Apple season

The time of year has come to prepare for the apple onslaught. However, this year is different. Although there will still be an abundance of cooking apples from dear ‘old faithful’ from Perkin over at High Bank, I will have a few snail-grown eaters too.

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Old Faithful © High Bank Cottage

A couple of years ago we planted an Ashmead’s Kernel that came from Karuna. Janta had grafted in onto a small rootstock, so it was ideal for our garden. We planted it in the chicken patch, where there would be no weed competition and plenty of nutrient input. And we waited. Last year was too soon to allow it to produce, but this year it has thrived. I took lots of fruit off early in the season and even so two branches snapped under the weight. Now we have about 15 nearly ripe eating apples. It’s not the most visually appealing apple, but all sources I have consulted suggest that it is one of the best tasting… hopefully I will be able to report back soon, once I can work out exactly when they are ripe (any tips welcome).

 

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!

 

… and that other source of fertilizer…

The end product - composted human waste

The end product – composted human waste

Having written about urine as a source of nitrogen recently, I feel compelled to also mention that other sort of human waste that can be composted and used to enhance fertility. This seems to be increasingly referred to as ‘humanure’, but we’re really talking poo.

An aquatron composting toilet can be installed in a two-storey house

An Aquatron composting toilet can be installed in a two-storey house

When you live in an ordinary house on an ordinary street it’s fairly difficult to make use of this resource, although the Aquatron composting toilet can be fitted in an upstairs bathroom and there are other technical options such as the Separett range which require a fan to be run constantly, thus using electricity.  And so here, chez snail, this is one source of fertility that we don’t exploit. However, if you live in a different setting (as a number of my friends do) then you can collect and process humanure and use it to improve the fertility of your land. Many and varied are the compost loos that I have visited, but strangely I have very few pictures! The one thing they all seem to have in common is how civilised and un-smelly they are – often beautifully decorated.

Composting humanure at Karuna: it's initially collected in the dusbins before being transferred into the big bays behind

Composting humanure at Karuna: it’s initially collected in the dusbins before being transferred into the big bays behind

In some cases all waste is collected in a deep pit below the toilet structure and simply covered with a sprinkling of wood-shavings after each ‘deposit’, before it is eventually closed off, and allowed to compost for up to a couple of years. In others the waste is collected in a receptacle of some sort before being removed and composted away from the toilet itself. The latter is how the compost toilets work at Karuna, but in addition they ask users to separate urine (which is composted with straw) from solid waste (which goes into their large composting bins, tucked away behind the polytunnel). Interestingly, the process at Karuna seems to generate no smell and the end product is an appealing-looking compost that they have used extensively on site to enhance tree growth. So, whilst this is not an option open to everyone, it’s interesting to know that our waste need not go to waste.

Inspecting the end product at Karuna

Inspecting the end product at Karuna

Merav’s falafel

I don't have a picture of the falafel as I was too busy eating them, so here is a picture of a lovely spot at Karuna.

I don’t have a picture of the falafel as I was too busy eating them, so here is a picture of a lovely spot at Karuna.

One of the delights of teaching at Karuna is Merav’s cooking, with my favourite dish being falafel… something that I’ve never had much success at making at home. These delicious little spicy chickpea patties are really good, so this time I remembered to ask her how she makes them. Since Merav is from Israel, I’m assuming that this is a really authentic recipe.  I’m sure that she won’t mind if I share it with you here:

Ingredients

2 cups chick peas
1 chili
4 garlic cloves
2 spoons flour
0.75 tsp baking powder
salt, pepper & cumin to taste
lots of fresh coriander

  1. Soak the peas overnight, drain and let them sprout for a day or two (this reduces the amount of gas and the peas will be more easily digested).
  2. Mash the peas through a manual meat mincer with the garlic.
  3. Mix all other ingredients with the mashed peas.
  4. Make small flattish balls and fry in shallow oil medium heat for about 10 mins.
  5. Serve with various salads, tahini dip, and pita breads or wraps

I haven’t tried making them yet as I haven’t been organised enough to sort out the chickpeas, but I think I’ll get round to it next week.

Coming around again

Whilst it’s easy to think about adopting a siege mentality when considering the challenges we might face as human beings, building communities and sharing might, in fact, be a more sustainable option. Often, when people discover permaculture, they feel that the answer to reducing their ecological impact is to find some land, shut themselves away and become self-sufficient. Quite often, as time goes on they realise that this isn’t a viable way forward… what if they get sick? what will happen when they are too old to support themselves? is it possible to be self-sufficient in all respects… heat? clothes? health care? And frequently the conclusion is that we cannot completely isolate ourselves, and some goods and services need to be sourced externally.

No one is an island!

No one is an island!

Indeed, human beings are inherently sociable – we have lived in communities throughout history. Perhaps today, though, the spaces that we find ourselves in are generally too full and we are overwhelmed by numbers, leading us once more to adopt that siege mentality: to close our front doors and isolate ourselves from our neighbours, obtaining all our goods and services from corporations, with which we have no chance to develop any relationship other than a financial one.

Here in the UK at the moment, many people are struggling though the snow (not here on the coast of west Wales, but we seem to be the exception). It’s at times like these that you might wish to be part of a community – whether it be to help with shovelling snow, jump-starting the car, sharing food or simply knowing you have  friend close at hand. Now is a good time to start building those links if they don’t already exist – what could be more welcome than a call from a neighbour to check that you are ok and don’t need any help? And once you’ve made that connection in a time of adversity, it’s likely to carry through into the good times. Offering help now is likely to pay off later… even if only in the form of a cheery hello in the future.

A bonus from the hen holiday

A bonus from the hen holiday

The links that we make with other people can lead to unexpected benefits. Whilst we were on holiday, our hens could not be cared for as usual by our neighbours (they were away too and their absence was prolonged because of a funeral), so our girls went to stay with some friends about 25 miles away. These friends also have hens, but theirs are rescued ex-battery chickens that are somewhat less robust than our locally bred outdoor lot. As a result, they had mostly stopped laying over the winter. Our girls (apart from Lorna who rarely bothers) were still producing, so were able to pay their rent whilst visiting! And, strangely, when ours returned home, the ex-batts started laying too… perhaps there was some sort of pheromone thing going on. Clearly a mutually beneficial relationship, but it didn’t end there. When I went to collect our hens, I was presented with a bag of knitting wool goodies – lots of balls of fine gauge wool that my friend had got in a big bag of mixed gauges from Freecycle. She wanted the thicker wool in the batch, but had no use for the fine stuff. I would never have thought to look on Freecycle for wool and would have missed out on this lovely resource to use for my Beekeeper’s Quilt project. Because she knew I would use the fine wool, my friend was able to accept the whole offering and know that none of it would go to waste. Everyone was happy, and there is more ‘stuff’ that has been prevented from going to landfill.

So, building relationships enriches my life, both emotionally and materially. My community of friends is not, however, exclusively built of people who live close to me. I use technology to keep in touch with people around the globe and even those a long way away can enrich my life, and people who I only see rarely are still important to me.

Janta, Merav and the course participants in the summer of 2012

Janta, Merav and the course participants in the summer of 2012

Whilst teaching I meet people from all over the place… and it is one group of such people who have been on my mind recently. These are the lovely Wheelhouse family at Karuna… a fabulous forest garden project in Shropshire who hosted a course that I taught last summer. They currently need help – they have finally gained permission to build a straw-bale roundhouse to function as living space and office. Sadly, their fundraising campaign has gone slowly… and with only a few more days to go, they are some way off their target. This project is close to my heart, first because it deserves to succeed so that Karuna can continue to flourish, but also because there is a significant ‘people care aspect’. You see, Merav Wheelhouse has Huntington’s disease – an inherited condition leading to progressive deterioration of the nerve cells in the brain. There is no cure and no way of slowing the symptoms, which include problems with feeding, movement, behaviour and  communication. In the past, the Wheelhouses have been understandably reticent to highlight this issue, but Janta has mentioned it in his latest blog, and so I feel able to write about it a little. Although I only met Janta and Merav last year for a few days, their situation has moved me greatly. And so, I mention them as part of my network of friends, but also as good people who are treading very lightly on the earth and deserve wider support. If you would also like to support them, you can donate here and if you do, you have my sincere thanks, a warm glow and the knowledge that what goes around comes around!

Can I keep chickens in a fruit cage?

In my earlier post on the searches that lead people to my blog, I mentioned the question ‘can I keep chickens in a fruit cage?’ My, rather glib, answer was ‘Yes, but only if you don’t want any fruit.’ I now realise that this really isn’t a good enough answer – this is a serious question. I know this because variants of it keep appearing as the search terms used to get to my blog.

A spot of excavation

When we first toyed with the idea of keeping chickens, we considered the options for confining them – including whether having them in the fruit cage for some or all of the time would be possible. This was in the days before we owned any chickens and really didn’t know what they are like. I’m guessing that anyone who asks this question is, like we were at the time,  unfamiliar with hens. So for all you folk in this position, I’d better describe the natural habits of these creatures. First, you should understand that hens like to dig… I don’t mean just scratch around a bit… I mean they will excavate quite large holes and they are capable of getting through really compacted earth. I recently visited some people who bought a property with an old cow shed on it. This shed contains a highly compacted layer of cow muck so packed that it requires a pick axe to loosen it. They have found, however, that their chickens are able to scratch it up, making it possible for them to excavate it and use it on the vegetable beds.  You can imagine, therefore, what a chicken can do to earth under your fruit bushes.

The other important thing to know about chickens is that, even though they don’t really fly, they can get quite a height off the ground if they have an incentive, or even just when the fancy takes them. Some are better at it than others, but the temptation of raspberries is likely to entice even the most portly chicken to do a bit of jumping. Wing clipping is touted as the answer by many, but that only stops them getting lift with their wings and ours can certainly jump quite high if they really want to even if they are missing some feathers.

Janta at Karuna describes chickens as ‘the enemy of the forest gardener’… although he does have a few chickens, he prefers ducks. Ducks do not scratch the ground, so do not excavate your plants, they are fond of slugs and they seem less inclined to consume fruit (unless they get a taste for it). Since a fruit cage often contains an assemblage of plants that can be thought of as the lower layer of a forest garden, then Janta’s experience suggests that there is no place for chickens in  your fruit cage. My answer, however, is a little more complicated.

A chicken-free fruit cage

I would not keep chickens in the fruit cage permanently, unless I had a very big fruit cage and just a few chickens – in which case the loss of fruit might be at an acceptable level and there would be enough ground for them to scratch around without doing too much concentrated damage. However, I think it unlikely that you’d have a sufficiently big fruit cage for this to work and all low-growing fruit would be likely to be eaten. I do, however, allow ours into the fruit cage occasionally in the winter – partly because they enjoy rooting around in an otherwise forbidden area and partly because they eat some of the slugs in there. I am careful to prevent them going during the spring when fruit is starting to develop because they have no qualms about eating unripe fruit – don’t think that because it’s still green, it’s safe from their attention! The other time I put a chicken in the fruit cage is when I have one that needs to get over being broody. Aliss is particularly susceptible to broodiness and will, if allowed to, sit on the laying box for days at a time. When this happens, we turf her out into the fruit cage, where the only shelter is provided by the plants and where there are many things to pique her curiosity. She spends her days in the fruit cage and her nights with the other hens and after about 72 hours she’s usually over it.

As well as preserving ground flora, roots and fruit, I have another reason for excluding our hens from the fruit cage – it seems to be a preferred habitat for frogs, toads and lizards in our garden. We often find frogs in there and it certainly provides them with a refuge. If you do not keep chickens you may be unaware that they can be enthusiastic meat-eaters and frogs seem to be particularly attractive to them. I’m always slightly distressed when one of my pest controllers eats one of my other pest controllers, so keeping them separate seems the best option!

So, overall, the answer is that chickens and fruit are not the ideal combination in an enclosed area, but you can use the two to mutual benefit.

Teaching at Karuna Permaculture Project

I spent last weekend teaching an Introduction to Permaculture course at a forest garden project near Church Stretton in Shropshire called Karuna. I arrived on Thursday afternoon to get settled in and set up the teaching area and the course started on Friday morning. Janta and Merav, who own the place, made me very welcome and we enjoyed damson wine beside a camp fire on Thursday evening.

An outdoor session in the sunshine

When the course started I was delighted to find that, as well as folks from England, Scotland and Wales, we had one person from Holland, one from Mexico (although she now lives in the UK), one from the US (currently living in London), one from Russia (via Berlin) and one who had been living in New Zealand for five years… not bad out of 11 participants. The best courses are those where people come from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of experiences and we certainly had that. We were able to discuss attitudes towards food, growing, the land, communities and chocolate in a range of countries and from various perspectives. On a course like this I feel that I go away having learnt as much as the participants. Although I am referred to as the teacher, I really just facilitate, providing a framework for everyone to build up knowledge together.

Janta showing off one of his almond trees to the group

Karuna itself provides a marvellous location to teach about sustainability and growing, with a series of forest gardens containing trees, shrubs and perennial vegetables, annual vegetable growing areas, open rides, apple grafting, a pond, a large poly-tunnel, solar panels, compost toilets… and more. The range of fruits and nuts grown is staggering, including apples, pears, plums, soft fruits (loads of black currants this year), apricots, grapes, cobbs and almonds (actually fruiting this year). Then there are the perennial vegetables : artichokes, cardoons and kales. Plus the annual vegetables that we ate every day: they are still eating potatoes from last year, when they grew 20 varieties.

There is so much going on and Janta and Merav and their two boys work hard to maintain the site. After a long battle over planning permission, they have recently been granted permission to construct a low impact dwelling from straw bales… can you believe that it could take five years to get permission for a small, low-impact house, when there are huge ‘executive’ homes being built everywhere you look across Britain (well, at least where we live)? I can’t wait to see how they get on with it – the detailed plans have not been drawn up yet, but I know that it will be circular with an external diameter of 12m. Still, in some ways they have been lucky, it took Tony Wrench 10 years to get permission for his tiny low-impact round house in Wales!

All-in-all, it was a great course at a great location. Although we were only together for three days, the group had really bonded and I was extremely sad to say goodbye to them on Sunday afternoon.

Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves!

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