Sunshine and showers…

… no, hang on, that should read ‘torrential rain’.

So far this June we’ve had more rain than in the two previous Junes combined. This, of course, provides challenges when it comes to growing and I have been especially grateful for the limery. I potted up all my pepper and chilli plants with a view to trying to raise some outdoors this year, but then the wind and rain arrived and it seemed unlikely they would survive outside, so in they came. Some of the other plants weren’t so lucky and I lost several patty pan squashes that were still in pots – I think they simply drowned.

Nevertheless, we are now eating lots of home-grown food and that is always a joy. I have three courgette plants in the limery and they are way ahead of the outdoor ones and already supplying us with food. The jalapeno chillies (red and purple) are producing fruit, as are the sweet peppers, although none are ready to be harvested yet. We’ve already eaten lots of lettuce and many potatoes. The peas are starting to flower now, so I’m hoping for some of those soon and the little herb garden that I planted up a few months ago is doing well – especially the oregano.

As climate change takes effect, I feel that I’m going to need to be much more responsive to severe weather, so that having both indoor and outdoor growing space available will become increasingly important, as will growing in pots so that plants can be moved in response to the weather (this year potatoes, peas, beans and squashes/courgettes have been planted both in the ground and in pots). So far this year I have managed to nurture a variety of crops, but there will always be years like 2018 when, after the early summer, we were unable to raise things like lettuce because it was simply too hot. This year I’ve diversified somewhat and so we have carrots, parsnips and sweetcorn in addition to our usual vegetables. For various reasons, I haven’t grown any of these for ages, but I think it’s time to have a wider range so that if one crop fails, another might succeed. In short, I am trying to build more resilience into my garden and I hope that this means we’ll be able to supply even more of our food than before from the limited space available.

Water, water


Rivers are over-topping their banks

It’s been a bit wet in the UK recently. When we compared our rainfall data for 2014 with that for this year, we saw that we’ve had approximately 50% more in November and more than 60% more in December (and it’s not quite over yet).

We are lucky in that we live on a hill and, although water flows through our garden from the field behind, it doesn’t hang around for long. In addition, our raised beds and raised chicken area act like sponges, and then drain gradually once the rain stops. Others are not so fortunate. Those living in the bottom of valleys are on the receiving end of all the water that has drained off the land further up the catchment. And so in recent days there is news of flooding in such locations.

It seems that we have suffered much more severe floods in recent years than previously and the media is keen to apportion blame… councils allowing developers to build on floodplains for example or upland livestock farming. But it’s a complicated picture and there are lots of reasons behind the current situation. Which means there isn’t a magic bullet – we can’t do one single thing to solve the problem.

Perhaps the first thing to consider is that this is about changing climate. By putting a blanket of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses) around our planet, we are trapping energy in our atmosphere. The result is the increase in storms and severe weather events. You will see many claims in the media that our changing climate is not the result of human activity. These often come from such renowned “experts” as Nigel Lawson, with his degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and James Delingpole, with his degree in English Literature. If you are interested to see the credentials of those in the public eye who are sceptical about climate change, check out the DeSmog disinformation database. In contrast, the people actually undertaking scientific research about climate change overwhelmingly agree that it’s happening and that it’s anthropogenic. Indeed, according to NASA:

Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

So, that’s something to bear in mind.


The local supermarket car park will soon be awash

But, back to the floods themselves… There are several things that we need to do. We need to remember that floodplains serve a particular purpose in a river catchment, and that is not providing flat land for housing! Apart from anything else, floodplains are where rivers should be able to overflow; where the water spreads out, slows down and deposits the soil particles that it’s carrying before it reaches the sea. Floodplains should be the place where we catch the fertility of the land before allowing it to be washed away, and where, as a result, we can farm productively in the drier months. Channelling water so that it moves rapidly through this part of the catchment means that the energy is not dissipated and any nutrients will disappear out to sea.

Further up river catchments we also need to slow down the movement of water. We need to develop a landscape that holds water – upland bogs and grazed diverse grasslands are good for this – and where water is intercepted by trees and shrubs. We don’t need a smooth landscape where water just flows off – we need diverse topography, with pools, banks along contours, a mixture of vegetation types and a well-developed soil. Upland woodlands slow the movement of water, from the moment it falls. Leaves, twigs and branches intercept rain and increase the time it takes for that water to reach the surface. Tree roots make the ground more permeable, and this increases infiltration. Plus, the organic nature of deciduous woodland soils means they act like a sponge and hold large amounts of water.

Anywhere in the catchment, we can make a difference to the water-holding capacity of soil. You are doing this if you add compost to the beds in your garden. In addition, any organic matter incorporated into the soil (whether in a tiny garden or on a large farm) is acting as a sink for carbon and thus reducing net greenhouse gas emissions. These are really good reasons to compost waste and to treat any organic matter as a resource not a problem to be disposed of… not to mention increasing soil fertility and therefore allowing you to grow better crops, which photosynthesise and thus also reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Another benefit, is that increasing the water-holding capacity of soils reduces the impact of droughts – something we have also encountered recently. Adding organic matter, therefore, is a win-win situation.

So, whilst we can’t stop the flooding right now, we can manage our land better to reduce problems in the future. And we can all do this – plant a tree, make compost, build a garden bed, collect rainwater to flush the toilet or water your house plants. Every action helps and together we can make a difference.


Over the banks but not over the bridge



When a tree falls…

I’ve mentioned before that I am a trustee for a small local conservation charity at a place called Denmark Farm. We run courses on all sorts of subjects related to the environment, from plant identification to love spoon carving; from vegetation survey to felt-making. Plus we have lovely self-catering accommodation, where visitors can stay in our eco-friendly lodge and get close to nature on our 40-acre site…. ok, advert over…

Anyway, yesterday I was up there at a meeting when one of the members of staff mentioned that a visitor had reported that an oak tree was down somewhere near the bottom of the site. Once we’d finished talking about courses for the coming year, a couple of us decided to go and investigate the tree and see what needed doing. Last week, Wales experienced winds exceeding 100mph, so we were not surprised that a tree had come down. We were not, however, prepared for the shock of what we found  (I went back and took the following pictures today):

The first view

The first view

A closer look, with Mr Snail-of-happiness for scale

A closer look, with Mr Snail-of-happiness for scale (he’s 6 feet tall)

You can see from the second picture, that the ground had come away with the tree… and further investigation revealed that it wasn’t just one tree, but a 35 metre stretch of beech trees growing on a bank along our boundary.

Thirty-five metres further on, you come to the end of the devastation

Thirty-five metres further on, you come to the end of the devastation

We slipped next door to examine the bank from the other side:

A 35m stretch of bank rotated through 90 degrees

A 35m stretch of bank rotated through 90 degrees

A little further along, there was a shorter length down too:

Shorter length of bank over, with Mr S-o-h for scale

Shorter length of bank over, with Mr S-o-h for scale (only two trees in this section)

The beech trees growing on this bank were about 12-14 m (36-40 feet) tall and one that we measured had a trunk circumference of more than 2 m (6 feet):

Measuring the girth

Measuring the girth

All these trees have multiple stems, and we couldn’t get in amongst them to count how many are down, but there are probably 10 in total. However, they are all beech trees and the visitors said that the tree they saw was an oak, so our search continued.

Back along the boundary, we came across another problem:

Pine across the path

Pine across the path

This one is over the path, and is only upright because it is caught in the canopy of adjacent trees:

Being held up by its neighbours

Being held up by its neighbours

But, that’s not an oak either, so we continued our hunt when we went back today. There were quite a number of young trees down too, but fortunately none of our big mature oaks. Sadly, however, we did come a cross two of our smaller, old and very knarly trees that had been blown over. One oak across the green lane:

All taped off so no one walks underneath

All taped off so no one walks underneath

And one hawthorn that narrowly missed the main building:

A few feet taller and it would have been through the windows and roof

A few feet taller and it would have been through the windows and roof

We cordoned off all the dangerous parts, but now there’s lots to be done to make the site safe for visitors and convert the wood into both fuel and wildlife habitat. It does bring home the power of nature… really the pictures don’t do justice to the size and number of trees that are down.

You can read more about it all in my post on the Denmark Farm blog.


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!

A wild and woolly new year

We have mostly been staying safe indoors since the year began, although we did manage to walk down into our local town, Aberaeron, for lunch at The Harbourmaster to celebrate my birthday on Tuesday. Other than that the weather has been pretty bad, and on Friday storm surges combined with naturally high tides wrecked havoc just north of us in Aberystwth and filled the harbour here in Aberaeron to the brim. The weather has subsequently improved, but only to the point of raining about 50% of the time. I just wish it would brighten up and allow us to go for some of those lovely frosty walks that I like so much. For us, climate change seems to be manifesting itself in the form of wind and rain (not surprising as it is linked to extra energy in the atmosphere).

Hurrah for British Wool!

Hurrah for British Wool!

The result is that we are spending lots of time indoors. This means that I have completed knitting the latest socks for barter – these are to be exchanged for a leather strap and base for a bag that I’m going to felt from the wool from my last bartering activity. And now I’m ready to start on my next piece of work for barter: four snail squares in exchange for some seeds. Originally, I was going to use wool oddments, but then I was placing an order for some British wool from Blacker Yarns and saw that they had some colours available that would look really lovely in the spiral design, so those are what I am going to use… photographed here with a book that Mr Snail-of-happiness got me for my birthday, written by the proprietor of Blacker Yarns.

In addition, there has been quite a bit of activity with the Masterpiece blanket, and I have added photographs of quite a few squares made in the last week or so. It’s going to be a really diverse design, even with the squares that I have made, let alone all the ones coming from other people. I will put a border around every square eventually, probably in black, so that each one is ‘framed’ and the blanket has some consistency throughout. Since the forecast indicates rainy weather for some days to come, I think I’m going to have plenty more time for such activities!

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.


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.

Never satisfied

The British are well-known for their obsession with the weather… and we do deserve this reputation. We have been grumbling for weeks now about how cold and miserable it has been and that we haven’t had a proper spring and we can’t transfer our plants outdoors because the risk of frost is not over Then – WHAM – suddenly we are having a heat wave and we’re all complaining that our seedlings are dying of heat stroke. In addition to this, it’s windy today, so they are all dehydrating too. As a gardener it is easy to focus on the adverse effects that the weather is having, so I though that I would try to look at the positives of this massive swing in the weather…

First, we are suddenly making up for the poor electricity generation last month… the solar panels are working at peak efficiency, especially with the wind to cool them down a little.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS! All the well established plants are really building up their resources… potatoes and rhubarb, raspberries and blueberries, redcurrants and sage, chives and willow… and we’re chucking the washing up water on them in the evening to help them along.

Lorna and Gytha… not complaining about the weather

All the washing is drying in double-quick time… and it smells so fresh when it comes in off the line.

Gytha is recuperating in the sunshine… although she hasn’t started laying again, she’s bright and perky and enjoying sunbathing.

The wood for burning is seasoning well and drying nice and quickly with the wind… Mr Snail-of-happiness was hopeful that he would be able to light the Kelly Kettle by directing the sun through my hand lens onto the kindling, to minimise the resources used when boiling the water. Sadly this didn’t work, but it was worth a try and we’ll have another go on a less windy day.

And, of course, we feel bright and cheerful on these lovely sunny days and get to drink our tea in the garden… so, let’s count our blessings not complain about the weather!

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