Not teaching… planting

Today I should have been travelling to Shropshire to teach a course at the inspiring Karuna forest garden But I’m not. A lack of participants led to the course being cancelled. It was due to be my final teaching for the university and I was planning to go out with a bit of a celebration, but I’m disappearing with a whimper rather than a bang. Oh well… the important thing is that I’m moving on. All that remains is a little bit of marking and then my link with the university will be severed entirely and I can ride off into the sunset.

An outdoor session in the sunshine

I thought I’d be on my way to do this

But, not teaching means I’m home for the weekend and playing with plants… growing vegetables rather than minds!

Potting up... very late in the season

Potting up… very late in the season

I’m sorry to say that the limery is still not finished. And the reason? The piece of glass for the door was the wrong size! This was discovered last Wednesday and it takes 7-10 days for a new sealed unit to be made, so we are waiting. Once the final piece of glass is in and the last bits of sealing and cleaning are done, all that will remain for the building company is to install the electric lights. After that, we’ll be able to paint the walls inside and fill this wonderful space with plants.

Actually, As you can see from the above picture, I’ve already started putting a few plants in there (although they may have to come out) because I needed to give my few tomatoes and peppers a chance to do something this summer. Tomorrow we will go and collect the lovely blue paint that’s going on the low internal walls. Finally… it feels like I’ve turned a corner. And just to top it off, Mr Snail came home yesterday having completed his work away. So, let’s get on with the summer…

Secondhand socks

My teaching involves setting the learners lots of activities to do. At these times I want to let them get on with it without my input, so I have small blocks of ‘spare’ time. I used to take a book along with me to read, but I did tend to get interrupted and so never really got much reading done. More recently I have started taking some knitting with me. This is an ideal way to fill time, and I can even chat and answer questions whilst doing it. I lug lots of teaching stuff around with me, so don’t really want to be carrying chunky pieces of knitting, so I usually take a sock.

Hand-knitted socks

As well as keeping me amused, the activity often elicits questions, particularly since I usually knit on four or five needles and use self-patterning sock yarn. Usually, the questions are about the complexity of the process and the reason for using so many needles, but a few weeks ago I was asked a question that rather had me stumped:

why do you knit socks when they are so cheap secondhand?

I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this one was hard for me to answer. Fortunately someone else responded with the most obvious question:

you can buy secondhand socks?

And the answer was “yes you can,” apparently very cheaply from car boot sales. As an infrequent visitor to car boot sales, I have little idea about what one can buy at them, but the few times I have visited such an event my perception (at least here in west Wales) is that the stalls are dominated by books, old videos, bric-a-brac and plants. My friend Anja obtained all the crockery and cutlery for her wedding reception from car boot sales, but I have never thought of them for clothes shopping. The group discussed the subject and, it turned out, that in the local area (which is very rural) no one had encountered a significant market in secondhand socks, but if you visit the big car boot sales around major cities in the UK, they are full of very cheap, hardly worn clothes, including socks. Perhaps this reflects the relative affluence of cities compared to the countryside; perhaps it reflects attitudes. Are  country-dwellers less likely to consider their purchases disposable, or simply too poor to just discard clothes when they no longer appeal?

I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that clothes are not always bought to last – the prevalence of retailers on the high street selling cheap items, often produced in sweatshops should be an indicator that these are disposable goods. If you have to save up for an item, you are surely more likely to value it than something that you buy on a whim for just a few pounds. In addition, the perception is that it’s ok to get bored with a cheap item, because you can throw it away and get a new version. I suppose, however, that the fact that clothes are being sold on is a good sign to some extent… if even socks can find a second home, then there must be hope for all sorts of other items.

Self-patterning socks

But wouldn’t it be better if we valued the items that we do own. Considering that 20% of the world’s population use 80% of the world’s resources, perhaps a small step to redressing this balance would be to cut back on using any more stuff. And, in fact, knitting socks may lead me to do this. First, most sock wool is guaranteed for 10 years – so the product that I am making should last me a good deal longer than most socks that I could go and buy from the shops. But second, because I will have spent time in the act of creating these socks and because they are unique, I think that I will value them more – perhaps taking time to mend them should they become damaged, rather than simply discarding them.

We often hear the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle”, and buying second hand delivers the second of these, but if we could all do a bit more of the first we could make an enormous difference.

Sowing the seeds of sustainability

The introductory permaculture course that I teach is called Sowing the seeds of sustainability – a great title that I cannot claim credit for. That honour goes to my friend Angie, who designed the course in the first place and has been kind enough to allow me, first, to help her teach it and then to run the course on my own. It’s a great course to teach and to attend (being a participant was how I originally found out about permaculture) and includes a trip to see an inspiring site. The actual visit depends on where the course is being taught, but over the years we’ve visited Station Road Permaculture, Brithdir Mawr, Lammas and Tir Penrhos, amongst others.

The next time I teach this course our visit will be to Angie’s place.It’s the first time I have taken a group there, but it will be really great for them to see some of the things an experienced permaculture teacher has done with her own home and land. And, as well as seeing the successes, it gives the opportunity to see what hasn’t worked, and how problems have been turned into solutions or designs have had to be tweaked.

This sort of sharing is an important part of learning, whatever the subject, but in permaculture the network that provides support, ideas and encouragement is particularly valued. The Permaculture Association in the UK organises a variety of events that allow people to connect (such as the recent convergence), but we tend to be technologically savvy too and so there are active groups on Facebook, for example.

One of the greatest ways to connect is during shared learning – and there are lots of courses available. However, almost all of them cost money and this makes them completely out of reach for many people. I was delighted, therefore, to hear from my friend Tracey that she is organising a permaculture course to draw people together from across Europe who would not otherwise be able to afford such a cultural exchange of ideas. In her own words:

What is my DREAM?

To raise enough money to offer TEN fully sponsored places on a full Permaculture Design Course to be held in Scotland in the summer of 2013. This would support people & communities in some of our neighbouring countries, who are facing huge financial challenges, namely Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece, to share the knowledge wider within their local communities.

She writes:

People have asked why bring people from other countries to Scotland to do a Permaculture Course when I could offer to fund them in their place of residence.

The answer is… Because I want to create a celebration of cultures, bring people together, share the knowledge, celebrate the diversity, have a party.

Permaculture is all about valuing diversity and I know if we can reach the target then it will create an opportunity for a real diverse mix of people to be united on one course. I plan to make it a super duper course, as you can imagine!!

The approach she is taking is ‘crowd funding’ – where lots of people give a small (or large) amount to finance a project that they feel has value. Although bringing people together who are from different regions is costly, the benefits are likely to be huge, and she is asking that participants ‘pay it forward’ and go off and spread the word about permaculture and sustainability. Sounds like a worthwhile cause to support to me (and there are perks if you donate!). If you are interested in reading more about the project or giving a donation you can visit the Sharing a Living in a Gift Economy page ( please note this web address changed on 30 September). I love the idea of crowd funding, because you can make a real difference to a project with just a small donation.

Well, I’m due for a busy few weeks now, with courses to teach and to attend… who knows what exciting ideas will come out of them and what interesting people it will meet…

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!

(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?

The Snail of Happiness?

Well, I suppose that I ought to start by explaining the origin of The Snail of Happiness…

One the things that keeps me busy is teaching permaculture and I’m always looking for innovative ways of getting my point across. On a recent ‘training of teachers’ course, we were asked to present a short session so that we could get feedback on our teaching technique. I’ve been teaching for fifteen years or more, so wanted to do something new and (perhaps) challenging. I decided to teach a session on ‘spirals of destruction’ i.e. how we get ourselves into a vicious circle of negativity by taking small steps in a negative direction. So as not to leave everybody too gloomy I also wanted to talk about ‘spirals of abundance’… getting into a ‘virtuous circle’.

I like to give anyone I’m teaching the opportunity to contribute, so what better way than a group story-telling session? And how nice to have some form of ‘talking stick’ to pass round when it was each person’s turn to speak. And thus the idea of the two snails came to me… the snail of happiness for our positive spiral and the snail of doom for our negative spiral. I couldn’t possibly blog as the latter, so here I am representing the former!

and that’s them at the top of the page… knitted by me!

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