Lessons from Lockdown

When our children were babies my husband worked for a while as an Audit Assistant with the local Council. It was a small Council and Audit got various jobs that didn’t really belong to any department or took up slack when other departments were unusually busy. One day he was asked to review the insurance for all the Council vehicles before it was renewed. ‘Just think of the worst accident you can imagine and make sure we would be OK’ was the instruction from his boss. His scenario involved a bin lorry, failed brakes, a steep hill between busy shops and with the Council Offices at the bottom.

More importantly it made him think about our lives. What could go wrong? What would the consequences be? Did we have the ‘insurance’ to cope? From then on he was known for his ‘belt, braces and a bit of baler twine just in case’ approach. That seemingly trivial task at work became a foundation stone for our lives. We didn’t become fearful or paranoid, just determined to think about our resilience and try always to have plan ‘B’.

IMG_20200503_134445519
Soft fruit gives a lot of yield for little effort

We agreed that we would try to accumulate useful practical skills going as far back down the process as possible and to do so using only the most basic equipment. I knew how to sew but learned how to mend, do patchwork using recycled fabric, sew by hand as well as machine, relearned how to knit and crochet, then to spin and to dye using natural ingredients (I am not very good at either but know enough that I could become competent). John added DIY and building to his ‘O’level woodwork then did a weekend course in blacksmithing. We learned to garden and to cook with what was available rather than starting with a recipe and buying the ingredients. Foraging increased the range of foodstuffs we could use. Preserving kept summer foods for winter use. We kept poultry and pigs for meat and eggs.

The spinning wheel I have been lent and the workshop

I hope I am not giving the impression that I live (or have lived) some buccolic idyll of self sufficiency. Complete self sufficiency is a myth. It is also part of the ‘I’m all right Jack’ bunker mentality of the survivalists. I happily accept gifts from neighbours, shop from local farms and buy staples like flour and sugar from the supermarket. I enjoy eating bananas and lemons that will not grow in the UK. I heat my home predominantly with electricity and since heat is needed mainly when the sun is not shining I need the National grid to take surplus power when I have it and sell me some when I need it. I use more than I generate so I am dependent on other suppliers particularly over winter. I prefer to use hand tools but am realistic about the efficiency of powered ones. And so on.


Allowing kales to self seed looks messy but gives me an early crop for no work. Small ones for salad and big ones to cook.

The last few weeks has been the first big test of that resilience for a long time. I have coped pretty well. Not pefectly so there are things I need to think about but on the whole well enough. I am of course lucky to be retired – my income is not dependent on me being able to work. I don’t have young children to care for and school or entertain. Having a mortgage free home in the country with a large garden has been a great blessing and is partly down to luck and partly to hard work and choices. Food in the garden, hedgerows to forage in, preserves and a well stocked freezer mean I have had plenty to eat and gardening, crafting, dogs and a home to look after have given me plenty to do.


Workdays and permaculture groups have made me lots of friends

Getting to know my neighbours, building a wider community by joining in things and volunteering means I have had plenty of offers of help with things like shopping and lots of electronic contact with others. My washing machine stopped working with a smell of hot rubber and some expensive noises just after lockdown started. I could have ordered a new one online for home delivery but I suspect it can be repaired and I know a very competent man who will come and look at it – but not at the moment. My neighbour has been doing my washing each week since and has been pleased to help me since she was becoming embarassed about asking me to drive her children to clubs when she had two of them needing to go in opposite directions at the same time. Of course I have missed being able to go out and meet friends for coffee, walks on the beach, visitors coming here, workdays… but I haven’t been lonely or felt vulnerable.

So where could I do better? I didn’t have enough pet food to see me through even the original 3 week lockdown. I buy dog and cat food in sacks from the farmers co-op but in future I need to have an unopened sack of each as well as the one I am using. That means I also need to make sure there is space for them in the new utility room. I can adjust my diet to suit what is growing but it is harder to do that for the animals! I also went to the vets and got some more of the pain relief medicine Orchid needs. I was a bit over cautious there as the bottle will finally run out tomorrow but even so I need to keep a better supply in future.


C&M have closed the trust shop but between 10am and 2pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday they are open to take orders called through the window. They put everything requested together in a box which is put outside the door for the customer to pick up.

I have been going to C&M for fresh fruit and veg, butter and cheese. I decided a few years ago that potatoes, onions and carrots were not worth growing. Potatoes because I always miss some when I dig them up and get ‘volunteers’ the next year which outcompete the things I am trying to grow, onions because they came out the same size as the sets that went in and carrots because the local carrot root flies get them all. This year I have been able to get some manure to improve my veg patch and am planting lots of leeks instead of onions. I had intended growing some potatoes in pots which I could empty completely when I harvested them but missed the seed potatoes. Butter and cheese I can start keeping in the freezer. So I just need to tweak my growing and storing. On the other hand by shopping there I have been supporting a local business – a balance to be struck.


preserves have been a boon

The other thing I have needed to buy is milk. I have been thinking about that gap for a while and had a go at milking a goat at a friend’s place a while back. Going back into livestock isn’t something to do on a whim or for an unusual event but I do need to have another think.

Of course if this goes on for much longer I will run out of other things, there will be other breakages and breakdowns. My hair needs cutting and since I had it cut short I no longer have slides and clips to keep it out of my eyes. A dental appointment has been postponed. A former neighbour died and I was unable to go to the funeral – it should have been a ‘standing room only’ affair but must have been very small instead – not a fitting send-off for a very popular and respected man.

Sometime fairly soon lockdown will be eased if not lifted and I will be very glad. I will enjoy a trip into Cardigan to have a coffee, meet friends, go to the library, buy some more knitting yarn and restock at the supermarket. I will get my hair cut, my tooth filled and my washing machine repaired. But I owe a huge debt of gratitude to that imaginary bin lorry!

Blessings # 12 – L is for Larder

I deliberately try to grow more food in this garden than I need so I have some to give away. That is prticularly true for low work, high value stuff like soft fruit. I mean what woman can eat all the apricots 2 trees produce or the grapes from 5 vines? The grapes are a bit OTT I have to admit. I have tried making wine and it comes into the ‘drinkable if desperate or too drunk to care’ category so I have given up. Partly I grow the vines to give some shade in the greenhouses, partly because they look so lovely – the fruit is a bonus. But it is easy to give away and the birds enjoy the rest. Bushes like blackcurrants are so easy to reproduce from cuttings – again I give away loads and find spaces for any that are left which add to the bounty. I also go foraging along the lanes in autumn for blackberries and sloes.

As well as eating as much of the fruit and veg as I want and giving away some of the surplus I bottle fruit, fill the freezer, make jams, chutneys, pickles and buy citrus fruit to make marmalade. Those stocks help me through the winter and there are very few people who aren’t grateful for a gift of homemade preserves.

I also belong to a group who buy direct from Suma Wholesale. Suma is a workers co-operative which supplies wholefoods and organic groceries, mostly to shops, through a website. When John and Jean, the organisers of the group tell us that they are planning a delivery we each go online and order what we need. At the checkout we put our name as the reference. The whole lot, together with copies of the orders, is then delivered to John and Jean who spend a couple of hours sorting it into different piles in their home office ready for us to collect. I have discovered (sometimes the hard way) that not everything is worth buying in bulk – some walnuts went rancid before I could use them all up. But flour, dried fruit, tins of tomatoes and things like that last indefinitely.

A few weeks before we were all told to stay home I had to go to Carmarthen. I usually shop in Cardigan where there are more of the small independent shops I prefer but to get my hair cut or to have my NHS hearing aids serviced I have to go to Carmarthen. The supermarkets there are bigger than in Cardigan and realising that Easter would come up before I went there again I decided to stock up my freezer ready for family visiting. I expected my son to collect his son from Swansea University and he usually makes a weekend of it. Lately he has been giving Sean’s housemate, Irfan, a lift home too so that is 3 extra people to feed. I also wondered if my daughter might take the chance to come whilst her daughter was on holiday with her friend’s family.

In the event of course my son made a flying visit just before lockdown began and none of them has been able to visit since. Nor have I been going out to workdays and events so I have been baking less.

I have been so grateful for my ‘pantry’ now! I was able to help my neighbour out with some things she had run short of and she gave me eggs which she gets from a friend of hers. Since it is a dairy farm they can also give me milk when I need some.

After not going out other than to walk the dogs for 2 weeks I went to C&M on Saturday for some fresh veg and this week I will have to go to the Farmers Co-op for some dog food and cat food. Both places have instituted systems where you tell them what you need and they put your order outside for you to pick up. There is no contact between staff and customers and customers are expected to be sensible about staying well apart in the car park. But I think it will be several weeks before I need to brave a supermarket again!

Blessings #2 – B is for Bees

I was chatting to Chris from C&M Organics the other day when I was showing her daughter Anna my garden. We had got to the greenhouses and were admiring my apricot trees which were in bloom and noticed a bee working the flowers. I always make sure of a good set by dabbing them with a paint brush every couple of days just in case it is too cold or wet for the bees to fly. Chris told me that she had some broad beans in flower in the polytunnel for an early crop but had seen no bees on them so her husband Matt was patiently pollenating them all by hand. If we were to lose all the pollenating insects that is what we would have to do to every fruit tree and bush, all the crops where we eat the fruit and even the other crops such as roots and leaves are grown from seeds so all those parent plants would have to be brushed too. Only things like hazel nuts which are wind pollenated would be easy to grow. Can you imagine it? Presumably someone would invent a tractor attachment to speed the process up but it would still add a lot to the work and cost of food.


Between us the bees and I seem to have done a good job!

My paternal grandfather, who lived in Llanelli on the South Wales coast, was a founder member of the Carmarthenshire Beekeepers Association and known as Dai the bees. My father taught woodwork at a school on the Northern edge of Manchester and kept several hives of bees on a piece of otherwise unused land behind the school canteen. That would never be allowed now but at the time was seen as the perfect way to eliminate one of the hidey holes for smokers and other banned behaviour! During the summer holidays he was a seasonal bee inspector going round other peoples apiaries checking them for diseases. I have happy memories of going with him as a little girl and playing in some lovely gardens whilst he did his job. He was also treasurer of the Manchester association which had meetings at members apiaries during the summer. The beekeepers, mostly men, went through the hives and one of the more experienced pointed out things of interest whilst the wives sat in deckchairs and chatted and the children played. Each family took a picnic tea and the host provided cups of tea.


Granddad on the left and Dad on the right

When we moved here John very much wanted us to have some hives but by the time that idea got to the top of our list his health was deteriorating, I knew that I would have to do the bulk of the work and having helped my Dad knew that lifting heavy hive boxes singlehandedly on hot days whilst wearing overalls, veil, gloves and boots was hard work. I also knew that all our animals conspired to create their dramas when John was also having a bad day and I never knew who to deal with first. So I refused. Instead we let it be known that any beekeeper wanting space for an apiary would be welcome to talk to us. And so Ted and SUe came into our lives. They live a few miles away and had more hives than they could accomodate in their garden.


Ted and Sue’s hives in two different parts of the garden. I have cut the bottoms out of the pots in the picture on the right so the saplings in them can root down into the rather stony soil and create a hedge.

Their hives are still here so I get all the benefits but none of the work. Ted ans Sue make sure that any bad tempered bees are re-queened promptly so they are no trouble. We asked for no rent but every autumn a box appears in my porch with a years supply of honey and a large bottle of gin! Both are delicious!

Let Christmas begin!

I have just come back from one of my favourite events in the year and the one which, for me, marks the start of Christmas, Yule, Midwinter – call it what you will – The Christmas Market at C&M Organics.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If you have been following my blog for a while you may remember that Chris and Matt run a market garden with an honesty shop which never shuts and where I buy the veg I need to supplement what I grow here. Much of it is grown by them but they import what cannot grow or to extend the season. All of it is organic and they supply a lot of local cafes, restaurants and shops. Increasingly they also stock a range of dry and canned goods and have a fridge with cheese, butter and yoghurt plus locally made sour-dough bread and some ice cream in a little freezer. They also make a point of supporting small local producers and providing them with an outlet liberally laced with encouragement. As part of that they have held markets where the producers can meet their customers face to face and promote their wares.

I arrived just half an hour after the start and was very glad I had chosen to walk there. The car park was full and the passing places on the single track road were filling up fast. Even with a marquee attached to the large storeroom the place was packed and there was a happy hum of voices. I had taken my phone to take photos but with low light levels and so many bodies gave up! Instead I took photos of the things I bought once I got home.

First stop was Chris’s own stall where she was selling home-made mince pies and mulled wine, tea and coffee to raise money for charity. Her eldest daughter works with refugees in Paris and Chris and Matt support her tirelessly. Another advantage of walking was being able to indulge in the mulled wine!

IMG_20191207_142357045

Next was Mountain Hall Farm which was one of the first places I visited with the Pembrokeshire Permaculture group. You can read my post on that here and Alex’s own blog here. He was selling their grass fed beef but as I still have some from my friends Phil and Michelle I just had a cuddle with his four month old daughter, Ffion, and bought some innoculant for planting trees which Alex was selling on behalf of one of his friends.

IMG_20191207_142217122

Next to him was Abby selling her dried flowers. She and her partner Josh keep ducks for eggs and rear lamb as well as developing a flower business. This year she grew things to dry as a way of extending the season and next year hopes to start selling flowers by post. I am in awe of these young people who give up secure, well paid jobs in cities to move out here and follow their passions.

IMG_20191207_142327947

Linda was there too with beautiful fresh wreaths and decorated pots of narcissi. I visited her place this summer when they were waiting for planning permission to build a home on their plot. It has now been granted and she was bubbling over with delight and plans for the build. You can read about Linda’s floristry business here

There were 2 stalls selling hot food both of which looked and smelled lovely but to carry them home in my rucksack seemed likely to end in disaster so I opted for a savoury croissant filled with leeks and blue cheese instead. I could have had an almond or plain one or one of a range of fruity pastries. Choices! I wanted them all!

IMG_20191207_133154995

There were stalls selling chocolates, candles, turned wooden christmas trees, hand made cards, beauty potions and all manner of other lovely things. The problem with being a crafter is that there is little point in buying what I can make myself. Plus I have just done a major de-clutter and am trying very hard (very very hard!) to be disciplined about filling the space up again! I succumbed to the temptation of sampling some pickled garlic which was delicious so I bought a pot telling myself that it would be eaten so didn’t count!

IMG_20191207_142050456

I knew lots of the customers too. We all had time to chat and even though the place was full no-one was getting impatient or rushing – so different from bumping into someone I know in the supermarket. I love the feeling of community, of camaraderie and mutual support at these events which I am sure comes from Chris and Matt’s own value system. I hope they have one next year.

Where did it go?

Did you notice I had not blogged for a while? Did you fantasise that I was soaking up the sun somewhere exotic? On a retreat where all access to the outside world was banned? Nope! Nothing so exciting or unusual. Just busy. You know what I mean – one minute it was early July and then the next it is October!

So where did Summer go? I actually had to check my diary!

There have been visits. I went to stay with my daughter for a weekend so we could go to IKEA for inspiration. I want to turn the old utility room into spare bedrooms. It was originally the garage so is big enough to attract a lot of ‘might come in useful one day’ clutter. 18 months ago I had a new shed built on an existing concrete slab to make a replacement utility space and am waiting for a local builder to come and fit it out for me. Meanwhile I am going through the old one getting rid of things – there is space on the shelves no as you can see in the picture! – and will eventually turn it into 2 spare bedrooms. I wanted to see what ideas I could pick up and knew that IKEA has a reputation for clever small space solutions. The nearest to here is Cardiff which is a long haul so I decided to visit my daughter and go with her to the one in Reading. To make it more of an adventure we got the bus into Basingstoke, the train to Reading and then another bus right to the door of IKEA. No navigating, no parking, we were able to look out of the windows and enjoy the journey whilst chatting as much as we liked.

IMG_20191001_144309559

My son brought his 3 young foster children so there was an excuse to go to the beach and picnic in his camper van. And we went to a friend’s smallholding to pick damsons and see the animals. No pictures because as looked after children I am not allowed to publish their pictures.

My daughter came to stay and we visited another smallholding where I had a go at milking a goat. A bad idea that – now I want one!

And of course there were meals with friends – at their homes, in cafes and here. The deck really came into its own this summer.

IMG_20190621_185619570_HDR

The utility room is not the only space to be de-cluttered. I am on a roll here. The house has been purged and now needs decorating (if only to get rid of the marks where I have taken down shelves!)The workshop is next.

There have been visits with the Permaculture networks which will get posts of their own in the next few weeks. And a lot happening at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust which I will also write about separately.

I went on a course at Stiwdio 3 in Cardigan (find out more here) to learn how to make a pair of espadrilles with the lovely Nia Denman and had a fantastic day. C & M Organics held another market – just one this year – where I spent more than I should have but got some really good plants as well as food. The Golden Thread Theater Company, normally based in Cardiff put on a performance at the Small World Theater in Cardigan which was a fascinating evening. They invite members of the audience to share very short stories of moments in their lives which the players then turn into improvised performances. The theme of the evening was ‘belonging’ which resulted in a huge range of stories and emotions. (you can find them on facebook)

IMG_20190724_185613666

In between all those things I have tended the garden, continued to write up my Permaculture Diploma and foraged for blackberries, elderberries and sloes which I have bottled and made into jam. Now the weather has turned wet and windy, the nights are drawing in and hopefully I can get back to blogging.

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.

IMG_20190512_135653997_HDR

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

cow 2

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’

farm cottages

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.

yarn

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

Nature is amazing

Each year I save tree seeds when I can. Mostly these are from fruit I am given or buy to eat although last year I picked up acorns that had fallen on a nearby lane and that I spotted on one of my dog walks. So by late autumn I had acorns, apple pips (mostly from fruit given me by Marie at Over the Rainbow), plum apricot, peach and cherry stones, and rowan berries from the young tree I planted a couple of years ago. I also had some bright red cherries from the tree in my daughter’s garden which are so horribly sour and bitter they are inedible but even the birds turn their beaks up at them so the tree is very ornamental! All these I put into peat or sand in recycled plastic cartons and stored in the fridge to chill over winter.

A couple of weeks ago I retrieved them to begin putting them into trays of compost in the greenhouse to see what would grow. Last year I got quite a few apples, a cherry and a sweet chestnut so I was quite hopeful that something would come of them.

To my amazement when I opened the first pot, which was Apricot stones in dry sand, there were several which had germinated! Only 2 look good enough to survive but even so! Years ago my late husband ate an apricot and found the stone had split and the seed was beginning to grow so he potted it up and later planted it in the greenhouse. It fruited well but because of his poor health he didn’t prune it well enough or consistently enough and it grew too big so had to be taken out. Maybe I can be more successful now that I have more greenhouse space and am able to prune every year. I looked in the second pot labelled Apricot and found that in that one I had used damp peat – no sign of germination there. Maybe they were a different variety of apricot or from a different orchard but I was curious as to whether it was the sand / peat that made the difference.

IMG_20190217_142101752_HDR

Then I opened the pots of apples – some of the ones with damp compost had germinated whilst the ones with sand had not! Again I cannot be sure that any will survive but again my interest was piqued. Was the difference between the two types of tree significant or just chance?

Sadly nothing else was showing signs of life but then nothing germinated in the fridge last year. They are all now in good compost in trays and I will wait and see. I have made a note to myself to be more methodical next year about splitting batches and experimenting with different media to store them in. I still have so much to learn about gardening! One of the permaculture principles i ‘Observe and Interact’ so that is what I shall do – but in a more organised way than usual!

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!