Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Renovating a natural hedge.

To the west of the building plot for our future eco-house, was a hedge with four unevenly-spaced mature oak trees linked together by an unbroken ball of brambles that swamped and concealed everything else.  Last autumn, holiday makers Clive and Wendy asked for something to do.  Only they can tell you whether they regret asking! 

With sturdy gloves, secateurs, loppers, a rake and a billhook, they cut and dragged away the bulk part of the brambles and then further equipped with my my favourite hedgerow identification book, some sticky tape and a marker pen, labelled the plants left standing.

We have hawthorn and blackthorn (bien sûr) field maple, briar rose, holly and a thing we can’t identify until it comes back into leaf.  It was time to retreat to a comfy chair in front of the wood stove and do some swotting up.  As always, I thoroughly recommend the BCTV range of books and pulled Hedging by Alan Brooks and Elizabeth Agate from the bookshelf.  I’d also picked up some excellent guides produced by the Conseil Générale for Côtes d’Armor (look under “Les publications disponible”) at a local agricultural show a couple of years back.  Oh, and, of course, a shufty around the Internet too.

In France, as in the UK, rural ministries have handed out subsidies to rip out hedgerows and are now giving subsidies to replant them … so much for moderation and forward vision!  That said, soon-to-be-retired-pig-farming-neighbour Paul said that in his youth there were so many hedges (enclosing tiny fields) that a farmer could spend all year just maintaining hedgerows (for no reward) but he accepts that perhaps too many were ripped out.  It’s a question of balance, of course.  He also pointed out that the hand that giveth also taketh awayeth: yes, there might be subsidies to replant hedges but, at the same time in France, satellite imagery allows the subsidy-giving agencies to subtract areas under the shadow of, say a venerable oak, from the area of the field to be subsidised, leading a farmer, logically, to shred or fell said tree … doh!

We wanted to reinstate a mixed natural hedge for the aesthetic and to increase biodiversity.  The range of plants would be chosen with the ultimate goal of laying it to produce a livestock-proof hedge.  We eventually cut everything hard back, even the field maple and some well established trunks of hawthorn, which should re-grow.  We filled the gap with seventy small plants, which had had their bare-roots dunked in a fungal dip of friendly mycorrhiza.  We have planted Sessile oaks, crab apple, common dogwood, sea buckthorn, guelder rose and cherry plum (myrobalan) along with the hedging staples of hawthorn and blackthorn. Buds and leaves are already appearing and we’re keeping it well watered, and will start mulching it with grass cuttings as my gardening job gets properly underway.  I’ll post photo updates as it gets established. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Who wears the trousers round here ? (by Gabrielle)

Denim skirt by Gabrielle
Surely I'm not the only woman that finds buying clothes difficult?  Even as a young woman the fickleness of fashion frustrated me and some trends have tried my patience beyond belief: low rise jeans, pointed shoes and thong style knickers to name the shameful. I tend towards a traditional shape, not suited by most modern designs.

I’m always on the look out for good solid work-wear when I’m out in the garden, working in the woodland or generally getting messy and dirty in the studio and workshop.  I want good quality, reasonably priced and stylish stuff and it can be a devil to find.  My daughter Christina has upped the anti by embarking on a year-long quest to only buy ethical clothes.

Christina is a self-confessed fast fashion junkie but after watching a documentary on UK TV recently she has had a Damascene conversion. She was so shocked by the conditions of work in sweatshops, not only in the Third World but also just a few miles away from her home in East London that she decided there and then to stop buying into to this insidious system. Co-incidentally, around the same time, I watched a powerful documentary on French TV “Je l’achète, je le jette (I buy it I throw it away) that exposed some very uncomfortable truths relating to global cotton mass production.  Due to high demand and crop failures last year, prices are now rising and shortages are being predicted and un-organic cotton is the dirtiest crop in regard to its use of pesticides, so there are several reasons to make do and mend. 

The modern term, apparently, is ‘to up-cycle’: to turn some old cast-off into a great new thing. My source material came from my lovely husband.  Stuart has a limited palate of clothing that basically consists of jeans, work trousers and old shirts, usually with bits of hay attached … and that’s on a good day.  He gets though a pair of 501’s a year on average and the latest rejects had landed on the laundry floor, from whence I reclaimed them and turned them into a new work skirt for me. 

It’s an old technique and there are dozens of good tutorials on the net.  I like this one, especially with its humbly apologetic list entitled “Here is some stuff I found out the hard way”.  Whilst it’s not as glamorous as this wonderful dress by Gary Harvey it feels great to wear it and looks a lot better than the tatty old trousers I had before. 

Denim Dress by Gary Harvey

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The right place

Neighbour Robin helping me move a false acacia tree
Sometimes, you actually have to put something somewhere so that you can find out that it’s in the wrong place.  If you follow the permaculture design process as laid out by Patrick Whitefield, you go through five stages (base map, site survey, questionnaire, evaluation and design proposal) before you get the chance to put a plant in the ground.  And then it’s in the wrong place … how did that happen?  

I accept the possibility that I’m incompetent, a second-grade permaculturalist or an under-skilled designer.  Or maybe it’s just part of the learning process and I’ll make fewer mistakes the more I design and perhaps even the experts still make mistakes but their gentle egos prevent them telling us.  Fin, bref, we’ve got some trees in the wrong place.
As our forest garden plan evolves, we have changed the position of several trees.  At this stage of the design process, still on paper, changing things is allowed.  In Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Produce Edible Crops Martin Crawford recommends that we “keep the design on the go for several months, perhaps only coming back to it for a few minutes from time to time.”  The photo shows me “moving a tree” with just my fingertips; you can see that this is the ideal stage to move trees.

Sometimes though, it’s not until something is in place that one realises, for various reasons that it’s in the wrong place and have to reach for the spade…

We’d planted a pair of false acacias (also called black locust, Latin robinia pseudoacacia) to frame an entrance onto our property but didn’t at first realise how large a tree they become and how quickly they grow.  They were sucking water and nutrients from beneath a living willow fence/hedge we’ve planted and, as the “fedge” comes into leaf again, we can see the effect on those rods nearest the tree.  So that tree had to go and as the forest garden design calls for one, we thought of “treecycling” it.  

Now you don’t have to have read Robert Kourik’s  Roots Demystified  to guess that a big tough tree—especially a pioneering, quick growing one—has big tough roots.  Quite frankly, it was a b****** to dig out.  But a young tree is no match for a determined man with a long sharp spade and a bilingual lexicon of swear words to help him along and, as the air turned blue, out it came.

Gabrielle and the repositioned False Acacia tree

I asked neighbour Robin to give me a hand and, with Gabrielle on the lighter end and in charge of steering, we walked it into the field of pasture that will become our forest garden and plopped it into a big hole I’d dug earlier.  5ft 2ins Gabrielle helpfully adds scale to the photo of the repositioned tree.

For any of you who’d like to learn a few French swearwords (gros mots) to help when moving trees, I’d recommend working on a building site for a few days, although I’m not sure that the straw bale house build where I learned mine necessarily implies that they’re environmentally friendly cusses.