Three Things Thursday: 9 March 2017

*three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog with the happy*

Inspired by Emily of Nerd in the Brain here are my Three Things Thursday.

First, my grandmother’s tea infuser. Ever since I started drinking loose tea, Mummy Snail has been intending to pass on my nan’s tea infuser. Finally, when I was there last week, I remembered to pick it up. It is perfect for the days when I’m home on my own.


Tea for one

Second, fabulous women. Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I spent some time thinking about the creative, inspiring women I know. Here are two of them – my nieces modelling the pussy hats I made for them.


Inspiring women (c) Lilly Phipps

Third, Mr Snail’s creativity. At the weekend, Mr Snail attended a course to learn how to make willow structures. He asked me whether there was anything that would be useful for the garden and I said that I would like a ‘pea obelisk’. This is what he came home with:


Just awaiting peas

I will be growing red-flowered mange-tout up it (I’m just waiting for the seeds to arrive).

So, those are three things making me smile and making me grateful this week – what about you?

Weekend 1: Where there’s a willow, there’s a day… spent taming it

Just like Kate (Tall Tales from Chiconia), there has been some severe cutting down of stuff here Chez Snail. However, rather than write about it myself, I’m going to point you in the direction of Mr Snail, who can tell you all about it…


Spot the ChickenSpot the Chicken

We know what you're doing...We know what you’re doing…

After a week of Urbanity, it’s nice to return to the outdoors particularly when it involves saws, cutters and my favourite plant in our garden, the willow hedge.

As regular readers of this blog and that of thesnailofhappiness know, we have a hedge that, from 30 tiny sticks, has grown into a living companion of immeasurable worth. It provides us with wood for the Kelly kettle, shreddings for the compost heaps and chicken area and a means of controlling the water flow off the field behind our house.

And, whilst others have their gym membership to keep them in trim, I have the willow hedge to keep me in trim while I, well, trim it.

Last week, the remnants of hurricane Gordino (a service station on the M5, surely?), er, Godzilla, er Gonzalo (a character in the muppets?) swept across Wales and in particular our…

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A bit of flexibility

It’s been rather windy here… gusting up to 70mph overnight, but mostly 40-50mph. It’s not unusual for the west coast of Wales and, over the years, we have got used to adapting our garden to withstand such winds.

Willow hedge: our flexible friend!

Willow hedge: our flexible friend!

When we first moved into our house, the garden comprised a lawn, a patio, a paved path along the back boundary and a larch-lap fence. We moved in on a blustery day towards the end of 1999. When we got up the following morning, one of the fence panels had blown down. To begin with, we tried replacing and repairing fence panels as they were damaged before finally acknowledging that this is not the place for a solid fence. So, we took down the fence along the back boundary and planted a hedge to provide shelter and slow the wind. There is a field behind and this has its own fence to contain the sheep, so we planted  willow. The ground is soggy and the willows help with that, plus they flex in the wind and, although we have to cut them to stop them growing too big, we’ve never had to replace any of them and they save us money (providing wood-chip for compost and the chicken run and fuel for the Kelly kettle) rather than costing us anything to maintain.

The same cannot be said for many of the fences around us. One neighbour had 10cm (4 inch) fence posts break in the high winds a few weeks ago – probably because they were supporting solid fence panels. We’ve seen several fences and walls blown down recently (one twice in as many months), but still our hedge survives.

And so it is with life… sometimes flexibility allows us to survive turbulent times in tact – especially if we have our roots firmly planted in the soil.

Plugging the leaks

I haven’t written about it for ages, but one of the ways that we try to be a little bit more sustainable is by boiling the majority of our water in a Kelly Kettle. In case you don’t know what one is, I’ll let the manufacturers explain:

the Kelly Kettle is essentially a double-walled chimney with the water contained within the chimney wall.  Once the camp kettle is filled with water, simply start a very small fire in the base, set the kettle on the base and drop additional fuel down the chimney (natural environmentally friendly fuels such as twigs, leaves, grass, paper, dry-animal dung, etc.!).  The large internal surface area of the chimney heats the water extremely fast so, very little fuel is required.  The fire is all safely contained within the fire-base and the chimney of the kettle itself so, a) strong wind and rain does not interfere with the fire and b) the kettle is safe to use in many areas where open fires are not suitable

A roaring success for boiling water!

A roaring success for boiling water!

They are really designed for camping and outdoor pursuits, but we use ours at home every day… usually on the back doorstep. We sometimes light it in the greenhouse if it’s raining or very windy, but that’s for our comfort, the Kelly Kettle will work outdoors in really unpleasant conditions. We fuel it with waste paper, trimmings from around the garden (especially the willow hedge) and sticks that we collect whilst walking the dogs. We boil it a couple of times each day and store any excess hot water in two very good Thermos flasks for later use.

We have been doing this for four years now… I’m not sure how much electricity and money it has saved us, but if we assume that it gets boiled 600 times a year and that it saves us £0.05 each time, it has more than paid for itself and we’re well into profit.

I suppose that most Kelly Kettles only get used occasionally, so ours has had quite a hard life. Even so, we were very distressed a week or two ago to notice that it was leaking from one of its rivets. I’ve mentioned before how much I hate replacing things and much prefer to repair them (see this post if you want an example) so we started discussing what we could do. Our Kelly Kettle is stainless steel (we have very soft water here in west Wales, so aluminium was out of the question for everyday use) and neither of us had any idea about how this is best repaired. An internet search was in order… resulting in a link to the manufacturer’s own web site, telling us exactly what to do . Now there’s a company that I have respect for: a company who don’t want you to throw their product away and buy a new one, but who want to tell you how to make it last as long as possible.

All mended!

All mended!

As a result we have a fully functional Kelly Kettle once more – repaired with food-grade silicone sealant – and a very warm feeling about The Kelly Kettle Company of Newtown Cloghans, Knockmore, Ballina, County Mayo Ireland.

Do you know of other companies who behave like this? Because if you do, they too deserve some credit.

Rumpaging about the garden

A couple of days ago we called in on a friend who had been the recipient of some Boston squash plants earlier in the summer. She complained that they were ‘rumpaging’ about her vegetable garden. She showed me them progressing up the bank adjacent to their bed and along into the courgettes. Not a bad bit of rumpaging, but mine are doing better: across the patio, over the butterfly netting, into the potatoes, up the greenhouse and well on their way up the willow hedge… they obviously like the conditions:

Over the netting

Over the netting

Supported by the blue plastic piping

Supported by the blue plastic piping

Through the willow branches

Through the willow branches

Up into the hedge

Up into the hedge

Through the potatoes and over the greenhouse

Through the potatoes and over the greenhouse

And all the while, producing fruit (I think this is Oregon Homestead)

And all the while, producing fruit (I think this is Oregon Homestead)

And this is Boston - the original 'rumpager'!

And this is Boston – the original ‘rumpager’!


Fingers crossed for an abundant crop that will last the winter!

I love compost

I’ve come in from a morning in the garden with dirt under my fingernails, feeling very satisfied with planting and sowing and potting on. The runner beans are in the ground, the melons, courgettes and squashes are in larger pots, there are two big pots of mangetout sown and the garden is looking like it might be quite productive this year.

Whilst potting up the curcurbits (as the squash and marrow family is known) I got to thinking about compost… partly because I had my hands in some lovely homemade stuff that I’m sure the plants are going to do really well in and partly because I have been reading blogs about compost this week. It all started of with a post by Fourth Generation Farm Wife describing a composting experiment which involved in situ composting… something I am very keen on. Her experiment didn’t quite work out they way she expected but was, nevertheless, a success. I make compost in my ‘rubbish beds’ and plant directly into them even though not all the material is broken down (because after all, it wouldn’t be in a natural system). This year I have harvested some of the compost out of these beds to pot up those curcurbits I mentioned earlier and it will be returned to the beds when the weather allows me to transplant them outside.

Many people seem to have problems with compost making, although many are very successful and if you search the internet you’ll find a whole raft of advice on how to make compost, what sort of composter to buy and loads of products (some astonishingly expensive) to help you to make ‘good’ compost. Personally, I’m not convinced. I have a variety of compost bins – a couple of wooden ones, which are good and big and easy to empty; a couple of ‘cones’, one big and one small, the big one really heats up if you put lots of grass clippings in it; one made of an old water butt that split; a wormery; and my good old standby, thick black polythene rubble bags.

My honest opinion is that the compost I make is pretty similar whatever the bin with the exception of the wormery and the black bags, because these use different composting methods. The other containers all make ‘slow compost’. Lots of books tell you that you need a big heap that you construct with specific proportions of different materials and that you need to turn the heap regularly and add water and it will get hot enough to form compost really quickly and kill off all the weed seeds. In my experience this simply doesn’t happen in normal domestic situations, where you ‘trickle feed’ material into your heap and it gets whatever is available in whatever proportions there are at the time. I’m fine with this – I just let it get on with it, close the bin up when it’s full and wait however long it takes to turn into compost (and I never turn my compost or add water). I do put paper, willow shreddings, chicken poo, cardboard and nettles on my compost, as well as shredded cotton occasionally in addition to the usual kitchen scraps and I’m generally happy with the results.

The wormery I keep mainly because I want the ‘worm wee’ (more delicately known as worm tea) which I use as a very handy (but smelly) liquid feed. It’s one of those bins with a reservoir and tap at the bottom and serves its purpose well, but is quite unwieldy when the compost needs emptying out. The black bags, in contrast, are very low-tech. I fill them with perennial weeds, such as dandelions or buttercups, including the roots. I then fasten the tops and put them in a heap out of the way for a few months (it’s important no light gets in). The conditions inside tend to be anaerobic (unless you get a puncture) and you end up with smelly fibrous sludge, ready for direct use on the vegetable beds or to go into the main compost bin for further aerobic composting (my preference is the former). I like this sort of composting because it makes use of material that might otherwise be discarded and so lost from my garden system and also because things like dandelions and docks produce really robust roots that are good and fibrous and rich in nutrients… ideal as a compost ingredient.

I never buy compost activators because nettles and chicken poo do the trick and I have no idea how well things like bokashi work (although maybe it’s a great option if you don’t have a garden and want to compost indoors), but I do know that there is something really satisfying about growing plants in compost made from stuff that most people would just throw away without a second thought… what other way is there for you to eat your old teabags and coffee grounds?

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

(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 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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