all-encompassing permaculture manuals. If the idea is that a particular shrub or tree fixes nitrogen, supplies mulch material and feeds animals, it would be better to try to identify a plant from your own country that has these properties, rather than just choose the species referred to in the book. You’re not ignoring the advice of permaculture sages, just adapting it.

We’ve already planted several black locusts on our own permaculture smallholding and have just been given a honey locust by our farming neighbours, Paul and Christiane. That’s been planted in our nascent chicken forage system, designed by our recent volunteer, David (more on that soon).

Photos from top: Honey locust tree, its seed pod, its thorns.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I'm typing this blog in my parent’s house in England, a post-Christmas trip to see family and friends. It‘s Gabrielle‘s turn to look after all animals. She's only just returned home from doing the same thing: it's like that when you have livestock.

Last spring, three male lambs were born to our three ewes—one each is normal for the Ouessant breed—and we bought another two ewes, one with her lamb. Because they’re such a small breed, if we took the lambs for meat after six months, I think we’d have something not much larger than a rabbit. So, they’ve been left to grow on into their second year. A lamb is only a lamb for a year and then, it becomes a hogget. We plan to take one every three months, to provide us with meat throughout this year. And, all being well, we’re expecting another four lambs soon.

If you’ve added up all our ewes, you might be asking why we’re not expecting five lambs. Towards the end of the summer, the eldest ewe came down with mastitis. With the considerable and generous help of our vet, the wonderful Dr Hamadi Mouhli, she survived the illness but lost her udder. Although it became gangrenous, which sounds awful, the body isolated the offending item, which then dried up and fell off, several months later. So, she didn’t run with the ram this year.
The photo shows her during her illness, with attendant carer. At first, we isolated her, until we were told it wasn’t contagious. When we reintroduced the rest of the flock, the ram apparently sensed her distress, staying by her side for several days … touching.

She’s an old girl and is now missing some front teeth, what’s known as broken mouthed. Teeth are important to a grazing sheep; to some extent you can age a sheep by its teeth. If a sheep lives to old age, it will eventually lose too many teeth and starve. We’re pleased we managed to nurse her through her illness but now, for this old girl, her time was up. I asked Bernard, our kindly “retired” boucher de campagne (an itinerant slaughter man and butcher) to help, along with a new friend of ours, Paddy, who used to run hundreds of sheep over the Cumbrian fells. We slaughtered the biggest hogget and the old girl. As they’re used to me handling them, that it was done on the premises and that I used a captive bolt humane stunner, they really didn’t know anything about it. I’ve watched Bernard at work a few times but this time, under his guidance, I then bled, skinned and gutted the carcasses.

One part of the process that’s been a mystery, then an impossibility, is hanging the meat before butchery. I recently found this page, which explains very clearly the why’s and wherefore’s of hanging meat. The impossible part is that we don’t have a suitably large fridge, until recently: the cold snap has turned our un-insulated workshop into that large fridge! I suspended both carcasses and put a thermometer next to them to ensure the ambient temperature remained below 4°C. The hogget hung for four days and the mutton for a week.

With mutton now on the menu, we’re in good company: HRH Prince Charles is campaigning to reintroduce us to the pleasures of eating mutton, “to support British sheep farmers who were struggling to sell their older animals, and to get this delicious meat back on the nation’s plates. From the photo below, it seems that good quality mutton is not the only thing he enjoys getting his hands on!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Winter work to warm you: Although a tropical beach is a delightful image to warm the cockles of your heart I really do like the changing of the four seasons that we get with a temperate climate. The least favourite part of my winter day is dragging myself out of the warm cocoon that is the marital bed, to do the morning rounds of the animals. However, wrapped up in good clothing (including a somewhat rustic Russian-style hat that Gabrielle's made for me out of home-made felt and rabbit skin) with a bit of winter sun and some work to do, a winter's day does have its charms. There are certain jobs that are specifically winter jobs.

One of these is cutting deciduous trees. During the winter, the energy of the tree descends into its roots and hence all the leaves drop off it. You can cut the whole tree down and yet not kill it. In the spring it will re-grow from the stump; this process is called coppicing. You can do the same thing higher up the trunk, above grazing animals’ head height, for example, called pollarding. Another reason for cutting during the winter is that there is much less sap in the wood, so logs cut for firewood season (dry out) much quicker.

Our 11 acres of woodland used to be fields of pasture and has been planted up between 15 and 25 years ago but never then maintained and needs several winter seasons of selective cutting to knock it into shape. I cut a woodland ride last year to create some access where there had been none before, not so clever when we have trailerfuls of logs to bring out but with only space for a wheelbarrow. This year, we’re working on a woodland walk through an area of mixed oak and wild cherry and thinning a plot of sycamore.

Expert woodsmen from two French organisations that help and govern owners of woodlands advised us that sycamore is not suited to growing in monoculture plantations and that our soil, heavy clay, which stays very moist in the winter is also not ideal. With this in mind, we cleared a third of an acre and replanted with other species in our first winter but, since reading a fact sheet
on sycamore published by Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust, we’ve decided to try to thin a plot and see how the trees that are left standing fare. He writes: “Mature [sycamore] trees will die rapidly if their crowns are not kept free and open … Thinning should start by the time the trees reach 10 m (32 ft) high, sooner on fertile sights. Thinning should be undertaken every 5-6 years thereafter."

The technique, as explained by the French woodsmen, is to choose a tree you like the look of (strong straight stem, without forking, for final harvesting for timber) and mark it as a keeper. Then chop down the tree that’s bothering it at canopy level. Then choose another keeper about 6 metres (20 ft) away, removing its most troublesome neighbour and so on. That way you don’t cut too many trees down at once, which would leave the remaining trees vulnerable to strong winds before their root systems have had time to adapt to the new situation. In the photo at top, the green rings are trees to keep and the red crosses are for the chop.

Another winter job involves spreading straw on top of the strawberry patch and setting light to it. Apparently, this is recommend by Joy Larkcom (of Grow Your Own Vegetables fame) but as Gabrielle is currently in England seeing friends and family, I haven’t the detail. It certainly looked impressive, see photo below.

Lastly, and nothing whatsoever to do with permaculture, I couldn’t resist showing you this picture of a skier in the USA who got into some difficulties on a chairlift. He was like that for about 7 minutes before being rescued; read more about it here.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Smells of summer: Brrrr, it’s cold here: down to minus 6ºC last night, and you might think that thoughts of summer are far from my mind, especially when I reluctantly drag myself out of a cosy bed to do the morning rounds, feeding our animals and thawing their drinking water. No so. When I have my face in a ball of hay—see the photo above—I can smell the summer sunshine. What I’ve come to understand, over the two and a half years we’ve been keeping animals, is that animals are solar powered.

Grass can be deceptive, until you start to think in solar energy terms. According to the law of conservation of energy, energy is neither created nor destroyed but can only be transformed from one form to another. For example, when you drive a car, you burn chemical energy (petrol / gas) which turns into motion energy, then when you brake, it turns into heat.

Back to grass: in the height of summer, it doesn’t grow very quickly, looks a bit dry but (we now realise) is very rich in nutrients. Par contre, in winter, it’s lush and green but is not nearly so nutritious for the animals … and that’s all to do with the sun that it receives: more sun = more food energy in the grass and vice-versa.

Hay is dried grass, cut in early summer. Getting the best out of the hay is a complex issue. The grass needs to be cut when the leaves are fully developed but before it sets seed and the weather is really important too. After it’s cut, it needs to dry in the field before being baled, so farmers keep a close eye on the weather forecast to try and time it just right. These are the subtleties and savoir faire (know how) of the countryside that we’re only beginning to understand through observation and experience.

We asked farming neighbour Paul to cut a small field of hay (see photo) during our first summer but (as he’s a pig farmer, so doesn’t use hay himself and hasn’t got the attachment for his tractor to do the job mechanically) I then had to turn it by hand over a couple of days to help it dry in the sun. I have mild hay fever but you might imagine, that lifting, shaking and turning forkfuls of the stuff on a hot summer’s day, I was soon sneezing continuously and my eyes running with tears. It became futile to blow my nose and wipe up, so I looked a right snotty mess as I slowly progressed around the field, roaring and trumpeting away. The next photo shows the venerable Annick inspecting the hay to tell me whether it was ready to bale, followed by a retired farmer, Robert, harvesting it into small, human-scale bales, literally baling up the summer.

I’m no expert, but as I unpack these small bales, or unravel the huge round bales that we bought last summer, I check its quality, looking for any mould, removing twiggy bits and burying my nose in it to smell. No sneezes this time; good hay smells delightful and has a real grassy sweetness to it. The sheep then appear to sort it further or perhaps they’re just messy eaters, as they spread it around below the hayrack.

Over the next couple of blogs, I’ll bring you up to date with some other winter jobs, including burning straw over the strawberry patch and working in our woodland: thinning a plot of sycamore for next winter’s firewood, letting some young oaks breathe and creating a woodland walk.