A feast of growing and growing a feast

Regular readers may have noticed that it is a while since I published a post. After a particularly cold and wet winter that felt as if it would never end it did – spectacularly! We have had a long spell of lovely warm dry weather. So I have been spending every available moment in the garden.

When, a few years after we moved in, we bought the steep slope behind the house from our lovely neighbour we had it terraced. But that meant the new veg garden was just compacted stone so we built raised beds and filled them with any bio-degradable material we could get. As anyone who has a compost heap knows a mountain of material breaks down into a little hump. So every year we added loads more. Until John was too ill and I was too busy looking after him. When I got back to the garden after he died the beds were very low again and by the time I had pulled out the worst of the really nasty weeds like bindweed and nettles, lower still. Luckily I had access to chipped wood from a local firm so I covered the annual weeds with cardboard then filled the beds with that – and it rotted down and I refilled them – and… This year the stash of material is already well rotted so hopefully from now on it will not go down much more. However I still had to do some barrowing up the hill before planting out seedlings and doing some direct sowing. But at last the bulk of the filling, planting and sowing are done. Which is just as well as this morning normal service was resumed with showers. Actually I am quite pleased because watering so many small things was quite a lot of work and the water butts were getting low. I should explain that I chose to go on water meter so that I would be more aware of my usage (which worked) and I do all the watering with cans from butts which collect rainwater from the roofs of the greenhouses and sheds.

Anyway things are growing and trees and shrubs are in bloom so it all looks much better.

 

By way of a change and some company I spent last Sunday at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust where we weeded one of the forest garden beds. We left some ‘weeds’ which are liked by bees but grubbed up the creeping buttercup and nettles. It was such a lovely day we had lunch outside around the firepit in front of the yurt. Michelle accidentally dug up some Babbington’s leeks, a perennial leek and offered them to me rather than put them back.

I am trying to increase the number of edible perrenials and self-seeders I have because they take much less work and come earlier. On Monday a friend came over for lunch and I picked small leaf lime, hawthorn, vine leaves, buckler leaf sorrel, jack-by-the-hedge, orpine, wild garlic, chives, chive flowers, oregano, corn salad and purslane with a few early leaves of newly sown chard and beetroot to make a big bowl of salad to go with hard boiled eggs from Jeni’s ducks and some home-made cheese scones. Delicious!

 

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The consequence of reading books

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of years ago Mark Boyle, Guardian columnist and author of ‘The Moneyless Man and ‘Drinking Molatov Cocktails with Ghandi’, put into words a discomfort I had been feeling for a while. When John died I claimed the life insurance originally intended to pay off our mortgage. In the event it we had paid down the mortgage every time we had a windfall or an extra piece of work and no longer had a debt. Unsure what to do with the money I contacted an ethical investment firm and let them take care of it. It did rather well. Suspiciously well. Mark Boyle’s books made me look more closely. Ethical is a vague term – some of the money was invested in property funds. There was no reason to think this was unethical was there? Then I thought again. Were these buildings constructed using the most sustainable designs and materials? Maintained to the same high standards? Were the tenants vetted to ensure they were running ethical companies? Hmmm. I decided it was time to stop being lazy and shuffling the responsibility onto someone else’s shoulders. But what should I do with a sum of money which, by my standards, was quite large? I waited for an answer to present itself.

My first 2 attempts to buy pieces of woodland came to naught. Then, last year, the farmer who owned some land adjoining Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust let it be known that he was having a bungalow built on one corner of his land, retiring and selling the house and fields. If the Trust wanted to buy all or part of the land he would be happy to sell to them. The Trust did want to buy 2 fields because it would improve the balance of grazing fields to old hay meadows, but it did not have the money or the capacity to raise funds in time. So I offered to buy them on the understanding that the Trust would look after them and finance any fencing and so on that needed doing, in return for being charged only a peppercorn rent.

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My money is no longer earning interest in money terms but I am happy it is being put to good use and I am enjoying the interest I am taking in the land and its progress. The dividing hedge has already been planted with fruit trees and bushes during a workday (see a post about this here More than just a hedge) and new fencing is being put up to allow the hedges to be protected from grazing so that they grow thicker and fuller. Eventually they will be laid to give a good stock-proof barrier that is natural and sustainable. With less intensive stocking wild flowers are beginning to emerge

 

IMG_0240Last Saturday we had the Trust AGM and once the business part was over we had a celebration of the new fields. The furthest one had been called Cae Cornel (Corner field) because ofits shape and the nearer one Cae Gwaelod (Bottom field) because it was furthest from the farmhouse and the lowest. But in terms of the Trust land it was middle-ish. So I renamed them Cae herc (lopsided field) its older name found on old maps, and Cae Novello after the lady who, with her husband, sold it to us.

Led my the inimitable Pamela Gaunt, storyteller, celebrant and psychotherapist, in her dragon costume, and Dafydd, partner of one of our neighbours, with his bagpipes, we sang our way round the fields washing our feet in the water of the West, playing natural percussion instruments in the earth of the North, blowing bubbles in the air of the East and lighting candles in the fire of the South. Then repaired to the barn for tea and cake! A lovely afternoon! Thank you Mark Boyle!

Permaculture Principles 3- Obtain a Yield

I have mentioned my Mum before in these posts. She trained as a Domestic Science teacher during the second World War – the end of an era when the object of Domestic Science in schools was to train girls (only girls) to be good housewives and mothers and / or good servants. It had not been uncommon for Secondary Modern schools in particular (grammar school girls would be employing the servants!) to have a small flat where girls could learn to clean, wash and iron clothes, bath a baby and light the sitting room fire; as well as a separate Cookery room where they learned to cook. I have this amazing (if grainy) photo of the cookery room she worked in as a teacher in a school near Bolton, Lancashire in 1941.

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Thus when she left teaching to get married she prided herself on her housewifely skills and kept the house immaculate. Things she did daily are lucky to get done here weekly, her monthly jobs are my attempt at spring cleaning and so on. In many ways it was an example of Parkinson’s first law that work expands to fill the time available. Her justification for all this activity was that she wanted the place to look nice if someone came round. However she was so locked into her regime of chores that her only outings were to the shops. She belonged to no groups or clubs until I was well into my teens when she started going to an evening class in cake decorating. As a result there were very few visitors to the house – one next door neighbour came for a cup of tea quite often and relatives or old friends came occasionally but always by arrangement as they lived to far away to just call. And all that cleaning and polishing meant the house never felt homely or welcoming and everyone was afraid of making a mess or spilling something.  And to be honest any impending visit caused so much work and worry and baking that Mum too was happier not to see people.

So what has all that got to do with obtaining a yield? Well the idea of this principle is not to waste time and energy doing something just for the sake of it.

Of course what is wasting time for me might not be for you and vice versa and we will each value different yields differently. When I go to a meeting of one of the Permaculture groups it is not because I want to ‘earn’ a visit to my place and the work that will get done but because I enjoy the socialising and learning and get ideas for my own place. Most of the ‘yield’ is intangible but nonetheless real to me but someone else might think I am stupid to give my labour for free getting  wet and muddy into the bargain.

Another thing both my Mum and my dad were keen on was being sensible and that very lower middle class idea of ‘deferred gratification’. So I dutifully went to University and for want of any better idea became, to their relief,  a teacher. A nice steady job with a salary and prospects and with a pension at the end. John and I got married, bought a house with a mortgage, acquired wills and insurance policies. Actually I quite enjoyed teaching most of the time (though I was a bit creative and whacky for some of my colleagues even then! None of the other Maths teachers illustrated their lessons on fractions with chocolate cakes or used mind reading to introduce algebra!)). blog260418-2But having fun, experimenting, taking risks, chasing dreams were very low on the agenda and I regret that now. The yield was always ‘later’, when the children are older, when they leave home, when the mortgage is paid off, when you retire… H.E. Bates puts it rather well in ‘The Darling Buds of May’ “The word pension made Pop laugh…. ‘You mean sit on your backside for forty years and then collect four pounds a week that’s worth only two and and ‘ll only buy half as much anyway?'” I am not suggesting here that pensions are a bad idea – I have 2 very small private ones that top-up my state one and I am relieved that I own my home; I am grateful for the security those things give me. But I wish there had been more balance, more ‘yield’ of fun and adventure whilst I was young enough to take risks and bounce back if they failed as well as ensuring a ‘yield’ of security now.

Meanwhile writing this blog records events, gives me pleasure in writing the posts, has taught me new skills such as taking and loading photos and the comments are allowing me to meet a new group of people. A good investment – I am obtaining a yield.

Permaculture Principles 2 – Catch & Store Energy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy Mum trained as a teacher of Domestic Science in Liverpool during World War 2. It was not good timing for her training because so many things were in short supply and I have to say that her deeply ingrained habits of frugality could be quite trying in the relatively affluent 60’s! Food was, of course, rationed and to throw away leftovers or scraps was literally a crime. Since she was never particularly imaginative or creative this made for some slightly bizarre meals in my teens! Coal too was in short supply as miners became soldiers to be replaced in part by Bevan Boys. But also because moving all those troops around involved trains which ran on coal. Power stations were coal fired too so everyone was encouraged to use all power sparingly. To put the oven on for one dish only was frowned upon – it should be filled by making other things in advance or baking a cake. I still have some of her old books and have acquired reprints of some of the government leaflets of the time. Why? Because they are an interesting historical record but also because they are useful and illustrate this Principle of catching and storing energy.

When permaculture began in Australia a lot of thought was given to catching and storing water before allowing it to move around the holding slowly, seeping into the ground as it went thus avoiding needing well, bore hole or mains water for irrigation.  As someone recently remarked to me, here in West Wales where it rains a LOT we are more concerned with getting rid of water without it causing damage! Instead we often concentrate on catching solar energy using PV panels or the wind with a turbine. Excellent examples of Earth Care but what about the other Ethics. And what if you live in a rented place or expect to sell up and move on? Or if the capital outlay is more than you can afford?

Over the years, thanks to some windfalls, we were able to insulate this house extensively, put up solar PV and solar thermal and have a heating system powered by an Air Source Heat Pump. Lovely. But the single most cost effective improvement was to make thick linings for all the curtains at the windows and put the same system over every external door. Because the curtains are all made of unbleached calico (it comes in wide widths and is cheap) I bought a lot of seconds quality fleece fabric also in cream. It needs no hemming though I did do zigzag stitching all round to make sure. A single header tape allows me to hook them to the back of the curtains in autumn and take them down in spring. They make an amazing difference to the rooms and feel cosy.

So far so good but this principle applies to energy in all its forms. I can think about my own energy and how I use it or waste it. Because my Mum HAD to give up work when she married (women teachers who had a husband to support them made way for men returning from the services – though how many ex military men would have wanted to teach Domestic Science is a moot point!) she was a bored housewife who therefore devoted too much time to keeping the place spotless. It led to a mild form of OCD against which I reacted by becoming very messy. However I now realise that I wasted huge amounts of time hunting for things I had put down ‘somewhere’. I now try to have better storage and put things away, if not as soon as I have finished with them at least having a good clear up fairly regularly.

Having workdays to help me complete big projects in the garden is a way of catching and storing other people’s energy. In fact I usually find that the socialising and camaraderie make group work more efficient than a lot of people working singly. And if someone has a special skill they can use it to the benefit of all. Then I go and help someone else at their workday and the energy flows on and we all get cared for.

The final ethic is fair shares. I have a big garden and can easily, often without meaning to, grow more food than I need. Instead of putting the surplus on the compost heap I can give it away or take it to a local food bank to help others in need. I have been changing my light bulbs for the new LED ones which use even less energy thus reducing my carbon footprint and my use of the planet’s resources.

All these are cheap, simple, little examples which individually do not make a big difference to the Earth or anyone on it. Collectively and if done by many of us they could have a huge impact. They are not glamorous, bring me no kudos, make no waves. As we shall see in a later post ‘Use slow and simple solutions’ is another of the Permaculture Principles.

Going Round in Circles

When I was a little girl my Mum’s oldest sister, Aunty Nan, and her husband Uncle Francis bought a large building plot in the village of Alsager in Cheshire. They both worked as lecturers at the local Teacher Training College and had been living on campus in half a converted Nissan Hut. Even before they started building their new home Francis, who taught Rural Studies, began to construct and plant a garden. Looking back it must have been really hard for him to live in that hut with no outside space to call his own.

We visited them fairly regularly and once the new bungalow was completed I fell in love with the garden. There was a large and very deep pond which had been dug for some purpose when the land was still a field and which Francis incorporated into the garden and a huge weeping willow hanging over it which made a tunnel to hide in. A pump fed water to the top of an artificial stream which nonetheless looked very natural. A shrubbery between the house and the road was another place to hide – even though no-one was looking for me! But what I liked most was that I could spend hours exploring the network of paths and finding different ways to go from place to place. Of course Francis had designed them to allow himself easy access to each place he needed to work but because they interconnected they made an interesting challenge for a young explorer.

I always wanted a garden with paths like that but small suburban gardens do not lend themselves to lots of paths or you end up with tiny spaces for the plants! Even in the big space here there was, for a long time, only a figure of 8. The top loop went from the drive to the veg patch with a spur to the Orchard, then through the soft fruit and the woodland back to the sheds and behind the house to the drive. The other loop went down to the cabin, then to the stream garden and back up. Boring!

Then a year or so ago I had a digger in to clear the stream garden and the excess earth was used to make 2 new paths, one up to the sheds and the other along the stream to join up with the top loop at the edge of the woodland. Now there were choices. And a couple of weeks ago the Carmarthenshire Parmaculture Group cleared a path through the woodland I rent from my neighbour to extend the top loop. (read about it here Many Hands) A little more work by me clearing the overgrown section of the top loop and Yes! I have a network! Now there are choices and I can walk the dogs different circular routes making them longer or shorter as the whim takes me. It has taken over 50 years but my childhood dream has come true.

 

Many Hands

Having volunteered at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust and with the Pembrokeshire Permies at Rhiw Las the previous weekend it was my turn on the 11th to host some of the Carmarthenshire group. So 10 adults and a toddler came to see my place and help me with some jobs where extra hands and muscle power would be useful.

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We gathered in the wooden cabin in the garden which I am in the process of upgrading to make it more useful. It is some way from finished but with the small woodburner lit and an improvised kitchen it was a good place to gather to talk and share lunch.

In the morning I explained the theme for my Diploma in Permaculture design (planning for 2050 – more posts on that to follow) which I am just starting then took them on a brief tour of the garden. Some had been before and were interested to see progress, particularly how things they had worked on in the past had worked out. Others were new to the group so there were lots of questions and picking up of tips and ideas. I rarely go to someone else’s patch without learning something new and am very happy to share my experiences (and mistakes) with others. Grape vines seemed to be of particular interest this time.

It was a chilly day with occasional wintry showers so we were all very pleased that Peter and Alison had brought soup to share for lunch! With Chris’s bread rolls, some quiches, salads and tasty nibbles followed by 3 – yes 3! – types of cake and more tea and coffee, we were well set up for the afternoon. My daughter Carrie and grand-daughter Georgia were here for the weekend and Georgia had made 2 of the cakes on Saturday afternoon whilst I got the cabin ready and found the tools we would need for the jobs in the afternoon. They also took charge of making drinks and washing up which was a great help to me as it left me free to talk and organise the activities.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust after lunch there was a shower so we spent a short time thinking about a problem area in the garden, the muddy and shady ‘Cinderella’ patch behind the house. The advice to concentrate on drainage plus ideas of how I might achieve that so it is less wet were very useful. There may even be another visit to make it happen! They also encouraged me to stop worrying about it and just let it be a rough grass area for now.

Then when the sun came out again we divided into 2 groups to tackle the jobs I had chosen.

One group created an area of hard standing outside the French doors of the cabin as a sitting area. I had made a frame the right size from timber left over from building a new outbuilding. I had a roll of mulch material bought donkey’s years ago which was more than enough to line the base. Then all the off-cuts of blocks from the building work were barrowed down the path and put in, followed by stones which I had dug out of 2 ponds I am in the process of making on the veg patch. Left over sand made the surface level and slates broken when the flue for the woodburner in the cabin was installed were smashed as a top layer. Unfortunately there were not enough to finish the job. I had hoped to use only waste stuff but maybe I will have to buy a small amount of slate waste to finish it! It would have taken me a long time to do the same work especially as I could only carry about half as much stuff in the barrow on each journey as the younger ones.

The other team cleared the path from the veg patch to the boundary where my garden meets the woodland I rent from my neighbour. Then the cut away brambles and low branches to make a path through the woods that follows the top boundary for a spell before sloping down to the stream and returning to join the path past the woodstore and workshop to the house. To my surprise and delight they managed to get all the way round, arriving back just as the last of the slate was put down. Now I can take the dogs for a circular walk round the garden and wood which should mean I get to know both more intimately. Observation is key to Permaculture design as I explain here Permaculture Principles 1 – Observe

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Melting Moments

More tea, cake and biscuits and they even had enough energy to walk up the hill to the farm where they had parked (there is very little space here to park without being in the way) and they were still smiling!

MELTING MOMENTS (from a Bero flour booklet circa 1971 hence the imperial weights!))

Cream 8oz butter with 6oz caster sugar. Work in 10oz SR flour and about 2 teaspoons vanilla extract. Form the mixture into walnut sized balls and dip these into first water then either rolled oats or dessicated coconut (I used oats). Place on a greased baking sheet well spaced (they spread), flatten slightly and put a small piece of glace cherry in the middle of each. \bake at 325 – 350 deg F (about 175deg C) for 15 – 20 mins. Allow to cool slightly and firm up before transferring to a wire rack to finish cooling.

 

Rhiw Las

Last weekend was a busy one! As well as going to Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust I joined the Pembrokeshire Permaculture Group on a visit to Rhiw Las on Sunday to see the straw bale house Chris & Erica Thompson are building as part of their One Planet Development.

One Planet Development (usually shortened to OPD) is a planning system which is, I believe, unique to Wales. It was pioneered by the group who formed the Lammas eco-village just a few miles from here in the next valley and then established as a national framework. Although there have been tweaks to the regulations in the light of experience the basics remain the same. An individual, couple, family or group can acquire a few acres of agricultural land which has no dwelling on it and apply for planning permission to live on it within certain constraints.  The house must be low-impact, they must have a plan to meet at least a certain (high) percentage of their assumed needs from the land within 5 years, and be prepared to submit detailed annual returns to demonstrate progress towards this goal. If they fail to meet the percentage in the time frame then permission may be withdrawn. It allows people like Chris and Erica to buy a piece of land at the agricultural price which is much lower than land with planning consent and, particularly if they are willing and able to do a significant amount of the work themselves, build a home fairly cheaply. But of course there is a risk that planning will be refused or later rescinded if the business fails. Often there is an agricultural tie which affects the resale value of the property and plot – not a consideration if what you want is a home but not a rock solid investment. I have great admiration for those who are willing to negotiate the planning process then put blood sweat and tears into building a home and holding with no guarantees of success.

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Another of the houses goes up

Rhiw Las is a smallholding of about 20 acres which was bought by 4 households. It was then divided into 4 freehold strips running down the hill from the road so that each has a road frontage, 2 steeply sloping sections and a flatter bit in the middle where, not surprisingly, each has decided to site their house! The trackway and an existing barn are owned by a company with 8 shareholders – the 8 resident adults but to avoid possible squabbles the barn has been divided into 4 units. Each household has chosen to build their home in a different way and each will run a different business and report separately. They hope this structure will help them avoid some of the disputes which have arisen on previous developments. Groups are tricky things and typically go through a stage of ‘storming’ when assumptions about each other prove incorrect and it is often painful. By living as neighbours but otherwise independently the folk of Rhiw Las hope to minimise the friction between them.

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Lime render makes the straw waterproof

Erica and Chris have chosen to build a roundwood timber framed, strawbale house. Other OPD families have, in the past, chosen to build a roundhouse or other small building to live in temporarily whilst they establish their livelihood and build a ‘forever’ home – only to realise that by the time the ‘forever’ home gets built their children will have left home and it will be too big! So all 4 households in this group have built a permanent home straight away and will then concentrate on establishing their businesses. Since the Thompsons have a toddler, Tanwen, they felt that a caravan or yurt would be untenable and are renting a house in Carmarthen whilst the building goes up. It is a great incentive to get on with it!

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The beautiful roundwood frame was made off site then erected onto pad foundations by Ty Pren, a local firm with an excellent reputation for this kind of work and who source the timber locally.  That provides the structural support for the roof meaning the strawbale walls do not have to be load bearing. They are lime rendered externally and will be clay plastered internally. It had been hoped that clay dug when the site was levelled could be used but it may be too stoney. A large stove will heat the double height living space and its back boiler will feed radiators and a hot water tank.

Outside there is a newly planted apple orchard and there will be a veg patch (home grown produce counts towards the percentage of needs in the return) and bees. Other businesses on the whole site will include a micro-dairy, musical instrument making from home-grown timber and forest schooling.

After the usual bring and share lunch – delicious as always – we cleared a polytunnel left behind by the previous owners of the holding. It had been used to store straw bales, roofing sheets and other building stuff in relatively dry conditions but will be planted up this year once a new cover has been put on. With lots of people helping we made short work of the job. Whether Chris and Erica will ever find the things again remains to be seen!

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I took the second Bara Claddu I had baked and it was very popular. I keep being asked for the recipes at these events and Cara suggested I put them in my posts for everyone so here goes.

BARA CLADDU – My daughter’s recipe

Line a 2lb loaf tin with greaseproof paper and pre-heat the oven to 160 deg.

240g plain flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

240 g sugar white, demerara, muscovado or any combination

1 teaspoon mixed spice

1 egg beaten

milk for mixing

Mix all the dry ingredients together then add the egg. mix and add milk a bit at a time until it all comes together to cake batter consistency. Bake for 1 – 1 1/4 hours until the top is nicely browned and a skewer comes out clean. Once cool serve sliced and buttered. It freezes well.