Sunday, September 19, 2010

(not quite) Permaculture Pasture Improvement: Part 2

It was way back in the beginning of April when I posted Part 1 and promised to “report how the new grass fares.” Well, I didn’t report and the grass didn’t fare but, for a change, it’s not my fault; I blame Iceland!

To recap and then cut the rest of a long story short: Last year’s pigs went to slaughter at the end of November. It was way too late to sow grass. As we didn’t want the soil to be bare over winter, our farming neighbour Paul suggested trying oats. We were even a touch too late for that and it didn’t get away (as his had done) but provided plenty of free food to wild birds and our roaming flock of chickens.

There was nothing else to do other than be patient and await a sun-warmed soil sometime in spring to get our chance to sow grass. We had a longer-than-usual winter and it was April before we had the conditions we needed. We sowed. It rained. The seeds germinated. Then we had a long and unexpected dry spell. The monthly average is 54 mm of rain (just over 2 inches) but we only had 16 in our pluviomètre, 12 of which fell on one day, with a rain gap of 25 dry days. So those tiny germinated seeds never got another drop of rain and died. I heard on BBC Radio 4 (therefore it must be true!) that this was due to the Icelandic volcano: all that material spewed out was creating a high pressure that was keeping rain-bearing low pressure systems away from Europe.

Now the oats sown back in November that hadn’t got away, had been turned in by the harrowing and rolling while sowing the doomed grass seed. And for some reason, they profited from the gap created by the grass no-show and we ended up with a crop of oats. Not at all what we planned but useful nevertheless as I cropped that petit à petit with my scythe and fed it to our sheep and pigs who were on very dry pasture due to a dry summer (not Iceland this time but the jet stream not functioning correctly)

This year, our pigs are in a different paddock and arrived here earlier, so are about to leave us. I wanted to plough and re-seed their paddock and also hoped to do the large field but was trying to balance that with the winter pasture needs of our sheep. So, having just facilitated the departure of some English guests at our neighbour’s gite, I accepted the offer of a cup of coffee from Paul and Christiane and we talked grass. A good two months earlier than last year and still it was apparently “presque” too late to sow grass, another two weeks was definitely not on. Pondering this later, I decided to ask Paul to help me re-sow the big field. I’ve used some poultry netting to fence off another area and the sheep can also make use of the pig paddock, which I’ll tackle in spring.

This is where any permacultural purists might disagree with my use of industrial pig poo and the plough. The use of the plough is generally thought to be a permaculture no-no due the loss by oxidization of organic matter. However, our soil is heavy clay and really needs to be broken up. Perhaps we could have achieved that with a sub-soiler but we also need a fine tilth to sow the tiny grass seeds, so Paul carefully manoeuvred his very big tractor around our very small (in modern agricultural terms) field. The first thing he did though, was to spray the field with lisier a slurry of pig excrement from his farm. As with many things, in industrial quantities it can become a pollutant. We needed to add some sort of fertility, don’t want to buy and apply chemical fertilisers and don’t have enough animal manure of our own to add, so a one-off application seemed the pragmatic thing to do.

The sequence of events was:
• Pig poo
• Rotating harrow (to bread up turfs)
• Plough
• Harrow (now we had a fine tilth)
• Hand sow (half the amount across, the other half side-to-side)
• Harrow (a lighter one towed behind the old Massey to just bury the seeds)
• Roller (to press the seeds into contact with the soil)
• Beer.
It’s due to rain on Thursday and we’ll be hoping for a few more warm days to germinate the seed. The plants should get away better in spring, having had the opportunity to establish themselves before winter takes hold.

I had some seed left over from the bag I bought from the German lady (see Part 1) and I have also a “Herbal” Dual Purpose Four Year Ley from
Cotswold Grass Seeds. Mixed together, what I sowed was:
several varieties of ryegrasses, fescues and clovers, along with cocksfoot, meadow grass, Timothy grass, ribgrass, meadow foxtail, golden oat grass, sainfoin, birdsfoot trefoil, black medick, chicory, burnet, yarrow and sheep’s parsley. If all goes to plan, we’re looking forward to an attractive field with a better biodiversity and very happy sheep.

STOP PRESS : Please click below and have a read of the comments, particularly the last two. Alan and Val have taken us to task about our approach. We've another paddock to re-sow after the pigs leave us next Monday, which is an ideal opportunity to try a different and altogether more permaculture approach to improving the pasture.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Eco-building: Swallows and Humans

We have something to celebrate. On Friday, we went to our mairie
to pick up our permis de construire (planning permission) for our future eco-house. The plans had been finished for some time but actually putting in the application had stayed on my “list-of-things-to-do” for far too long. If you could see the five-part form, each part self-carbonated five times, with all manner of necessary items to furnish, you’d be sympathetic towards my procrastination.

As we walked into the porch of the mairie, I noticed a pile of bird shit by the door. Knowing all about Newton and falling apples, I looked upwards to discover two young swallows peering at me over the edge of their nest. With all the complication of our own application, it was ironic that Monsieur and Madame Hirondelle had simply turned up, and at the very seat of local government mind, with mouthfuls of wet clay and built their summer home with no hint of planning permission.

As you can see from the close up at top, their home is built from mud, reinforced with natural fibres, which is not a lot different from the house our friends Mélanie and Bruno are currently building.
The photos show Botmobil volunteers Cécile and Thibault squeezing a straw bale into position and then Fabrice, the professional, showing us amateurs how to apply an earth “body coat” render over straw bales that already had a coating of mud slurry as a primer.

This thick layer will dry off over a few months and receive the finishing coat next spring. It really is good fun slapping on the mud mix and massaging it into place with one’s hands. Fact one: lime and cement will dry and burn your skin; Fact 2: expensive skin products are based on clay; so spending a day mud plastering by hand left us all with very clean and very soft hands, which is not at all bad for a building site ☻

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Everything but the kitchen sink …

When you pack for a holiday, do you pack light or do you take a belt-and-braces approach and pack everything but the kitchen sink? Richard and Leigh arrived the other week in their very authentic (for rural France, that is) Citroën C15 van for their third stay in our holiday cottage. They win this year’s award for the strangest thing to bring on holiday (please imagine drums rolling for full theatrical effect): a reupholstered chair.

I’ve previously explained how I came by this venerable yet tired wooden armchair for a fiver and how Richard offered to restore its dignity, taking it away with them in the same loyal van last summer. He’s emailed me photos to show me the progress of his skilful work, including a recent one showing the finished article in his workshop.

The work is immaculate, the chair regal and the bill for materials a fraction of what it would have been to put it into a shop to have it done. Generous chap, he wouldn’t accept anything for his time, so we plied them both with good food and wine !

If you fancy staying on our permaculture smallholding for a week, please don’t feel obliged to bring a reupholstered chair with you … a deckchair or small stool will suffice ☺