Spare room

Not long a go the UK government introduced a measure that has come to be referred to as the ‘bedroom tax’. The housing charity Shelter explain the rules as follows:

New housing benefit rules introduced on 1 April 2013 mean you won’t be able to get housing benefit to pay for all of your rent if your home has ‘spare bedrooms’… If you are a council or housing association tenant of working age receiving housing benefit and renting a home that has more bedrooms than you need, your housing benefit will probably be reduced. Pensioners claiming housing benefit will not be affected… Under the new rules, the limit on the number of rooms you can claim for is based on the number of people living in your home. If you have more bedrooms than the rules say you need, you will be treated as ‘under-occupying’ your home. You will get less of your rent paid for by housing benefit.

All sorts of issues have arisen because of the introduction of this new rule, including it highlighting the lack of rented accommodation suitable (in this context) for a single person, i.e. with only one bedroom, and the expectation that all couples need just one bedroom, irrespective of physical problems or health.

However, the purpose of this post is not to discuss the relative merits of this policy (you can read lots more about it elsewhere on the web), it was just the starting point that got me thinking about how much space we actually need…

I have a friend who is a great advocate of ‘tiny homes’ – he and Beauty, his German Shepherd dog, live in a very small space – a single room houses his, bed/sitting space, kitchen and work area. For some years he lived in a van (mobile home) so in comparison the ‘house’ is palatial, but in addition he has lots of land and is able to spend a great deal of time outdoors if he chooses. In addition he doesn’t have a partner.

Filling the space available

Filling the space available

I think Mr Snail and I would drive each other mad if we didn’t have separate spaces to occupy. In theory, our house has three bedrooms (not that we are affected by the bedroom tax as our house is bought and paid for and we don’t get or need any state support to be able to have a roof over our heads), but in practice it has just one. The other two rooms described in the details when we bought the house as ‘bedrooms’ are now office/work space – his and hers, so to speak. There is no room in our house this is not used on a daily basis. I do sometimes hanker for a spare bedroom in which seamlessly to install guests without having to resort to the (comfortable) bed-settee in the living room, but on balance, we make good use of all the space we have with our current arrangement.

The thing that concerns me, however, is that I expand to fill my space… or rather my belongings expand to fill the space available (my personal size is fairly constant, although slightly larger than I would like). Because we live in a bungalow with a relatively large footprint, we also have lots of loft space, which is occupied by more of our belongings. As a result of all this space, I don’t really need to worry about accumulation, but it does concern me as it allows me to gradually collect more and more ‘stuff’. I have got better at not buying things, but it’s still all too easy to accumulate. So, I’ve been inspired by revdarkwater and his blog What I shed today in which he records the things he’s getting rid of – from plants to furniture, from clothes to bits of car – trying to shed something each day. I don’t think I’m up to his achievements (I’m just not ruthless enough), but I am trying to shed something every week. Last week, three pairs of shoes went to the Salvation Army, the week before some books went to the British Heart Foundation shop and this week… well, I haven’t decided yet, but I will find something to shed. My aim is not to send things to landfill, but to find them good homes or alternative uses… what could you shed today?

I can hardly contain myself

Just the right size for individual portions (these were sold as baby food containers)

Just the right size for individual portions (these were sold as baby food containers)

I have a confession – I really like containers. I like having a jar, pot or box that is the right size. Although I know that a big container can hold a small amount, I don’t want to use one… I want one that fits the content. You might have noticed this in my previous post about passata… all those little plastic pots, just the right size for a single portion. I like to have the right pot for the job!

Inside my dresser

Inside my dresser

Anyway, as a result of this obsession, I have cupboards full of containers. This is great at this time of the year when I want to start storing some of our garden produce. Perhaps my favourites are the Kilner jars… best of all the ones with the screw rings, although I do have some with spring clips. At the moment, the dresser is mostly full of empty jars (apart from the bottled peaches and a little apple jelly), but the great apple harvest of 2013 approaches and so I’m expecting many, many full bottles in the next month or two. I’ve even gone as a far as ordering extra half-litre preserving jars, as I think there isn’t going to be room in the freezer for all the apple puree which, incidentally, I run through the tomato mill rather than sieving it before it goes into the bottles… after all, in permaculture, every element should fulfill more than one function!

Hopefully, in the not too distant future I will be posting pictures of these very same bottles full of High Bank apples.

Ready and waiting!

Ready and waiting!

A good use of space

Exactly year ago I wrote a post describing a small patch of ground at the end of our house that was completely unused and explained my plans to make it into a productive area. We had mixed fortunes with it because of the weather, but the containers that we planted up did yield good crops of both mange tout (grown up the fence) and lettuce, as well as some delicious potatoes and oca. We are hoping that we will have better growing weather this year and that this little area will provide us with lots of food again.

I've got a plan!

I’ve got a plan!

Over the past few weeks we have been planting up a variety of ‘containers’ for this spot: dumpy bags with four different sorts of potatoes in them, bags containing oca, pots of mange tout and what was previously a rather unsuccessful strawberry planter that has now been planted up with lettuce and basil. I started off with a design on paper, based on our successes last year. It’s not fully implemented yet and I have been making slight adjustments as I go, but I’m feeling very hopeful.

The potatoes are growing in a mixture of garden compost, grass clippings, shredded paper and cardboard all contained in the big bags that building materials are delivered in. As the grass breaks down it releases heat and so that should boost growth and help the plants along even if the weather is poor this summer. Rather than ‘earthing up’ we will be ‘grass and papering up’ as the season progresses.

Potatoes in dumpy bags and a strawberry planter seeded with lettuce and basil

Potatoes in dumpy bags and a strawberry planter seeded with lettuce and basil

One of the real joys here is that the only things that cost us anything were the seed potatoes (all blight resisters). In fact, the whole of this area is based around waste products, homemade items and things that we already had lying around the garden. So, fingers crossed this year for abundance in this tiny part of the garden!

In suburbia

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”
—  Edmund Burke

I often hear people bemoaning their lack of land and citing this as a reason that they don’t grow their own food. I, myself, yearn for a greater area to cultivate, but this is not going to stop me making the most of what I do have. And, to some extent, we all have the potential to grow something, be it a pot of basil on the kitchen window sill, a few tomato plants in a grow-bag on a balcony or a garden full of a variety of produce.

It’s easy to focus on what we haven’t got, rather than what we have. For some time Mr Snail-of-happiness and I have been looking out for a piece of land to buy that we can turn into a forest garden, but we haven’t been able to find anything that is both suitable and sensibly priced. Earlier this year I started to realise that my desire for land was distracting me from optimising the area around the house. I do have a productive garden but, as I described in my ‘Waste of space‘ post, I still had plenty more space that I wasn’t using. I’ve also go a small front garden that I have my eye on and, fortunately, can convert into a productive area without fear of a battle with the local council (unlike some places in the US).

Having harvested more than 10kg of potatoes from an area less than 1.5myesterday, I can confirm that even a small patch of land can contribute significantly to our food needs. Even this year, with the terrible summer weather here in the UK, we have still eaten food from the garden pretty much every day; mainly potatoes, lettuce and eggs over the last few weeks, but we’ve also had a few peppers and chillies plus lots of raspberries and rhubarb and now a few blue berries. Oh, and eight mangetout pods on Saturday! There is no way that we could be self-sufficient, but we can make a difference. What if everybody grew a bit of their own food? First, it would provide us with a connection to what we eat in a way that going to the supermarket never can and, second, it would go some way to improving the environment. It’s also a good way of building relationships with your neighbours – Mr and Mrs Next-door love to receive eggs. They used to keep chickens themselves but they are in their 80s now and don’t feel able to (although they still grow a few vegetables), so fresh eggs are always appreciated and, in return, they take care of the girls when we go away.

Many of us in the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere in the world live in what could be described as suburbia… you may think of it as a social and cultural wasteland, but look again. Look at all that land – all those gardens that currently support a lawn, three hydrangeas and some bedding plants. Image what your neighbourhood would be like if everyone had some fruit and vegetables growing in their garden; if there were enough apple trees for the crop to be shared, so that no one ever needed to buy another apple again. Imagine what it would be like if the folks who were not able to garden let others do the job in exchange for shares of the produce from their land. Imagine a community, where there was always a neighbour willing to feed your small flock of chickens whilst you were away, or go round and water your plants, or help with a job you couldn’t manage yourself. This is a reality that can be achieved in the suburbs – people have useable land and the potential to build communities; there are hidden skills and opportunities and now seems like a good time to take advantage of these possibilities.

David Holmgren, one of the originators of permaculture, is particularly keen on the idea, in an article entitled  Retrofitting the suburbs for sustainability  (really worth a read) he writes: “The bottom line here is that we do not need to wait for policies to change. We can choose today to do this – to create our own small neighbourhoods. ‘Suburban sprawl’ in fact gives us an advantage. Detached houses are easy to retrofit, and the space around them allows for solar access and space for food production. A water supply is already in place, our pampered, unproductive ornamental gardens have fertile soils and ready access to nutrients…”

So, what are you waiting for? Change the world starting with your own back yard (and your own front yard if local ordinances allow)!

Filling the gap

In my earlier ‘Waste of Space‘ post I described my plans for a previously unused area beside the house. The first stage was just to get something in the area and I started by placing some potatoes along the fence in bags. These have grown like mad, but the rain and strong winds last Friday rather battered them – being raised above the ground they are more exposed than plants growing directly in the soil. However, they weren’t completely destroyed and so should still be producing tubers down in the compost.

Mangetout with some of the storm-ravaged potatoes

But potatoes were only the beginning. The next addition was two large pots of mangetout to grow up the fence. This fence has had to be covered with mesh and the height increased because of escaping chickens that would  get over the top (via the compost bins) in order to visit the neighbours or take a stroll down the street. Sadly our greatest escapee, Gytha, died yesterday, but the mesh has to stay as the others are not entirely trustworthy. So, tall pea plants seemed a good way to mask the mesh and make use of vertical space that was just begging to be utilised. The plants were started in the greenhouse where some of them were eaten by a mouse; however, some survived and are now a few inches tall… fingers crossed they will produce some pods.

My latest addition to the area is a ‘dumpy bag’ filled with compost from my big green cone compost bin and planted with the ‘three sisters’. For those of you who don’t know, a dumpy bag is one of those cubic metre sacks that building materials arrive in. The builders merchants won’t take them back for reuse (in case they fail, I guess) and so they are generally regarded as rubbish. We have several of them and I’ve heard of them being used elsewhere for planting so thought I would give it a go once I had enough compost to fill one.

Mostly from waste: a dumpy bag filled with grass clippings, cardboard and home-made compost.

As for the ‘three sisters‘, they are squash, corn and beans, which grow well together as a ‘guild’. In theory, the corn should provide support for the beans, but I know that corn is a tricky crop here in west Wales, so I have added some canes for the beans. My planting is very dense, but since the bag contains compost with a cardboard-grass clippings-cardboard sandwich in the base (to hold moisture and provide heat as it breaks down) there should be plenty of nutrients and the beans should fix nitrogen to further boost the fertility. I did cover the top of the home-made compost with about an inch of coir fibre with no added nutrients to serve as a mulch and discourage weed growth from the compost until the squash leaves get big enough to suppress any weeds on their own. I only had three runner bean plants left from my earlier garden planting and these are looking the worse for wear, but I’m hoping that they will perk up now they are in such a great growing medium. I planted three different squashes: Boston (a winter squash), summer crookneck and a courgette (zucchini)… any rampant rambling can be across the tarmac or along the little fence. This is a real experiment for me, but I think that it might be quite successful.

Slowly less of the space is wasted

A design chez Perkin

I’m just back from a couple of days with my friend Perkin (supplier extraordinaire of apples… we’re still eating them after eight months). I am helping him to produce a design for his land. His background is in horticulture, and so he’s been taught to think about elements in his garden in certain ways. As an ecologist and permaculturalist, I have a different perspective – more systems-based. I certainly am able to think laterally about garden and land elements… and after a full day working on the design, Perkin is starting to enjoy this approach.

I realise that one of the most useful ‘tools’ I have now when I’m thinking about design is having visited lots of other sites where different people have found a wide range of solutions to common problems… what to grow… how to compost… how to use ‘waste’ as a resource. As we walked around Perkin’s land I found myself telling him about solutions I had seen in other people’s plots and thinking about how we might make some of those approaches work for him. But really, what we wanted to do was make the most of the resources he has and find uses for all features of the garden.

What to do with an old loo?

For example, up the corner of his garden is the old ‘thunderbox’ as he calls it. It’s a lovely little structure, now with a solid floor and surrounded by peonies and other garden flowers. It’s on a corner of his plot, so there are two immediate neighbours, both at a slightly lower level. If it had been in a different place, it would have been brilliant to return it to its original function (i.e. a compost toilet), but that is not appropriate. Now he wants a function for it. So, thinking outside the box (so to speak) we have settled on it becoming a bug house (a bigger version of the one here), with roosting spaces for a range of beneficial insects. Perkin is keen on the beauty of the garden – and this will give him a chance to create a beautiful piece of art that has a very valuable function.

Not the most attractive feature of the garden currently

Another example of a different use for an existing structure is the aluminium greenhouse. What a dull object this currently is… and not used as a growing space because Perkin has a much larger wooden greenhouse that he’s using at present. His first inclination was to get rid of the small one – it’s not attractive and he felt that it was unnecessary. My feeling was that he should keep it (as you know I’m a squirrel), but I had to think of something that would make it a useful object in the garden. And after much discussion of functions that he wanted the garden to deliver, we have settled on turning it into what will be called the Orangery. The plan is to have an apricot tree in there, a passionflower growing up it and perhaps a potted citrus or two (limes for the g&t seem appropriate) plus a seating area and Chinese lanterns. Mrs Perkin (aka Peppermint Patty) likes to be warm and outdoors at the same time (not easy in England for most of the year). Currently she sits in the large greenhouse, but once the tomatoes have grown up, it’s not going to be pleasant in there… so a special place will be created from a location that is currently a bit of an eyesore.

Watch this space to see how things develop…

STUFF and nonesense

As the summer comes, it’s so much more tempting to be outdoors than inside, but we are currently working on a project that requires spending quite a lot of time in the house… changing the use of some of our living space. I started working in the living room when I was here on my own because it didn’t cause any disturbance and it saved me heating more than one room. Now Mr Snail-of-happiness is at home all the time, it seems silly for me to work there, for us to have a shared office (that I don’t work in because I want solitude) and for him to have a separate workshop/studio. So, the decision is that I will have a small room to work in, the living room will no longer host any work and he will have the big room to do what he likes in, but where the main computer will remain.

All this means that lots of ‘STUFF’ needs to be moved around… and once you start moving STUFF’ you realise how much of it you’ve got. My assessment is that I definitely have too much STUFF. OK, I’ve had lots of years to accumulate it, but I do seem incredibly reluctant to throw it away. I can understand this if something has the potential to be useful, but why oh why had I kept my annual job evaluation sheets from when I was a civil servant over 10 years ago? What was I thinking? Did I envisage a time when I would be applying for another job and someone would say ‘Well, yes we like your cv and your gazillion qualifications plus the glowing references, but could you provide documentary evidence of the courses that your boss suggested you might like to go on in 2001?’ Somehow I have a feeling it’s never going to happen. And so, the old job evaluation sheets are destined for the compost heap.

But it’s not just paperwork I collect… I have also had to dispose of a huge number of padded envelopes. I don’t mean a couple of dozen, I mean several hundred of the things. They were on the top shelf of a large cupboard. Even as I was throwing them away I kept wondering whether I might , some day, regret this rash decision. But I am being strict with myself… drawers are being emptied and the contents evaluated. Supposedly I’m only keeping things that I need. Even with this approach I’ve still got loads of STUFF.

Perhaps my biggest downfall is books… I love them and find them very difficult to part with. Slowly I am weaning myself off buying paperbacks – a Kindle has helped and downloading audiobooks (great way to access books when you’ve spent your whole day editing and the last thing you want to do in the evening is read) – but non fiction books still find their way into the house in abundance. This means that I am in the process of transferring hundreds of books from the shelves in one room to the shelves in a different room. Look on the bright side, though… it’s great exercise.

I’m not sure whether it is good or bad, but Mr S-o-h is also a squirrel (favourite items to collect: electronic equipment). I guess we couldn’t live with each other if one of us was a hoarder and one a minimalist, but our collective collecting has resulted in a house full of STUFF.

So, the time has come to provide myself with a less cluttered space in which to work and I’m hoping that this will encourage my creativity. It will still be like working in a library and I will still have loads of teaching materials to find a home for, but perhaps if I can start with a tidier room I will have a tidier mind and be less likely to commence the collection of extraneous STUFF again… maybe…

… now where did I put that bin bag full of bubble wrap…?

A waste of space

The end of our house; our neighbour’s pink house overlooks this area

We live in a cul-de-sac… near the end. This means that our plot of land is a funny shape. Not triangular, but much wider behind the house than in front of it. The house is oblong, the rear garden extends along the back and down either side, we park the car in front and then there’s this strange bit of space to the left as you look at the house that is tarmaced, but not where the car goes and outside the garden and overlooked by our next door neighbours. We have lived here for more than 10 years and in all that time the only thing that we have ever done with this small area is store things… usually things like rubble or building materials.

Sunshine and shade and access into the garden

This, however, is changing. In order to optimise the use of our land, I want this area to be productive. It is at the northeast corner of the house and is in the shade some of the day, but it does get sunshine first thing and as the afternoon progresses. I really didn’t fancy removing the tarmac, so for the time being it is going to be used for container growing. The first crop that we have installed is potato… in bags filled with lovely homemade compost. These were started off in the greenhouse to give them an early boost, but now they are outdoors fending for themselves. The chickens like potato tops, so having them in the main part of the garden would have required some sort of barrier to be constructed around them… but putting them in our dead space means they are protected from hungry beaks – a win-win situation. Also they are just two metres from the IBC, so watering will be a doddle. HURRAH!

We’ve got bags of potatoes!

There is plenty of space round there, as it turns out and so then next things I’m going to put there are two large pots of mangetout because they can make use of the vertical space too, growing up the fence. They haven’t germinated yet, but they are in their pots in the greenhouse, so fingers crossed. And finally this year I am going to make use of one of those dumpy bags we have been saving because they ‘might be useful for something’ (our whole house is full of stuff that ‘might be useful’). If you don’t know, dumpy bags are those big sacks that building material arrives in – sand, soil, gravel, wood chips… the builders merchants won’t take them back, so you end up accumulating them. They are amazingly strong and we have cut them up to use as weed-proofing under the paths between the raised beds, but we don’t need any more for that purpose. So, I am going to fill one of them as much as I can with compost (I might be able to manage a depth of 25cm) and try growing squashes in it… that way I can empty the two compost bins that I would normally leave a bit longer to finish rotting down, since squashes like a compost heap to grow in. I’ll put it in the spot that gets the maximum amount of sunshine and hopefully I will have created yet another productive growing space.

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