Category Archives: Permaculture

The Coming Year (Part 2)

The plan for the year is gradually coming together, which is good, because I want something to take my mind off yesterday.

First, I’m spending time on getting my health in order. This isn’t really an active choice, after the pre-Christmas admission to hospital it was more or less forced on me. I’m in hospital tomorrow, though I’ve already covered that.

Second, I’m doing more exercise and making sure I get out in the open air. We said we would do it and although it’s a bit patchy it’s going quite well. Having blown a few cobwebs away I’m now feeling a lot fitter. Again, it’s not taking a lot of effort as I like getting out with the camera and binoculars.

Third, we’re putting a few plans in place for holidays- a long weekend in the Lakes and a week on Mull. Last time we had a full week the Beijing Olympics were on. Again, it’s not difficult to manage this.

Fourth, we have the permaculture and nature books out and we’re planning the changes in the garden. We’ll start with a good tidy (we’ve neglected it badly over the last couple of years due to the time we’ve spent on the farm) and see how it goes. This is going to take more effort. I’m starting with a wildlife pond and gooseberry bushes. Well, you have to start somewhere.

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Washing up basin wildlife pond

Fifth, we need to declutter the house  and do some decorating. (See comments in Four). So far I’ve taken some books to charity shops. Every journey starts with a single step…

Sixth is weight loss. No plan just yet, it’s just sitting their like the elephant in the room. That’s what Julia has started calling me anyway.

The featured picture is a Robin from Rufford Abbey, all puffed up against last week’s cold.  It’s hard to beat a Robin photo for cheeriness.

The Day that Permaculture Died

We went to the farm today to go through the tree measuring protocols so they can carry on measuring after we leave. Imagine our surprise when we walked out of the back door of the centre.

Something is missing.

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The day that Permaculture died…

Do you recognise this blasted heath? Looks a bit like as mass grave of all our ambitions, concealed under a carpet of woodchip.

As a clue, it used to look like this.

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Raised beds at the Ecocentre, Screveton

It’s not the greatest comparison photograph but I never thought to take one. After five years of planting, experiment and soil improvement we hadn’t thought that the beds would be flattened without warning. Nor had we thought our plants would just be ripped out and discarded.

In plant terms we lost sorrel, wild strawberries, lavender, chives, marigolds, fennel, mint, nasturtiums (though they were in winter remission), rocket, radish leaves, leeks and fat hen.

I keep saying I’m going to look forward and not complain, so I’ll stop here.

 

 

 

Men in Sheds, eating scones

Bob brought some of his store of plum jam and Julia provided the scones. Really we should have made scones but we haven’t been able to get into the kitchen much this week (due to the preparations for the run) so it was off to the shop.

Everyone seemed to enjoy them, anyway and we will be making more jam in a fortnight when he is going to bring us some plums.

Next Tuesday we are going to visit a permaculture project. It’s not that Men in Sheds are particularly interested in permaculture, but the Farmer is interested in using them as free labour to build a permaculture project in the allotments. Presumably that means another year when we can’t plan anything for the allotment.

With any luck it will be something like the one we planned two years ago but weren’t allowed to do.

Planning is not a strong point of this project…

Can you add your own version of a heart-rending sigh here please.

Anyway, I enjoyed the scones and some chicks have hatched so it’s been a good day. In a moment I’m hoping to take Julia away for lunch and have an afternoon off.

 

Trees, trees, trees…

 

Life isn’t all bird feeders. Some of us (as Julia told me meaningfully) have serious work to do. Today, the serious work was measuring the micro-climate in the agroforestry project. I’m not sure how long we’ve been doing it now, but we’re getting to a point where we will have to measure the trees again. That will be easy, as they aren’t much more than sticks at the moment. What we need to do is start taking photographs of ourselves standing next to them, and take the same photo every year.

It’s amazing how trees creep up on you. I grew up opposite a church. The grass by the roadside was a wide, clear verge. For some reason they decided to plant trees there and one day a thicket of weedy saplings appeared with sticks and tree guards. They looked ill and we all wondered why the church was bothering.

Those trees are now gnarled birches with fissured trunks and green algae. They look like they are a remnant of ancient forest, though I’m sure I was in my twenties when they were planted. Before you say anything, no, I am not that old.

One day, these twiggy sticks will be an orchard (admittedly a long, thin orchard), and one day our measurements will be a Woodland Trust research project. It’s amazing what patience can do.

As Warren Buffett is reported to have said: We are sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago. 

 

 

Agroforestry

I’ve been asked for more detail on the agroforestry project we’re running. If you aren’t interested in agroforestry/permaculture the next few minutes could be quite boring. If you are interested, you may find the next few minutes lacking in detail; as with so many things, I have a wide but shallow knowledge of the subject.

If I say it’s also known as alley cropping it may help you envisage what I’m trying to describe. The video here gives a good explanation, though it’s American so the crops differ.

The idea is that although we give up some land to the trees they will have financial benefits when we crop the apples and other less quantifiable benefits, including shelter, micro-climate, biodiversity and  organic matter.

The organic matter will come from the leaves in autumn and the smaller prunings, which will be left to rot.

Biodiversity will result from the trees giving homes to a range of birds and insects. Hopefully this will result in some form of biological pest control, though I’m not sure that it won’t also offer a have to pests. I must look that up.

The final benefits are shelter and better micro-climate. That’s what we are trying to measure. Common sense tells you that the trees will act as wind breaks and that it should be warmer in the alleys (if the wind is coming from the side). As with  a lot of common sense, nobody has any figures to back it up. There are figures on the internet about the wind breaking power of trees, and their capacity to form warm micro-climates but it seems there isn’t much evidence to back it up.

At the moment we measure the wind speed and temperature at various points in the alleys every month. The Woodland Trust has provided the equipment and training for this and we send them the results each time we measure. We also measure the trees once a year, though it’s not very difficult at the moment with them being shorter than I am. The test will come in a year or two when we see if we’ve been able to remember how to use the inclinometers.

This measuring will be done for the next 20 or 25 years (I forget exactly, as I won’t be here by then) and will, we hope, be very useful in calculating the benefits of this sort of planting.

 

It’s that time again…

It’s tree time again, taking the climate readings between the rows of trees in the agroforestry area. We’re still not seeing much difference in wind and temperature between the rows, but as the trees are still rather stick-like this isn’t really a surprise. Hopefully they will start to modify the micro-climate more as they start to leaf up.

There are still over 23 years of the measuring project to go so there is plenty of time for something to develop.

As you can see, the rhubarb (which we grew from seed last year) is looking reasonable, though I don’t think we will be pulling much this year. It is accompanied by a number of random daffodils, and I have to confess I haven’t a clue as to why we have them there or who planted them. I suppose it looks springlike.

Some more on kites (which were known as “paddocks” in bygone days). It’s by John Clare, who was born not too far from where the kites now fly. I took it from the Yorkshire Red Kite site.

“Ah, could I see a spinney nigh,
A paddock riding in the sky,

Above the oaks, in easy sail,
On stilly wings and forked tail.”

John Clare (c1820)

What I now need is a picture of a kite over an oak, now where can I find one…

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A paddock riding in the sky

 

 

 

 

Building with mud

People have commented on our mud walls at times, the most recent being a comment from clarepooley33 – author of A Suffolk Lane. Coincidentally, it was close to her, just over the border from Norfolk, that I first found out about mud building. As a child we used to visit a friend of my father in Norfolk, and he first pointed out the duckponds in the gardens of old houses. The normal procedure in bygone days had been to build the walls from mud that was dug close to the property – creating a house and a pond simultaneously.

Cob, as it is often known has a long history as a building material in the UK and it is still relevant today. Much of it is confined to the south-west and the east of the the country, but as wattle and daub it is much more widespread.

Our walls are actually rammed earth. In truth, I’m not clear about the difference between cob and rammed earth but it seems to be that cob incorporates animal dung and straw to help bind it, whereas rammed earth is just soil.

Our wall is used as an internal wall and acts as a storage heater. Sunlight enters the windows at the front of the building and heats the wall, which then slowly discharges that heat. We have four solar panels on the front to heat water for the underfloor heating and with the earth wall, and the straw bale walls in the rest of the building, we manage to keep warm. Even in the middle of winter we don’t have much trouble keeping the  temperature up to 18-21 degrees centigrade. Yesterday, with an outside temperature of 8 degrees, we were 23 degrees inside. The main problem is that people leave doors open when entering or leaving the building and once heat is lost it can be slow to build up again.

The other problem is that the surface breaks up. We didn’t start using the building until after the walls were up (we first visited when the plaster was being applied to the straw bales) but I have been told that the problem is that they incorporated large pieces of gravel in the mix, and this has caused the crumbling.

This picture shows (if you look at the top edge of the unit) the crumbling that occurred overnight.

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You can see the large bits in the wall. When the thin pieces around the stones dries it seems to crumble away. We dust the units and sweep the floors regularly.

The white pipe is where the bolts securing the shuttering went through the wall during the building process.

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Close up of the wall showing large pieces, crumbling, a patch and some random organic material that got into the mix.

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You can see how the wall is built up from layers in this photo, and you can also see out awards for sustainability, education and land use – not that I’m showing off or anything…

Incidentally, the flooring is recycled from a fire damaged building and the cupboards are second-hand units donated by Belvoir Interiors of Newark, who also gave us all our kitchen fittings.

If you want a look at an earth wall try this link. It should take you to the Google picture of an earth wall, with thatched roof, on the A605 in Whittlesey – but I’ve never tried to link to a Google Map before.

Things that went right

Well, I did a post a while back on things that didn’t go according to plan. I’m feeling a bit more upbeat at the moment, so here’s a companion piece about a few things that went right.

The agriforestry project is going nicely and we’ve just had a review of the results from the Woodland Trust, with Quercus Community being mentioned (which is unusual as we normally get missed out or referred to as “farm staff”). That’s good because everyone is going to get a copy of the report to take home and show their parents.

We’ve just started planting under the trees as part of the second phase, with rhubarb and wild garlic going in.Some of the rhubarb is Timperley Early from the market and some is Early Red that we grew from seed this year.

You can’t see much rhubarb in the picture, but if it’s ever viewed by the right village it will probably solve the mystery of where their idiot disappeared to all those years ago.

byron rhubarb

Based on this year’s harvest and the pressing we should be on for a bumper year next year. So far we’ve passed the production for last year and the cider is tasting good. There’s a slight disagreement on that subject at the moment – I think it’s shaping up nicely to be a flat, dry cider. The farmer thinks it’s like vinegar, but I suspect that’s because his idea of cider is something sweet and fizzy. So far all we’ve done is put it in a demijohn with an airlock and the natural yeast from the apples. We may add a little sugar to give it some sparkle but I’m hoping that will be all. Quite honestly I’ve been a bit surprised by the number of things some people add to the stuff when you read some of the recipes on the Internet.

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And finally, here is the Sloe Gin. The photo is a bit strange because the flash shows up all the mess on the glass and alters the colour a little. I’ve just had to decant it all into a bigger jar as the seal on one of the smaller ones started to leak (something we only found when someone tipped one up to look at it). Despite that it’s looking (and tasting) good, though I only had a couple of spoonfuls that wouldn’t fit into the new jar. Honest.Drunk in charge of an Ecocentre wouldn’t look good on my record.

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Chives and Calendula

It isn’t a combination you hear of often, though they do both feature n my edible flower and weed salads, and may do so again as I try to feed garden weeds to the visitors on Sunday.

Today they are together by coincidence. I’ve been meaning to have a go at a hand cream for a while as my eczema is coming back and my hands are starting to crack. I’ve looked up a recipe and I knew I was dead-heading this week ready for Open Farm Sunday (sorry to mention it again) so while I was taking the seed heads off I also picked a good selection of flowers (trying to get as many orange ones as possible) . It worked out at 26 flower heads to two thirds of a jar. They are now steeping, and I will see how it goes. I have also traced last year’s beeswax so may be able to source both flowers and wax from the farm. Theoretically I could source the oil too as we are growing oilseed rape this year and also planting sunflowers as game cover. However, hand pressing my own oil isn’t my idea of fun as i don’t imagine it coming easily.

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The other project is chive blossom vinegar. Unlike the hand cream, which has been at the back of  my mind for some years, I didn’t even know this existed until two days ago. It took a couple of jugs of flower heads, a brief struggle with some bumble bees (don’t worry, I left them plenty) and some warmed vinegar of two different sorts. One lot is in white malt vinegar and the other in cider vinegar. It’s not actually an experiment, it’s just what I had in the cupboard.

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The recipe, if you can call it that as it’s so simple, is now on the Recipe Page under the Resources tab. After two days the vinegar has already taken on a fierce pink colour – not really sure how to describe it.. It also tastes quite good, though I do know that I’m supposed to leave it a lot longer yet.

 

 

Measuring time in terms of trees

We started the Woodland Trust recording programme today – a programme that is going to see us take monthly readings for the next 25 years. I say “us” but I’m not sure about the chances of me being here in 2040. I’m more likely to be under a tree than measuring one by that time.

Despite this, it’s good to think we’re involved in an activity which may persuade people to start more agroforestry schemes. It may never be a mainstream farming technique but even if only a few people do it as a result of our recording it will make it all worthwhile. How often do you get a chance to alter the world?

We are measuring wind and temperature data in the fields between the rows of apple trees to see how they modify the climate. It’s not as interesting as measuring the height and spread, but you don’t really need to do that every month.

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It does you good to think in terms of trees rather than human lifespan. Most of the world’s problems seem to be caused by people who don’t think very far ahead and if we all started planting trees for our grandchildren the world would be a better place.

I planted two trees in the garden a few years ago. I’m not really sure how many years, probably about fifteen. I honestly didn’t plan it too well. They were too close to each other and too close the the boundary fence. When I planted them they were about six feet tall and were meant to be trained in a ballerina shape. The neighbour who gave them to me hadn’t pruned them for a couple of years but I was confident I could get them back to form.

Lesson One: Overconfidence is not a good thing.

Three or four years later, with some lax pruning they were small trees and were growing into each other. As the birds were getting more cherries than we were (one year we literally harvested FOUR cherries) I decided the cherry tree should go.

Lesson Two: Try to vsiualise things as they will be in years to come.

Finally, with some properly structured pruning, I have a very productive plum tree, which is now the source of a dispute with my neighbours. They don’t like it hanging over their garden and they don’t like the plums dropping off and making a mess. I’d actually left the branches on as I thought they might like a few plums and might think I was tight if I cut the branches back. Seems I was wrong.

Lesson Three: A gift of free plums is not always appreciated.