Looking back, looking forward

It’s that special time of year when we all do a little reflecting…

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Hoping for lots more of this sort of thing in 2016

I found the beginning of 2015 rather challenging, but life got easier as I made decisions to let some things go – university teaching and acting as a trustee for a local charity being the two main ones – and so I’m feeling quite content looking back. The other big change in 2015 was having the limery built – I’m currently finding it difficult to image life without it, as it gets so much use. Hopefully, 2016 will see it full of even more plants and supplying us with yet more food, as well as being the venue for evening games of scrabble, rainy day picnics and many many cups of coffee.

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No plastic in my tea any more

2015 was also the year that we gave up tea bags. Having discovered that our favourite unbleached, organic tea bags (Clipper) were stuck together with plastic, we took the hard decision and moved over to using loose tea. At first, I hated all the fuss of using an infuser, but over the months I’ve got used to it and it’s now second nature. It took a bit of experimentation before we settled on a preferred tea variety (China Yunnan, in case you are interested), plus we had to buy an extra couple of tins to take to the shop for refills (we buy it unpackaged), but once all that was sorted, it became quite easy to establish a new routine.

me norway knitting

I knitted in Norway, amongst other places

Over the year, I’ve done lots of knitting and crochet, and I’ve worked hard to make use of yarn that I already had. I’m planning to do the same in the coming year – I intend to work my way through the rest of my (now small) stash of sock yarn… it appears everyone is always happy to receive a pair of hand-knitted socks, so it’s not hard to do. And, if I have yarn that I know I’ll never use, I plan to pass it on to someone else. I need to have a look at some of my other craft supplies too. It’s time to let others make use of things that are no longer interesting to me.

Growing in the garden was disrupted in 2015 by the building work, but I am hoping to make up for that in 2016. I’ve already bought seeds and will be sowing my peppers and chillies just as soon as I have some seed compost. The window sills in the limery were made to be wide enough for a seed tray to sit on, so that’s where all the indoor germination will happen from now on. It will be lovely to have space to get lots of crops started indoors, safe from the slugs.

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Me, on top of the shed, with a hammer

My final activity in the garden this year was attaching new roofing felt to the shed this afternoon. A large section had been ripped off off in the high winds a couple of days ago and we needed to get it mended as soon as possible, so I have been up there between showers doing the necessary.

So, now I shall sign off and wish you all a very happy new year… I’ll see you in 2016.

cheers

Cheers!

Palletgate

Mr Snail-of-Happiness has been busy in the garden recently, doing clever things with a pallet… me and the chickens are very impressed.You can read all about it here:

Palletgate

Clever Mr S-o-h

Clever Mr S-o-h

Gratitude

I was reminded earlier today that having the opportunity to grow at least some of my own food is something that I should be grateful for: thank you Shakti for your comment.

So much to value in the garden

So much to value in the garden

It’s easy to moan about the slugs and the rain (or lack of it), to despair when something doesn’t grow, or the chickens eat it, or because I don’t have enough space to plant all the things that I want to, But that simply doesn’t get you anywhere in life… as Johnny Mercer once wrote you should ‘accentuate the positive‘! So I thought that I would make a little list of (a few of the) things that I am grateful for in my garden:

Having space to grow some of my own food

The joy of eating crops that I have just harvested

Collecting warm eggs that have just been laid

Knowing that what I’m eating has not been exposed to pesticides

Feeling close to natural cycles

Knowing my hens are happy

Eating strawberries straight off the plants, still warm from the sunshine

Storing potatoes and squashes for the winter

Feeling the soil on my hands

Composting… making waste material into something useful

Leaving the soil better than when I found it

Being able to find fresh herbs even in the depths of winter

There are so many I could add, but I’d like to hear some from you…

Confining Jurassic chicken

Anti-chicken netting... but not anti-Aliss!

Anti-chicken netting… but not anti-Aliss!

Well finally I had to admit defeat – Aliss, the velociraptor of our little flock, has proved that no amount of netting over vegetables is going to keep her out. She won the battle of the runner beans last year and this spring she has managed to penetrate my best defenses covering the oriental greens bed. So, over the weekend, we took drastic action and the garden is now split into two parts: chickenville and vegetable land. Well. three parts if you include the fruit cage, to which the hens have access at certain times of the year. The barrier across the path is temporary at the moment, but Mr Snail-of-happiness will build a gate to go there soon. On the other side of the fruit cage a more elaborate construction of chicken wire was required, as it had to go through the willow hedge and be attached to the fence between us and the field behind.

No-entry, chickens!

No-entry, chickens!

This separation of the garden into several areas follows the approach taken at Station Road… which continues to inspire me! I will carry on netting the vegetables because it keeps dogs off, but it won’t be such a problem if some of the pegs come adrift or if strong winds blow the netting about. I don’t want the chickens excluded all the time – their slug hunting and week clearing skill will be required during certain periods , but at least this way my greens will be safe!

Well-behaved terriers... it took us a while to train them to this stage.

Well-behaved terriers… it took us a while to train them to this stage.

The separation also has the benefit that chickens and dogs can be out in the garden unsupervised at the same time. Max seems to be completely trustworthy with them, but we don’t trust Sam not to chase a running or flapping hen. Having said that, all was peace and harmony when I was sorting out the contents of some of last year’s pots earlier in the week.

And, strangely, the reduction in space (they still have plenty to run around and dig in) seems to suit Lorna who, after not laying since Christmas, produced her first egg of 2013 yesterday! It probably isn’t linked to the smaller space and has more to do with longer days, abundant leafy greens over the past few weeks, and extra slugs on Sunday (found as we were moving containers around), but perhaps it has helped her to focus. I wonder if it will be another five months before we have the next one from her!

Confidential waste

Yesterday’s post elicited a comment from Nanacathy that the only thing she burns in the garden is confidential waste. I responded that I have friend who shreds his, then puts it on the compost heap and then pees on it. He considers that if anyone wants to reconstruct his bank statements and steal his identity after that they are welcome.

Would you brave that beak to steal my identity?

Would you brave that beak to steal my identity?

Similarly, we shred anything that is confidential or has our address on it. But we then use it as chicken bedding. This is a two-fold deterrent: first there’s all the chicken poo covering it, but before you get to that you would have to brave Perdy, who is likely to give you a severe pecking, just in case you are edible. After that use it goes into the compost bin. Alternatively, at the right time of year, shredded paper gets put into the bottom of the bean trench along with uncomposted kitchen waste… thus allowing in situ composting to generate heat and give the beans a good start. In addition, this approach provides nutrients and increases the water-holding capacity of the soil… all that carbon in the paper is too good to waste.

So, I’m wondering… do you have ways of turning your confidential waste into a resource and preventing identity theft at the same time?

Station Road Permaculture Garden

I spent the last weekend teaching an introductory course on permaculture. This is going to provide me with subject matter for a number of posts, but I thought that I would start by describing a project that we visited.

An abundance of vegetables in front of the house

In a tiny village in the Shropshire hills is a row of four former council houses and one of these was our destination on  Saturday afternoon. Station Road Permaculture Garden demonstrates what you can do when you only have a normal-sized house and garden (80 ft x 40 ft) but want to produce as much food as possible. The garden provides fruit and vegetables as well as eggs from chickens and ducks. It’s hard to describe the amazing range of produce that comes out of the garden, but it includes currants and apples, raspberries and strawberries, asparagus and artichokes, carrots and potatoes, tomatoes and beans… at total of about 20 types of vegetable and 23 types of fruit!

During our visit we were treated to home produced apple juice – pasteurised so that it will last for at least a couple of years – and scones with home-made jams. We were also invited to sample the soft fruits as we walked around the garden. My favourite was the red dessert gooseberry – I’m not usually a gooseberry fan, but these were so sweet and juicy that I’m certainly going to find a place for some in my garden.

Shower cubicle cloche

The garden is separated into different areas by means of fences and hedges, including a low damson hedge and a fence with raspberries towering over it. The tiny orchard area is where the chickens and ducks live; it contains a small pond and two compost bins (with squashes growing in them). In total there are three greenhouses – two conventional ones and one containing a peach tree and constructed out of three old doors. An interesting curved glass cloche turns out to be a salvaged corner shower cubicle and the old septic tank has been converted very simply into rainwater storage. The site shows the best of creative use of waste materials along with inspirational plants.

A lemon tree – outside for the summer

And, as well as all the productive areas, there is a lawn for the two young children to play on and where they have their swing and keep their guinea pigs. This isn’t simply a demonstration site: this is a family home. It has been created by someone who goes out to work and is not able to dedicate all his time to tending his garden. To me, this represents the reality of life for many people. It certainly inspired the participants on the course, proving that vast tracts of land and unlimited resources are not necessary to improve your quality of life, to manage to produce a significant amount of your own food and to make a real difference to your environment.

-oOOo-

Station Road Permaculture Garden is a Land Centre, one of a network of permaculture demonstration sites around the UK that you can arrange to visit to see permaculture work in action.

There are some more pictures on my Facebook Page

The time of gluts…

It’s normally around this time of year that we are starting to eat courgettes… every day. But not this year. The southerly placement of the jet stream is causing us to have a remarkably soggy and sunless summer here in the UK. Pretty much any UK gardening blog at the moment will include references to rain, slugs, snails, wind and a lack of vegetables.

Broadbead flowers – just need a few more pollinators

Well, I’m here to set the record straight – there are some plants growing in the UK. They may not be all the ones we expect at this time of year and some crops are certainly sluggish (if you’ll excuse the pun), but there are some things to be harvested. We are currently enjoying delicious potatoes straight out of the  planters, lettuce, rocket, mizuna and  Hungarian wax peppers. OK, so there’s not a sign of a courgette, the runner bean flowers seem to drop off before they are pollinated, I’ve brought one of the tomato plants into the house to try and encourage it not to rot and my onions have disappeared under a glorious swathe of Calendula, but there are things growing. The broadbeans are flowering abundantly if late and the bunching onions seem to be coming along nicely, as does the oca.

Breadseed poppy

As for dessert… we have raspberries and rhubarb along with a few strawberries and some red currants and blueberries just starting to ripen. On the herb front there’s mint, lemon balm, horseradish and rosemary. And the first flower of the bread seed poppies has opened.

And finally, our now well-integrated flock of hens is providing an abundance of eggs. Last night’s dinner comprised Spanish Omelette with a green salad… not quite all out of the garden , but not bad considering the dismal weather.

So the moral? Don’t rely on a single sort of crop… plant a variety of things and some will succeed. Oh, and have raised beds and containers so your plants don’t drown and can be moved indoors or into a more sheltered spot.

And have chickens so that all those vegetable-fed slugs don’t go to waste!

Hungarian Wax Peppers in the greenhouse

The birds and the bees

Finally, after a very wet and cool few weeks, the world seems to be waking up again and we are starting to see productivity.

On the chicken front, Lorna seems to has realised that it is spring and is laying most days now. Esme has laid right through the winter with a break of no more than two days between eggs. Gytha, however, is not participating in this abundance and is standing around looking glum, puffed up like a football – she perks up for slugs, but otherwise she seems to be waiting for the sunshine (she loves sunbathing and is often found on the back doorstep doing her impersonation of roadkill when the sun is warm). Like Chicken Nuggets, our girls like to lay in the same box, even when two of them need to do so at the same time…

Always using the same box!

There is another perfectly good box, but they are not interested… they don’t even use it for sleeping in!

But they are not the only birds laying in our garden. A couple of years ago we had the fascias replaced on the house – there was a corner where they were rotting and blue tits had been nesting in the gap under the eaves over the summer. Of course the workmen cleared out all the nest material (long since vacated) and the hole was sealed. Not wanting to make our visitors homeless for the next breeding season we put up a nest box close to the old gap. Mr Snail-of-happiness loves electronics and installed a tiny infra-red tv camera so that we could see what was going on in there. We had residents last year, and I’m pleased to say that we have them again this year:

Nesting Blue tit

There (s)he is, on our tv screen… Mr S-o-h managed to count six eggs as she was rearranging them and the nest yesterday. I’m not sure when they will hatch, but once they do, watching them on the tv will be another way to waste lots of time!

I’m also pleased to begin seeing insects again – an Orange-tip butterfly yesterday in the sunshine and a few bumblebees (one so large it was having problems getting out of the fruit cage!). However, the clouds are gathering again, so I think that we’ll have to wait a bit longer for spring proper to begin.

Food metres

There is so much talk about food miles and the environmental cost of transporting food around the world that I always enjoy eating food that has travelled as short a distance as possible… potatoes from the local farm are good, but they have still travelled miles. My favourites are things that come straight from my garden to the plate (perhaps via the oven). Purple sprouting broccoli is winning in terms of shortest distance travelled at the moment because it is planted directly outside the back door. However, I did grow the seedlings in bought compost (wool and bracken based not peat), so there were some miles associated with getting that to me. Perhaps the winner, therefore, should be the rhubarb… a few more meters away from the back door, but a perennial, propagated from a donated root, never grown in a pot and now fed solely with home-produced compost. It has moved house with me (in a bucket), but I think that’s probably ok!

Purple Sprouting Broccoli

I love it when an entire meal arrives from the garden… and has even been cooked using fuel that we have grown. Later in the season, we should be enjoying Spanish tortilla (potato, onion and eggs) cooked on our rocket stove powered by willow prunings, with fresh salad leaves straight out of the garden. The only ‘external’  inputs would be the oil and salt and pepper, plus a match to light the stove. I always forget to take photos of such feasts (I tend to be focused on the eating part of the proceedings!) but I will try to remember later in the year.

Having mentioned pepper, that’s something I would like to investigate. Martin Crawford grows various peppery shrubs and trees at the Agroforestry Research Trust and I think I’m going to try to get hold of a Zanthoxylum piperitum (Japanese pepper) this year… probably too late now. Talking of Martin, his book Creating a Forest Garden is brilliant – even if you don’t want to plant up a forest garden, the information on plants in there is fantastic. His courses are fascinating too.

Some food, however, we can’t grow ourselves, but we do try to source lots of things locally, including wholemeal flour, sweet chilli sauce (although I want to make this myself this year if the chilli crop is large enough) and fish. We do buy feed for the chickens, but because they are free ranging much of the time, they don’t need as much as if they were confined and some of their protein comes from eating slugs and snails (hurrah!). We are never going to be self-sufficient, but it is lovely to feel that pretty much every day of the year we eat something that we produced ourselves.

Rhubarb and friends – 4 May 2012

Sheds

I had always understood that the place to go for a bit of peace and quiet was the shed… where, in 1970s sitcoms, a man might escape from a nagging wife (marriage being obligatory and involving two genders in those days) and enjoy… well, I’m not sure what exactly, on account of being (1) female and (2) aged three at the beginning of the 1970s. Anyway, it was always the shed: sometimes as far away as an allotment, but often in the garden.

We don’t have a very big garden and consequently, we don’t have a very big shed. So, once the plant pots, shredder, potatoes, spades, fork, spare netting, canes, and lawn mower** are in there, there is standing room only. In addition, when we bought our shed, we chose to have one without windows (the weak point in the old shed), so once the door is closed it’s both claustrophobic and dark. Call me picky, but I don’t find that combination particularly relaxing.

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

In the theory of 1970s sitcoms, I guess that I should be the one in the house doing the nagging and Mr Snail-of-happiness should be seeking refuge in some garden structure. However, he has his studio/workshop (formerly the spare bedroom) and I seek my respite (from scientific editing, not from Mr S-o-h) in the garden. It would be lovely simply to sit out on the bench and chat to the chickens (they always come over to see what’s going on), but this is west Wales and we are considering buying a dinghy and trading the chickens in for some ducks, so shelter is often required. And so, I often find myself spending a happy ten minutes pottering in the greenhouse, examining what has germinated, watering and generally enjoying being with growing plants. This seems to me, so much better than a shed – it’s light, there may be things to eat and when there is a little sunshine it’s lovely and warm in there. My long-term plan is to make sure that there is always something growing in my greenhouse, whatever the time of year. In this respect I have been inspired by the home-made geodesic dome up at Blaeneinion, where there seem to be salad leaves, at least, always available.

My trip out there earlier today revealed lots of bean germination – both runner and pea-beans (featured in the Guardian last weekend). None had made a bid for freedom today, but my ‘jumping bean’has not germinated, so I suspect a mouse was responsible for the earlier migration and that it might have consumed the embryo… resowing probably required. Nevertheless, the greenhouse has restorative properties for me… I think I need to put a chair out there… and possibly some gin and tonic.

Germinating beans

** A complete white elephant, since we no longer have a lawn… the chickens ate it!

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