Monday, April 27, 2009

"A lot of people are up from the city and they're not used to critters." Craig Coon,
Nuisance Wildlife Expert (pest controller) from Saratoga Springs, NY.

In my experience, women seem to have the incredibly efficient capacity to competently deal with more than one thing at the same time; were it so for us men. Forever burdened, like Sisyphus,with our “List-of-Things-to-Do”, I can become quite entrenched in a single-minded sort of way and sensitive to any suggestion that I must attend to something else. So it was when Gabrielle recently disturbed my concentration to tell me we had an infestation of flea beetles on our oriental salad Green-in-Snow, who’d chewed unsightly pinprick holes in the leaves. "Pesky darn critters, disturbin’ muh day." Go away and look it up, I probably said. The RHS book Pests and Diseases—which, I have to say, has never proved desperately helpful—said that we could kill them with Derris. As I believed that Derris is permitted in organic gardening, I temporarily, and oh-so-easily, forgot my permaculture principles and was keen to instantly solve our problem.

A short digression to explain that Derris, along with other plant-derived-organic-gardening-approved chemicals aren’t necessarily benign. In fact Derris, used by gardeners since the mid-19th Century, is due to be banned this year. HarrodHorticultural’s website explains: “Rotenone - the active ingredient obtained from the crushed root of the derris tree - has been linked to the progressive brain disorder Parkinson's disease, and a subsequent investigation by the Pesticide Safety Directive has led to the decision to withdraw all derris-based sprays and powders.”
My dad has Parkinson’s.

The book did also say that affected plants should be watered during dry spells, which we’ve just had. This is a permaculture approach: understand the issues, observe and then help the ecosystem to rebalance. Bob Flowerdew’s Organic Bible: Successful Gardening the Natural Way was more helpful. Flea beetles, when disturbed by a sticky card waved just above the plant, jump and get stuck. Gabrielle caught two by this method. Laying on various leaves of plants such as mint, wormwood, elderberry and pieces of tomato plant apparently deters the pesky perforators. We have several elderberries vigorously growing and Gabrielle laid a few leaves over one of the affected plants (see photo) leaving one plant unprotected as a control (other photo). Bear in mind that the treated plant had already suffered some damage, you can clearly see the difference the elderberry leaves make. With a bit of forward planning, an even better solution presents itself (also courtesy of pony-tailed Bob) interplanting with lettuce or spinach. I feel embarrassed at how quickly I was prepared to forget my principles; it won’t happen again …

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Permaculture swales : Part 2
In Part 1, I explained why we needed a swale and how we surveyed it. A swale is a horizontal water-harvesting ditch that follows the contour of the land. To dig it, you excavate topsoil and deposit it on the down-slope side of the swale. During heavy rain, water tends to run over the land, rather than soaking in, but the swale arrests its progress and helps it to soak into the land, which then holds that water like a sponge: we’re effectively storing rainwater underground.

In all the information I read through in books and on the Internet, I couldn’t find any calculation or other guidance to size our single swale. What’s really important is that it never overflows: as the bank is topsoil, rather than the compacted subsoil of a dam, any breech would allow water to quickly carve a big hole and wash the topsoil away. So, it needs to be big enough to contain the heaviest rain of the year and, in time, the roots of the fruit bushes and other plants will consolidate the mound. We’ve dug ours 60 cm wide 20 cm deep (2 ft x 8 ins) on a best-guess-suck-it-and-see basis. Thus far, we’ve had 20 mm of rain (4/5 inch) in one day, with no problems.

Having surveyed the swale the next job was to actually dig it. Turf removal is one of the more frustrating tasks, especially as it’s the first thing you do. Cut it with a spade, before you slide the blade underneath and try to lift it, to give you straight edges. Invert the turf and then pile the rest of the soil on top. Our soil is has a high proportion of clay and loads of stones, which makes digging with a spade very difficult. Having seen big earth moving machinery on Geoff Lawton’s excellent DVD Harvesting Water – The Permaculture Way I thought I could justify borrowing our neighbour Michel’s rotovator (see photo) with plough attachment to literally bulldoze through the worst of the job, before shaping and levelling by hand. Don’t rush out to the hire shop it didn’t help at all. Wrestling this roaring, churning beast is backbreaking and I couldn’t get it to penetrate deep enough, then have enough traction to move forward. It got clogged up with turf, meaning that it was no help for that difficult first stage. I gave up with it and continued, much more effectively, and permaculturally, with a five-tined broad-fork, here called a une grelinette along with a convention -al spade and fork. It was hard work and the art, as far as my character is concerned is not to look at the whole job too often, don’t be impatient (ho, ho, says Gabrielle!) but just concentrate on each forkful and get into a rhythm, almost in meditative fashion. It is then amazing how much earth one person can move in a day.

The final levels are adjusted (read Part 1) and then the swale is planted up. We’ve put three fruit trees, a medlar, a crab apple and a weeping mulberry on the swale along with several soft fruit bushes. I’ve sprinkled on nitrogen-fixing white and violet clover seeds as a cover crop and Gabrielle has planted some dill in the ditch of the swale, to which we’ll add others in the umbellifer family. With their deep roots, we hope they’ll help water infiltration and have also broken up the bottom of the ditch with a fork for the same reason. It’s possible that a swale or two would benefit our largest pasture field but we will keep and eye on how our current swale performs, along with its plants and make any changes to it, or the design of further swales, as appropriate.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Old Things That Still Work, Part 2 : I was relating Clive’s sobering tale of consumerism and when I asked him for the details of the indestructible photo enlarger, the De Vere 504, something rang a bell.

504 is also the designation of a lion of a car, the Peugeot 504, particularly the estate version. In Europe, we’re so fashion conscious that when the 505 is produced, we sell our 504s and trade up … and so on. In Africa, if it isn’t actually dead, they keep driving it. I used to live in South Africa (when I was 9 years old) and have visited several other countries; so I can say from experience, in Africa, the Peugeot 504 is ubiquitous. I have actually taken a photo of a fully-loaded 504 in Egypt, just like this photo but couldn’t find it. To be honest, while going through my box of non-digital photos, I got lost in nostalgia; it must be somewhere. Believe what you see, the Peugeot 504 is as solid as the De Vere 504 (read my previous blog.

Another elderly, but fully functioning, automotive device purred and popped up to our front door the other day, carrying the ample figure of our village baker, Jacky. It’s a Solex, a motor-assisted bicycle. In the first video (at top) Jacky shows Gabrielle how to ride the Solex but does he give her enough detail? will she come back?

The Solex is a conventional bicycle with a petrol motor mounted above the front wheel. A pull on a lever brings the engine driven roller into contact with the substantial tread of the front tyre. You don't use it all the time, just for a bit of help getting up the steeper hills. That’s it, couldn’t be simpler; or could it? Will Gabrielle come home.

While I’m suggesting you keep your old car, European governments are offering you taxpayers’ money to scrap your perfectly serviceable car so you can buy a new one, thus keeping car manufacturers in business. Nice to see they have a firm grasp of the ecological state of the world we live in … ho hum.

Did Jacky tell Gabrielle how to work the brakes? Can she turn round? Did she have enough fuel? Click the video below for the answer.

Coming soon (I promise): Swales, Part 2 and how elderflower leaves keep flea beetles away.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Old Things That Still Work, Part 1 : and no, this isn’t a cheap jibe at holidaymaker Clive, pictured above, who was staying with his wife Wendy in our gite last week. Rather it’s by way of another commentary on the economic state of the world we all live in and a telling tale, told to me by Clive. I’ve written before on the contradictions of capitalism in these current times of ecological stress: we use precious energy to mine unrenewable resources to manufacture stuff that ends up back in a hole in the ground (landfill) within an expensively short time. The exchange of goods for money is what currently (credit crunch allowing) makes our world go round. I love to repair things and it grieves me when I’m obliged to throw something away that could be repaired if I could only get hold of a minor part and I’m frustrated that things are made so fragile, even disposable nowadays. (Check out the price of a new DVD player, then ask yourself whether it’s worth repairing.) So here’s Clive’s true story of a company that built their product so well, they went out of business.

So he tells me, De Vere were a company producing solid, industry-standard photographic enlargers. They were so strong that they didn’t need repairing or replacing and so well designed that they didn’t need updating. Once you’d paid your money, you had it for life, with no further reason to give that honourable company any more money. Apparently bullet-proof, several De Vere 504s have stood up to years of abuse by students at the university where Clive teaches photography, still intact and functioning. Because nobody needed to replace or update their machine, nor buy spare parts, De Vere went out of business. At this moment, when showing new design students around, Clive says, “Welcome to Consumerism.”

While some ecological accountant, much more cleverer than me, invents a working alternative to capitalism, here’s my suggestion:
If you buy a product that is well made enough to go the distance, every year, send an anniversary card to the manufacturer, captioned, “For Your Ecological Integrity” and with a £5 note tucked inside.

Clive Egginton’s website.

Coming soon: Swales, Part 2 and how elderflower leaves keep flea beetles away.

Friday, April 10, 2009

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Samuel Johnson, English author, 1709-84

I’m published again but for the first time in French. I’ve written an article on sun path diagrams. (Read my blog about the subject, in English). Julie, a good friend of ours, is the deputy editor of the bi-monthly magazine, La Maison Écologique and she’d said yes to my proposal of an article. She sent me a list of criteria: how the article should be set out and a word count, etc. I started writing it in English, with the idea of putting flesh on the bones before translating it but soon found myself “mid-Channel”, linguistically speaking, and decided to just get on with it in French, or rather my version of French.

Quite obviously, I needed to have it checked over and emailed it to Kristen, who lives in the Averyon, a native French speaker who also speaks impeccable English. His kind assessment of my attempts at de l’écriture française was that it was comprehensible to a French speaker who spoke English, i.e., through his knowledge of English grammar, he could see through my mistakes to what I was trying to say. I’d asked him not to completely re-write the article, rather to leave it easily understandable but with my English accent still present.

I sent this corrected version to Julie, who delicately asked if I’d mind if she re-worked the article a touch, as it didn’t all sound like proper French: oui, bien sûr, I replied.

I’m pleased with the final article, and it’s recognisably my article, but almost all the words have changed. Despite this, they’ve generously paid me for it but I’ve decided not to give up the day job for the moment. I have another article coming out in an English magazine this month, which I’ll announce when it hits the newsstands, “Extra, extra, read all abaht it!”

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

We’ve been so busy lately, with the long length of the “list of things to do” ever unchanging, it seems that we’ve just been chasing our own tails. Click to play the video above, where one of our cats helpfully enacts this metaphor for your clearer understanding. All this proper work has taken a toll on my blog writing and so I’ve plenty of things to tell you about: first up, our newly dug swale.

Permaculture swales: Part 1
If you want to grow anything, you need water but what’s available is often either too much or too little, so needs some careful management. Have a look at this photo of our vegetable plot at the end of May last year to see it doing a passable imitation of Venice. In contrast, we were expecting an average rainfall of 60 mm of rain last month yet only received about half of that. And rather than being evenly distributed over the month, two thirds fell on one day. The longest gap between rain days was just over two weeks, leaving our total water storage of 4 tonnes bone dry and forcing us to turn to potable tap water to keep seedlings and other new plantings alive.

Just uphill of our vegetable plot, we’ve surveyed, dug and planted a swale—a horizontal ditch that follows the contour—which we hope will deal with both of the problems I’ve mentioned, i.e., avoid the inundation of our veggies but also storing that valuable water underground. How so? Our main field slopes gently downhill towards the vegetable plot; the earth has a large clay content, so when we get heavy rain, the water will run off the land, rather than infiltrate it. The swale now provides a barrier to this run off but, unlike a land drain, the idea isn’t then to just get rid of the water, draining it by gravity along buried pipes to the drainage ditches at the edge of our property that run along the road. We want to utilise this water by storing it … underground.

I’ll tell you more about how swales work in Part 2 but will now explain how we dug our own. The swale is dug on contour, that’s to say it’s a horizontal ditch, and so we need to join all the points at the same level by surveying the land. Even without professional tools, it’s possible to survey accurately. Read how we made a Bunyip water level and used it to mark a level line on our barn (we measured off that line to install a French drain). On my permaculture course, we learnt to use both of these devices. The first photo demonstrates the bunyip water level and, in the second, Patrick Whitefield shows us how the A-frame works. For our swale, we constructed an A-frame, with an adaptation.

The idea of an A-frame is that the two legs of the triangle are equal and a line with a weight (plumb line) hangs off their intersection. The connecting bar, attached at the same point on each leg, is marked at its centre. When the plumb line cuts the centre mark, the two legs are at exactly the same height. We use this property to walk the A-frame across the land, shifting the moved leg up or down the slope until the plumb line shows they are level. We then mark that point and swivel the other leg around, repeating the levelling, and so on, leaving a line of pegs that mark out the contour. One problem with the plumb line is that the bob swings like a pendulum and takes a while to settle, or needs a partner to steady it at the bottom. We got round that by attaching a spirit level at eye height on the crosspiece, whose bubble settles quickly, so speeding up the process. Photo shows Gabrielle using our A-frame.

Another issue is that if a device relies on levelling with regard to the last point, rather than the original datum, a slight inaccuracy each swing of the legs, gets multiplied over a long distance. A long bunyip, with one end always held on the start point, can be more accurate. We used the A-frame to mark out the contour and then, when I’d dug out the swale, I hammered in pegs of wood and used a 2.5 metre straight edge with spirit level to check the level of the bottom of the ditch (see photo). Ultimately, the most accurate way of checking your swale is level is to look at it when it first fills with water. The surface of the water will always be at the same height, so if you have a reasonably even puddle the length of your swale, you’ve surveyed and dug your swale well. You can adjust the swale after it’s rained, so it really is quite easy to get it spot on.

More on how swales work, how we dug ours and what we planted it up with in Part 2.