A Little Bit of Magic

Regular readers will know that I belong to both the Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Permaculture groups and am a regular at their meetings. (You can read about previous visits here here,here,and here

Last Sunday I was the host. The sun shone so we were all able to sit out on the new deck (more about that here). With 16 adults and two small children it felt comfortably full but not a squash. After cups of tea and coffee plus cake (my nickname is Sue cake!) and a chance to meet up and chat we spent a few moments remembering one of our group who had just died suddenly and sending loving thoughts to his wife. Linda from The Woodland Farm (the woodland farm)had brought a beautiful bunch of her flowers and I lit a candle for him.

Then I explained my how I was going about the designs for my Diploma in Permaculture Design which focuses around planning how I can continue to thrive into advanced old age despite living in such a rural place. We toured the garden so they could see how I had begun to implement those plans and the changes since their previous visit.

Everybody brings something to share for lunch and it was laid out on my kitchen table. What a spread! Almost all the dishes had been grown or made at home – beautiful salads, home made breads, fermented veg from Phil and his partner Lauren at Parc y Dderwenfind them on facebook here. Most people also remembered to bring their own plate, mug and cutlery so there was hardly any washing up for me to do later.

Usually everyone helps the host with a job in the afternoon – a chance to have a lot of hands and, in my case, some younger muscle on one of those big jobs which are daunting for one person on their own. This time I decided that what the garden needed most was appreciating! I work on it but do not make enough time to just sit and enjoy it. So I invited everyone to wander, sit, enjoy and chat. I am so glad I did because watching them relax and find pleasure in what I have created was hugely rewarding – a little bit of magic indeed!

My grateful thanks to Brian for taking photos whilst I was too busy to manage a camera and to Phil for the picture of my mindmap.

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Wilderness to Wonderful

The area immediately south of the house has always been a problem. Originally two tied, farm workers’ cottages and a cowshed were built here but they were abandoned in the 50’s, bought in the 70’s for a song then renovated and extended as one dwelling. The old front doors faced south with a path of massive slates all along that side to allow access. They were picturesque but lethally slippery when wet. From there a steep bank dropped to the more level gardens next to the stream and when we arrived there were faint traces of steps down to them. The door into the living room was very heavy, solid and difficult to open. Around it a porch had been built of reclaimed wood and windows but it was rotting away and although lino (also disintegrating) had been laid over the slates weeds were coming up in the gaps. Something had to be done – but other things such as plumbing and wiring took priority.

After a few years we had the remains of the porch demolished, the slabs lifted and a concrete path laid in its place. Our plan was to replace the solid door with a glazed one and build a lean-to greenhouse over most of the south face for solar gain and insulation. Sadly John died before that phase was started but eventually I got those jobs done. The sitting room went from gloomy and chilly to light and comfortable.

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That left the bank! I planted shrubs but they were no match for the bindweed, nettles and brambles which had infested the ground and got their roots deep down into the stone. On such an uneven slope crawling around trying to chop down the weeds with secateurs and shears was backbreaking and it really needed to be done several times a year. In addition the double doors of the greenhouse opened onto nothing and cleaning the glass involved teetering on a narrow strip of ground. There was a tiny area outside the kitchen where I could sit with a cup of coffee or eat lunch but if one person came it was a squeeze and with two visitors impossible. There had to be a better solution.

Using a digger to remove all the material back to a vertical below the path risked de-stabilising the path and house and I would have to build a facing wall. Terracing the slope would give very narrow terraces and the same problem of undermining the house. To build a retaining wall at the bottom of the slope and fill in behind to create a terrace would be prohibitively expensive.

It was when I went to visit Jono and Pamela Gaunt that the solution stared me in the face! In a similar situation they had built a huge curvaceous deck which appeared to float above the valley. With their permission I explored underneath it and worked out how it had been built taking lots of photographs of the construction. Could I do something similar? Did I have the carpentry skills and physical strength?

A chance conversation reminded me that my friend Martin had worked for a local landscaper building garden structures so I sought his help. He came, he looked, we measured and we planned. He was happy to do the job and, like me, favoured a design with curves, built of solid local timber rather than off-the-shelf decking boards. The Gaunt’s deck was one level with space for an outdoor kitchen underneath but I didn’t think I would use such a space. Should we create a shed under there? My experience is that sheds get filled with clutter. So Martin suggested that we make two levels. Once the sides were blocked with trellis or shrubs there would be very little light for the weeds which should give up.

The first job was to clear the bank rescuing the better shrubs and replanting them somewhere else then cover it with old carpet to discourage regrowth until the deck could be built. As I had broken my wrist Marie and Rose did that job for me. (You can read that post here)

To a large extent the detail of the design had to be made up as we went along since the posts had to go where blocks could be placed to support them out of the wet without too much digging out. At the end of day 1 I realised that although it was pretty much as we had agreed it was too small for a really big, sociable table. Luckily Martin and Pete had had the same thought and were very happy to extend the lower level. That meant there were not enough planks to finish the job and more had to be ordered. I was able to use the top level after only a couple of weeks (Martin and Pete could only work here 2 days a week and some weeks Martin was away so nothing happened. They were so good and so nice to have around I was happy to wait) The lower one was only finally completed in the autumn.

Now I step out of the sitting room into the greenhouse and then through the double doors to a beautiful level area where I can sit with my coffee or lunch and enjoy the view of the stream, or down easy steps to the bigger level if I am having friends over. The big, self-seeded Ash gives dappled shade to the big table in summer and the small sycamore does the same for the top deck in the evening. We even managed to incorporate a small pond and there is a long, curving bench to fill the gap betwen the levels. Bliss!

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One Good Turn…

My friends Marie and Rose come over during the Christmas break each year to help me in my garden for a day and twice a year, when they have a ‘slash and burn’ event I go to help them. Some years ago when Marie bought her guest house the garden was a jungle. At the time she was working in an office to pay the bills and work on the house was her priority so a group of her friends offered to visit and spend a weekend working on clearing the garden and described it as ‘slash and burn’, a name which has stuck!. This became a regular event every early spring and autumn and the garden is now beautiful. It also provides a lot of the food (all vegetarian) she cooks for her guests and a surplus which she sells at the award winning St Dogmael’s produce market. You can find out more and see pictures of the house and garden here

Two years ago the opportunity arose to buy the adjoining walled garden which used to supply the house with vegetables and fruit. It too had been neglected for many years. The box hedges were tall trees, self-sown ash and sycamore were growing in the beds and the stone walls were covered in ivy. The apple trees still produced an amazing crop of fruit every year and seemed to be very rare old varieties. The chance would not come again for many years so Marie took a deep breath, borrowed some money and bought it. And so another slash and burn project began!

Over last winter, with the help of next-door neighbour Andrew and one of Marie’s friends who was staying with her the entrance was repaired, the self-sown trees felled, the box hedges cut down and the beds dug ready for planting. When I arrived on the Saturday morning to join the group of volunteers the space looked so much bigger and the apple trees seemed to be breathing freely again!

The job we were given was to clear the base of the back, south facing, wall of ivy and dig out the roots at its base to clear a bed ready for planting with soft fruit which would be trained up it. Pulling the ivy off the walls was a painstaking job but fairly easy; getting the roots out was hard work and Andrew set up his winch on the biggest ones. Molly couldn’t resist having a go with it!

I was not able to go on the Sunday when planting began but I was thrilled to see that some blackcurrant cuttings I had taken off bushes in the main garden when I pruned them at a slah and burn a couple of years ago were ready to be put out in one of the big beds. When I went to one of Rose’s events on the following Tuesday I took some rooted cuttings of Worcesterberry from my garden and a couple of grapevines, also grown from cuttings off my seedless white desert grape. I can’t wait to see the garden when all the clearing and replanting is finished and I love the thought that I have played a small part in bringing it back from dereliction and propagated some of the new plants.

Getting creative with rubbish

Some time ago Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust acquired an old caravan which was certainly past its best but had a bit of life in it yet. The intention was to have somewhere that could be hired for holidays (we get groups camping but not everyone can cope with life in a tent), accommodation for people who come on courses, volunteers who exchange work for accommodation and that Phil and Michelle could also use it for visiting family and friends.

The first job was to do some repairs and fix some leaks then spruce it up a bit. It needed some kind of heating so it could be used in winter so Matt, who replaced the barn kitchen (see pictures of it here) worked on it in exchange for parking his van in the car park. He reinforced a rather weak section of wall around the door with battens, took out the shower room and chemical toilet and installed a small woodstove. To replace the toilet we organised a course on building a compost loo beside the caravan. The fees covered the cost of the tutor and much of the material came from our store of ‘stuff’. With a new gas stove and a water tap outside it became a warm comfortable space for some ‘not-too-wild’ camping. Phil even rigged up a wifi extender so that Michelle can use it as an office if she needs some peace and quiet for paperwork!

It was only when we had a couple of very wet spells that we discovered another problem. Or rather an unintended consequence. Where Matt had screwed the reinforcing battens to the wall rain collected on top of them, then found its way inside through the screw holes making some damp patches. If the caravan was occupied regularly this would probably not be much of a problem since the ventilation and heat from the stove would dry it out quickly. However with only occasional use something needed to be done.

Michelle had the idea of constructing a porch around the door to protect that wall from the rain but also provide somewhere to hang wet coats and leave muddy boots. A job for a workday!

So six of us gathered one Saturday recently for some head scratching, rootling around in the stores and creative building. Luckily for us Lindy, our new volunteer has just gutted her house and reconfigured it so she was in her element with this project! Two lengths of laburnum cut from an overgrown hedge beside the main track a couple of years ago gave us the two front uprights which we stood on reclaimed pieces of breeze block. (Laburnum is incredibly hard even green as I know from being involved in felling the trees! you can read about that here) Some offcuts of studding from work on the cabin were screwed to Matt’s battens to hold the laburnum posts up and a longer piece of studding spanned the front. There were some big pieces of aluminium sheet from an even older caravan which had eventually fallen apart to cover the top and sides of the frame. It is attached to the roof so that water is shed away from the wall. It is not the most beautiful porch ever built but once covered with climbing plants will be much nicer. It cost us nothing, was fun to make and is a useful addition to the caravan as well as , hopefully, solving the damp problem.

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Send for Reinforcements!

Each year I aim to cut trees on a different part of the garden to provide fuel for future winters. Following the tradition of coppicing I cut right to ground level which allows the roots to throw up new shoots and after 5 – 7 years they are ready to harvest again. By this means I am always cutting fairly slender stems which are fine on my small woodstove and easy to handle. In addition I cut some of the bigger trees around the place to bring them into the same management system. Hopefully it will not be many more years before all the big ones have been brought into coppicing – before I am too doddery to manage to fell a large tree safely!

This year my chosen plot was the second half of the bank below the vegetable patch. I did the first half 2 years ago but last year was unable to finish the job because of my broken wrist. I also decided to lay the ones right on the bottom edge as a hedge – it made me feel safer!Because I did not cut much last year stocks are lower than I would like and with Rob in the cabin needing his stove alight all day in the winter it is important to cut a lot this year.


This are bank will look like the photo on the right in 2 years time

I had made a start and when Rob arrived to we finished the job quite quickly between us especially as he has, and is happy to use, a chainsaw whilst I stick to handtools. Then we moved on to clear the trees which were growing out of the stream bank. I had been wanting to get them down for some time but as they were growing out over the stream they were very difficult to do with an axe. Rob donned wellies and cut them whilst I stayed on the bank to take away the debris. It made an amazing difference to the light! unfortunately it also makes the garden less private for now but once the new shoots grow all will be well and the new growth can be managed more easily.

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One tree, though, defeated us. It was an Ash which had been cut back at some point in the past. The result was a massive trunk leaning over the stream with a tall, not insignificant diameter stem rising from it but also twisting and leaning. Neither of us could work out which way it wanted to fall and there was no way we could get a rope high enough to guide it without climbing it. What we needed was a tree surgeon. So Rob rang his friend Richard and asked him to come and help.

As tree surgery is Richard’s profession I would have to pay him so I decided to ask him to do some other trees whilst he was on site. I had left several on the bottom edge of the bank where I had cut 2 years ago. They were too big to be laid, too close to the edge for me to feel safe swinging an axe and were leaning out over the car port and the lower greenhouse, so whilst I knew where they would fall it was where I really did not want them going!

Richard came, looked and promised to be back the following Tuesday. Luckily Rob used to work for another tree surgeon and has all the necessary certificates to act as groundsman so by having Richard here on a day when Rob works for me there was no need for me to pay for another man to come and help. The weather that day was foul! Sleet, snow, rain and very cold. I had set off to the Welsh class and turned back when the snow started to settle (I don’t mind being snowed in but object to being snowed out!) Nevertheless the two R’s got on with the job telling me politely but firmly to stay out of the way – as an amateur I was simply another risk. Because of that the photos are rather ‘long distance’ and it was too cold to stand around waiting for the perfect shot. The last tree came down as the light started to go. By the last hour they were willing to let me help shift brash away as they were running out of time, getting tired and only had a few small ones on the bank below the veg patch to do.

Because Rob and I can clear up the brash piles and carry the useful wood to the shed at our leisure the brief to Richard was to just get everything down and tidied as much as was necessary for safety. So on Wednesday we spent the day sorting out the tops from the big Ash by the stream. We haven’t started on the pile on the veg patch yet! And there was no way we could carry all the usable stuff to the woodshed until we have sawn and stacked what is already in there. I have made a start on that but it is going to be a l-o-o-o-n-g job! But there is a very real primitive satisfaction from seeing a well stocked woodstore.

Unfortunately Richard recognised that a lot of my Ash trees have chalara which is apparently now endemic in Wales. I cam manage the existing trees and if they fall there will be no catastrophic damage now the leaning ones have gone. The dilemma is to do with planting more. I have been saving seedlings which come up in the veg patch and replanting them in woodland areas but maybe this is a waste of time since they are likely to be infected too. Maybe I should only replant hazel, sycamore and oak but there are a lot fewer of those and what if some of the deedlings are a resistant strain? Thought needed!

Egos and Gaia

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the nature of work and what work we value (if you missed it read it here). Another idea which has been buzzing around in my head was sparked first by something Cassandra Lishman wrote on the Lammas facebook page.

For those of you who have not come cross it before Lammas is an eco-village which was established on an over-grazed sheep field just over the hill from my home. Each household has its own plot and has built (or is in the process of building) some kind of dwelling on it under  the One Planet Development planning policy (read my post on that here) of which it was a pioneer. The access tracks , community hub building, water and hydro-electricity supplies and some other things are held in common. You can read more about it here.  You may even have seen the building of  Simon and Jasmine Dale’s home on ‘Grand Designs’ or read about the fire which destroyed it on New Year’s Day 2018.

Anyway, like all villages Lammas, being full of people, is not always all sweetness and light.  There have been disputes over all the things neighbours fall out about fueled by the passions and dogged persistence that enabled the project to happen in the first place. The point Cassandra made (as I understood it) was that much of it came down to over-inflated egos – my truth is the truth and so you, with your truth, are wrong.

Then Jasmine (now living locally in a rented home and planning to sell their plot and do something different) sent me a draft of an article she had written for an on-line magazine, Dark Mountain, for me to critique before she submitted it. It was about the life journey they had taken and which had led them to Lammas and now to uncertainty about the next stage. Like many of us they had seen that humanity has damaged the earth and had thrown themselves heart and soul into trying to do something about it. So much self-denial and striving had left them battered, bruised, dispirited and having to re-assess.

The third strand was a novel about an alcoholic who eventually achieved sobriety with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous but only after she had reached rock bottom and admitted that she could not do it for herself. Inevitably there was a lot of detail about the AA programme and how it works with the word ‘ego’ occurring frequently and being seen as the block to progress.

Mmmm!

We call this era the Anthropocene. We have changed Gaia in ways we never planned, never anticipated and we have only a vague idea what the consequences may be. Probably we did so because we came to see ourselves as separate from, and vastly superior to, everything else. It was all there for us to benefit from; to use and abuse as we liked. The problem has been our over-inflated egos, our lack of humility.

But maybe, just maybe, our next mistake will be to think that we should / could put it right. Like some heroic surgeon, god incarnate with a scalpel, we want to make it better (and make a name for ourselves in the process?). We will look for techno-fixes which we hardly understand and the consequences of which we can barely guess at. We will fall out over the best strategy – No more plastic straws, permaculture, organic, sylvo-pasture, vegan, extinction rebellion… My truth is the truth. Egos again!

My experience of living on this plot of land for 24 years tells me that if Gaia could speak she would probably tell us all to get out of the way. She is perfectly capable of healing herself if we would only stop interfering.

So.. I stop cutting down trees for firewood? Get rid of everything with a plug on it (even solar panels have high embodied energy)? Eat only what I forage? Socialise and exchange ideas only with people who live within walking distance?  No thanks!

But I can try to live ever more lightly on the land. I can ask myself what impact my choices are having on the world around me. I can stop imposing my ideas, designs and will on my land and ask what it wants to be – then we negotiate. I am a part of nature. I do not need to abase myself or deny myself the things I need (need not want). Hair shirts are not sources of joy. There is no need to actively deflate my ego.

Will I ever get the balance right, my ego its correct size? Who knows. Probably not. Or is this whole piece a load of arrogant nonsense?

 

What a Weekend!

My last post was about what counted as ‘work’ – especially for people like me who are supposedly retired but who expend just as much energy as ever being productive. Whereas most people in paid employment breathe a sigh of relief when Friday afternoon comes round and they can have a weekend ‘off’, for me, quite often, the weekends are the busiest part of the week and the sigh comes on Monday morning! Last weekend was a case in point.

On Saturday there was a workday at Dyfed Permculture Farm Trust which is one of the groups I support so off I went. But not by the direct route! I had arranged with my friend Martin, who re-furbishes old tools and sells them through the Eco shop in Cardigan, to buy some new bowsaw blades. As he staffs the shop on Saturday morning that was the best time to collect them. Another quick stop in Newcastle Emlyn was needed to buy cream and yoghurt to go with the apple and mincemeat crumble I had made as my contribution to lunch so I finally arrived just before everyone else stopped for a tea break.

The job for the day was to put everything back into the barn kitchen after it had been given a massive make-over. The barn is used by Phil and Michelle to store the hay they make by hand and various bits of equipment. And like most sheds and barns it also becomes the home of lots of ‘might come in useful’ things that are given to the Trust. It is available as a venue to hire for courses and events, and people camping in the fields use it too. The kitchen had been kitted out over the years with a motley collection of old furniture, pans, crockery and cutlery plus an elderly but still functional gas stove. And over the years ‘stuff’ had accumulated. As far as I know no-one ever suffered any ill-effects from eating in there and most of what I ate was prepared off-site and brought to be shared but let’s just say I decided not to take a ‘before’ photo!

The new kitchen – almost tidied!

Last year we all agreed that it was time to do something about it and we asked Matt Douglas, who has lived at and around the Trust land on and off over the years so is well known to us, to strip out the old furniture and build us a new kitchen in the space. Matt is an artist who supplements his income by doing jobs like the kitchen in return for somewhere to live,  plus some pay if he works more than part time. He had already done a great job for us on a caravan which leaked and needed upgrading. One workday last autumn we emptied all the cupboards and sent loads of junk to the re-cycling centre so that he could start work. Then, using mostly a collection of old doors we had been given and other salvaged timber he made a partition to close off the kitchen from the rest of the barn and designed and built us new kitchen cupboards and worktops in the space. He was amazingly creative in finding ways to make something out of stuff that had mainly been destined for skips! I should perhaps explain that Phil’s Dad was a womble before anyone had heard of wombles! He collects materials that other people are throwing away, brings them to the Trust and spends his visits using them to help Phil and Michelle.

A new volunteer, Lindy, offered to wash up the crockery, pans and cutlery before it went away and it took most of the day! We re-homed almost everything and sent the rest to the recycling centre – we must have been even more ruthless this time! We also dug under the hay stack to find an old rayburn that we had been given and moved it roughly into place in the kitchen ready for it to be renovated and installed.

In the gardens

Sunday involved a trip to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales with the Carmarthenshire Permaculture group to hear about the next phase of their ‘Growing the Future’ project. Phase 1 was about encouraging more people to grow their own food and there is still work happening with schools on that front plus a demonstration garden run by Peter and Alison who administrate the permaculture group. Phase 2 is work identifying the best ways to attract and provide for, pollinators in gardens. Three PhD students are running experiments and hope to produce a wildflower seed mix tailored to Wales. Because Peter is also very interested in local history he told us about another ambitious project in the Gardens to restore as much of the landscape to how it was when the estate was bought by a wealthy gentleman in the Regency period and laid out as parkland with seven lakes, most of which had been lost.

The Growing the future garden

I left there after another delicious shared lunch because it was also Hen Galan, Old New Year’s Day and the traditional time for Rob, Jeni and I to wassail our apple trees. Rob S who has come to live in the cabin and I went over to Llanfach and we blessed the trees there with toast soaked in cider, recited a traditional rhyme then banged pans with wooden spoons to scare away the evil spirits. Then it was back here to bless my trees. As well as an orchard right at the top of my land, there are other trees scattered around as I try to establish where they do best, so we just did the one on the drive as a representative. Then it was indoors to eat the supper I had prepared, drink cider and wine and generally have a lovely evening in good company. No photos because it was too dark outside!

A really enjoyable and interesting weekend spending time with old friends and making new ones. But a quiet Monday was very welcome!

Apple and mincemeat and crumble

This recipe for mincemeat came from ‘the crafty cook’ who had a slot on Classic fm years ago – so long ago the weights are imperial!  It contains no fat, is easy to make and can be used straight away or stored. I have made it most years since. I layered it in the crumble I made with apples I had bottled from Marie’s orchard.

Mincemeat

2lb eating apples grated

1lb sultanas

1lb raisins

8oz currants

8oz mixed peel

4oz soft brown sugar

grated rind and juice 1 orange

1/2 teaspn allspice

1/2 teaspn nutmeg

1/2 teaspn cinnamon

1/2 pt cloudy apple juice

Mix everything together in a big pan and simmer for 1/2 hour. Meanwhile sterilise and warm some jars. Pot the mincemeat and screw on the lids.

Crumble topping (the cheat’s way)

by weight – I used 3oz for each part because it was a big dish but any spare keeps in the fridge for a week or two or in the freezer for ages so if you make too much do not worry – you have some for another day

2 parts plain flour

1 part semolina

1 part porridge oats

1 part demerera sugar

1 part butter

Melt the butter and combine well with everything else.

Put a layer of apples in an ovenproof dish, spoon a layer of mincemeat on top then put a layer of crumble over that. Bake for about 30 mins at 180 – 200 deg until nicely brown on top and everything is hot and cooked through. Exact timing depends on the size of your dish!