Friday, August 27, 2010

Oh … Bugger !

I’m thinking of renaming this blog. Something like “Cock-ups are Us” or even “Yet Another Balls Up” or perhaps just
“Oh … Bugger !” I’ve never claimed we were permaculture experts and I’ve even championed the idea that reading about our stumbling progress is a reassuring antidote to the modern fascination with garrulous, self-assured, TV-celeb experts. I have a double whammy to report today, a his and hers of underachievement.

I’ll start with Gabrielle’s: it’s that time of year when the Kilner jars are taken off the shelves ready to store Summer produce for the following year. Tomatoes, for example, are cooked and then passed through a moulin à légumes, then put into clean jars, new sealing rings added and the lids clipped down. Gabrielle then boils these for twenty minutes to sterilise (pasteurise?) jar and contents. The high temperature forces steam past the seals, so that, once cool again, a vacuum is created and the jars sealed as tight as a very tight thing.

So tomato, so good. We also have a glut of courgettes, which is not so surprising: I think anybody who grows vegetables will have loads of this easy-to-grow vegetable. Gabrielle fried off some onions, then added chopped courgettes and sweated them down before whizzing them to create a courgette pulp to be stored for winter consumption as soup, etc.

Within a day or so, hissing was heard from the Kilner jars containing the courgettes and they were leaking. Now you’d think that jars clamped hard tight with a new sealing ring would need a fair old pressure to hiss, wouldn’t you? It didn’t occur to me though, and I flipped the clip (if the lid stays on by suction, all is well) and the, by now, fermented courgette pulp exploded all over the wine rack and some shelves. Note to self: this sort of foolhardy investigation is best done in an outside environment, like Salisbury Plain, for example.

So we now partially understand, less acidic foods (like courgettes in relation to tomatoes, for example) apparently need higher temperatures in pressure-cooking equipment or longer boiling to safely preserve them. And now to my own faux pas.

We were in the workshop/storage room downstairs a couple of days ago—where the vaults for the compost toilet are—when Gabrielle pointed out a dark brown wet leak at one of the corners … oh, bugger! Unusually, i.e., completely out of character, I was amazingly calm about the whole smelly affair, philosophising that all pioneers encounter teething problems, that this experience would lead me to a deeper understanding, etc. We have two problems here, one is that there shouldn’t be that much urine there anyway, so the urine-separation plate needs some fine tuning and the other, the leak!

It was surprising as I’d used solid concrete blocks, parpaing plein, mortar with a waterproofing additive and special render made for waterproofing underground cellars and foundations. I had to empty the compost chamber (poo-ey!) and borrow a power hose to clean it all off, which was also the ideal tool to find the tiny leak. All is now sorted, with enough special waterproofing render applied to induce the Titanic to bob to the surface. Urine separation has been tweaked and we’ll see how we go. I will post details of the construction soon but why anyone would want to build one after reading this, goodness only knows.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Stop Press: Beetle Identified!

The Internet comes up trumps again. No sooner had I posted yesterdays blog than our Somerset friend Val,no doubt with an input from countryside specialist hubby Pete, posted a comment suggesting that our beetle is a longhorn.

I also went hunting around the Web and found an identification service offered by the British Natural History Museum where I posted my queries and got this response. An American site, What’s That Bug, also replied to our request for help. “Your beetle is a Longhorned Borer Beetle or Longicorn in the Family Cerambycidae. We located a French website of longicornes and we believe your beetle is Corymbia rubra. [They have another page on the Lepturnae subfamily .]”

They continue: “The Garden Safari website discusses the sexual dimorphism of the species, and that indicates the coloration of your specimen makes her female. They indicate: ‘With the majority of beetle species the male and the female are almost identical. In a few exceptions, however, there are striking differences between the two genders. This is the case with Corymbia rubra, a species quite common on flowers in the gardens. The male is slender, brownish and has a black neck shield [protonum]. It seldomly reaches a length of over 15 mm. The female is bigger and more plump, reaching some 20 mm in length regularly. Her body is reddish, including the neck shield. Actually they do look like two completely different species! This particular species is very rare in the UK because the plants the larvae feed on are not indigenous in Britain. It is still often referred to by either of its former scientific names Leptura rubra or Stictoleptura rubra.’”

Accepting that there are likely to be variations on the theme, I reckon our beetle is …
Kingdom: Animalae
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Coleoptera (beetles!)
Family: Cerambycidae (long horns)
Genus: Corymbia
Species: Rubra

i.e., a female Corymbia rubra (also known as Stictoleptura rubra)
… and this particular one’s called “Doris”!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Meet the wildlife:

A young hedgehog recently paid us a visit: a rare pleasure to see this usually nocturnal creature. It was slowly ambling along open pasture, quite the smallest hedgehog I’ve ever seen. It has been very dry recently, so we thought it a good idea to offer it a saucer of water (we’ve read that milk can give them diarrhoea) and a snack. It tucked into the cat biscuits, had a good slurp and then turned around and wandered off.

A young boy's interest in small crawling things seems not to extend much further than a wish to squash them. Horrible things. (Young boys, that is). Age and circumstance has made this particular boy look on these fascinating creatures in a new light. They seem to be big enough and slow enough for me to get a good look at, so that I can have a stab at identifying them. Whilst processing some firewood the other day, we came across this orange version.

My pocket-sized Collins gem guide to Insects got me the Cardinal Beetle and I thought I had my man (or lady?) but, on closer examination, there are a couple of differences. Considering that there are as many, and maybe more than 350,000 different species of beetle, a couple of differences is sure to mean a different Latin name. The lower legs of our one are orange and the hard front wings—elytra—don’t get wider towards the rear as do those of a cardinal beetle. If you are an expert coleopterist or otherwise know what our beastie is, please tell us by posting a comment.

And lastly, not so much wildlife as we deliberately introduced six roach into our wildlife pond back in April. No time has been lost in the watery world of fishy friendships as we are proud parents of about a thousand fry. They seem to be interested in Gabrielle’s feet and Gabrielle is equally interested in their piscatorial pedicure. If it works, we’ll offer it as an additional service to our holidaymakers, much like goat massage we used to offer.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Compost toilets

I have been remiss in my blogging recently as I’ve been almost totally absorbed in a seemingly never-ending project to retrofit a deluxe compost toilet inside our house.
Our département (Côtes d’Armor) only allows grey water treatment using plants if the house has a dry toilet. Several of our younger French eco-minded friends have toilettes sèches that consist of a box with a toilet seat and a stainless steel bucket beneath (hidden by a curtain or door). This needs to be taken outside and emptied every few days.

Hmmm: it might do for camping but I’m not so sure other visitors to the house (like our mum’s for example!) would like to be so “involved” with the toilet. When on a course at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, I heard the term “porcelain standard” and this is exactly what I’m talking about: i.e., how close does an alternative come to the reassuring familiarity of a white flushing toilet. We live on the first floor of our converted barn and the law of probability strongly suggests that it would only be a matter of time before I managed to trip and throw a bucket full of shite the length of the stairs. No, we wanted something more sophisticated.

I’m sure Meryl Streep would approve of our toilet as it’s straight Out of Africa: a long-drop pit latrine; a VIP toilet (ventilated, improved pit latrine) or a twin-vault composting toilet with urine separation. Whatever you want to call it, this is the cutting edge of dry toilet technology which we’ve designed and painstakingly constructed over some considerable time with the invaluable help of an expert on dry toilets, Andy Warren of NATSOL.

If you remember the song “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza …” you’ll realise that one desired action implies a whole host of knock-on necessities. We needed to put the toilet where the shower was and then wanted to put the shower where the basin was, so the basin needed to go where the heater was and, to make this all fit, I needed to move a stud wall and pinch a bit out of the adjoining guest bedroom. Over the next few blogs, I’ll detail the eco-refit of our bathroom and although we’re really happy with the end result, I’ll be honest enough to tell you of a few things that we’re less that convinced by.
(Click on the photos for their original sources, I'll use my own next time !)