Centre for Alternative Technology

I didn’t think that I was going to get the opportunity to write for a few days, but then it dawned at me that being here at the Centre for Alternative Technology was too good an opportunity to miss in terms of blogging. So, yesterday I had a little wander round to take some photos of the site that you just might find inspiring…

A map of the site

A map of the site

There is so much to see, that I can only give you a flavour of things here. There are lots of examples of renewable energy:

An old-fashioned wind turbine

An old-fashioned wind turbine

Solar energy options

Solar energy options

A really large-scale solar array

A really large-scale solar array

Some information about it

Some information about it

There are ideas for small spaces:

Container gardening in a yard

Container gardening in a yard

Information about building:

Choose your insulation

Choose your insulation

Applied in practice in the buildings:

The accommodation was built using sustainable materials

The accommodation was built using sustainable materials

And there are activities and exhibits galore:

Plenty to learn and enjoy

Plenty to learn and enjoy

And I even encountered another mollusc:

That's one big slug!

That’s one big slug!

Plus, my learners have been very busy creating their own display whilst increasing their understanding of ecology:

All these were created on the first day of my Introduction to Ecology course

All these were created on the first day of my Introduction to Ecology course

This afternoon we are off to see the sand dunes at Ynyslas and (hopefully) visit the submerged forest that has been exposed by the recent storms.

If you want to visit CAT, it’s open to the public from Easter and located in the middle of Wales, near Machynlleth. Really, it is well worth a visit.











Prickly Chickly

I posted last week about Esme’s sudden loss of feathers and over the week the reason it happened so quickly has become clear – the new ones were just below the surface ready to burst forth! She has been reluctant to be handled during her moult, but I managed to catch her yesterday afternoon and hold her whilst Mr Snail of happiness took a few photographs.

New neck feathers

New neck feathers

The new feathers are very prickly at the moment, resembling porcupine quills, but are coming through in great abundance. It’s interesting to see the colour contrast too – her old feathers are quite brown and faded, but the new ones are beautiful black and white. She is still losing some of her old ones, though not at the same rate as last week. It is possible that she will have a complete new set within the next few weeks.

Back and tail area

Back and tail area

One she’s finished growing her new feathers it will be interesting to see how long it takes for her to start laying again. In the past she has always laid over the winter, but as she ages (she’s nearly four years old now) we expect her laying to decline. The two youngsters, Aliss and Perdy*, are less than two years old and are still laying every day or two. Lorna, the same age as Esme, as only ever laid intermittently, but we keep her because she does other jobs in the garden and is our top slug-hunter!

New wings

New wings

One of the joys of keeping backyard hens is to see these natural cycles taking place. We do not provide our girls with extra light or heat during the winter, so their bodies follow the seasons. This means that we are bound to get fewer eggs in the winter, but we don’t mind that, as eating seasonally is an important aspect of understanding the food on our plates.


* In case you’re wondering, Esme, Perdy and Aliss are named after some of Terry Pratchett’s witches – we used to have a Gytha too.

For every season

There are many reasons to eat local and seasonal – reducing food miles, accessing really fresh produce, the anticipation of a certain food becoming available, supporting local growers, growing your own…

Of course, growing your own food is likely to be associated with ups and downs: hungry gaps and gluts. This means that a gardener needs to be thoughtful about supplying food throughout the year and careful to store crops for later use. For example, I’ve previously mentioned that it’s been a good year for courgettes (we’ve harvested over 10kg from our small plot so far and there are more growing), so we have eaten them more often than if I hadn’t grown them; but knowing that we like to eat soup, I have converted many of them into soup for the freezer. Our glut will help to fill a hungry gap later in the year.

If you Google a phrase like ‘seasonal eating’, you will be presented with thousands of web sites, telling what to eat when. For example, if you are in the UK, you could look at ‘Eat the Seasons‘ and find that this week, the vegetables in season are:

artichoke, aubergine, beetroot, broccoli, butternut squash, carrots, celeriac, celery, chillies, courgettes, cucumber, fennel, french beans, garlic, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce & salad leaves, mangetout, marrow, onions, pak choi, peppers, potatoes (maincrop), radishes, rocket, runner beans, spring onions, sweetcorn, tomatoes, turnips, watercress, wild mushrooms

a helpful list if you are off to your local shop. But beware – just because things are in season at the moment does not mean that the versions for sale are from a local source. I am appalled when I see apples from all over the world available in supermarkets in the UK in October… and apples rotting on the ground around trees because no one has bothered to pick them.

Immature Boston squash in September... it's never going to get the chance to develop a hard skin for storage

Immature Boston squash in September… it’s never going to get the chance to develop a hard skin for storage

However, if you have a garden you can, to a certain extent, beat the seasons. Be a little bit daring with your planting times, or make use of a greenhouse, polytunnel or cold frame, or even your kitchen windowsill, and you can extend seasons, or even crop completely out of season. Big commercial growers can’t afford to take risks – they need an income – but you can. Try planting at a different time, or bringing plants indoors and you may get an out-of-season crop that provides a real treat. With home growing, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t get the size or quantity of produce that you might at other times of the year and it can add much sought-after variety. In some cases, a plant starts producing at an unfortunate time; this often happens with pumpkins and winter squashes, when fruit sets late in the season so there will not be time for it to mature. In this case it’s possible to be creative – just harvest them and use them immature like you would a summer squash or courgette.

September strawberries in the greenhouse... I think we'll have Eton mess

September strawberries in the greenhouse… I think we’ll have Eton mess when these are ripe

Sometimes, an out-of-season crop can be a fortuitous accident… take my strawberries for example. I have two hanging baskets of strawberries (the idea was to keep them away from slugs and chickens). They produced quite well in their season (around June), but then I moved them to a location where slugs found their way to them and the leaves started to get severely eaten. Not wanting to lose all the plants, I hung the baskets in a convenient location to keep an eye on them… inside the greenhouse. Once there, they perked up and started flowering again. This is why we are now enjoying a second small strawberry crop… and most delicious they are too!

Searching high and low

One of the interesting features of WordPress is that, as an author, you can see the searches that people use to get to your blog. It’s a somewhat diverting activity and I have spent some time today examining the search engine terms that have brought people to investigate The Snail of Happiness.

I can certainly understand why you, dear reader, would arrive here as a result of searching for ‘knitted snail’ or even ‘chickens not eating slugs’, but I’m less sure of why you would be directed here as a result of typing in ‘homel things made by waste indian’ or ‘animals beginning with m’ (have I mentioned any animals beginning with m? oh, yes, there’s that post about a mouse eating my bean seeds). Or indeed that, having seen the Snail of Happiness blog in your list of search results for ‘sticky earthworm’, for example, why you would visit… although if that’s how you got here in the first place, then ‘welcome’ and apologies that the worms are rather more woolly than sticky.

I can only assume that the person who search for ‘food during rain in nitt’ arrived because there are mentions of  food, rain and Agnes Nitt (aka Perdita, a Terry Pratchett character that my chicken Perdy is named after) in various places. But, once again, if it’s you – welcome, and I’m glad you stayed!

Anyway, one way or another, folks are arriving. So, as a public service, I thought that I would try to address a selection of the questions and issues you have been seeking responses to…

can you drink worm wee tea?

Do you REALLY REALLY want to? Have you smelled it? Admittedly the dogs seem ridiculously interested in the stuff, but they eat dog food, so clearly have no taste!

gardening without mouse

Go for it! I always try to garden without mouse. I suspect the Beatrix Potter might have a different answer, though.

how does hugh fearnley whiitingstall stop slugs?

Actually, I don’t know the answer to this. I suggest that you ask Hugh – he seems like a nice chap, although I don’t know him either.

how much tomato can a slug eat?

How big is your slug? I’m guessing that if it’s one of those banana slugs, you’ll have to provide it with a really big tomato.

good explanation for cakes

Cakes are an essential part of the diet – they ensure happiness. Do not believe people who say they are bad for you.

i am a little earthworm

Congratulations, I am a Snail of Happiness.

can i keep chickens in a fruit cage?

Yes, but only if you don’t want any fruit.

growing snails in spare bedroom

I’m not sure whether you want to grow them in your spare bedroom… in which case I suggest a vivarium rather than having them free range… or whether you have them growing in your spare bedroom and want to get rid of them… in which case I have found chickens to be very effective (although they may make a bit of a mess).

amigurumi for happiness

Well, they make me happy… and if you make them with the ‘happiness yarn’ that someone else was searching for I don’t see how you can go wrong.

how to keep a pampered snail?

Is your snail pre-pampered? If so, it’s probably best to keep doing what you’ve been doing. If you are looking for new ways to pamper your snail, perhaps you could get together with the person who wants/has them in his spare bedroom and work something out between you.

And one final one, that has me stumped, perhaps other readers can help out:

the best potato you will ever see in your life because you probably won’t see very many potatoes because you have potatoes monia which means that you are afraid of potatoes which kind of cancelled this google search out because you have a retarded fear of potatoes………..freak


Honestly, these are all genuine search engine terms that people used to get to this blog… !

A tyre-some problem

Reading a post by Mischa Hewitt on the Brighton Permaculture Trust website this morning, got me thinking about using old tyres*  in the garden (and elsewhere).

Tractor tyres… not in my garden!

When I was an enthusiastic young gardener, I heard that you could use stacks of old tyres to grow potatoes in…. simply place a tyre on the ground, fill it with compost, put your chitted seed potatoes in and when they sprout, place another tyre on top and fill with more compost. It seemed like a good idea to me and we duly acquired some old car tyres and gave it a go. All went well to begin with, although lots of compost was used and filling the enclosed part of each tyre was a little tricky (I’ve since learned that many people stuff them with straw). The potatoes grew, as did the stacks of tyres… they didn’t look very attractive, but that wasn’t the point. Then came the time to harvest…

Mr Snail-of-happiness was not home when I wanted to harvest the first lot, so it was up to me. Do you know how heavy a tyre is? No? Well, let me tell you that rubber is not light and that they have steel inside too. Now imagine this already heavy object filled full of soil and compost. I tried to lift the first one off the stack… I couldn’t. Not only was it heavy, it was also quite high up (a pile of four or five tyres is not an insubstantial structure). So, I decided to push the top tyre off and empty it once it was on the ground. Then I discovered that tyres are designed to be grippy. OK, I knew this, but I had never really experienced it before. A good shove is certainly not enough to slide one tyre off another. In the end I used a lever and the top tyre thudded to the ground, distributing soil and compost but no potatoes. I eventually located a few tubers  and about a gazillion slugs… which seem to love living in the rims of compost-filled tyres, particularly those that have nice air spaces in them because the person who filled them up didn’t pack the compost into every available space. Turns out that slugs also like something to snack on whilst they are living in the tyres and potatoes make an idea meal. SIGH.

We did try using them again the next year, but never had the great success that was promised and the whole harvesting business just put me off using them. Since then, I’ve never planted anything in a tyre. I’m not saying that some people don’t grow brilliant crops in tyres, it’s just that they are not for me. Now I grow my potatoes either in soil in the garden or in bags (light and easy to empty). I have some bought bags, but have been collecting suitable ‘waste’ ones for future years, so I will be doing my bit for re-purposing even without the tyres.

Tyre slices used in a construction project – these will be covered in earth eventually

Of course, there are other reasons we might not want to use tyres… either in the garden or elsewhere. They do have lots of toxic chemicals in them… after all they now seem to be classified as hazardous waste and cannot be placed in landfill (either whole or shredded) in Europe. But they are increasingly being used in engineering projects… whole in the construction of ‘earthships’ and shredded or otherwise processed in other construction projects. What proportion of the toxic chemicals leach out or are emitted as gases seems to be unquantified as yet. It would be good to see more research on this, so that we can feel confident that, whatever is being done with worn-out tyres is appropriate and safe.


* or tires… which are rubber things in the US but means ‘grows weary of’ in the UK!

Slugs and snails and other knitted creatures…

This week is ‘world wide knit in public‘ week, but unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to get out there and click my needles for the intrigue of passers-by. The week after next will be different as I have a couple of long train journeys and some socks just waiting to be knitted. As an alternative now I thought that I would show off some of my creations here.

Just visiting this blog introduces you to some of my knitting – there at the top you can see the snails of happiness and doom. They were knitted for a teaching activity involving group story-telling (you’ll have to come on one of my permaculture courses to enjoy the full experience!), but I have been working on a variety of other creatures, so here’s a selection:

A citrus lime tree full of snails

Snails for sale… I’m planning to sell these at the permaculture convergence in Cardiff later in the summer

Daddy, mommy and baby slugs… actually they were prototype snail bodies.

Worms in my basil and bunching onions

Just to prove I’ve been gardening too: a butterfly on the Hungarian wax peppers

I hope you are inspired at least to knit if not to knit in public…

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