Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mud, glorious mud

The weather today will be mainly rain, interspersed with frequent showers, downpours and general all-round humidity. It was wet yesterday, it’s wet today and it’s going to be wet tomorrow. In fact, it’s wetter than a very wet thing that’s been soaked in a bucket of water and left under a running tap.

The ground is like a sponge to walk on. Cultivating such soil is a no-no and there's a danger that the soil can be compressed and damaged when in this state. Curiously, our sheep walk in set tracks in the field when moving about but spread out to graze and, as they're half the size of a ‘normal’ sheep, I’m not too worried about their pasture; the pig paddock is another thing.

We normally don’t keep pigs over the winter but due to special circumstances we were looking after four pigs for a local farmer until up to slaughter weight, which meant keeping them over the heart of a very wet winter. Pigs are heavy, disturb the ground with their snouts and, at this time of year, there’s nothing but roots to interest them, even the acorns long having finished. They’ve turned their paddock into some sort of homage to the Battle of the Somme.  

Much is made of pigs’ delight in rolling around in mud but that's mud that is cooling and protecting in summer: an organic sun tan lotion. However, this is a different thing and I felt a little sorry for these barn-raised pigs sploshing around in this cold exterior and we spread plenty of straw around several times to try and improve the situation. This is a one off for us, never to be repeated but must be a real issue for farmers who are rearing free-range pigs through all four seasons. Free-ranging pigs is good for the pigs but can be really bad for the land. Some people have remarked to us how adding all this organic matter (straw) must be good for the soil but I’ve been mixing cob for our barn renovation and, to a clay soil, one adds water and straw and mixes it on a tarp by marching vigorously all over it, which is just about exactly what the pigs have been doing. I fear that when it dries out, we’ll have ourselves one hell of a slab of ‘organic concrete’. That might be the time to ask one of our neighbours to plough it.

Now the French word for mud is ‘boue’ or, and I think this is slang, ‘gadoue’. Do you remember the 1984 pop party record Agadoo, by Black Lace? It went, “Agadoo doo doo push pineapple shake the tree …” I’ve rewritten it:

If you’ve nothing else to do, watch the original on YouTube and sing along with my new lyrics … I did!

     La gadoue, boue, boue, mucky piggies fondue, 
     La gadoue, boue, boue, could do with a canoe
     To the left, to the right, jump up and down and twist about
     Come and dance every day in this sloppy muddy goo

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Good health

Latest volunteer Tom at work in Paris                (Photo: ©Cédric Martinelli)
I’ve been up against a deadline to get as much of the urgent heavier jobs done before Thursday, when I went into the local hospital to have a hernia repaired. I’m now walking around rather gingerly, with instructions not to do too much at all physically, for the next three weeks or so. It was heavy sneezing that did it: during a succession of bellowing, snorting “aitchoos” something strangely went “bloop” in my groin. It was quickly obvious what it was and, thankfully, the excellent health service here allowed me to see my doctor, have a scan, see a surgeon and be booked in for repair in double quick time. In fact, I even had to ask to have the op later than I was first offered, so I could host a volunteer for a week, take our three pigs to the abattoir and a couple of other urgent smallholding jobs before my obligatory R ’n’ R.

As Gabrielle headed for the ferry to go and support her mother through her second cataract operation, I drove to the local railway station to collect volunteer Tom, a furniture buildingcomputer programming Englishman in Paris.

northern windbreak for forest garden
I think we pretty much did something different every day. We attacked a brambly jungle in our woodland, creating a path around the edge of a third-of-an-acre plot where we want to set up a coppicing cycle (more on this in future blogs). Continuing work I’d already started, we mattock-ed off a two metre wide band of turf, prepared holes and planted a double row of trees and shrubs that will serve as a windbreak to our developing forest garden

86-yr-old Monsieur Gallée with his 'almost new' tractor
We also spent a day beating an overgrown laurel hedge into submission at the house of our vet. Another of our exchanges, we “pay” for any veterinary treatment to our animals through gardening jobs. We were helped by the jovial, energetic and elderly Francis Gallée. At 86, his appetite for life and work outdoors is undimmed and he took all the brash to the nearby municipal tip, saving the larger trunks for himself for heating wood. Smiling proudly, he told us that he’d bought his tractor new … over thirty years ago.

Tom grinding coffee
Tom introduced me to the pleasures of freshly-ground coffee. He brought with him a Japanese Porlex hand grinder and a packet of beans and we finished each breakfast with a small cup of black coffee, drunk with the care and enthusiasm of a connoisseur. We ate well, grateful that Gabrielle had frozen a store of home-cooked food before she left.

One more job I had lined up was the taking of one of last year’s lamb for the freezer. I put this to Tom, saying that I could easily wait until after his departure as I didn’t want to push him into something that he would feel uncomfortable about. He had a think and said yes. Following a thorough explanation of what I was going to do, the animal was humanely slaughtered (using a captive bolt stunner) skinned and drawn. It was then wrapped in a clean sheet, hung overnight in our workshop and butchered the following morning.

I devilled the kidneys (with a few added mushrooms to bulk it out) for lunch the following day and Tom said, “I felt it was one of the most direct relationships I've ever had to my food.” After a half-day’s work on Sunday, Tom's last day on the smallholding, we treated ourselves to a traditional Sunday roast, with a very fresh leg of lamb, roast potatoes, boiled cabbage (out of the garden) with loads of gravy. As Tom had introduced me to the finer points of coffee appreciation, I felt I ought to return the favour (flavour?) by opening a good bottle of Bordeaux, which we sniffed, swirled and sipped before gulping ... absolutely delicious!

Friday, February 01, 2013

Online Permaculture Design Course

Ragmans Lane Farm
Patrick Whitefield
I did my PDC with Patrick Whitefield at Ragmans Lane Farm  back in 2004. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Ragmans is in a lovely part of the Gloucestershire countryside and makes a great setting to the lessons, the organic, vegetarian food was delicious, accommodation comfortable, I like learning in a group and Patrick and Cathy are great instructors. However, there’s a lot of information to absorb in just under a fortnight and, good value though it is, you’re paying for full board and lodging, so it is quite a chunk of money and taking two weeks off work could be difficult. Patrick’s new online permaculture design course might be just what you’re looking for.

A surveying exercise on my PDC at Ragmans
Gabrielle has wanted to do a PDC for quite a while: she wanted the theoretical grounding to the practical work we’re doing here in Brittany, to be encouraged to delve a little deeper into the elements of permaculture and, lastly, to have the formal recognition of having done the standard 72-hour permaculture course. We investigated various options but kept coming up against the obstacles of having to take a considerable time away from our own smallholding, woodlands and holiday cottage business and the cost. Then we heard that Patrick was putting together an online course, which seemed the perfect solution.

Me learning online
He began by putting his Sustainable Land Use course (now called The Land Course) online and we both signed up for that. It’s allowed us to work through the four modules of Soil, Ecology, Organic Horticulture and Sustainable Forestry in the order of our choosing and at our own pace. Patrick has effectively added in some aspects that would otherwise have been missing in the translation from a real course to a virtual one, for example, monthly Skype conferences have allowed us to have some direct instruction from Patrick, followed by a discussion amongst fellow students. The online forums have allowed us to communicate with each other, asking questions and sharing ideas and, of course, we were always free to email Patrick.

We’ve come to the end of the Land Course, perfect timing as Patrick has only just put the permaculture design course online. You can see the prices here, there are discounts if you take more than one module. Even if you don’t fancy doing the whole Land Course, I recommend that you consider taking the Ecology module as it serves as the perfect foundation course for the PDC, i.e., I think you’d get more out of the PDC having done the Ecology module first. Why? As observing natural ecosystems (to understand how they work and copy them) is central to permaculture, the Ecology module's explanation of observing and interpreting what you see is invaluable: it certainly increased my own observation skills hugely. If you don’t do that, then at least get hold of a copy of Patrick’s latest book, TheLiving Landscape - How To Read It & Understand It.

As I’ve done my PDC, it’ll be Gabrielle that takes this online course but I shall be looking over her shoulder and it should be a useful revision of the elements that make up permaculture; we’re looking forward to it.