Scrap Happy July

Or how to be inspired by some-one else’s rubbish!

My neighbour has been doing a lot of work on his house and a large pile of rubble built up on his driveway. Some was taken by builders working on an extension to another house nearby which had to be built up over a slope so they dumped it under the floor. Someone else wanted some to put in a field gate that was very muddy but they never came for it. So most of it just sat there.

Meanwhile I was fed up with the area between the garden around the conservatory and the slope down to the lower garden. It is full of bindweed which makes walking from the deck to the workshop and woodshed hazardous. I found myself detouring through the garden and greenhouse to a better path. Plus the bindweed jumped the timber edge (or tunneled under it) and came up to strangle my plants. I scythed it down but what I needed was a hard path to give it some serious discouragement.

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Brainwave!

I got Rob (who lives in the cabin and works 2 days in place of rent) on the job. First we needed something to contain the rubble. Many years ago John and I bought some heavy lengths of treated timber to build raised beds and there were a few left over. One was still in the car-port. To hold it in place he used some fence pins put aside because they were bent which he cut up into shorter straight pieces. Then I found 2 rolls of mulch fabric in the garden shed which were more than enough to cover the space and be stapled to the sides.

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The next day we scoured the garden for abandoned concrete blocks left over from other projects. There were two stacks on the veg patch smothered in ivy, a few beside the path through the fruit garden, another stack in the old pig sty and several others dotted around the car port and drive area. Those we laid to make the main path. (There are still a few left in the pig sty in case another scrappy project comes along!) Then we filled in with rubble barrowed down from the neighbour’s heap.

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When (When..) we get some rain it will all settle but we did not use all the rubble so we can top it up. And when it finishes settling I will buy (yes, sorry, buy) some sand or gravel to finish the job neatly.

So not quite a totally scrappy job but almost!

Scrap Happy is curated by Kate who blogs as ‘Tall tales from Chiconia’. You can find her and links to all the other happy scrappers here

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A little piece of Heaven

Last Sunday morning found me driving through the back lanes of North Pembrokeshire. The sky was that perfect blue you only get on a May Morning, the Hawthorn was starting to flower in the hedgerows and the verges were thick with wild flowers. In places the cow parsley was so thick that it was almost as if I was driving along the beach between two breaking waves. Then my first glimpse of the sea which was a stunning turquoise blue as if trying to emulate one of those posters of Greek islands!

I would not normally go to a meet-up all the way over on the West coast but I had wanted to see Brian and Dot’s place for a long time and also this was the second meeting of the newly re-launched Pembrokeshire group so I wanted to do my bit to make sure the turnout was good.

My destination was a small farm on a little back road high up above Strumble Head just West of Fishguard. Brian and Dot live in an old farmhouse which has been cleverly divided to provide two homes, one for them and one for their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Stone outbuildings have been converted into three holiday cottages and a house for their son and daughter-in-law. Each resident family has their own outside space and a piece of garden for growing food though there are no fences so it feels very open and joined up. The rest of the land is managed co-operatively. And everywhere there are views across the fields to the sea. Bliss! Find out more about holidying there and see more photos here )

The turnout was good, two people brought children and there were three visiting dogs which all added to the fun. I had left my dogs at home – the rescued lurcher would have panicked and it was too hot to leave her in the car.

After excellent coffee and a chance to chat and to meet a couple of new members we set to work. A field is being turned into a forest garden with space in the middle for a yurt. Brian and Dot had put posts in to mark where they wanted trees to plant trees and mown a circle of grass round each. Our first job was to put down a layer of cardboard on each circle and then pile mulch on top. Some of us took the sellotape and plastic labels off a large stash of boxes they had collected from local businesses whilst others laid it on the cut grass or barrowed mulch from a huge pile at the edge of the field.

Lunch was a chance to sit outside and admire the view as well as continue chatting and sharing ideas and up-coming events. Then it was back to work.

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I had to leave early because of having left the dogs at home but by then all the circles were ready for planting and work had begun on putting new trees into the old hedge to improve the shelter belt. The others stayed to get the yurt frame up ( definitely a job for several people!) and Dot very kindly took photos of that for me.

What a perfect way to spend a glorious day in May

A muted Hooray!

The BBC’s Welsh news carried a report this morning that ‘the UK Committee on Climate Change is advising that Wales should cut the numbers of sheep and cattle, plant more trees and encourage heavy industry to clean up’ (read the full article here) What’s not to like?

Weeeellll?

Whilst some smallholders of my acquaintance keep sheep and poultry primarily as pets not many of them keep cows. Cows, at least on any commercial scale, involve getting up at silly o’clock every morning, seven days a week, bank holidays and Christmas included, to do the milking. And repeating the procedure in the late afternoon meaning that even a day out has to be a short one. At the large organic dairy farm up the road Charlie, the manager, milks over 200 cows every day except between Christmas and Easter-ish time when the cows are dry because they are pregnant. At the moment he is calving (regular checks, helping any cows which are struggling to deliver their calf and frequent visits from the vet for the problem cases) AND milking the cows who have had their calves AND feeding the calves which are old enough to be taken off their mothers. He cares about his cows but he does it because it is a job, it keeps a roof over his family’s head and food on the table. Even if only one or two cows are kept, as Michelle and Phil do at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust (links at the bottom of this post) going on holiday is a logistic nightmare

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Sheep are just as demanding. At lambing time shepherds sleep in their clothes and patrol at frequent intervals day and night ready to intervene if a sheep is distressed. And there is hoof trimming, fly-strike prevention (Flies lay their eggs in the mucky wool at the rear end of a sheep, the eggs hatch and the maggots eat the flesh into sores. Regular trimming of the wool and vigilance are needed to prevent it) and then there is shearing…

Like most of us farmers get satisfaction from doing a job they are good at and of course there are compensations but for most it is as stressful as any other type of self-employment and physically grueling. Farming is not for whimps!

So reducing numbers of livestock would help them right? Would you be happy to take a pay cut even if it meant working less hard? No, I thought not.

The Government seems to be taking the Marie Antoinette approach ‘Let them eat cake’. Or rather ‘Let them diversify’

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That often means tourism. Not every farmhouse is easily adaptable to B&B. Not every farm has a set of picturesque outbuildings ripe for conversion to holiday cottages and not every farmer makes a good host. Even if you enjoy welcoming people into your home and have the right infrastructure it is hard work and a precarious business. And it has implications for the community. Until Pemberton’s Chocolate Farm closed I regularly encountered drivers who were quite unable to reverse to a passing place along these single track lanes. So instead of them going back 100 yards I would reverse a quarter of a mile. An irritation for me but no joke if you are in a tractor with a trailer behind waiting whilst they panic and weave their way slowly back, or are a courier driver with an algorithm imposing deadlines on you that take no account of such things (townies all, those algorithms!) More importantly some villages on the coast have become ghost towns in Winter – they might as well put up a ‘Closed’ sticker on the ‘Welcome to..’ sign on the road in.

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Plan B is ‘Added value’. Make your milk into yoghurt or ice-cream, get your fleeces spun and sell the wool or, better still, knit or weave it and sell your crafts, sell your meat direct to the customer on-line. Animals were traditionally sold through the marts and not every farmer can, or wants to, become an entrepreneur. And as for on-line, unless there is serious investment in good broadband for rural areas, dream on sunshine. Read about my switch to a satellite based system (here) Compared with the speeds and reliability on my landline it is fabulous but pathetic compared to the service my son gets in Luton.

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my internet satellite dish

So unless the drive to reduce livestock numbers is associated with increased farm payments, or increased prices for the food they produce, or investment in alternative employment and infrastructure, the result will be even more rural poverty and homelessness.

Secondly, what about those fields which will no longer have animals in them? Left to their own devices they will become massive bramble patches with a few chest high docks and nettles thrown in. Not what the tourists pay to come and see. Give them a few decades and they will transition through scrub woodland (mainly blackthorn round here) to woodland. Of course they could be planted with trees to shorten the process. The Government could fund that and pay farmers ‘rent’ for the land. They could call it a ‘carbon sequestration services payment’. Mmm can’t see it happening somehow, not in the long term. And sitting at home living, effectively, on benefit would not be good for the mental health of the farmers. They could be encouraged to manage the woodland but that is a very different skill set from farming and one they would have to learn. Even if they did where would the market be for all that extra firewood, coppice product and timber? What would they live on until the trees were big enough to be harvested? Questions, questions, questions and a shortage of answers.

Thirdly those animals currently supply the food chain. Unless the population as a whole reduces its consumption of dairy produce, eggs and meat, the shortfall will be cheerfully filled by the supermarkets importing more. There would be no reduction in global carbon emissions because no overall reduction in animal numbers. But the animals would probably be reared to lower welfare standards according to the expert I heard on the food programme (listen to it here) Wales could feel virtuous by ‘off-shoring’ the problem.

If only life was simple!

I will welcome comments, arguments, or questions whether you agree with me or take a different view, but please keep them respectful, thoughtful and evidence based.

My pictures are supplemented by ones from my good friend Michelle Laine of Scythe Cymru – find out more about her and her family’s low impact lives here and on facebook here The picture of farm cottages for holidays is from google images.

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.

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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