I’m Busy

Yes, as usual, I’m busy. And I don’t think it is just a case of Parkinson’s First Law which states that work expands to fill the time available!

Since Steve Jones of Chapter 39 in Newtown, Powys challenged me to think about, and plan for, the year 2050 I have been doing so. And one of the results is a decision to have the chalet in the garden, originally built as consulting rooms for our Counselling business, refurbished as somewhere someone could live rent free in return for helping me in the garden and woods. Time was John and I would have done the work between us but he is dead and I am older so I have employed a builder to do the work that I feel unable to do. But he still needs me to make decisions, source things like the small woodburner that will heat the place and to pay the bills. And I am doing the jobs I can manage like decorating and building the carcasses for the kitchen units. It all takes time.

Because I am doing so much thinking and designing (the chalet is only the start although probably the most expensive  item on my list of changes) it seemed only sensible to get some credit for it and in the process have someone else to look at and comment on the plans. Therefore I have signed up for the Diploma in Permaculture Design which is a self directed course of study in which I have to submit 10 designs for land, house, lifestyle or whatever. I get the support of a tutor to guide me so that I meet the criteria for standard of work. Unfortunately there is no fixed time scale so I can prevaricate to my hearts content! And all those ideas, thoughts, musings have to be transferred from my head to paper in a form which makes sense to someone else. I must be mad! Why do I do these things to myself?!

Now in my dreams all that work would result in a house so easy to manage that I could drift round in dolled up to the nines, nearly tens, whilst the ghost of my mother beamed approvingly. I should explain that the greatest compliment she could pay another housewife (always a wife in those days – men did manly things not housework) was ‘You could eat your dinner off her floors’. Even as a child I wondered how she would react if that was put to the test! And my garden would look like those the National Trust runs – thriving plants, no weeds, tidy paths… Meanwhile my woodshed would be bursting with neatly stacked logs from the acre that was coppiced each year, my car would be valeted after every journey and my outgoings would be minimal because of my reduced energy and water bills, the volume of garden produce and my general thriftiness. Undobtedly only in my dreams!

In the real world 2 dogs and 3 cats help me trail in mud. They rub dirt on the soft furnishings as they pass and leave hairs everywhere. I am convinced that old spiders use this place as cobweb building boot camp for the youngsters and it is ideal for the purpose being old, wonky and full of nooks and crannies. In the garden it is jungle warfare and the jungle always wins. I clear, mulch, plant and before I can get back to the beginning the weeds have gone mad. I have couch grass, nettles, brambles, bindweed, rosebay willowherb and himalayan balsam in abundance and some of the banks between terraces are so steep that working on them is well nigh impossible.

I have given up writing ‘TO DO’ lists – they are too depressing. Partly that is because jobs like housework or gardening tend not to have defined finishing points – however much I have done I could do more or do it again. Instead I write lists of what I have done and often it is quite a lot.

One of my favourite definitions of stress is that it occurs in work when demand outstrips capability. Both those things are ultimately a choice for me. I have no boss telling me what I must accomplish by the end of the day, week or year. I decide what I want to get done and what, realistically, I might be able to manage. I can choose whether or not to give myself a hard time if I fail. And I can choose to say ‘I can’t do that. I don’t have the skill, knowledge, experience..’ or to say ‘I can’t do that YET but I could learn’. It is true that as I get older I tire more quickly and I have less brute strength than I used to. But I also know more, have more experience of doing things or watching others do them, and am more willing to ask for help or advice. One of the advantages of grey hair and wrinkles and going deaf is that people feel good about helping me.

So, yes, I am busy. At the moment I am particularly busy. And, you know what? I am loving it because I CAN be busy and it certainly beats being bored and reduced to watching daytime TV! Next time I grumble about how hectic life is you can remind me of that!

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A feast of growing and growing a feast

Regular readers may have noticed that it is a while since I published a post. After a particularly cold and wet winter that felt as if it would never end it did – spectacularly! We have had a long spell of lovely warm dry weather. So I have been spending every available moment in the garden.

When, a few years after we moved in, we bought the steep slope behind the house from our lovely neighbour we had it terraced. But that meant the new veg garden was just compacted stone so we built raised beds and filled them with any bio-degradable material we could get. As anyone who has a compost heap knows a mountain of material breaks down into a little hump. So every year we added loads more. Until John was too ill and I was too busy looking after him. When I got back to the garden after he died the beds were very low again and by the time I had pulled out the worst of the really nasty weeds like bindweed and nettles, lower still. Luckily I had access to chipped wood from a local firm so I covered the annual weeds with cardboard then filled the beds with that – and it rotted down and I refilled them – and… This year the stash of material is already well rotted so hopefully from now on it will not go down much more. However I still had to do some barrowing up the hill before planting out seedlings and doing some direct sowing. But at last the bulk of the filling, planting and sowing are done. Which is just as well as this morning normal service was resumed with showers. Actually I am quite pleased because watering so many small things was quite a lot of work and the water butts were getting low. I should explain that I chose to go on water meter so that I would be more aware of my usage (which worked) and I do all the watering with cans from butts which collect rainwater from the roofs of the greenhouses and sheds.

Anyway things are growing and trees and shrubs are in bloom so it all looks much better.

 

By way of a change and some company I spent last Sunday at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust where we weeded one of the forest garden beds. We left some ‘weeds’ which are liked by bees but grubbed up the creeping buttercup and nettles. It was such a lovely day we had lunch outside around the firepit in front of the yurt. Michelle accidentally dug up some Babbington’s leeks, a perennial leek and offered them to me rather than put them back.

I am trying to increase the number of edible perrenials and self-seeders I have because they take much less work and come earlier. On Monday a friend came over for lunch and I picked small leaf lime, hawthorn, vine leaves, buckler leaf sorrel, jack-by-the-hedge, orpine, wild garlic, chives, chive flowers, oregano, corn salad and purslane with a few early leaves of newly sown chard and beetroot to make a big bowl of salad to go with hard boiled eggs from Jeni’s ducks and some home-made cheese scones. Delicious!

 

A Not-much-workday in Laugharne!

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Last Sunday a group of us gathered in the hills high above Laugharne, a small town famous for being once the home of Dylan Thomas and inspiration for Under Milkwood, and as the setting for the the recent S4C & BBC 2 drama series ‘Un Bore Mercher’ / ‘Keeping Faith’. We were visiting Peter and Alison who organise the Carmarthenshire network and who live in a Passive House on a large plot which was carved from a farm which is run by Alison’s brother. They have glorious views but it is very windy up there so tree planting has been important. They do make a positive out of the problem by having a wind turbine!

Four years ago their son, who lives with them, planted an area of woodland for coppicing on the far side of a ploughed field where it would not affect the wind flow over the turbine. He had chosen a wide variety of species for 3 different rotation lengths giving a  range of material in the future. He had cut back most of the trees in the short rotation area over the winter and our task was to chop up what he had cut and lay it down around the trees as mulch. The trees had been quite small so with 8 adults and 4 children the job did not take long.

Then it was time for the usual shared lunch. We were supposed to barrow compost in the afternoon but it was such a glorious day that we helped plant out a few seedlings and then enjoyed wandering through the gardens. Peter and Alison have each created a forest garden and as I had seen Peter’s very recently walked with Alison through hers. A lovely way to spend a sunny afternoon!

My contribution was scones. With no eggs or milk this recipe is suitable for vegans if made with dairy free spread. However gluten free flour does not work in it for me.

1 lb / 500g self-raising flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 oz / 250 g butter or dairy free spread

4 oz / 250g sugar

a generous handful sultanas (optional)

chopped candied peel (optional)

fizzy lemonade OR lemon juice and sparkling water

 

Rub the butter into the dry ingredients, add the fruit if using, then mix to a soft but not sticky dough with the lemonade or a good squirt of lemon juice and the water. Turn onto a floured board and roll or pat to 1.5 – 2 cm thick and cut into rounds. Gather up left over dough and make more until all is used but do not knead or work it too much – be gentle. Place the rounds on a baking sheet and bake at 200 deg for 12 – 15 mins until lightly golden. Cool on a rack.

The consequence of reading books

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of years ago Mark Boyle, Guardian columnist and author of ‘The Moneyless Man and ‘Drinking Molatov Cocktails with Ghandi’, put into words a discomfort I had been feeling for a while. When John died I claimed the life insurance originally intended to pay off our mortgage. In the event it we had paid down the mortgage every time we had a windfall or an extra piece of work and no longer had a debt. Unsure what to do with the money I contacted an ethical investment firm and let them take care of it. It did rather well. Suspiciously well. Mark Boyle’s books made me look more closely. Ethical is a vague term – some of the money was invested in property funds. There was no reason to think this was unethical was there? Then I thought again. Were these buildings constructed using the most sustainable designs and materials? Maintained to the same high standards? Were the tenants vetted to ensure they were running ethical companies? Hmmm. I decided it was time to stop being lazy and shuffling the responsibility onto someone else’s shoulders. But what should I do with a sum of money which, by my standards, was quite large? I waited for an answer to present itself.

My first 2 attempts to buy pieces of woodland came to naught. Then, last year, the farmer who owned some land adjoining Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust let it be known that he was having a bungalow built on one corner of his land, retiring and selling the house and fields. If the Trust wanted to buy all or part of the land he would be happy to sell to them. The Trust did want to buy 2 fields because it would improve the balance of grazing fields to old hay meadows, but it did not have the money or the capacity to raise funds in time. So I offered to buy them on the understanding that the Trust would look after them and finance any fencing and so on that needed doing, in return for being charged only a peppercorn rent.

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My money is no longer earning interest in money terms but I am happy it is being put to good use and I am enjoying the interest I am taking in the land and its progress. The dividing hedge has already been planted with fruit trees and bushes during a workday (see a post about this here More than just a hedge) and new fencing is being put up to allow the hedges to be protected from grazing so that they grow thicker and fuller. Eventually they will be laid to give a good stock-proof barrier that is natural and sustainable. With less intensive stocking wild flowers are beginning to emerge

 

IMG_0240Last Saturday we had the Trust AGM and once the business part was over we had a celebration of the new fields. The furthest one had been called Cae Cornel (Corner field) because ofits shape and the nearer one Cae Gwaelod (Bottom field) because it was furthest from the farmhouse and the lowest. But in terms of the Trust land it was middle-ish. So I renamed them Cae herc (lopsided field) its older name found on old maps, and Cae Novello after the lady who, with her husband, sold it to us.

Led my the inimitable Pamela Gaunt, storyteller, celebrant and psychotherapist, in her dragon costume, and Dafydd, partner of one of our neighbours, with his bagpipes, we sang our way round the fields washing our feet in the water of the West, playing natural percussion instruments in the earth of the North, blowing bubbles in the air of the East and lighting candles in the fire of the South. Then repaired to the barn for tea and cake! A lovely afternoon! Thank you Mark Boyle!

Permaculture Principles 3- Obtain a Yield

I have mentioned my Mum before in these posts. She trained as a Domestic Science teacher during the second World War – the end of an era when the object of Domestic Science in schools was to train girls (only girls) to be good housewives and mothers and / or good servants. It had not been uncommon for Secondary Modern schools in particular (grammar school girls would be employing the servants!) to have a small flat where girls could learn to clean, wash and iron clothes, bath a baby and light the sitting room fire; as well as a separate Cookery room where they learned to cook. I have this amazing (if grainy) photo of the cookery room she worked in as a teacher in a school near Bolton, Lancashire in 1941.

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Thus when she left teaching to get married she prided herself on her housewifely skills and kept the house immaculate. Things she did daily are lucky to get done here weekly, her monthly jobs are my attempt at spring cleaning and so on. In many ways it was an example of Parkinson’s first law that work expands to fill the time available. Her justification for all this activity was that she wanted the place to look nice if someone came round. However she was so locked into her regime of chores that her only outings were to the shops. She belonged to no groups or clubs until I was well into my teens when she started going to an evening class in cake decorating. As a result there were very few visitors to the house – one next door neighbour came for a cup of tea quite often and relatives or old friends came occasionally but always by arrangement as they lived to far away to just call. And all that cleaning and polishing meant the house never felt homely or welcoming and everyone was afraid of making a mess or spilling something.  And to be honest any impending visit caused so much work and worry and baking that Mum too was happier not to see people.

So what has all that got to do with obtaining a yield? Well the idea of this principle is not to waste time and energy doing something just for the sake of it.

Of course what is wasting time for me might not be for you and vice versa and we will each value different yields differently. When I go to a meeting of one of the Permaculture groups it is not because I want to ‘earn’ a visit to my place and the work that will get done but because I enjoy the socialising and learning and get ideas for my own place. Most of the ‘yield’ is intangible but nonetheless real to me but someone else might think I am stupid to give my labour for free getting  wet and muddy into the bargain.

Another thing both my Mum and my dad were keen on was being sensible and that very lower middle class idea of ‘deferred gratification’. So I dutifully went to University and for want of any better idea became, to their relief,  a teacher. A nice steady job with a salary and prospects and with a pension at the end. John and I got married, bought a house with a mortgage, acquired wills and insurance policies. Actually I quite enjoyed teaching most of the time (though I was a bit creative and whacky for some of my colleagues even then! None of the other Maths teachers illustrated their lessons on fractions with chocolate cakes or used mind reading to introduce algebra!)). blog260418-2But having fun, experimenting, taking risks, chasing dreams were very low on the agenda and I regret that now. The yield was always ‘later’, when the children are older, when they leave home, when the mortgage is paid off, when you retire… H.E. Bates puts it rather well in ‘The Darling Buds of May’ “The word pension made Pop laugh…. ‘You mean sit on your backside for forty years and then collect four pounds a week that’s worth only two and and ‘ll only buy half as much anyway?'” I am not suggesting here that pensions are a bad idea – I have 2 very small private ones that top-up my state one and I am relieved that I own my home; I am grateful for the security those things give me. But I wish there had been more balance, more ‘yield’ of fun and adventure whilst I was young enough to take risks and bounce back if they failed as well as ensuring a ‘yield’ of security now.

Meanwhile writing this blog records events, gives me pleasure in writing the posts, has taught me new skills such as taking and loading photos and the comments are allowing me to meet a new group of people. A good investment – I am obtaining a yield.

Making Up

We had had a falling out. Not a blazing, bust-up row, just a drifting apart. I had been seduced by the garden and was spending all my time out there, being rewarded by things growing and weeds being cleared. But the house was feeling, understandably and rightly, neglected and was not making me feel good when we were together. So I avoided being indoors which made the situation worse and so on in a negative spiral.

It was not entirely my fault. A long winter meant everything in the sitting room had been coated with smoke from the wood-burner and candles. My broken wrist had meant that cleaning was awkward to do and I could not put my hand in water so washing things like the marks on the walls was complicated. The dogs had smeared the chair covers and the bottoms of the curtains with greasy dirt from their coats and there had been very few days when I could have washed them and dried them outside. With 22 feet (belonging to 2 dogs, 3 cats and me) traipsing mud in that is a lot of muck to spread around.  By last weekend things had reached crisis point. The dirt, the stale smell, the mess were too much to bear. Something had to be done. So on Saturday I took down lots of curtains and got them washed and dried whilst it was fine, pottering happily in the garden between whiles. But on Sunday it was raining so there was no escaping outside.

It took me all day, a bottle of sugar soap, half a jar of home-made beeswax furniture polish, half a pot of Hide cream and a full drawer of dusters and polishing cloths but by supper time the sitting room was looking better and the freshly ironed curtains were back up. The washing machine is recovering well from its ordeal the previous day and I have not had the heart to tell it that the sofa covers still need to be washed when we have another fine spell.

Since I had to move everything I also had a good sort out and moved the furniture around so that it looks refreshed. I haven’t quite finished shuffling pictures and ornaments and I am not entirely sure about the positioning of the sofas but it is good enough for now.

On Monday I began to clean the dining room and again moved out boxes of things I no longer need or want. They will go in the loft for a year or two and if I still haven’t retrieved them they can go to a charity shop or the tip. That room is still not finished but I was busy today and have things to do the rest of this week so it will be a while before I am able to tackle the last bits. Meanwhile I think I am being forgiven for my unfaithfulness. I certainly feel more loved.

Mudlarks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday was wet, very wet. The rain did occasionally stop for a short time but it was as if the weather was hurriedly refilling celestial buckets ready for another deluge. Undaunted six of us gathered at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust to help Phil and Michelle improve the path from the main track through the Trust to the door of their cabin. At one time we think there had been a cinder path but over the years soil had formed and been deposited on it and recently it has been mud except in the driest spells. Some flat stones had gone in as stepping stones and in the worst places cord wood had been put down but everybody who walked along it trailed mud into the cabin and wellies were a must.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy lunch time we had moved the stones and sticks and dug out a wide shallow trench. The sticks were barrowed to an area beside one of the field fences where we are creating a new hedge bank. The mud went on top. In due course hedge trees will be planted into it and as the old wood rots down it will nourish the new plants. It is also a particularly good way of turning a waste material that could be a nuisance into something valuable! Eventually we hope that instead of fencing which uses non-sustainable resources and requires maintenance and replacing we will have hedges which can be laid to give an entirely sustainable stock proof boundary.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had noticed a plant I did not recognise growing next to the path and Alison could not identify it either so we asked Phil. It was Siberian Purslane, a perennial salad plant so we both asked permission to take a small clump for our own gardens. Both Alison and I love perennial edibles as they save so much work! The back legs just disappearing belonged to the orphan lamb which Michelle is rearing and which follows her around like a dog! One of the ducks came too to see if we had turned up anything juicy for her to eat.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALuckily for all of us Peter and Alison had brought their soup thermos and a mug of Peter’s lovely warming carrot soup thawed us all out. With quiche and salads followed by tea and cake we were refueled for the afternoon. Our bring-and-share lunches are always a feast.

Fergus, Phil and Michelle’s son, was rather miffed that we then started to move the heap of crushed building rubble which was to be the base of the path. He had been riding his bike up and down it and just got the heap suitably compacted and the slopes to his liking! We tried to be nice to him and take stones from the edges!

By just gone 2pm that first section was filled with rubble and we had formed a chain to pass the bricks from the pile to be laid out beside the path ready for Michelle to lay them tidily on sand. These bricks have been accumulated over the years thanks to Phil’s Dad who was an inveterate Womble long before anyone had ever heard of Wombles. He has collected old furniture, wood, paving slabs, bricks and all sorts of other building materials from neighbours, friends and skips in Weston-Super-Mare and brought them down to West Wales. Whenever he visits he seems to spend time using all this stuff to put up or refurbish sheds and other buildings. He must have saved the Trust a fortune! I am always amazed at what people think of as rubbish and send to landfill but which, with a little imagination, can be re-used.

Laying the bricks was really a one-person job and Michelle assured us she was happy to do it in stages when she has time. So we moved on and did the next section round the side of the cabin.

The cake I took this time was a recipe from Nigel Slater’s ‘The Christmas Chronicles’ – a lovely dark chocolate spice cake. All the chopping takes a little while but the rest is easy and quick and the cake is sumptuous.

2 teaspns ground cinnamon,2 teaspns ground ginger & 1/2 teaspn ground mace (I used nutmeg) sifted with 250g SR Flour

100g dark chocolte chopped, 80g marzipan in small dice, 200g chopped stoned dates mixed

3 balls crystallised ginger (I used the cubes and guessed the equivalent amount) and 70g candied orange peel chopped mied

200g golden syrup, 125g butter and 125g dark muscovado sugar in a pan

2 large eggs beaten with 240ml milk.

Line a small rectangular roasting tin and pre-heat the oven to 180 deg.

Melt the sugar, syrup and butter then add the orange and ginger. Bubble for one minute.

Take off the heat and add to the flour stirring with a metal soon until thoroughly mixed. Add the eggs and milk and the chocolate, marzipan and dates and mix well again. Pour into the tin and bake for 40 mins or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tin.

Mr Slater says it makes 12 pieces but he is very generous – I cut mine into 20. He also says to top it with melted dark chocolate and more chopped preserved ginger but that felt unnecessary and would have made it harder to eat at a picnic type meal so I left it off.

 

Grapevines II

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJohn loved strawberries.I am not sure whether being born in June had anything to do with it but they were his favourite fruit. So when we put the greenhouses up he saw a chance to get a supply that went on longer. But to save growing space he decided to use a stacked vertical system. He built a series of shelves up the north walls of 2 of the greenhouses to take plastic troughs and planted them up. The batten at the back was on edge whilst the one at the front was flat so that the troughs were tilted forwards slightly and the fruit (in theory at least) hung down. Into each trough he planted 4 small plants. And he did indeed get a longer season.

But (isn’t there always a but?) they were a lot of work. Each autumn the runners had to be cut off and planted in pots to see if they would survive the winter. And each spring every trough would have to be lifted down, dead leaves and any failed plants removed as well as any runners which we had missed and had rooted themselves into the parent trough or, worse, the one below making a cats cradle of stems. Periodically the whole lot had to be turfed out and the exhausted compost replaced. Then there was the watering – because there was relatively little soil they quickly dried out so I had to do them at least once every day and the ones at the top were particularly difficult to do without getting water everywhere. So he researched and bought an automatic watering system and placed 2 drippers over each trough and at the same time laid perforated pipe in all the beds. It made the watering less time consuming but some plants got too much water, some too little and some were just right!

IMG_0270After John died I just did not have the energy to keep them up so I put all the surviving plants into the outside raised beds where they largely look after themselves and reverted to watering everything else under glass manually, first with a hose and then, when I went on meter and installed lots of water buts, by can. It means I can give each plant the right amount and as I am standing there I notice if they need any other attention.

IMG_0268Now before you wonder if I am ever going to get round to talking about grapevines.. Having taken out the disappointing one and trying to decide what to replace it with I noticed that a clementine I had grown from a pip and put in the lean-to greenhouse on the South of the house had died in the very cold snap. That could be replaced with a kiwi and I could have an Apricot tree in the greenhouse on the veg patch. We had had one up there previously but it grew too big and spread over the path so we cut it down but not before we had had such a good crop I made jam! So … I need to fan train it against a wall which means fixings…. Then I had a brainwave. (I do get them occasionally and some of them actually work – time will tell if this is one of the good ones)IMG_0272 If I took down the shelves I would be left with a sturdy framework on the back wall and if I planted the Apricot in a huge tub which was full of earth in the middle of the greenhouse ( placed there so I could get to the strawberries), but moved it back against the wall I could tie the branches in and keep it neat. A trip to Trefhedyn Garden Centre in Newcastle Emlyn and an afternoon with the battery drill/driver and Ta-Da!

 

IMG_0273I have just got to get a kiwi now. But I was so pleased with the better use of space that I took down the shelves in the next greenhouse too  and moved the 2 huge tubs in there back to the wall. Now.. more Apricots? Peaches? Nectarines?