Limery Update

I know that regular readers will be itching for an update on the limery (yes, that is now its official name).

I knew that building work was not likely to happen quickly, but I had hoped that it would be finished by now. Alas not… although there has been progress and it might be done by the end of next week. My builders are lovely – polite and thoughtful and happy to chat over a cup of tea. But even so, it’s terribly unsettling, and the noise of my roof being taken apart and rebuilt was not conducive to calm contemplation or, indeed, editing work or writing blog posts!

However, I have things to show…

They started laying the patio (re-used flag stones) and  building the raised bed:

Flag stones look good as new, but they are about 20 years old!

Flag stones look good as new, but they are about 20 years old!

Then we got the framework for the glass:

Then the builders dismantled part of the roof (this was VERY noisy):

and this the day before thunderstorms were forecast… fortunately they didn’t arrive.

Next they covered the new bit of roof:

Well, at least it isn't going to leak

Well, at least it wasn’t going to leak (much)

Then they came back and put the slates back on the house and attached the battens ready for the new slates… which, apparently can’t be put on until the glazing is completed:

Roof in tact and lead installed

Roof in tact and lead installed

All the flag stones for the patio were put down and the raised bed had its coping stones fixed in place:

And finally, work started on the floor inside the limery – two layers of insulation (all off-cuts from previous jobs), a drain and a concrete floor (mixed using only stored rain water) which is to support yet more reused flag stones:

And that’s where we are tonight… I have just had to create a barricade:

No entry!

No entry!

To avoid any more of this:

Marking their territory

Marking their territory

I am SO looking forward to it being finished, so my garden stops looking like this:

Last year this was a vegetable bed

Last year this was a vegetable bed


Limery? Peppery? Kumquatery?

When our greenhouse lost multiple panels over last winter a choice had to be made about whether to try to extend its life, whether to buy a new one or whether to take a different approach to our growing. After careful thought and an assessment of our resources, we decided that we wanted a more permanent structure to house our crops and so we settled on having a conservatory built. Now, when I say conservatory to most people, they envisage a glass sitting room with a laminate floor and wicker sofas. Not me – when I hear “conservatory” it conjures images of grand Victorian wrought iron glasshouses full of rainforests (think of the Palm House at Kew). Of course, living in a bungalow built in the 1980s does not lend itself to having a grand glasshouse attached, so ideas had to be adapted. We were limited to an area about 3m x 3m for a start off!

The first challenge with our plan, was to find a builder who would understand what we wanted. We dismissed the idea of contacting anyone specialising in off-the-shelf conservatories and, instead, approached a local builder with a range on skills who we know is also a keen gardener. And so discussions started, plans were drawn and we moved ahead. Aspirations for a wooden structure were, for one reason and another, not practical and we came to the conclusion that, for our purposes, the answer was double-glazed UPVC units – constructed specially for our project.

One of the preliminary sketches

One of the preliminary sketches

The second challenge was the name – our lovely builder refers to it as an orangery, but discussion elsewhere yielded a number of alternative suggestions: a place to grow peppers would, surely be a peppery, and if we wanted something quirky, what about a kumquatery? However, Mr Snail – lover of limes and owner of a small unhappy lime tree (which we are hoping will thrive in the new structure) – has settled on the name ‘limery’. If this is the case I am considering whether I might be able to construct a still because, in my opinion, the best use for limes is in a G&T.

As well as having this indoor growing space constructed, we also decided to go ahead and have the area around it revamped, replacing the bed constructed using up-ended paving slabs with a new block-built raised bed and returning the paving slabs back to their original use, having the patio reconstructed, this time with good drainage.

And now work has been proceeding for a couple of weeks (although they are not here every day), progress is being made. Originally the glass and glaziers were due to arrive on Monday, but they have now rescheduled for Wednesday. Those of you who are friends on Facebook have already seen progress, but for everyone else, here are some pictures of how it’s been going:

There has been some head scratching:


Some of the gang

Sam and Max have been on the case:

Building inspectors

Building inspectors

There has been some invasion of the concrete by the local wildlife:

footprintsAnd finally, today, I managed to put some plants in there!!


Stocking the space

Do you think that I might be over-enthusiastic?!

Making plans for growing

Our greenhouse has finally come to the end of its life – strong winds over the winter have torn off the vent, whipped out some of the plastic panels and subtly twisted the frame. It was time to discuss replacing it. And you might be surprised to hear that the decision was that we wouldn’t… at least not with more of the same.

A coating of gloop

No more gloop

Because of the way our garden has evolved, the greenhouse ended up in a spot that regularly floods, meaning that the crops in it are very prone to various fungal infections. Despite regular fumigation, every year we have to deal with botrytis  and other forms of rot. The area in and around it gets coated with gloopy mud, making it unpleasant to walk about out there. We have thought about a raised base, but in this windy part of the country that was something we didn’t want really.

However, we do want some protected growing space – somewhere that’s pleasant to work and will allow us to produce crops over a longer season. Our little garden does not have the space for a polytunnel and I have kept returning to the idea of having a conservatory. Not one of those that’s a glass sitting room, but one designed for growing plants in. So, finally I bit the bullet and arranged for a builder to come round and discuss the options.

My greenhouse... hoping it will breed with next-door's

The current set-up… big changes to come

Not any old builder though, one we have used before, who is interested in gardening and growing things, likes chickens and tries to recycle and reuse building materials . So, today he arrived to have a chat. And what a joy it was – he understood straight away what I wanted – not a conservatory, but a permanent greenhouse  attached to the house. We discussed the light transmission of glass, maximising growing space, drains in the floor, ventilation, waterproof electrical sockets and appropriate door placement. Not only that, we talked about building new a raised bed outside, improving drainage in that part of the garden and how we could reuse the existing paving slabs and make use of the excavated hardcore. A conversation that I had thought might be quite difficult turned out to be very interesting and surprisingly stimulating.

Of course, it’s not going to be cheap and I await the quote knowing that this is going to represent a significant investment. However, it feels like a very positive thing to do at this time when our savings earn very little interest in the bank. In addition, a better drained garden will make the neighbours happy, as they are down-slope and are on the receiving end of the water that flows through our garden.

Exciting times… I’m not looking forward to building work disturbing my life, but it will be fantastic if the plans work out and we have new growing space in the next couple of months.

A house of straw

Over the weekend I was back at the amazing Karuna project in Shropshire. I was there to teach an introduction to permaculture course, but there was also a straw bale building workshop going on at the same time, so I had the opportunity to marvel at the construction of a load-bearing straw bale roundhouse. The straw bale course was being run by Bee Rowan of Strawbuild, and during the week participants learned all the techniques by taking part in the build.

I have never encountered a more calm and peaceful building site. So much so, that I think my teaching nearby disturbed them more than their building disturbed us! When I arrived on Friday, the build was in full swing (the course started on the Monday of the same week) and many of the skills had already been taught, so progress was very clear  over the weekend. By the time I left on Sunday evening all the bales were in place and they were getting ready to compress the walls. By now they are working on the roof.

Straw bales have an amazing capacity for insulation and are fire resistant. Once rendered it will be hard to believe that the construction is made of straw and, certainly, no big bad wolf is going to be able to huff and puff and blow it down!

It was also good to see that, after the long planning battle, the local newspaper, The Shropshire Star, featured the project on their front page on Monday and only wrote good things about it.

Next time I visit, I’m looking forward to being invited in for a cup of tea!


Greenwash and Eco-bling

No bling - we did our sums first

No bling – we did our sums first

A few years ago (wearing my ‘professional ecologist’ hat) I attended a meeting with other professionals about a development being undertaken by a housing association. One of the aims was to achieve a green accreditation – The Code for Sustainable Homes. There was much discussion about eco-building materials, insulation and all sorts of other ‘hidden’ features before we got on to discussing the more visible features. And it was at this point I first encountered the term ‘eco-bling’. You can easily understand what it means: those showy things that look good but serve little purpose. Water butts that simply divert water but whose contents are never used; wind turbines that generate so little electricity it will take hundreds of years for them to pay for themselves let alone offset the embodied energy; inappropriately sited solar panels.

The Guardian has suggested that eco-bling is “more about showing off environmental credentials to neighbours than saving carbon”. Well what do you expect from ‘bling’? But this really is a cynical view – it may be that some people only pay for eco-features for show, but I think most individuals who install renewables probably do so because they think that either these measures will save them money and/or they are doing something to reduce carbon emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels. I’m sure that many people (individuals or companies) have done the maths and are making choices for sound reasons – the same may not be true for developers wanting to convince you to buy their houses, or governments wanting you to vote for them.

Indeed, there is a lot of ‘greenwash‘ out there… and it mainly seems to be used for marketing. We can all be more sustainable by simply buying less stuff – goods that never get made have no environmental impact. But when we do need to make a purchase, I think it’s important to look behind the claims. In some ways I have more respect for a product that is honest and makes no claims about green credentials than one that spouts how eco-friendly it is when closer inspection reveals something quite different. And I accept that it can be difficult to find goods that are completely environmentally sound and/or ethical (and remember that depends on your own ethics too), but I really object to being duped.

What I want is honesty – I want to buy from a company who are up-front about their products, working conditions, raw materials, energy sources etc. At least that way I can make informed decisions and it might save me hours of internet research too!

Where has all the soil gone?

When we moved into Chez Snail eleven and a half years ago I was very excited to have a blank canvas as far as the back garden was concerned. All that was there was an expanse of lawn and a patio – no trees, no shrubs, no bulbs, no flowers and no beds… and, as it turned out, no soil

Well, I say no soil, but that’s not entirely true: there was about six inches of clay above the shale that represents our bedrock. About a month after we moved in, our elderly dog died. We tried digging a hole in the back garden; it was December, it was raining and we managed to get down about a foot… we gave up. At this stage we were beginning to wonder what we could do – it was Christmas and the vets was closed, so cremation was not an option. Should we put the dead dog in the freezer for later disposal? Should we go and bury her ‘in the wild’? Should we build a mausoleum? After some debate we decided the try planting her in the front garden. So, shovel out, body discreetly just inside the house and we tried again. This time was more promising, there was a slightly greater depth of soil and then we hit concrete… some part of the sewage system we later learned. Then, inspiration. There was a healthy-looking hydrangea in a corner – perhaps its roots would have broken up the ground. And, indeed, success. The hydrangea was removed, the hole was expanded into a grave (fortunately the dog was quite a small terrier) and we could proceed. At which point one of our new neighbours came over to say hello. “Doing some gardening?” she enquired. “Yes,” we responded cheerily, heartily thankful that the body was still indoors and that we weren’t going to have to make small talk about deceased pets. The neighbour eventually disappeared back home (we were grateful for the rain at this stage) and the burial commenced, with her nose towards the rising sun and her favourite cuddly duck and a stone (she was inordinately fond of those) as grave goods. Hydrangeas are not my favourite shrubs, so we planted a lilac over our canine friend (I had one waiting to go in the garden somewhere) and planted the hydrangea in the hole with the concrete in the bottom. I’m pleased to report that both plants are doing well.

So, as you can tell, we are a bit short of soil here. We shouldn’t be. The field behind our house isn’t – but there’s a step of about 12 inches up to it. In this area, when they build houses, they strip the topsoil (and more) from the plot and sell it. This leads both to drainage problems and to a nightmare in terms of subsequent gardening. We have pretty poor soils round here to begin with, so losing the majority of what there was to start with just compounds the problem.

Because gardening to produce food was a particular intention, we had to take steps. We started by installing log rolls to create some beds in the lawn and mulching with black polythene to kill the grass. Once done, we added homemade compost and hoped this would allow us to be productive. Sadly the waterlogged ground in the winter caused the wood to rot and anyway the beds simply weren’t deep enough. So, we dismantled those after a couple of years, bought some old railway sleepers and created new beds – bigger and deeper. Unfortunately we couldn’t generate enough compost to fill them, so, with heavy hearts, we bought in some topsoil, hoping that it hadn’t come from some other building plot now bereft of a growing medium. And finally we had a sustainable system – raised beds don’t get waterlogged, we keep them fertile with compost produced on site (including willow shreddings and chicken poo) and we eat fresh food from them throughout the year.

I just can’t help feeling that much less energy would have been expended and the system would have been naturally sustainable if the builders had left the soil where it was in the first place! Grumble.

Finally... productivity

So many interesting ideas out there

Sometimes I find all the information out there about sustainability overwhelming – it’s difficult to sift through what’s relevant and what’s not. However, I’m always sure that the things Mark Waghorn posts on his blog will be worth a look and will include lovely pictures. I suggest you check it out: Off-grid design

Oh, and he successfully completed our Permaculture Design Certificate recently, so he’s a good guy!

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