Friday, October 30, 2009

Permaculture Design – Wildlife Pond : dirty “grey” water from our house goes into our new horizontal plant filter and the cleaner water that comes out runs into a wildlife pond. I must admit to not having understood the purpose of the pond when Eléonore came to do the étude (study) of our proposed installation, digging holes and pouring water into them. She was seeing how the water would infiltrate the land, i.e., how our treated water would soak into the landscape, whereas I thought that she was working out whether or not we needed a pond liner. We were therefore happily anticipating a beautiful wildlife pond to go with our “reed bed”.

Aquatiris, the company who are supplying our system, are modifying and improving their systems as they go, working in association with SATESE, the people who authorise and regulate individual sewage installations, here in Brittany.
The size of filter, for example, has changed and the regulators have been testing water as it leaves the plant filter, meaning that the wildlife pond seems to be superfluous now and we could simply drain our water into the large ditches that habitually run alongside French country roads.

But we had our hearts set on a wildlife pond so we decided to make the investment in something beautiful and go for it. Our references were books and the Internet, bien sûr, and our top book recommendation to help you design a wildlife pond is the refreshingly small and slim volume Ponds and Water Features published by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Permaculture is all about design and although I can do it, measuring, surveying, drawing, thinking, I’m not sure I always have the patience for it. I’m one for grabbing the spade and plugging the power tools in straight away. I also find that however much planning and reflection we do before we get started, there are possible improvements that only come to light after the experience of doing it. Anyway, we did the planning and the pics (from top to bottom) show the pond it was before we moved in, section drawings of how the land was to better imagine how we should approach the landscaping, a sunpath diagram (one of several we did) to work out where best to place the plant filter (“reed bed”) a cross section, long section and plan of our proposal, building the plant filter, landscaping the pond (showing my concrete dam hidden behind Paddy’s beautiful stonework) and then me getting cold and wet placing the pump. The central rectangle of concrete is an old slurry pit from when this used to be a farm. Too big to remove, we made it the centre of our pond.

In my next blog, I show you photos of how it all looks now.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Seedy Sunday : (Gabrielle at the keyboard today)
The best things in life may, or may not be free, but it always feels great to get something for nothing. Today, having “passé à l’heure d’hiver”, I went to the plant and seed exchange that’s held near Dinan. It’s a fabulous little community event that takes place twice a year, in spring and autumn, on the day the clocks change. People take any plants and seeds that they’ve got in abundance and exchange them for others or just give them away to people who’ve come to see what’s going on. No one sees the colour of money and that’s the simple beauty of it.

The first time I participated, as opposed to just being there for a look round, I took some little painted signs to hook over the door that said “Je suis au jardin” (I’m in the garden). These went down so well I earned myself a bit of an instant reputation and I’ve really enjoyed going and meeting up with the regulars ever since. I always seem to come away with a wonderful mix of local plants, some of which I’ve no idea what they are till they flower!

Coincidentally the oldest seed swap event in the UK is held in the town I used to live in, Brighton. Seedy Sunday has more of a political element to it, as at the heart of the event is campaign to protect biodiversity and protest against the increasing control of seed supply by a just handful of large companies. The control of seed and the creation of hybrids which don’t produce seed is annoying for growers in the western world, as it creates an expensive dependency, but its disastrous for subsistence farmers elsewhere in the world, as poor farmers who’ve traditionally saved seed increasingly have to pay for new seed every year.

I love the fact that this global campaign to protect local varieties of seeds stretches around the world, but that it has its roots in our own gardens. By growing open-pollinated varieties, then saving and swapping the seeds, growers can keep alive “outlawed” varieties, conserve biodiversity and limit corporate control of the basis of life.

The French event isn’t so overtly political, but it could be, as I have never known a French person who isn’t willing to talk about ideas. I’m thinking that it would be a good idea for me to do some translation study of the excellent information from Seedy Sunday’s website and then share the ideas at the next event in spring. Today I wasn’t so well prepared and I didn’t have much of interest to swap, or so I thought, but it all went, including some horseradish root—the essential ingredient for the traditional English sauce eaten with roast beef. I’ll make up for it next time by painting some more of those popular “I’m in the garden” signs.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Appel aux bénévoles :Camille, Gabrielle’s last violin student this afternoon, having just left, runs back and shouts through the open front door, “Gabrielle viens voir, il y a deux arcs de ciel dessus ta maison.” We run outside, me carrying my camera.

Imagine your house apparently at the end of a rainbow, with the promise of a pot of gold, “you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya?” (apologies to Clint Eastwood). I take the photo above, then run round the building. It’s not our house at all but rather Patrick and Chrystèle’s dairy farm in the distance … bugger!

So, it seems we’re not about to be lucky in the pot of gold department but we are rather hoping to strike it rich in winter volunteers. The first of our adverts has been published today on the Permaculture Association’s (Britain) latest e-bulletin. It’s also making an appearance in the upcoming winter edition of Permaculture Magazine and the November/December edition of the excellent new Living Woods magazine.

As the leaves begin to fall from the trees, were approaching the time of year when we should be working in our 11 acres (4.5 hectares) of mixed woodland. Weighed down by our “list of things to do” and restricted in what just the two of us can achieve, we’re hoping to invite some volunteers to come and give us a hand in exchange for some cosy accommodation and great home cooking.

If you’re interested, visit our dedicated webpage for more details and how to contact us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Stop the car … or the kitty gets it. Gabrielle has started teaching violin, at a newly-formed musical association in a nearby village. Each Tuesday afternoon, she drives to the pôle culturelle at Plouasne to teach four French children. Coming home this week, she drove round a corner to find three tiny kittens sitting right in the middle of the road, looking very out of context. It seems that just seconds before, someone had stopped, opened their car door and unceremoniously chucked out the three unwanted tots and driven off : shameful.

So Gabrielle arrived home with rather more than she had left with. Our neighbours rallied round and the venerable Annick was consulted to see if they were old enough to survive away from their mother. She reckoned that they were, just, and we should feed them cat biscuits soaked in milk. Kysinia kindly provided a clean cage and a furry cat bed. Probably only used to suckling from their mother, they made rather a mess of drinking warmed milk out of a bowl, standing in it and putting their whole face in. Evidently they got something down as they survived the night.

The following morning we tried to work out what to do with them. We contacted the SPA (Société Protectrice Animaux) who wouldn’t take them because they were so young (pas viable) and suggested that we contact a fourrière, which translates as a pound. After numerous phone conversations, we discovered that we needed to speak to the maire of our commune, who would have an engagement with a particular fourrière and the commune would pay. I caught up with our maire, Jean-Luc when he was sat in a combine harvester, bringing in the maize. He was in an especially good humour, as the yield this year has been excellent, a grand improvement on the last couple of years. He promised to find out who our local fourrière was but also explained that the end result would be that the kittens would be put down. Putting them to sleep humanely would be preferable to them starving or freezing to death after being dumped in the middle of the road but we thought we would try and home them.

The thing is, you can’t give them away. As we put the word around we were met with many broad grins and quickly realised that with so many un-sterilised cats (especially at our neighbour, Annick’s!) around there is a plethora of cute kittens, so anyone who wants a cat usually has one. We put an ad on a site for English residents of Brittany, AngloInfo, which was swiftly and perfunctorily removed because “the cat’s microchip number wasn’t shown”. A second ad disappered just as quickly until Gabrielle had the cunning idea of placing a third ad, asking for “advice” and definitely NOT offering the cats for sale but inviting email contact. Which is how we met up with Martin, who’s taken the male. Gabrielle phone her coiffeuse, Mandy, who already has a young rescued cat called Millie, and who chose one of the female tabbies, who is now inevitably called Molly. That leaves one, who appears also to have a new home, although we have the pleasure of looking after her for a few more days.

The photos show the three the day they were found, then the male kitten with his new playmate, then Molly with Milly and finally, Billy-no-mates.

If you need to sex kittens, have a look at this website, which is how we worked it out, their bits being very small at the moment.

Friday, October 09, 2009

If you go down to the woods today,
You’re sure of a big surprise …

We have indeed been down to our woods to collect the last of the logs that I cut last winter. They should have long been brought back to our permaculture smallholding, split and stacked to season a long time ago but, as always, it’s a question of available time versus jobs that need doing. It was as much as I could do to get all the trees I wanted down—so thinning a parcel of sycamores—before the sap began to rise, heralding the start of spring and marking the end of the cutting season. I’d started better than our previous two winters and I suppose I got lulled into a false sense of security. At the end, with primroses popping out earlier than expected, Paddy came to help for two days, swapping his time for firewood for his Raeburn cooker and water heater. Once the trees were down and logged, they were left while I attended to other pressing jobs back at our smallholding.

When we bought the wood, there was no access at all and for the first year I had to ask a couple of farmers if I could drive my borrowed tractor over their fields after their cereals were harvested to collect the wood. The second winter, I cut a forest ride down the middle, giving tractor access right to the back of the wood. The parcel of sycamores cut last winter adjoins the ride but I still have to collect the logs in a barrow and wheel them to the ride. Back in May, volunteer John helped me collect about half but a few days here and there since still left a good third getting increasingly hidden in the undergrowth. Help turned up this week in a large red hippy-style van: Nick, a long-standing guitar-playing mate of Gabrielle’s, with his daughter Jess with partner Rich.

Tuesday afternoon, Jess and Rich came down the woods with me, leaving Nick to play music with Gabrielle, preparing for a gig at our bar, which I’d arranged without first telling them (photo taken that evening: Nick on the left). Jess and Rich live at Coed Hills Rural Artspace, a sustain-able living community in Wales, and are into a whole lot of permaculture stuff. We returned the following day, with tractor and trailer borrowed from neighbour Paul, and with their help had the whole lot back at our place in three trailer loads.

Piles of logs are great wildlife habitat—Permaculture Zone 5—and we un/dis-covered a day-glo fire salamander (Latin name salamandra salamandra and salamandre tachetée in French. See photo at top). We carefully relocated this into some suitable undergrowth nearby and carried on loading logs, disturbing a tiny grey frog, which scuttled off on its own, then a nest of baby mice (we think) which we recovered in situ, leaving the last few logs in place; I’m sure mum wasn’t far away and would soon return after we left.

I was also happy to see that one of the sycamore stumps, that I had previously inoculated with pearl oyster mushroom spawn, fruiting (Lat. Pleurotus ostreatus, Fr. Pleurote en forme d’huître). The mushrooms were in perfect condition for harvesting and eating. Back at home, I showed him an oak stump, which I had also inoculated but which hadn’t taken. Surprise, surprise, the reason was nestling inside the hollow stump : a large fresh specimen of Beefsteak fungus (Lat. Fistulina hepatica, Fr. Fistuline hépatique or langue de boeuf (beef tongue)). A first for me, it was interesting to see how Rich confirmed its identity, confidently enough to consign it to the cooking pot. The context was important, this fungus the cause of brown rot in oak and chestnut and it fruits in autumn. You can see from the earlier photograph, taken when (futilely!) inoculating the stump with oyster mushroom, that the tree had been partially hollowed out and the heartwood left stained red, both signs of beefsteak fungus behaviour. The dark, liver-coloured and rubbery flesh was red and marbled with white veins, just like a piece of meat marbled with fat and, when cut, exuded a watery, blood-coloured liquid. All of these details taken together make it a beefsteak fungus.

Prior to cooking, it was soaked in water for 24 hours to remove a bitter acidity and then dried with kitchen towel before braising, together with the oyster mushrooms and herbs, in goose stock and red wine, and served on a bed of pearl barley, also cooked with the goose stock. Delicious! (Recipe inspiration from The River Cottage Mushroom Handbook by John Wright.)

Monday, October 05, 2009

Dealing with domestic waste water :
Our new horizontal plant filter is now up and running, dealing with all our grey water (that means everything but toilet water). Here in the French countryside it’s normal to have one’s own sewage system. The, almost universal, septic tank is basically a settling tank containing both floating and sinking solid waste, while the water in the middle passes on to a sand filter. About every four years, a brave man with a tanker, a pipe and a strong pair of rubber gloves, arrives to pump the septic tank empty and take the waste away to a municipal sewage system. So this “autonomous” system doesn’t actually deal with the waste completely. And I believe that the sand filter should be changed every 15 years or so.

Our house already has a functioning septic tank, newly fitted not too long before we moved in, so why the change? Unfortunately, it’s of the smallest size possible, already has our holiday cottage connected, and is just too small to accommodate the new gite, a barn that we’re converting/renovating. It would be expensive, disruptive, and seem a touch wasteful, to remove the current tank to install a larger one and the lie of the land is such that we’d struggle to find the space to install a new septic tank for the new gite, at the very least requiring an electrical pump. (I really don’t want a pump in the system as pumps break down and need repairing and I really don’t fancy having to repair a pump covered in shit!)

Cue brilliant brainwave from Gabrielle: we disconnect our current house and provide a new system for that on the other side of the building, where we have both the necessary space and gradient. We would then connect the new holiday cottage to the existing gite … but. Ahhh, we’re told that the standards have become more stringent since the septic tank was installed and is too small for two buildings. We asked the authorities to consider that, even if this wasn’t up to current regulations, if we disconnected our house in constant occupation and replaced that with a seasonal gite, occupied about half the year, the septic tank would actually be working less. Never mind what negative comments you might’ve heard about French bureaucracy, they kindly accepted our logic and said “yes”.

We could have paid for a new septic tank and sand filter leech field but we thought we could do better. In permaculture, we try to analyse inputs and outputs of our smallholding in order to reduce inputs from outside and try to use our outputs onsite. It's also about being responsible for the waste we produce. Human waste and wastewater from the house can be used to grow plants. It’s a matter of scale. The sewage from a whole town gathered together in one place becomes a pollutant. Sewage from just one household, treated on site, is certainly not a pollutant and could even be useful.

Our new system consists of a horizontal plant filter, 2 metres by 4, with the cleaned water going into a wildlife pond. Our rainwater passes through a valve, diverting it into our storage tanks until full, then also flowing into our pond. The pond is conveniently placed to use it to fill watering cans for the vegetable patch and polytunnel. At the moment, our toilet is still connected to the original septic tank but I will soon be installing a twin vault dry composting toilet with urine separation.

Horizontal plant filter, study and installation: Éleonore and Christophe from Aquatiris
Dry toilet design and components: Andy Warren of NATSOL.