Starting in the middle

In order to write up my various projects for my Permaculture Diploma I have been going back through my books to remind myself of the structures and principles. And something has struck me. Although it is not explicit, there is an assumption that the site is essentially bare. The same seems to be true for most Permaculture Design Courses. Given the origins of Permaculture this is perhaps not surprising and I suspect that current teachers and writers, understandably pick up the assumption and, because it is not explicit, do not notice it so carry it on. But it has consequences.

blogOPD1Firstly it explains why so many people who have done a course feel impelled to go and buy a field! I say impelled because some of them may have perfectly satisfactory lives in a town somewhere but ‘How to use Permaculture to improve your life in an office job and a three bed terraced house in Anytown’ doesn’t seem quite right.

Others, of course, did the course precisely because they want to move to the country and earn a living from a piece of land. For them One Planet Developement planning policy is a way to get a home and smallholding with very little capital and Permaculture is the ideal design system to make it work. Read more about OPD here The downside is that existing smallholdings are often bought up by larger farms and the house sold off with just a smallish garden to retirees or as a second home. Or they become hobby farms or somewhere to keep the ponies for the children. One working smallholding is replaced by one somewhere else plus an incoming household which further changes the demographics and the income profile of the community. Does it matter? I cannot be sure but my instinct tells me that it does.

I have to say I envy OPD people for being able to start from scratch. We moved here before that policy was in place and in order to have a house that did not have near neighbours but did have a large garden we had to buy an existing one. We had thought very carefully and made a list of things we wanted – this house was the best we could get. We were free to replace the rotten windows and to reconfigure the inside but the outside had to remain essentially the same. Would we have designed a house to this footprint? NO!! Originally two cottages it is long and thin which means it has a large surface area for the volume and that makes it expensive to heat. Would we have built a different design on that footprint? YES!! For example although the windows are larger than the original ones would have been, probably due to building regulations when it was renovated from derelict in the 70’s, they are smaller than we would have chosen given that the house faces due South and could get better solar gain. Would we have built on the same spot? Yes. Which brings me to my second thought about permaculture as taught and written about. The lack of emphasis given to ‘futureproofing’ (I say that with the benefit of hindsight – it never occurred to us at the time as I will explain!)

We bought a house set back into a steep slope, south facing, with a fairly level garden a few feet below it next to the stream and a steep bank between.  Once the large self sown trees had been cleared from the garden we had a clear space to work with. So whilst in the house we were constrained by what was already there, the garden was the blank canvas we preferred. It provided a nice view from the windows and, once we had arranged a path to drop gently down across the slope it was easy to move loads up or down.  Then we had the chance to buy more land behind the house and beyond it. It was so steep we had it terraced but it was another blank canvas. Except that the position of the house was fixed. Since it took 2 years to get the terracing done we had plenty of time to think about what went where but it boiled down to ‘least worst’ options. If the veg patch was by the stream that meant we did not have the sitting area in the nicest place. Whilst the renovations were ongoing the workshop needed to be at house level so the veg ended up on the higher terrace. I curse that decision every time I push a bag of compost up the hill!

And now that the house is finished and John has died, the workshop is only used occasionally but to knock it down, make a veg patch there then build a new workshop higher up seems too much work for the gain. It would, though help with water collection. I can collect huge amounts of rainwater from the roofs of the house and the sheds but need most higher up where there are only the greenhouses and a small shed to collect from. We designed for two fit people in their 40’s both with part time jobs and part time on the holding; Now I am nearing 70, retired but not wanting to work full time on the land and looking at how I can adapt this place to suit me when I am 100.  That is what my Diploma is about. But I often think rather ruefully that ‘If I was going there I wouldn’t start from here’! Why is there nowhere to buy hindsight?

 

 

 

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Home Sweet Home

This last few weeks have been even busier than usual with two big projects being finished and a third is now on the home straight and has also been taking up time. Plus I have had a stream of very welcome visitors.

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The entrance is tucked away and looks out onto a bank up to the drive

The biggest project has been the refurbishment of the cabin in the garden. We had it built in 1995, just after we moved in to give ourselves a refuge from the renovations and also a place to see work clients where we didn’t have to apologise for the mess! Once we stopped working from home we turned it into a Holiday Let and later used it as extra bedrooms when family or friends came to stay. Now that the grandchildren are older and more independent there are fewer times when we all get together here and it gets less use.

Last year I decided that it was no longer earning its keep and I needed to use it differently. It was structurally sound and a nice space to be in but cosmetically tired and the large, single glazed windows made it hard to heat. Because it had been designed to give us two work rooms plus a loo and a kitchenette for making tea or coffee, the rooms were small. They were also quite dark, partly because the trees and shrubs planted around it had grown up and partly because, out of consideration for our neighbour’s privacy we had all the big windows put on the North facing side but as the cottage next door was now derelict there was no good reason to leave them there.

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I decided it was time for a redesign that would not alter the structure too much but so that it could be used as somewhere for volunteers to live whilst helping me with the garden or as a Holiday Let again. I chose to keep one room as a bedroom and the shower room did not need any changes. The rest of the space I had knocked into one living area.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA To improve light the double doors on the NE wall were moved to the SW wall and replaced with a half wall and new window. I wanted all the windows to be double glazed but the doors were too thin to take the extra thickness. Dan, the builder, came up with the idea of using architrave on each face to hold the new panes in place and strengthen the doors to take the increased weight. The Carmarthenshire Permaculture group made the small sitting space outside when they visited. Read more  here Many Hands

He also installed a small wood stove to provide heating and a focal point. The result was a lovely airy, light filled but still cosy space with a view over the meadow to the stream and woods.

I re-decorated and my son helped me install the kitchen I had designed and constructed. Then it was the fun part collecting up and refurbishing spare furniture – a sofa from the conservatory, a table and chairs I had been using outside, spare rugs and throws…

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Dom and Beccy optimistic at first

A relative of one of my friends asked to come and live there and moved in. Unfortunately he soon realised that life in the middle of nowhere was not for him. With no mobile signal and poorer broadband than he was used to he found it hard to keep occupied after dark but had no car to go out. So after less than a week he left again. I am hoping that  I will soon find someone to whom the peace and quiet, plus low connectivity to the modern world, will actually be an advantage and who will be happy to live there rent free in return for working in the garden and woods a couple of days a week. Then it really will be someone’s ‘Home sweet home’.

 

The Gift Economy

I have spent a lot of time over the last few weeks picking fruit and vegetables from the garden and hedgerows and preserving it for winter. Most of the mushrooms I picked in my neighbour’s field were dried, as were some of my cooking apples (the first crop off the tree in years!), and some apples and other fruits were bottled or made into jam, some of the elderberries became Pontiack sauce to enrich casseroles, and the eating apples my friend Marie gave me from her hugely productive orchard went into the steam juicer with a cinnamon stick to make a lightly spiced juice for winter nights, whilst most of the tomatoes were roasted with slivers of garlic and a dribble of olive oil before going in the freezer. So this

Became this (plus lots of boxes in the freezer!)

 

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But I was also able to give lots of produce away. Most people had more than enough courgettes and green beans but tomatoes, mushrooms and grapes were welcome.  In the days before freezers everyone in the neighbourhood feasted when a pig was killed on a farm because with only limited means of preserving the meat it made sense to share it and, in return, be given some of a future supply. The same ethos applies to garden crops now – anything surplus is shared out. But I realised I was making choices about who got what.

It set me thinking (there is lots of time to think whilst peeling and coring apples or waiting for jam to reach setting point!) about the amazing people in Todmorden (and other places) who plant unloved or underused public spaces with edibles and invite everyone to help themselves. I think that if I was one of them I would start with a pretty rosy picture of the benefit I would be bringing to the community. I would imagine helping those elderly or disabled people no longer able to tend a garden and missing having freshly picked fruit and veg. Those parents struggling to feed their kids and relying on the food bank could have freshly plucked salad for tea. They are the deserving poor.

But what if I see that lad from the rough end of town, the one who has never wanted, let alone had, a job picking ALL the strawberries I carried water to when the weather was hot and dry? Do I tell myself that at least he wants to eat fresh food and they will be good for him or do I worry that he will simply trash them and curse him? The ?underserving? poor.

Or what about that couple with two good salaries and a big house saving a bit on the Waitrose shop – is that OK? The ‘too lazy to grow their own’.

Maybe this is why Community Supported Agriculture and Community Farms are so popular – only those who put in cash or work benefit.

But that begs the question – Those parents using the food bank may be unable to put money upfront however economically advantageous in the long run, and may not have time or energy to volunteer. And the retired or disabled folk may have the same problem. Community agriculture and Community Farms can easily become middle class enclaves however worthy the aspirations.

All this linked back in my mind to a conversation with a friend earlier in the year. We were talking about birds taking our black- and red-currants. To net or not to net was the dilemma. My choice, because I have plenty of space, was to not net but to increase the number of bushes until even the most voracious of flocks cannot eat them all! Not so easy if all you have is room for one bush I know.

It all seems to me to be part of the same questions: How generous should I be? When am I being greedy or overly self protective? At what point do I give so much stuff away I am not being properly caring towards myself? And how do I cope if my generosity feels unappreciated or even abused? Despite reading a number of books recently on our attitudes to money and possessions I have no answers to these conundrums – but I would love to hear your thoughts!

Oh Dear! Now what?

At the end of July I finished a year of recording all my expenditure in line with the categories of the One Planet Development Carbon Footprint Calculator. It was time to enter it all into the spreadsheet and get the calculated result. (you can find the calculator on the Welsh government website under Topics>Planning>Policy and guidance>One planet development practice guide. The pdfs are at the bottom of the page.) I knew I would not meet the target of 1.88 global hectares but hoped for and expected nothing worse than 2 to 2.5 times that. So it was rather a shock to get 6.72 global hectares – 3.6 times my share of the planet’s resources! How did that happen? How can I get this number down and live within my fair share? I must admit that I felt ashamed to be so greedy and also slightly panicky as to how I could improve further.

After a few deep breaths I managed to engage my brain! Although this calculator is much more searching and precise than many I have seen, it has its flaws. For instance it asks me to enter my consumption of food as money spent on the various categories. Paradoxically when I broke my wrist and did almost all my shopping in a supermarket my spending went down. So buying potatoes grown in Egypt on sand plus chemicals, using rapidly depleting underground aquifers, would give a lower score than waiting a few weeks to get organically grown ones from Pembrokeshire! I gather from Jasmine Dale that when the scheme was originally being designed there was an intention to correct this anomaly but somehow that has been lost. I do understand that it could get ridiculous with multiple categories – Potatoes organic Welsh,  Potatoes organic UK, Potatoes organic EU, Potatoes organic other, Potatoes not organic Welsh…. all with different scores per £ spent.

Secondly if John had still been alive my score would be much lower. Although food costs would roughly double and the water bill would go up a bit, the cost of running and heating the house would stay pretty much the same. Similarly the bulk of the costs of running the car would be unchanged and as we always tried to do more than one errand in each journey we would mostly travel together so the petrol cost would only increase a bit. Lowering my carbon footprint does not seem a good enough reason to start looking for a new husband!

Another alarmingly big chunk went on the dogs and cats. Even excluding the ‘contributions’ to the rescue charity for Sally and Connor and the one-off cost of having Connor neutered (he was too young for him to have been done already) they are costing me about £11.50 per week. I buy the cheapest food by the sack from the farmers’ Co-op but on the advice of the vet when I got Orchid from the rescue charity, they get a dentastix each night and Roo gets through quite a lot of squeaky balls! I know that there are people who disapprove of pets and I can understand their logic. However the original reason for having cats was to keep vermin like rats and mice under control. No I probably do not need 3 of them for that (though they keep finding plenty). And the dogs keep me healthy and connected to the neighbours as I explained in my first post on this blog (read it here Walking the dogs) And all 5 of them keep me company, make me laugh and give me cuddles.

It was those ‘unquantifiable’ outcomes, the ‘soft’ benefits which both Jasmine and Jan Martin (a.k.a. Mrs Snail – read her blog here) reminded me needed to be ‘offset’ against my consumption. I am building soil fertility  in the garden, increasing the amount and diversity of habitat, planting trees, building community, volunteering for charities (which is how some of the petrol is used), passing on what I learn through the networks and I belong to…..

Then I read an interesting piece by Paul Jennings who lives only a few miles away. He points out that my plot and my lifestyle are embedded within a wider system which is not, at the moment, designed to be helpful to me achieving my goal. If there was a public transport system that was close enough I would use it. When I am offered a lift or can give one I do. If I could use a taxi (the nearest taxi firm is, I believe, based in Cardigan 19 miles away) I would. But in the system as it is I need a car. And so on. You can read his excellent piece here.

None of that leaves me complacent about my high score. It was an interesting exercise and gave me some useful information. I need to go on thinking about how I could do better but to focus too narrowly on that one criterion could lead me to make some unethical choices.

Is it better to buy a jumper made of synthetic fiber from the charity shop or to knit one from locally produced wool? The former makes use of something that has already been made, supports a charity, encourages volunteering, helps prevent an empty shop on the high street, but I may think ‘easy come, easy go’ and not take much care of it, it sheds microfibres into the environment, will never rot down … The latter supports local farmers, a local haberdashery shop, encourages me to be creative, I will probably look after it because I know how long it took to make, it is environmentally friendly, will rot when I finally put it on the compost heap…

I do not think there is A right answer to any of these conundrums. Hopefully wrestling with them will do both my brain and the planet some good!

 

 

Friends and family

Despite being without an Internet connection for 8 weeks of it I have had a fantastic summer.

It all started with the celebration of the new fields at Dyfed Permaculture Trust (find out more here The consequence of reading books)

 

 

The usual workdays and network get-togethers have been enhanced by the lovely sunny weather. There has been chance to catch up with friends. Some have come here and we have made the most of the new deck. Other times I have visited them or we have gone out for lunch together as Jan (Mrs Snail who blogs as ‘The Snail of Happiness’) did last week in Tresaith.

 

Then there were the regular workdays and gatherings.

My eldest Grandchild, Shorna’s graduation (read about it here Going Batty in London) was followed by her younger brother Sean getting the A level grades he needed for a place at Swansea University (read about my joining them for the open day here All Change) and now my daughter’s eldest, Sam, has done well enough in his GCSEs to go on to College where he hopes to do a music course. His younger sister Georgia had no exams this year thank goodness!

But the other big family event was that I met my new foster grandchildren for the first time. My son and his wife have been fostering for a few years now but until this year had teenagers for relatively short placements or, on one occasion, teenagers and a younger sibling for a while. This time they were asked to take another sibling group but these are aged 5 up to 8 and will, all being well, be with them until they are adults. They are delightful children but have lived in cities all their lives with parents who were too lacking in resources (internal and external) to do much more than provide basic care for them. (They also have 2 other siblings who are both disabled and have gone to separate placements where they have the undivided attention of very experienced and trained carers.) Hassan brought them to visit me for a few days to give them some of the experiences they had missed out on. And because my daughter Carrie was planning to come at about the same time he picked her up on the way – it was good to have her help and expertise with little ones. My skills with small children are rather rusty! Between us we gave them a whole string of firsts.

Roo and Orchid were the first dogs they had actually stroked, let alone played with, but Roo soon had them throwing her ball for her! We all visited Jeni so they could meet sheep, pigs, hens, ducks, geese and more dogs! They picked blackberries and ate some straight from the hedge, picked tomatoes with Jeni and with me, and ate French beans they had helped collect. We went to the beach and made sandcastles, went in the sea, looked into rock pools, ate ice cream cones and had Fish and Chips for tea in a cafe. We played in the castle at Newcastle Emlyn. Carrie helped them make a cake, then made them some playdough and picked leaves to press into it to make patterns. Hassan helped them make paper aeroplanes and they flew them off the deck. And two of the nights they slept in tents in the garden. Such simple pleasures but ones that many urban children in struggling families miss out on. It was such a privilege to be able to give them those experiences – ones that I suspect they will remember for the rest of their lives.

I hope you had a good summer too. Please blog about it or share a highlight or two as a comment – I would love to hear about it.

Shop Local!

Those of you who read these posts regularly will know that I live in a very rural part of South West Wales – in the middle of nowhere, past the back of beyond! My nearest shop, and the only one within walking distance (just), is at C&M organics near Llanglydwen. Chris and Matt have a market garden where they grow and sell fantastic veg, all certified organic. But not everything grows well in this rather damp part of the UK and of course some things are too exotic to grow in the UK at all. So to meet the needs of the shops and restaurants they supply they buy in stuff from ‘foreign parts’ (including the UK!). And for us locals they sell through their farm shop where they also stock various dry goods and some chilled produce if it has a long enough shelf life.

 

Recently they realised that those people starting out in the agriculture or horticulture businesses, many of them contemporaries and friends of their daughters, could do with a helping hand to sell their produce. Some, like Alex and Sam Heffron at Mountain Hall farm (read more about them here Starting From Scratch) who produce raw milk from their small herd of channel island cows and grass fed beef, have difficulty meeting demand fairly locally. Others can sell over the internet. But not everything lends itself to delivery by post or courier and those producers can struggle. The problem for Chris and Matt was that they guarantee that everything in they sell through the shop is certified organic and many of these small, new producers, cannot afford the certification process which is understandably rigorous and therefore expensive.

 

The solution was to offer a weekly produce market in the area outside the shop. Very much a family affair Chris and Matt are helped by their daughters, grandchildren and the dogs! Like the pannier markets of old anyone can ask for a space to sell whatever they have a surplus of so I will be taking grapes when they are ripe but will only need space for a week or two. The only rule is that no-one can sell what they already stock in the shop or compete with another stallholder.

 

They make no charge for a space on the tables and provide tea or coffee and home-made cake to everyone in return for a modest donation. Families and dogs are welcomed and there is space to sit and chat – I have met several new people and seen others I have not spoken to for a while so it is a really good chance to socialise as well as shop. The object is not to make money for themselves but to encourage the newcomers to farming and to build community. So if you find yourself out this way on a Saturday morning please come and join us.

The Power of a Good Planning Policy

Forty years ago John and I lived in Mid Wales with 2 very small children and a dream. We wanted to sell the small terraced cottage we had lovingly renovated (the details provided by the estate agent boasted that the sitting room was ‘with power socket’ and the only tap was a cold one on the kitchen wall!) and move somewhere more rural with a bigger garden. We wanted to grow more of our own food, keep a few hens and maybe have bees or a pig. We subscribed to a magazine called ‘Practical Self Sufficiency’ and although we were a bit more realistic than some of the contributors and correspondents we certainly wanted to be more self sufficient than we were.

The problem, of course, was money. We could not afford a house (however dilapidated)  with a large garden even in an area where prices were relatively low. If we sold our house and bought a piece of agricultural land there was no hope of getting planning permission. It was to be many years before we had built up enough capital to be able to buy this place (another renovation project) and later add some more land to the original plot.

If we were a young family now we would have a much better chance thanks to an innovative Planning initiative unique to Wales – One Planet Development. Anyone who owns a small parcel of agricultural land can apply for permission to build a house and live on it. Now before you start thinking this is a cushy option and begin to design your new holiday home let me tell you that this planning option is not for the faint hearted! It comes with many conditions!

blogOPD1this patch of over-grazed sheep field is the plot which Simon and Jasmine Dale acquired as part of the Lammas eco-village.

 

Firstly the dwelling has to be ‘zero carbon’ using predominantly local, natural materials. Many are very beautiful and have been lovingly crafted by their owners to keep costs down but the whole process is a far cry from buying a set of plans from a book and getting a builder to put the house up.

blogOPD2This is the house they built to live in with their 2 children whilst they built their ‘forever’ home. Sadly shortly before that was completed it burnt down on New year’s day this year.

 

 

Secondly the applicants must submit a detailed plan of how they will earn a living from the land. Within 5 years at least 30 % of their food must be grown or reared on site and the rest of their basic needs must be met from the income they generate from it. All this requires them to keep detailed records and make annual returns of all their income and spending. By putting the figures into a carbon footprint calculator they also demonstrate that they are progressing towards the goal of only using their fair share of the planet’s resources.  As an exercise, and out of interest, I have just finished recording the figures for myself for a year though I have yet to enter them into the calculator. It was quite onerous to record all my spending (masses of till receipts and post it notes with records of things like parking fees) and allocate it to the required categories. My income comes mostly from my pension but having been self-employed in the past I know how much time it takes to keep track of that.

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The garden they made to meet the planning requirements. The greenhouses were bought second hand and Simon managed to join them end to end down the slope. The intention was to feed the warmed air by convection into the house.

 

All photos by jasmine Dale reproduced with permission

The site must use 100% renewable energy (any not generated on site being bought  out of that land based income) and applicants must take responsibility for most of their waste including water and sewerage. They have to show how they will minimise the use of fossil fuel run vehicles. And that they have considered the impact of their development (positive and negative) on the local community, landscape and wildlife big and small.

Because some of the pioneers of this new policy were the people who built Lammas eco-village (read more about them here ) just over the hill from me, this area has become a hotspot for OPD. They are no country bumpkins. Highly intelligent, often highly educated and always highly motivated they know exactly what they are letting themselves in for. Often they have given up good careers in cities because the lifestyle did not suit them. They are tech savvy but happy to live simply. And they have organised themselves to provide support, advice and help to each other. They use their plots intensively to meet the planning criteria, work hard and problem solve creatively. If I was 40 years younger…