Three Things Thursday: 26 October 2017

My weekly exercise in gratitude – three things that are making me smile – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog [or Twitter account or Facebook page or diary or life in general] with happiness.

First, drizzle. Now, this in not something that usually makes me smile, but after reading Jill’s post over at Nice Piece of Work this morning, I’m feeling very grateful that water is not something we lack here in Wales.

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drizzle, adding some sparkles

Second, mould. Again, not usually something that makes me smile, but the appearance of the first white mould on the brie that we made last week is certainly a cause for celebration.

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small, but perfectly formed

Third, my name in a book. I only remembered the other day that helping to fund the craftivism book meant that I would appear in the list of supporters in the book itself. It’s not the first time I’ve seen my name in print. I have, on occasion appeared in book acknowledgements and a couple of times as an author, but not usually as The Snail of Happiness!

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I’m in under ‘S’ for Snail

I also smiled to note that Slartibartfast had contributed too.

So, that’s what’s making me happy this week. How about you?

-oOo-

Emily of Nerd in the Brain originally created Three Things Thursday, but it’s now being hosted by Natalie of There She Goes.

Not much like spring

Despite the sowing of seeds in the limery, spring has not really arrived here yet and I daren’t sow any seeds outdoors for fear of them drowning! Of course the day when it was gardening weather this week, I was stuck in a training room doing a food safety course and exam. Now I have some free time it’s chilly and raining. I did manage to plant a new rhubarb root earlier, but then the rain started so I’m letting some of my little helpers get on with a bit of weeding and pest management:

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slug-hunting (I hope)

I’ve finished my editing work for the week, so I’m getting on with my first ever crochet sweater:

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work in progress

Sadly, the picture doesn’t do the colour justice… I would describe it as teal with some coloured flecks. The yarn is from New Lanark – a favourite maker for me, although this is the first time I have used their chunky wool. And, as ever, Max is keeping an eye on progress. He’s a bit chilly as he was clipped yesterday, but he does look lovely:

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Max has had a hair-do

The wet weather is forecast for the whole weekend, so it looks like more indoor seed sowing and crochet are on the cards. What are your plans for the weekend?

After the rain

There was not a single day in November when it didn’t rain here, there was only one in December and, so far, there has been some rain on every day in January. This has meant that it’s been very difficult to work on anything in the garden. I don’t like walking on sodden ground as it damages the soil structure, and our poor, clay soil is enough of a challenge without adding to the problems.

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Bye-bye weeds

Fortunately, however, the last week or so has been less wet and so the ground has dried just a little. Today there has been no rain so far, so I took the opportunity to mulch another of our raised beds. A while ago, whilst sorting through pots in the shed I came across an unopened pack of black plastic mulch that I’d forgotten I had bought. It was just the right size not to need and cutting and because it wasn’t windy today, I was able to get it in place without too much trouble. The bed had some old broccoli plants in it that needed to be removed first and a few brambles had to be pulled out, but otherwise all the weeds were covered with the mulch and should decompose under the plastic thus adding to the fertility of the soil. This is the second bed to be mulched this winter and I’m hoping it will make planting much easier in the spring.

Winter gardening jobs are often, like this one, not very exciting. Usually at this time of the year it’s all about preparation or tidying. My second job today was particularly tedious – the latest round in the battle against the brambles. We have an area alongside one fence that seems incapable of supporting any plants other than nettles and brambles… however much we cut them back and dig them up, they just keep coming back. I’ve tried all sorts of other plants in this patch, but nothing survives, so really now we just try to keep it under control and accept that it’s good for the wildlife. It would, however, without management, get totally out of control, so we attack it regularly with the secateurs.

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Hello potatoes!

And that was it in the garden – important jobs, but nowhere near as fun as planting. There is no germination yet in the propagator, but the left-over seed potatoes that I put in pots in November are growing, so we may have a small crop in the spring. They are currently outside, but they can come back into the limery if the temperature drops. So now, I’m just itching for spring to arrive and for gardening to start in earnest.

Spongy

Our garden today (taken from indoors!)

The only impermeable, soil-free part of our garden today (taken from indoors!)

Even if you don’t live in the UK you may have heard that we are having a very wet winter here. It’s been raining for a couple of months… we have had some short dry periods, but every two of three days the jet stream delivers a new low pressure cell to us with associated wet and/or windy weather. Some parts of the country, like Somerset and the Thames valley, are suffering from flooding, whilst many of us are just very wet. Chez Snail is on a hill, but our garden is currently a stream, with water flowing off the field behind and both down our drains and into next door’s garden. Today we also have a red warning for high winds, meaning there is a risk of structural damage. I am certainly not going out and about and I will be trying to dissuade Mr Snail-of-happiness from going to his Chinese class tonight because driving conditions are currently described as ‘dangerous’. At least we are safe and dry and in our own home, unlike so many folks right now.

In the face of this sort of extreme whether, it’s easy to feel disempowered and useless. However, whilst all we can do at the moment is batten down the hatches, I do think that it is important to remember that everyone can take small steps to improve our situation in the long-run. If we act collectively, we can make a difference to our environment.

Whether you believe in climate change or not (and remember that the vast majority of experts do) it is clear that we are all exposed to extreme weather in one form or another (my thoughts are also with those of you in Australia under threat of fire or tropical storms). So, what can we do? Well, as far as flooding or drought are concerned, we can help the environment by improving the soil. Soil that contains lots of organic matter acts like a sponge, whilst mineral-dominated soil has a much lower water-holding capacity and hard landscaping just leads to rapid run-off… delivering water in a fast, large pulse to those people further down the water catchment.

If you have a garden, therefore, caring for the soil – making it healthy and active and full of organic matter – means that you can create a little reservoir to hold water. This is not just good for people who live downstream from you, this is good for you. It means that you will have water stored in the soil ready for your plants to use in drier months… it may not be enough to last the summer, but it will help you along. It also means that if you do need to water your garden when it’s dry, more of the water will he held in the soil for your plants to use rather than just flowing over the surface or soaking straight through. Adding organic matter is quite simple if you make compost, although I have to confess that I could always use more of the stuff! There are all sorts of sources of organic matter, from wood to teabags, from weeds to paper and any of it can be composted to help your garden become a better sponge. Different materials require different approaches, but there’s lots of advice available if you look.

Colleen and Valor in a raised bed

Our raised beds (photographed last summer) do not flood, hold lots of water and are really productive

In addition to acting like a sponge to hold water, organic matter in the soil sequesters carbon and thus keeps it out of the atmosphere where it acts as a greenhouse gas. And once you have a healthy soil, it will be much more productive – allowing you to grown a greater diversity of plants… all photosynthesising and thus also reducing the carbon in the atmosphere and being available to compost later and thus adding to your healthy soil. This is a virtuous circle with wide-reaching positive effects.

So, don’t feel you can’t make a difference – you can – and at the same time you can see the benefits right in your own back yard.

And now for the weather

You may have heard that we Brits are obsessed with the weather… it may be true, we do talk about it a lot.

My life is certainly strongly influenced by the weather – recently the only way to ensure that we get out for a walk with the dogs every day has been to ‘seize the moment’ and take them whenever it looks like it won’t rain for an hour. In fact, this has worked well and, despite very wet weather since two weeks before Christmas, we have managed to get out almost every day. It brings to mind something that Chris Dixon, a local(ish) permaculture practitioner says, that although we think it rains all the time in Wales, there is rarely a day when he doesn’t manage to get outside and do some work without getting rained on. Weather is very much about perceptions… it does feel like it has rained constantly this winter, but I know that it hasn’t really.

My birthday present - up and running

My birthday present – up and running

And so, in an attempt at some objectivity, and because I am a geek at heart, I asked Mr Snail-of-happiness for a very special birthday present this year, namely a weather station. I don’t mean one of those little things that sits indoors and ‘predicts’ the weather on the basis of changes in pressure… I mean a thing that records wind speed and direction, temperature, pressure and has a tipping cup rain gauge. How geeky is that?

Displaying the data (it's also being recorded on a data logger)

Displaying the data (it’s also being recorded on a data logger)

At university, I studied meteorology as one of my final year options, and I have always loved a good synoptic chart and actual data. So now I’m going to have my own data. I will be able to bore you to tears with regular updates on the weather here in west Wales… with numbers and everything!

I must point out, though, that whilst the weather station is new, we are ‘repurposing’ the pole it’s mounted on: that used to be the centre pole for the rotary clothes drier. Incidentally, the other part of the drier is going to be used as a support for growing beans up, so none of it will go to waste.

And now it’s all set up, the rain has started (0.4mm so far – see, I told you I was going to be boring!) and we are watching the little wind cups spin round… what fun!

Tomato troubles

I am generally hopeless at growing tomatoes. I thought that it was just me, but my neighbours have given up even trying, so at least I have some company.

The problem is that, over recent years, we have suffered from very wet summers and it has been impossible to control the spread of grey mould (Botrytis) in the greenhouse. The tomato plants have grown well to begin with, but then the grey mould arrives and attacks the stems and leaves and any tomatoes that do set are doomed to rot before they can grow and ripen and after a relatively short time the plant collapses. The problem also affects peppers and chillies, but seems to be less severe with them.

Baby tomatoes and the flowers that will turn into even more

Baby tomatoes and the flowers that will turn into even more

This year, however, is different. It has not been a wet summer; in fact, the last time it rained here was 23 days ago, and over the past two weeks, aside from a little sea fog, we have had sunshine. This means that the greenhouse needs constant ventilation and the plants therein require regular watering, but the grey mould does not stand a chance. So, for the first time in ages, here is abundant tomato set, (I’m growing Gardener’s delight this year) and I have high hopes for a good crop.

A length of rigid pipe and a large container were all that was required to collect water from the washing machine.

A length of rigid pipe and a large container were all that were required to collect water from the washing machine

Of course all this sunshine and dry weather means that we have nearly used up all of the rain water from our stores, but this has encouraged us to set up a simple system for collecting the water from the washing machine. Collecting the water this way means that it can be used to fill watering cans or bottles and be transferred to where it is needed in the garden or to the toilet cistern without any difficulty… and the tomatoes, courgettes, beans and potatoes are certainly welcoming it and I’m pleased to have discovered how easy it is to collect this additional source of grey water.

The drought ends

I have been trying to be very un-British recently and not write about the weather, despite the fact that it has been of particular interest to me.

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back

As I have mentioned previously, we try not to use mains water to flush our toilet. This saves us a little money, because our water is metered (not everyone’s is in the UK), but is mainly about saving energy. All water treatment requires the input of energy, so by using untreated water in the toilet cistern, we reduce our carbon footprint. Most of the time we use rainwater, which we collect in several water butts and an IBC from the roofs of the shed, house and greenhouse, but when we are getting low, we also use water from showers. We haven’t got round to collecting it from the washing machine yet, but that will probably happen.

Anyway, rainwater usually supplies all our needs in this respect, after all west Wales is generally quite soggy. But not so far in 2013. Today is 12 April; we had some rain this morning and showers yesterday, but before that the last time it rained was 22 March. That’s 19 days without any precipitation… not much evidence of those April showers we hear about. Similarly, there was a period in February/March when it didn’t rain for 22 consecutive days!*

The IBC, collecting water from the shed roof and now raised up on a couple of pallets

The IBC, collecting water from the shed roof and now raised up on a couple of pallets

The early dry period was most welcome because it allowed us to use up all the water in the IBC (or at least transfer it to other receptacles) so that Mr Snail-of-happiness could lift it up onto two pallets in order to increase the head of water, thus making it much easier to drain. But as the dry spell continued and our water stores declined we started hoping for rain. Then about three days ago we reached the point where the only water we had left was in the 5 litre bottles that we use to store it in the bathroom. We knew that once the last 40 litres was used up, we’d have to turn the mains back on to the toilet.

And then it rained… providing us with another few days worth. Rarely do we need to celebrate rain here, but we did yesterday and today. Tomorrow the forecast is for heavy rain – we are rejoicing. Fingers crossed for torrents of the stuff… and then we’ll be happy for the sunshine to return.

-oOo-

* We write a description of the weather every day in a diary – it helps us interpret the output from the solar panels and is turning into a really interesting record. Soon, we plan to get a little weather station so that we can add numbers to our descriptions.

Water off the greenhouse roof

Water off the greenhouse roof

Water butt at the front of the house

Water butt at the front of the house

More water

I have been thinking a lot about water recently. I think about it as it falls from the sky (most days); I think about it as it flows off the field behind us, through our garden and into our next-door-neighbour’s garden; I think about it as I slosh through the mud to round-up the very soggy chickens (I’m thinking of trading them in for some ducks); and I think about it whenever I do the washing and have to dry it indoors.

In the UK, flooding seems to have been something of a theme of 2012, and the year-end is no different. Travel has been severely disrupted in the past few days as a result of flooding and landslides and not helped by a couple of fires associated with railway lines! Earlier in the year I wrote about the severe flooding in Aberystwyth and surrounding areas and discussed the issues associated with this, including building on floodplains and the impact of upland land use.

The recent flooding is particularly acute because the ground, having been exposed to months of wet weather, is saturated. This means that any water which does fall doesn’t soak into the soil, but immediately flows over the surface, quickly reaching streams, rivers and drains, thus potentially causing flash floods. So we could reduce this problem in the long-term both by having more tress in the landscape – to intercept water and slow down the rate that it reaches the soil – and by having soils that have a greater capacity to hold water.

It is the latter that I have been pondering over the past couple of days. Because our garden receives so much run-off from the field behind, we have had to build raised beds to prevent our vegetables drowning and we’ve had to raise the level of the area where the chicken enclosure is to prevent the chickens dissolving! The latter we achieved by using recycled plastic boards to enclose an area of about 11m2 that used to be lawn and filling it with wood chip. The wood chip now needs topping up (a job for the new year) as it has started to settle and rot down. We noticed earlier in the week that it was starting to get puddles on the top of it – despite still being about 10 cm higher than the natural surface of the garden. So, yesterday I decided to loosen it with a fork to improve the drainage a bit. And what did I discover? That what we have now is soil! Despite the wet conditions, the area is teaming with earth worms. We have inadvertently created a brilliant composting system – carbon from the wood chip and nitrogen (plus lots of other nutrients) from the chicken poo. I’m really quite excited about how efficient it has been… and how much water it is holding. I’m seriously thinking of setting part of it aside to grow potatoes next year!

Soil

The soil is an important resource for managing water in the landscape

The ingredients for a good soil – that is fertile and acts like a sponge – are right there in my back garden, so why aren’t they right there in the surrounding countryside? Well, the problem seems to be this balance between carbon and nitrogen. Soil micro-organisms need both, and if we upset the balance, we cause problems. Gardening books warn us not to dig wood chips into the soil because they will ‘rob’ it of nitrogen. In fact, what happens is that wood chip contains loads of carbon but not much nitrogen. Micro-organisms need nitrogen if they are to make use of all this ‘feast’ or carbon and, being really efficient critters, they scavenge nutrients much quicker than plants and so they grab all the nitrogen they can, leaving the soil somewhat depleted. If we are gardening, we avoid this either by composting our wood chip along with things that are nitrogen rich (like chicken poo, or kitchen waste) or by simply using it as a mulch on the surface, where it breaks down much more slowly.

This sort of problem does not occur in modern agriculture… quite the reverse, in fact. Many farmers these days apply inorganic (chemical) fertilizer to their land. This is usually either just nitrogen (N), or a combination of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). So the thing that is missing in this case is carbon. In soils, the carbon is present in organic matter, so when nitrogen is boosted by fertiliser application, the micro-organisms start to break down the organic matter like mad. And here’s the rub… the organic matter is the stuff that makes the soil act like a sponge. So, our modern farming methods deplete the soil of organic matter (regularly because fertiliser is usually applied every year). Taking a crop off removes the plant material that would, in nature, mostly be returned to the soil thus boosting organic matter. So, with modern agriculture, we end up with soils that water flows through or washes away (thus exacerbating the situation).

Things are improving in some ways – for instance, we no longer burn stubble after cereal production, instead we plough it back into the soil, thus returning some carbon. And lots of organic farming techniques value incorporation of organic matter into the soil, but we need these practices to be much more widespread if we are to reduce the potential for flooding. According to Toby Hemenway, good quality soil can hold about a quarter of its volume of water, so if your soil is 30cm deep, it can soak up 7.5cm of rain…. isn’t that astonishing? OK, you are not going to be starting from a completely dry soil, but what if the soil in your garden could hold that amount of water: acting as a ‘water battery’ and storing that water for when you need it, whist slowing its movement through the land during periods of heavy rain? So, good soil is not just beneficial in wet places, it’s great for dry places too!

As climate change leads to there being more energy in our weather systems, we are likely to get more extreme weather – wetter and drier. By developing good soils, we can buffer the negative effects of these changes and make everyone’s lives more secure in terms of food security and safety from natural disasters… all through thinking enhancing the health of our soils.

Water, water everywhere

We live near a town called Aberystwyth… it’s hit national headlines because it’s been rather wet there. After two days of unusually heavy rain the River Rheidol burst its banks, as did many other streams and rivers in north Ceredigion (we live in the south of the county). The rain on Friday was astonishing, and in combination with a high tide on Saturday, many business and homes were flooded and roads closed. I have friends who have been flooded despite living three miles up in the mountains – the water just came over the land as well as along the stream which they are well above in their house. So when you hear people say ‘what do you expect if you live on a floodplain’ then please remember that not everyone affected lives at sea level or very close to a river.

We have lived in the area for 25 years and have never seen anything like this; but then, there are reports suggesting that there may have been 10 inches of rain in 24 hours up in the mountains on Friday! Of course some of the worst affected areas are those at sea level, where there is also a tidal influence. And it is remarkably short-sighted to continue to build on floodplains. First because the risk of flooding is greater there and, second, because these areas have flooded historically, they have wonderfully fertile soil. Surely we should be using this brilliant natural resource to grow things… even if crops get inundated sometimes, people and their homes won’t.

But it’s not just about where we build houses and businesses, the problem with flooding is that it’s really caused by what’s upstream in the river catchment and how quickly water moves through the landscape. If the land is wooded, lots of rain is intercepted on its way down to the ground, so it is slowed in its journey to the surface and may even have the opportunity to evaporate and return to the air. All vegetation intercepts rainfall, but trees with leaves probably do it best because they have a big surface area. Not only that, but trees create deep permeable soils, with their roots penetrating the ground and lots of organic matter from their fallen leaves acting like a sponge. The more wooded the upper catchments of our rivers, the slower the water moves through them and the more buffering there is from flooding. The opposite is equally true – make the ground less permeable and water moves through it quickly, all arriving at the rivers in a very short time and resulting in flooding. So, roads and storm drains and buildings and concrete yards and patios and field drains all contribute to flooding by speeding up the movement of water through the landscape. Grassland is not as good at intercepting water as woodland, and shallow rooted plants are likely to be associated with less permeable soil than deep-rooted ones.

Whilst the latest flood could not have been avoided no matter what the land use in Ceredigion, it could have been reduced if we had more woodlands (especially in the uplands) and a generally more permeable landscape throughout the river catchments. And many of us can do something about this… if you have a garden, you could make sure that the ground is permeable  – so no more patios and paved driveways, consider gravel and grasscrete. Build up the organic matter in your garden – this will help to hold water and be an effective defence against both flood and drought. Install water butts, so that you catch as much of that precious commodity as you can when it’s plentiful and prevent it literally going down the drain. And, finally plant trees and shrubs to intercept the water, root deep into the soil to allow water to percolate down and provide shelter from sun and wind which will dry out your garden anyway.

-oOo-

There are some astonishing photos of the floods  on Keith Morris’ facebook page and more photos and a fascinating explanation of the weather that caused the flooding here.

(Earth and People) Care in the Community

Sustainability may begin at home, but it’s also good to get it out in the community. With this in mind I give my support to a local environmental education charity, Denmark Farm Conservation Centre. They are working on a great project called Wildlife Where You Live, which aims to help build robust rural communities through conservation and biodiversity work. It’s not just experts coming in and telling the community what to do, it’s about engaging all sorts of people in environmental activities.

The newly installed wetland water treatment system is just awaiting ground flora planting

DFCC also run environment-related courses, many in conjunction with Aberystwyth University. Whist I was up there today there was a beginners’ bird identification course going on… by lunchtime their species count was up to 16, they told me. It’s a lovely place to go to learn and teach (I run several courses there each year), with great habitats (ponds, scrapes, woodland, rhos pasture, wildflower meadows) and increasingly more examples of sustainability in action (a new wetland water treatment system, solar water heating, solar pv, rainwater harvesting, compost toilet, compost heaps and – coming soon – a biomass boiler). All-in-all a great demonstration site.

As well as being used as a venue for courses DFCC is open to the public, with a network of freely accessible paths: free leaflets describing the site are available. So if you are near Lampeter in Ceredigion, why not call in? And if that’s not near you, why not support your own local charities that are encouraging sustainability?

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