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

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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.

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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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!

A Merry Start to Christmas

Those of you who have been following this blog for  while will remember that over the summer Chris, Matt and their family who run C & M organics started holding markets on Saturday mornings. They were a way of providing a space for new food producers in the area to sell their wares and meet potential customers even if they had not reached a size where it was sensible to obtain proper ‘Organic’ status. If you missed the post you can read about it here

When Autumn came around there was less to sell and the market stopped but a collective decision was made to hold a Christmas one with craftspeople invited to join in as well. So last Saturday two marquees were in place on the yard, heaters on full blast, Christmas music on low, a table set with activities to keep children amused, two pigmy goats for us all to coo over, plenty of food and drink to consume and lots of beautiful things to buy. I think we were all wondering what the turnout would be like. Weekends in December are always busy for people with visiting and being visited, general preparations and, of course, lots of special events. To make matters worse the weather forecast was awful and it rained hard all morning. But  in fact within an hour of the start things were beginning to buzz and by lunchtime the marquees were heaving, the car park was full and people were leaving their cars in lay-bys and walking the rest of the way. Everyone was smiling, chatting, eating, drinking mulled wine (or a non-alcoholic version), spending and having a great time. There was an amazing feeling of a community having formed and come together to celebrate – whether the Winter Solstice, Christmas or just the turning of the year people wanted to meet and mark it in the company of their  local friends.

Three days later in the Welsh class two people who are very involved in their local areas were saying that one of the problems they face is the lack of young people. In villages where the majority of the residents are elderly it is hard to find anyone with the energy to organise events or to do jobs like maintaining the  public spaces. It made me realise how many young people and families were at the market and what a difference they make to the collective energy level. And one of the factors attracting them is that there is a growing group of One Planet Developements (read more here)  – Lammas ( read about the eco-village here here) came first and others have come to use the policy but where they can access the support of others on the same path. A number of us who are older, particularly Chris and Matt,  have welcomed them and supported them in whatever ways we can and between us something very special has happened. What a privilege to be part of it!

Bamboo

Many years ago my husband took a fancy to having some bamboo in the garden. In his quest for self-reliance it seemed a good idea to grow his own canes and maybe some bamboo shoots to eat too? He mentioned this idea to a local couple who told him they needed to move a clump of bamboo which was ‘in the wrong place’ and he could dig up a few pieces if he liked. So off we went, spades and forks in hand, to get some free plants. What was not to like?

We should have turned round when we saw the clump. Having cut it back to the ground our neighbours had tried to dig it up and failed so had built a bonfire on top of it. And still it was putting up new shoots! Undeterred John managed to prise up 3 shoots with tiny bits of root on them, all the while assuring me that he would keep them well in check and wouldn’t they look good as a screen between the drive and the path to the veg patch? I let myself be persuaded.

Back home he put out three old tyres on the bank then dug planting holes with a crowbar (The terracing had not long been finished so they were going into compacted stone), added compost and plants and waited to see how they fared. All three took but the poor conditions gave them a slow start so we were lulled into a false sense of security. Just as John became too ill to do much in the garden they got going properly and started to take over the whole bank – as a limbering up exercise for their ultimate goal of world domination. By the time he died they were popping up all over the place – through the  potentilla, under the bird cherry and giving the crab apple a really hard time.

So every year I have to spend a day cutting them down to size. At least the tyres give me an edge to work to! Even quite small stems are too tough and too bendy for the scythe and they quickly blunt it so each one has to be cut to ground level with secateurs or loppers, a tedious job and hard on the knees and back. Last year I cut everything off one root and that has slowed its height but not its spread! And every scrap has to be disposed of carefully. Even the smallest root will take (hence our original success) and where I dumped the bits in a hedge one year there is now another clump – luckily where it is competing with trees, out of the way in a wild section, and I can ignore it!

And those bamboo shoots for a stirfry? I spoke to someone who grew bamboo for that purpose and was told that whilst they are technically edible we should have chosen a named variety developed for eating. He also said that I would really need to mark them as they emerge and cut them on the correct day. There are easier ways to fill my belly and I grow a big enough range of edibles not to need them for variety.

I do keep the taller, stronger pieces as garden canes. Once I have peeled off the sheathes where the side shoots develop, a job I can do under cover, I put them in the roofs and eaves of the greenhouses to dry out. The tops, side shoots, small canes and the sheathes all dry out on the floor of the lean-to greenhouse which is concrete so they cannot root. Once they are dry I will break them up for kindling – as you can see they will light a fair few fires!

There are some other good points in their favour. They do make a good screen and I love their elegant shape and rustling sound. They are such thugs that even brambles don’t grow through their roots and the bindweed has so far declined to try. Of the three the bamboo are the by far the most decorative so they can stay. For now.

 

Starting in the middle

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

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

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

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

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

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