Up in smoke

After I’d had lunch today I smelled burning.

I’m here on my own at the moment as Mr Snail-of-happiness has gone off to help our friend Perkin hang a door (apparently it takes two). Now, I have been known to forget to turn the rings off on the cooker, so I very carefully checked that the cooker was off at the wall and the toaster wasn’t gently incinerating the remains of my toast. Nothing there, but I could still smell something burning… I sniffed the computers, and the printer (sometimes that smells warm), and the washing machine (we once had a molten socket adaptor there), but found nothing. I knew the Kelly kettle wasn’t still burning since, being on my own, I hadn’t had it lit since 10am and it was definitely out when I went to collect eggs about 11am. But still I could smell smoke.

In the end I decided that I was imagining it and what I could smell was the toaster, which I had used earlier.

Then I went out of the front door with the dogs for our afternoon walk and I could hardly see the other side of the street for all the smoke. Fortunately it was coming from next door. I double-checked to make sure that their house wasn’t on fire and was relieved to see that it wasn’t. In fact, they were having a bonfire in their garden. I could see that they had cut back their Leylandii hedge and so they must have been burning the branches and generating a surprising amount of smoke.

The closest we get to a bonfire in our garden!

The closest we get to a bonfire in our garden!

Which got me to thinking about garden bonfires… we haven’t burnt garden waste for many years now, unless it’s being used to power the Kelly kettle – and then it isn’t waste, it’s fuel. Having a bonfire used to be the standard way to get rid of all sorts of stuff in the garden, but these days, with local authorities providing composting facilities, it seems fairly unnecessary. It used to be woody debris or diseased plant material that was burnt, but with the large-scale hot composting used by municipal composting facilities, the latter is sterilised and so shouldn’t be problematic. In our garden we never throw out woody material – it’s either used as fuel or chipped to go in the compost or on the beds as mulch. The only thing we ever take to the council to be composted is bramble because it has a nasty habit of rooting whilst you’re waiting for it to dry out and because the combination of its fibrous stems and prickles make shredding it well nigh impossible.

Leylandii can be a bit of a problem. It takes ages to break down in a compost heap and the sap can cause allergic reactions. It does make a great fuel, though – there is so much resin in it that (especially when dry) it burns very fast and hot. Fortunately, we don’t have any in our garden, but if we did I would be saving it to use as fuel.

In permaculture you learn to treat everything as a potential resource rather than a ‘pollutant’ or waste product… even to the extent that ‘every problem is a solution’. It seems to me that gardeners are progressively adopting this attitude and that in the not too distant future garden bonfires will be history. But, for the time being, I must remeber to look outside when I smell burning, it might save me a lot of time!

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

The joys of willow

About ten years ago we planted a willow hedge along the back of our garden. There had been a fence there, one panel of which blew down the night we moved in. After a number of attempts to repair the fence we gave up, deciding that a solid fence in such a windy spot was not a sensible option… we wanted something permeable to the wind and that wouldn’t cost a fortune to replace. Willow seemed like a good option, as we hoped that it would also help with our waterlogging problem by making the ground more permeable too.

We planted a row of  ‘sticks’ about 30cm long… it’s about 3m tall now, although it gets cut back and woven every year! Some of the stems (well, trunks now) are about 10cm in diameter at the base. It makes a great hedge, but takes Mr Snail-of-happiness some effort to prevent it getting too big, which leaves us with lots of prunings to deal with. Others would, no doubt, throw them away, but sustainability is about making use of what you have so we…

  • dry it and burn it in our storm kettle for hot water (much more fun than an electric kettle)
  • dry it and use it as fuel for our rocket stove
  • shred it and put it in the compost bins… it makes fabulous compost in combination with chicken poo (more about chicks later)
  • shred it and use it as a mulch
  • shred it and put it direct on our ‘rubbish beds’ (usually called hugle beds, but I like the idea that they are made entirely of waste)
  • give cuttings to friends so they can have their own willows.

Not bad in addition to its original purpose… it only partially helped reduce the waterlogging and the roots do like to get into the vegetable beds, but all in all it has been a huge success.

Oh, and the chickens like pecking about under it and the wild birds love it.

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