Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Barn renovation update : April ’13

After a long working day, we take a beer to the field, sit down and hang out with the sheep
It seems that the last time I posted something on our barn being renovated into further holiday accommodation was last July; I have carried on working, just not got round to blogging about it.

I’ve been asked, on several occasions by well-meaning and supportive friends, “haven’t you finished the barn yet?” The tax authorities used to send me a letter each year, reminding me of my responsibility to tell them once it was completed (so they can start taxing us) but they seem to have given up. The thing is, it’s mainly just me, I’m forever venturing into unknown territory (much time-delaying research and head-scratching) and doing things like reusing old beams and other reclaimed material, which take longer than buying new, and we’ve got a busy smallholding and a gite business to run.

We’ve recently re-roofed the existing gite, reducing the cost by me working with the couvreur Jacques, so that was the best part of two weeks taken out of the year. I had three weeks of enforced downtime following a hernia operation and have also spent at least three weeks in our woodland felling this year’s firewood and creating an ash under oak coppice system. There are only 52 weeks in a year.

I find that when other work intervenes, I lose mental engagement with the barn project until I awake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, staring at the bedroom ceiling with my mind racing and black clouds of doubt threatening. I resolve to get back to it the following day and hope sleep returns.

It’d be wrong to have you believe this is a solitary battle because, from time to time, we get some very generous, enthusiastic and technically adept help from friends, volunteers and, like Andrew, volunteers who’ve become friends. So, in a sequence of short blogs, I’ll endeavour to bring you up to date.

The building is made of two foot (60cm) wide cob on a short stem wall of stone. The only proper way to finish this is either a lime render on the outside or earth plaster on the inside. I’ve worked with a few different people on a few earth plastering jobs in France and there are as many different recipes and ideas as there are enthusiasts.

I asked Samuel to help me on the entrance hall and the photo shows a before and during. Following blogs will bring you completely up to date.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Guest blog from volunteers Anne and Fiaz

Anne sows seeds
Stuart and Gabrielle’s smallholding was the first stop on our three-month journey through France, Spain and Portugal in search of ‘the good life’. A few months ago, we quit our office jobs in pursuit of a more fulfilling and sustainable way of life. We agreed that the best way to find out what this might look like would be to visit and learn from like-minded people, who have already set up a similar lifestyle to what we are interested in.

Fiaz building a nestbox
When we arrived in Brittany, we already had a vague idea of what our ‘ideal smallholding’ might look like: it should be in a remote location with no neighbours too close and we wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible.

After a week with Stuart and Gabrielle, who were very generous with their time, thoughts and information, we realised that being isolated from other people possibly isn’t that desirable after all, in fact it is very important to be part of the local community. We really liked their approach of creating mutually beneficial relationships with the people around them for trading skills, swapping products and sharing information and tools, without involving money.

They have also influenced our thinking about self-sufficiency, pointing out that if you produce everything yourself you may put other local people out of business, for example, they make a point of buying their bread at the village baker. Also some things just aren’t feasible on a small scale and it’s therefore better to focus on the things you like doing and can do well instead of trying to do everything yourself.
working as a team in their woods
Working with Stuart and Gabrielle in their woodland and on the smallholding, seeing how they do and approach things has helped us to progress in our thinking and see some things differently. Besides lots of food for thought, we were also fed incredibly well, we certainly didn’t expect to get 3-course meals and home-made cheesecake on our volunteering adventure, the bar for the next stop is set high!

Just a week into the journey, it’s already proved to be a worthwhile undertaking – many thanks to both of you.

Anne and Fiaz’ next stop will be a forest garden in the Limousin area and a certified organic pig farm in the South West of France. You can follow their travels at

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Busy, busy, busy ...

Not for the first time, I'm apologising for a hiatus in my blogging due to being too busy: running around like a bunch on newly born lambs, as busy as bees impatient to get spring started and go out collecting food. 

We've had back-to-back volunteers and so got a lot of work done on the barn conversion and in our woodland. We're taking a proper day off (minus a couple of small but essential jobs) before holidaymakers arrive in our gite (with it's new roof) tomorrow and we return, once again, to the 'list of things to do'.

Upcoming blogs will include how we got all three hives safely through a long winter, our attempt as this year's permaculture 'must have': a hugelkultur bed, work in the barn, with hemp & lime and earth plastering, new doors and walls and ceilings going up, forest garden windbreak and making willow baskets and traps against the Asian hornet.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

No dig gardening

“To dig or not to dig, that is the permaculture question:
Whether ’tis nobler for the mud to suffer
The spades and forks of energetic gardeners
Or to leave alone this sea of microbes …”
William Shakespeare, 17th century gardener.

When trying to explain to someone what perm(anent agri)culture is, one subject that will quickly come up is that of ‘no dig’. Soil is degraded by continued turning: organic matter lost to oxidisation and beneficial microbes and fungus disturbed, even killed. There are, however, very good reasons to dig, such as to decompact the soil and remove perennial weeds.

One aspect trumpeted by enthusiastic practitioners is that permaculture implies reduced effort and so land intended to be bought into cultivation is sheet mulched (with cardboard and straw) and the planting done through holes cut through the mulch. By the end of the season, the grass and weeds are dead, the mulch has decomposed and you have a crop of veggies. That doesn’t deal with compacted soil though and some perennial weeds, such as couch grass, are particularly resistant to this tactic, weaving pale strings of stolons in between the cardboard searching for an opportunity to germinate. 

Our own policy is to double dig first, getting up close and personal with our soil, removing what we don’t like the look of and giving the soil a loosen to at least two spits (length of a spade head) deep. After that, we might dig it again the following winter to remove of any persistent weeds that we didn’t get the first time and then go to no dig thereafter.

We wanted to plant up a little corner at the junction of two fields with three witch hazels of different colours, an edible hazel, a manuka and a load of bulbs to give us some colour at the grey end of winter as it turns to spring. I put my fork in the ground and found it a touch stony. And it was a touch stony to the left, to the right, in fact just about everywhere.

A look at some old photos given to us by the previous owners when they took over this land from retiring farmers shows this area to have been used as a tractor turning area (= compaction) and another neighbour remembered that Roger used to tip a trailer load of gravel each year over this area to stop his tractors getting mired in the mud.

Rather than just digging planting holes for the shrubs and thinking that burying bulbs wouldn’t be easy, we decided to double dig the whole area. All of the gravel you see in the pile came from that small triangle of field; that’s a lot of riddling! I reckon that there’s the best part of a ton there and it will avoid a trip to the sablière the next time I need to mix some concrete. We added home-made compost, raked it level and planted up, then mulched with deciduous woodchip. With the grass-suppressing bulbs and the mulch, we hope that this pretty corner will be very low maintenance from now on.