Saturday, December 31, 2011

Making compost in 18 days with Geoff Lawton

Building up layers of different materials

cold composting bins
We cold compost, which is to say that we add material to our compost piles as it arrives from kitchen or vegetable plot and it moulders away, decomposing slowly.  We alternately use four adjacent boxes and when the compost is about ready, we empty that box and riddle it to remove uncomposted material, which goes back into a fresher pile.  It takes months to make compost this way but is relatively low maintenance.

if you just add water at the end, it won't soak through evenly
The alternative is hot composting, which involves creating a large pile all at once (which heats up) and then turning it regularly to maintain the heat.  We've tried it before but were inspired to have another go after watching the very specific advice from permaculture hero Geoff Lawton, on his new video, Permaculture Soils 

His informing belief is that “it’s not the soil itself, it’s the soil life that is the most important element.”  He teaches us to inoculate the soil with bacteria by using a very diverse mixture of compostable materials such as different manures (the nitrogen component) dried grass toppings, green grass clippings (providing the ‘yeasts’) along with shredded and partially rotted wood (food for fungi). 

six days in
He talks about adding activators, such as urine, comfrey, nettles, yarrow, fish or animal remains to kick start the decomposition process.  He also mentions adding charcoal for its surface area (I’ll blog about what I’ve recently learnt of biochar soon). The whole lot should be wetted (see below).  One needs enough material to create a minimum of one cubic metre in total, otherwise it won’t get up to the necessary temperature. 
Cat enjoying the warmth generated by the compost process

We gathered pig manure, chicken droppings, rabbit pellets and sheep poo.  We added wheat straw and fresh grass clippings, chipped wood and comfrey leaves and litres of wee collected from our urine-separating compost toilet.

He talks of having 25 parts nitrogen to 1 part carbon but, as I wrote in my recent article for PermacultureMagazine on our compost toilet: “The ideal carbon/nitrogen ratio of 30 : 1 is often quoted but rarely explained.  It certainly doesn’t mean 30 times as much straw as solids; in fact, both faeces and urine contain carbon and nitrogen in their chemical makeup…  Don’t bother getting the scales and tape measure out as you search for the correct amount.”  It’s a learning process and you’ll find that too much nitrogen means that the pile gets too hot and reduces in volume, losing goodness to oxidation.  Too little and your pile won’t get warm enough to kill weed seeds and break down the woody material.
8 days and the colour is beginning to change

There are two criteria to measure, that’s the moisture content and the temperature.  For the first, grab a handful and squeeze: it should just drip.  For the temperature, he tells us to shove our hand in.  TAKE CARE, as it can get really hot.  Be sensible and open up the pile a bit and get a feel before you actually touch it.  At 60ºC, you wouldn’t be able to leave your hand there.  We actually used a meat thermometer and pushed the whole thing in, probe, dial and all, leaving it for a few minutes before retrieving it and looking at the temperature.  We tried it in several positions in the pile.  Aim for a min of 50ºC max 70ºC, ideally between 55 and 65.  (Above 70ºC is beyond the limit of life for our decomposing bacteria and the process becomes anaerobic.) 
10 days

Construct your pile, cover it up with old tarps or plastic sheeting (leaving an air gap at the bottom) and leave for four days.  Then unwrap and turn the pile.  We used a pitchfork and rebuilt the pile alongside itself, trying to put the stuff that was on the outside on the inside and vice-versa (if you see what I mean!)  Wrap the rebuilt pile up again and, from then on, the pile gets turned every two days for the next fortnight, reaching its maximum temperature on the second or third turn, i.e., 6 or 8 days into the process, when it should attain the ideal of around 60ºC.  Geoff’s claim is that, if you get it right, it gets hot enough and decomposes without losing volume.
16 days and the heat has reduced but we're seeing fungal growth

The photo sequence shows our experiences with our first two batches.  We now think that the moisture content is vital and ended up adding a lot at the start to pass the squeeze test and a bit during the turning process.  We think we had proportionally too little nitrogen on the first batch, maintaining volume but not being fully composted at the end and never quite getting up to the desired temperature.  We overdid the nitrogen in the second version, getting good decomposition but losing a lot of volume.

This last photo shows our second attempt, at the end of the process.  It's much darker, has decomposed more than the first but we've lost volume.  

We can generate or get access to the necessary amount of material to build a cubic metre pile and it’s very useful to create such a quantity of compost in just 18 days or so, so we will keep trying.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Helping out and being helped

our new woodland walk
I’ve spent a day helping out our local vet.  While he rushed around in his Citroën camionette dealing with poorly cows, I tamed an unruly hedge in his garden using my chainsaw, assisted by a sprightly octogenarian called Monsieur Galet.  I never got to know his first name, an etiquette of respect for his age, but neither did he get to know mine: nothing to do with etiquette but rather because he couldn’t get to grips with its un-Frenchness.  Despite repeating it several times, he never did grasp it, so, for a day, I became “eh-ho”.
we left this fallen tree in situ, there's a way past by the roots

It’s not as if we don’t have enough to do around the smallholding and, now we’re in winter, in our woodlands but this days work for Hammadi was willingly given and is another example of the many local exchanges we have going on here.  It’s also the time we host volunteers and we’ve just had two weeks of gold-star-top-drawer volunteers Sue and Andrew.  Suckers for punishment, they came for aweek in February and asked to come again for a fortnight.

Andrew built us our lovely bridge that links an existing path from the entrance, through a parcel of wild cherry, oak and goat willow, into another parcel of predominately ash, which is carpeted in bluebells in spring.  For some time, we have wanted to continue and create a complete nature walk that takes people through all the different parts of the woodland, leading them safely back to the entrance.

Two paths diverged in a yellow wood ...
One Wednesday, child-minding 10 year old Camille, we went for a tramp round the woods armed with long canes with coloured rag tied to the end.  By shouting and waving the flags, we were able to plot a path, leaving a trail of garden canes to mark it. 

During their visit, we spent four days in the woods with Andrew and Sue, hacking brambles, pulling roots, removing overhanging branches and some trees, finally rubbing our heavy-duty tripod lawnmower over the path.  It looks great; we couldn’t be more pleased with it.  I reckon that the hard work being done, it won’t take too much maintenance during the year to keep it like that.

The next job, and one to be done at the kitchen table, is to draw up a map so that holidaymakers in our gite can independently find the wood and navigate around the new path.  If they walk quietly and keep their eyes and ears open, they might see some of the wildlife along the way, such as roe deer, this fire salamander or maybe even a wild boar (we’ve got plenty of signs of visits but actually encountered one face-to-snout yet).

fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fattening pigs on acorns

Two weeks of Andrew and Sue volunteering comes to an end and another article in the post, it’s time to catch up with some blogging:

Our pig farming neighbours, Paul and Christiane, have retired this year.  Ever since we’ve kept pigs ourselves, we’ve done an exchange with them, whereby I manage the English-speaking guests in their gîte and they give us all the cereals that we need.  It’s an elegant solution.  What I give is just a small thing for me (a few minutes on the computer replying to emails, preparing contracts and cycling down to translate on their arrival) but enormously important for them (most of their rental income comes via me).  En revanche, considering the scales involved, a few bags of ground mixed cereals is nothing for them but of considerable value to us (compared to the price we’d pay at the local agricultural merchants for similar).

We overfed our first pigs, and to lesser degrees the second and even third year before we got it right.  The key point was a little bit of advice in Starting With Pigs by Andy Case, “feed pigs by eye”.  It’s good advice but requires a level of expertise that only years of experience, and a few fat pigs, can give.  In the second year, we started weighing out their food, following a regime from the breeder.  The ‘problem’ is that, as they live outdoors, they have access to a whole lot of natural nutrition and we can’t measure how much of it they eat; so one has to learn to feed by eye.  We now give our pigs about a third of the cereal ration of their barn-raised cousins … but we do still give them some cereals.

There has been lots of building work going on as the new owner brings the buildings into conformity with the latest welfare standards.  When I went round to collect the last few bags of feed, that would see our pigs through to the day they left for the abattoir, the machine couldn't be made to work and I left empty handed.  What could we do?

I was missing the oakey obvious:  When we give holiday guests the introductory tour of our permaculture smallholding, we come to the pigs, where I point out what a lovely area they have to free range in.  I explain that the pigs eat a surprising amount of grass, root around (for roots!) and benefit from excess of cherries, plums and apples as they come into season, and finally acorns from the four mature oak trees that surround the paddock.  I even tell them that in Spain, there are pigs that are fed exclusively on acorns to make the very best quality jamón ibérico.

It’s been a very good mast year and there is an abundance of acorns.  We bought a clever rolling basket device (called a nut wizard) from Martin Crawford at The Agroforestry Research Trust and started to hoover up the acorns.  We’ve also been making lots of apple juice.  So we finished our three pigs on a diet of acorns and apple pulp and they seemed very happy and suitably heavy.

There are so many acorns, we’ve carried on collecting and will try to store them to feed to next year’s pigs before the acorns start to fall again.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Eco-construction, economics, climate change and peak oil ...


“The construction of Europe is an art.  It is the art of the possible.” 
Jacques Chirac.

I was looking for a suitable quote to kick-start this blog on some eco-construction stuff.  I didn’t find anything I liked for the context I wanted but, with Europe in financial chaos, I thought this ironic, coming as it does from a ex-president of France (’95 to ’07) currently on trial for corruption during his time as mayor of Paris.  The trail is taking place in his absence as the poor dear is suffering memory lapses and is too unwell to attend.

the mix ascends by tractor and bucket
I avoid political ranting on this blog, which is meant to be an easy-going chronicle of our stumbling progress on our Breton permaculture smallholding, promoting our holiday cottage for rent but it’s hard to ignore what’s going on in Europe and the rest of the world at the moment.

Didier setting out some levels
We’ve got a nascent ‘Transition Town’ group not far from us and I’ve offered to get involved, so I’ve just re-read Part One of The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Rob Hopkins.  It’s reminded me that, in comparison to the twin, linked threats of peak oil and climate change, our current economic woes pale into insignificance.  However, our politicians once again fail to rise to the challenge and can only exhort us to throw away stuff that still works (such as your car) and buy morestuff, stuff we don’t really need and which consumes valuable energy and resources to manufacture and transport.
hemp and lime floor

By the by, we had a climate change activist and his son come and stay recently, on their cycling route from the port of St Malo to the south of Brittany, where they are going to start a community farm project.  With the gite booked, we had them in our house and decided not to charge: the idea of freely giving weary travellers shelter and sustenance seemed satisfyingly human.  After dinner he asked if we could watch the English TV news and I had the strangest experience of looking at John Jordan on the television  being interviewed on BBC’s Newsnight and turning to see the same head sat in our armchair watching himself.

all work and ... a large lunch !
I firmly believe that one shouldn’t rant about problems without offering helpful solutions, so my advice to European governments is to ask their peoples to start looking down the backs of their sofas to see if they can find any lost change.  It’s seems the ever-efficient Germans have been the first to do this, ‘finding’ an amazing 55 billion euros they didn’t think they had.  Start pulling those cushions out!

… and to finish off with some eco-construction : work on the barn continues (update soon) and we’ve also been helping out friends.  Bruno and Audrey have a very uneven but solid wooden floor in their attic, which will become their bedroom.  Audrey’s dad, Didier, was maitre d’œuvre for the day and Bruno and several friends and neighbours (me included) mixed and raised up by tractor and buckets, a porridge of hemp and lime for Didier to level.  This light but strong eco-‘concrete’ sets hard over a month or so and consolidates the floor, leaving a flat surface.  The beautiful old oak boards remain in place as the ceiling of the rooms below.  Why ‘eco’ ?  Lime is produced at a much lower temperature than cement (less energy) and absorbs CO2 as it dries/cures.  Hemp is a bit of a wonder plant and requires no chemicals during its cultivation.

We’ve also helped Bruno and Mélanie top off their straw bale house with a green roof.  Another convivial team effort, we planted hundreds of sedums into a substrate of earth and pouzzolane (volcanic rock).  Our influence was to tell them about famous English gardener Gertrude Jekyll’s ‘drifts’.  The idea is to plant large, smooth edged clumps of similar plants together in a satisfyingly uneven drifts.  I’ll post more pics next summer, when the plants have expanded to fill the gaps and come into flower.

Helping French friends out is always a pleasure, particularly as good food and wine is inevitably implicated along with music round the bonfire on the green roof day.

Mél and Bruno round the bonfire
We’re awaiting the arrival of the first of this season’s winter volunteers later today.  Andrew and Sue came for a week last year but have booked for two this time … we’re clearly not working them hard enough!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Quoi de neuf ?

The Tarot Brothers and friends playing jazz in a boat

What’s been happening, have I fallen off the blog?  So much to do … sometimes too much to do.  The new issue of Permaculture Magazine is out today carrying a five-page article on our compost toilet, with our web link at the end.  So, it’s high time I reconnected with the blogosphere and published our latest news.

We’ve been ‘permacultured’!  A few weeks ago, friends Flo Snook, husband Andy and twins Sol and Jacob came to visit us, all the way from Brighton in their venerable van.  Flo has just completed her permaculture diploma with Brighton Permaculture Trust (congratulations!) and took time out to wander around our Brittany permaculture smallholding, pen and notebook in hand.  She talked to both of us and her leaving present to us was a notebook full of her permaculture analysis and suggestions.  It's an exercise I thoroughly recommend: we found it really useful to have a fresh set of trained eyes take a long hard look.  She picked up on ‘overwhelm’ as a limiting factor to our many projects.
Which is one of the reasons that we’ve made special efforts to have some quality downtime recently, including a picnic on the beach and watching a jazz quartet in a narrow boat. 

For picnic fayre, we turned to Elizabeth David for inspiration and an idea that I’ve wanted to try for some time: 

Shooter’s Sandwich

Take a large, thick, excellent rump steak.  Do not season it, for that would cause the juice to run out, and in grilling it keep it markedly underdone.  Have ready a sandwich loaf one end of which has been cut off and an adequate portion of the contents of which has been removed.  Put the steak, hot from the grill, and—but only then—somewhat highly seasoned, into the loaf; add a few grilled mushrooms; replace the deleted end of the loaf; wrap the loaf in a double sheet of clean white blotting-paper, tie with twine both ways, superimpose a sheet of grease-proof paper, and more twine.  Place a moderate weight on top, and after a while add other weights.  Let the thing endure pressure for at least six hours.  Do not carve it until and as each slice is required.

Instead of the weights, I used a pair of building clamps and a couple of wooden boards, which worked a treat.  It makes a damn fine picnic sandwich.

Normal blogging to be resumed very soon, with updates on the barn conversion and other eco-building stuff; how to (almost) make hot compost the Geoff Lawton way and how to efficiently collect acorns to feed to pigs.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The definitive guide to how to sex a rabbit.

One learns a skill, doesn’t use it for 12 months and ends up having to learn it all over again (at least if you possess an age-deteriorated memory like mine).  After our recent medical emergency (see my last post) I was very aware that today was marked down as VHD vaccination day, sexing and separating; we were also childminding.

We look after our 9-year-old neighbour Camille on a Wednesday—her day off from school—as her mother has just started up a new business in a nearby town.

Rabbits quite like being stroked but they don’t like being picked up, so they make rather bad pets (and frequently suffer because of this).  Our vacant chicken tractor was converted into suitable rabbit accommodation by the addition of a mesh bottom (to prevent foxes digging in and them digging out) and we had a large dog box available too.  The idea was to take them out one at a time, vaccinate them and then sex them, males to the ‘chicken’ tractor and the females to the dog box temporarily.  Once they would have been all sorted, a quick clean of the rabbit tractor and all the females go back in.

I lift a rabbit up by the scruff of its neck , supporting its bottom, place it on the top of the dog box, then Gabrielle takes over, encircling the rabbit with her hands and forearms.  I pull a tent of skin up behind the neck and then aim backwards, inline with the rabbit, so to speak—piercing the skin to administer a subcutaneous injection of 0.5ml of Lapinject.  I learnt this technique by watching the vet treating a poorly cat of ours.  If one goes across the rabbit, there's a possibility of going into the skin and then out the other side again (as I've done, a couple of times!)

I then tuck its head between my knees and open the back legs, lightly pressing either side of its genitals to see it we have an ‘inny’ or an ‘outy’, with Camille watching on intently, eager to give her opinion.

I finished this exercise with several scratches to hands and forearms ... and some doubts: as I said in the beginning, it’s been a year since we last did this.   I popped inside for a healing and contemplative cup of tea to accompany a search around the Internet for some more clues on determining the sex of a rabbit.

This is the best and clearest advice I found.  We checked them all again and found we had made one mistake, a girl in with the boys.  The problem is that if one presses too hard, one can make an ‘inny’ appear like an ‘outy’, if you see what I mean.  What we’ve never noticed before, and this website helped us to identify, is a pair of leporine testicles (rabbity bollocks), which is really useful.

To be blogged about very soon: more eco-building stuff; French jazz in a narrow boat and how to make the best picnic sandwich using woodworking tools.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bunny Back from the Brink.

what's up doc ?

Last week, we lost one of our litter of eight young rabbits.  She went downhill suddenly and so we isolated her in the empty chicken tractor.  Another one was also off her food and hunched up, so we took her away too.  They were only ten weeks old and the recently bought vaccines were still in the fridge.  We were scared: was this myxomatosis or viral hemorrhagic disease (VHD)? 

The info from our two books and the Web seem to be exclusively directed at pets, rather than rabbits kept for meat with frequent advice to rush your bunny to the vet, not economically viable for us.

There was nothing we could do for the first one and, having read up on the symptoms of these two horrible diseases, I thought it would be a good idea to conduct a DIY autopsy (not so strange as I’m used to gutting and skinning them under different circumstances).  The liver was in good condition but the small intestine was blown up like a balloon: back to the Internet. (Click here for pictures of a healthy and an VHD infected liver)

bunny tummy massage
Happily, it didn’t seem to be VHD but perhaps gastrointestinal stasis or bloat.  We followed instructions to massage the patient’s belly, monitoring her temperature, keeping her warm and hydrated and trying Simethicone for flatulence, we even gave her an enema.  (If you’re interested, the Simethicone was bought at a pharmacy, in capsules.  We cut the end off a capsule and sucked the contents into a syringe, to administer by mouth to the rabbit).
As I said, we can’t possible call a vet every time one of our animals is in less than top form and part of being a smallholder is learning how to recognise signs of bad health and treat them ourselves and, of course, how to keep them healthy by good husbandry.  By happy coincidence, our lovely vet, Dr Hammadi Mouhli, called me to tell me that he was in our area and could he come by to burdizzo-ise (vasectomise) three male lambs (as previously requested) so we asked him to take a look at the remaining poorly rabbit as well.  Gros ventre’ (big belly) he pronounced and diagnosed a case of Coccidiosis infection, prescribing Metoxyl in their drinking water. 

By the time I’d passed by the surgery the following morning to collect the prescription, she was already looking a little better.  We took no chances and have administered the medicine but wonder whether our own efforts had already treated her and what, in fact, she was suffering from.   
happy bunnies

Monday, September 05, 2011

Tweet, tweet …

I’ve been tweeted and re-tweeted, tweeted twice in fact, twit-twoo.  I’m not a twitter, merely a blogger, so hardly cutting edge but one must move with the times.  So, although I enjoy writing articles for magazines, I write on a computer rather than with a fountain pen in a moleskin notebook, I’m no literary Luddite.

Permaculture Magazine have decided to put quite a lot of effort into publishing more articles on the Internet rather than increasing the size of individual magazines or the frequency of publication (still a frustrating wait for each quarterly magazine).  I continue to write articles for their magazines but have now started writing for their website too.
My first effort shows how to make a barbeque out of an old oil drum, aided by my diminutive assistant, 9-year-old neighbour Camille (here dressed up in her dad's work wear). 

My latest offering is how to press your own apple juice.  Either go to the magazine’s website and scroll down to ‘Readers’ Solutions’ or click here.

I sent the text and photos off and then my thoughts turned to the next project.  However, no sooner than it was published on the site than my step-daughter, Christina, emailed me (from her Blackberry) to tell me that she’d been alerted to Permaculture Magazine tweeting my nascent article and that she’d re-tweeted it to her Twitting followers.  I’m not sure I fully understand.

She signed off with, “Can't wait to try some of the juice!”  For all this electronic wizardry, she’ll actually have to come and see us, it’s not as if I can email the apple juice to her … or could I ?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Like Ducks to Water

From egg to table ready in ten weeks!  I'd been meaning to post updates on the progress of our ducks but time has flown and they now reside in the freezer.  With a hen as a mother, they had to learn to swim by themselves and they took to it ... well, like a duck to water !

Almost as soon as they could waddle, they would dabble about in their drinking water and we gave them ever larger receptacles to play in.  The video above is of them still in their chicken tractor nursery.

They moved to more spacious accommodation and benefitted from a large fenced area to safely free-range within.  They got the lid of a child's sandpit to swim in.  The delightful commentary in French is supplied by our 9-year-old neighbour, Camille.

The intention never was to let them onto our pond.  We've read too often how ducks generally trash and mess up any pond they're put on but we were keen to see them on a larger expanse of water and couldn't pass by such a photogenic moment.

After about thirty minutes of fun, the ducks would climb out.  We got in the habit of putting them on the pond once a day and, in the end, they would get out and return to their paddock all by themselves, only needing one of us to close the gate the next time we passed by.

We're going to re-evaluate and re-design the duck raising infrastructure for next year.  We need to have a water supply close to their enclosure to allow frequent changing of their bath without having to cart heavy watering cans and buckets about and then use gravity to take the duck-poop-enhanced dirty water to our potager.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Learning to Scythe with Simon Fairlie.

Students mowing an orchard early one Sunday morning
 A few years back, I sold our fully functioning petrol strimmer and with the money bought a pair of ash-handled scythes with razor-sharp Austrian blades.  I don’t think we’ve done too badly since and (sharpening aside) it’s always ready to go and one’s never caught short for lack of fuel, 2-stroke oil or strimmer string.  Like most things, though, there’s only so far book and video learning can take you and so I recently signed up for a scything course hosted by Brighton Permaculture Trust and run by Simon Fairlie, vendor of our scythes.

Tai Chi, with sharp knives!
After the classroom stuff and an interesting history of the scythe, we ventured out onto the closely cropped lawns of Stanmer Park.  The idea wasn’t to cut anything but to practice the moves: think of a Tai Chi group wielding machetes.  Although it wasn’t the aim of this particular exercise, it was satisfying to see tiny green shards displaced by a well executed pass.

We then moved onto an area with grass around six inches high to mow.  There were arboreal obstacles and slopes and, while I wondered whether a flatter, more even surface might have been more inviting for our first efforts, this was a ‘real life’ scenario.  Simon and his two assistants wandered carefully among us, offering advice and honing our blades.

More classroom stuff, including the importance of peening and honing to keep the blade sharp.  Learning how to get the blade to the required sharpness and maintain it is as essential as learning how to scythe properly.  Even with a good technique, scything with a blade that needs sharpening is hard work and puts unnecessary strain on the wooden snath (handle) but if the blade is really sharp, you can cut grass even with a less than perfect stroke.

For the second day, we were invited to start at 7 in the morning and I think even Simon was impressed by how many of us managed to roll out of bed early enough to join him in a community orchard with the dew still on the grass.  In ages past, a team of scythesmen would start work before daybreak.  There is more moisture in the plant and so the stems are stiffer and thus easier to cut with a swing of a scythe.

Once we’d tidied up the orchard, Simon showed us how to make a rack out of a couple of A-frames to dry the cut grass into hay.  He then gave us a very useful talk on managing grassland to feed stock throughout the year, the spring excess saved as hay to feed through the lean months of winter.

red arrows show my nice straight windrows chez nous
Since I came home from that trip ‘abroad’, I’ve taken to a new regime, getting out of bed earlier and doing half-an-hour’s scything before breakfast.  I’m getting better at peening and honing and regular practice is improving my scythe strokes but I’m not sure how long I can keep getting out in the field so early.  The rewards are great as the exercise and deep breathing (out through the mouth on the cut, in through the nose on the return) feels good and seeing the morning sun wash over the oak trees while being serenaded by birdsong is sublime.
Simon explains the different blades

Buy your scythes and accessories from Simon Fairlie’s TheScythe Shop.
Mr Scythe International: Peter Vido 
The Vido family showing us how it should be done

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Don’t give up on us, baby …

bouncing bunny

Our rabbit didn’t do too well with her first litter back in March.  Gabrielle had the very unpleasant experience of discovering mum in the process of eating, or at least biting into one of her tiny charges and was forced into rescuing it from maternal fangs and then putting it swiftly out of its misery.  Horrible.  Several died until one day I found the remains of the litter all cold.

We did some research and it appears that ironically, considering their immense capacity to procreate, rabbits can be very poor mothers.  It also seems that a mother rabbit eating her offspring is not fully understood and isn’t linked to babies being handled (a common claim).  The advice seemed to be to forgive her this once, and maybe even a second litter, to see if she’d come good. 

We took her to the buck again, round neighbour Annick’s house and, three weeks later, she presented us with a litter of eleven.  Over the next few days, we lost three and I wondered where we were going this time around but then we started to see signs that the remaining baby bunnies were putting on weight.  Except one.

Once they had fur and were big enough to scamper round the nest box, we noticed one little scrap was half the size and had his head held to one side and an eye closed.  He didn’t seem at all stable when moving around.  Then, one morning when I went out to feed mum, I found him outside in the run, soaking wet (it had rained overnight) cold to the touch and barely breathing.

When keeping animals, one sometimes has to intervene, as Gabrielle had done above, and perhaps it would have been kind to put this rabbity runt out of his misery.  What I did was pick him up and race back to the house, where Gabrielle took him into the bathroom and warmed him up gently with the fan heater but he refused her attempts to feed him.  Once he was warm and dry, we tucked him up with the rest of the litter.  There was little else we could do and I was convinced that I’d find him dead the following day.

He has remained very much alive!  We treated his eye with drops and he has grown a lot, almost catching up with the others.  Unfortunately for my reportage, in moments of stress, I tend towards an ambulance man rather than a Don McCullin  so I don’t have photos of the rescue from hypothermia but you can see how well he looks now in the photo above.

Part 2 – The Tree Returns from the Dead

first shoots of recovery
Back in March, with the tree layer of our forest garden  finally planned, we had to move a couple of trees  including one sweet chestnut (variety: Marron de Redon).  A bit late to be mucking tree roots about and getting a bit to big to move anyway, we would need to keep its roots well watered.  We had not a drop of rain in April.  After a fortnight of parsimonious precipitation, we had another thirty days sans une goutte de pluie

I managed to keep it, the other newly planted trees and the sixty five hedging plants going with too many trips carrying heavy watering cans.  When all seemed to be ticking over nicely, I turned my attention to other things and I found one day that all the leaves had dried up, turned brown and were just about to fall off.  I told Gabrielle and tried to be philosophical but it was still very disappointing.  I gave it a real soak and left it, not really thinking that there was any way back.

The tree wasn’t dead but had gone into self-preservation mode.  Large leaves like those of the sweet chestnut transpire a lot of water and as the roots weren’t taking any up, the plant shut down.  With a big boost of water, it’s woken up again and is enthusiastically chucking out new, bright green leaves.  I won’t let it down again and will keep a close eye on its progress as I’m not sure I’d get a second chance.
a second spring for this chestnut

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Strawberry Fields Forever …

mara des bois strawberries
Wild alpine strawberries have a concentrated burst of aromatic flavour yet are frustratingly tiny.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could get that same intense taste in a full-sized strawberry?  Apparently you can, with a French perpetual variety called Mara des Bois.

Strawberry beds need moving and replanting every three years as plants become diseased and yields reduce.  Fresh plants from a disease-free source should be planted in a new bed.  As I didn’t get my plants until this spring I have been very disciplined, removing the flowers so the plants use all their energy to establish their root systems before they go for gold and give us their delicious berries next year.  (If you plant in the autumn then you don’t need to do this as the plant has already established itself over the winter and spring before fruiting begins.)

borage towering over strawberry plants
I am interested in companion planting but I like to really understand why something works.  Many sources quote, time and again, that borage is a great companion for strawberries.  But, when I tried to dig a little deeper and find out why this should be so, the evidence is thin on the ground.  I’m suspicious that people are repeating each other endlessly, rather than writing from a position of real knowledge, a bit like the bunkum about throwing away mussels that refuse to open after cooking.  Beware the unsubstantiated ‘truth’!

Despite my growing doubts, I went ahead and planted some borage on the edge of the new strawberry bed.  It’s a great plant, the bees love it and the flowers are both beautiful and edible.  The problem with borage as a companion for strawberries is that it is a big sprawling plant and very quickly totally overwhelmed my new strawberry plants so I took out the all but one.  (The bees still benefit from other borage plants elsewhere in the garden.)
If you know why borage is a good companion plant for strawberries and how they should be planted to benefit rather than overwhelm, please post a comment.

strawberry between a rock and a hard place
And to something that does work: for the last few years I have used a neat little trick that I learnt from Sepp Holzer (The Rebel Farmer  and Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture). He observed that the strawberries that did best for him were sited near to rocks and he worked out that the rocks acted like storage heaters for the tender plants.  I found some flat black stones and tucked them around the plants and it seems to benefit the production and ripening of fruits.

We must be patient to see how my strawberry bed performs next summer.  Mara des Bois are resistant to flowery mildew and are perpetual (fruiting from May until first frosts) yielding up to 1kg per plant. I have high hopes for the flavour and the yield from my fifteen plants. Plenty enough fruit for topping our morning muesli, making jam, ice cream and pies and Stuart’s favourite: macerating fresh strawbs in Cointreau and sugar. Delicious! 


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cob, oak window frames and squeezing in stairs …

cob ball test
I spent all day yesterday working outside my comfort zone.  And that after a fitful night’s sleep when I was either staring at the ceiling with elements of the barn renovation circling mobile-like around my head or dreaming about them.  Exhausting!

Having taken down several oak beams and with new, engineered I-beams on order, I have to chisel out pockets in the wall for them to sit in.  The dry earth that’s been removed gets remixed—with the addition of water and some straw—to seal them in.  I’ll also need this “cob” to fix a new oak window frame.  I’ve only ever worked with this material at friends’ houses (most recently on Bruno’s and Mélanie´s straw bale house build) and have never been in charge.

The weight of responsibility is heavy: the mix must be right.  Too much clay and I’ll have cracks, too much sand and it won’t hold together.  My reference guide is Building With Cob: A Step-by-Step Guide by Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce.  Perhaps I’m worrying too much, as I’m reusing the earth from a wall that’s already stood for over a hundred years but I ran a couple of tests anyway.  The standard one is to half-fill a jar with the soil and top it up with water, shake vigorously to thoroughly mix the contents and leave to settle out.  The other one involved making a fist-sized ball and then dropping it from waist-height.  If the ball breaks up, there’s not enough clay and if it pancakes, too much.  Mine held its shape (see photo at top).  I then left it while I attended to other things, with the intention of taking a photo later.  This abandoned ball of mud in the middle of a path caused nine-year-old neighbour Camille to laugh as she came to see what we were up to: another example of the eccentricities of her English neighbours.

"double carré en bois"
The next task was to assemble an oak frame that will straddle the cob wall and receive the window.  Using some drawings from a local association dedicated to the preservation of old buildings with original building techniques, I’d fabricated the individual pieces some time ago.  I got the same drawings out, cleaned out the mortises and shaved the tenons until I could dry fit everything.  Dry fitting is an important step as I renumbered the pieces three times until I had them in the right position: not great for my self-confidence and making gluing up stressful, with much checking and re-checking of the frame against the drawings.

And, as if that wasn't enough for one day, I had to design the stairs.  One works out the “total rise” from finished floor height of the entrance hall to the same upstairs and divides it by 220mm (maximum individual rise for each step).  One then rounds up to the nearest whole number (each step must be the same to avoid tripping and falling) and recalculates to obtain the actual rise, which will be less than 220mm. 

where the stairs will go
The treads, or “goings” are next.  I need to avoid a beam that I can’t remove (maintaining 2 metres head-height) and then I can’t go too far over the width of the building, as that won’t leave enough room for passage to the bathroom.  I had visions of future holidaymakers staggering, bleary-eyed, for a nocturnal wee and walking (falling!) straight down the stairs.  After much measuring, drawing, pondering and surfing, I found the solution: a “Z” or “S” shaped winder.

Have in mind a ceilidh or barn dance caller, this is how it goes: one step, three winders to the right, two steps, three winders to the left, two steps, do-si-do and take your partner by the hand.  I then phoned Simon at, gave him the dimensions and my credit card number and relaxed.  Being of a nervous disposition though, having scoffed lunch, I dragged Gabrielle out to the barn to confirm I had everything correct.  I hadn’t!  I might have remembered the thickness of the floor but I’d forgotten 200mm of floor joists … oops!  A hurried phone call to Simon and we recalculated and added another step and all was well.  A cold feeling ran down my spine as I imagined getting the stairs back to France, offering them up and finding them short.

[An aside: why am I buying stairs in the UK when we live in France?  Buying local is ethical, I know, but the price difference on some things is astonishing and it fits it (by the skin of its teeth and the help of Simon) with a planned trip to see my mum.] 

So, you see, the eco-renovation of our cob barn is well under way to provide further holiday accommodation but not without some tears and tantrums!