Insomnia

It’s the time of year again when small children find it very difficult to get to sleep… something about some jolly guy in red descending down their chimney in the middle of the night. Come to think of it, that’s something I might start to lose sleep over… especially since I’m guessing he’s likely to wreck our gas fire.

Actually, I need little excuse to lose sleep… anything that gets lodged in my mind seems to resurface in the middle of the night and refuses to go away until about 20 minutes before I need to get up, at which point my brain switches off and I fall deeply asleep. It’s not too bad when I am at home – there is always the option of getting up, making a cup of tea and spending some time working, knitting or thinking about my permaculture diploma.

In fact, I rarely get up these days, preferring to remain warm and in bed, listening to a talking book on my mp3 player via headphones so as not to disturb Mr Snail-of-happiness (who rarely has trouble sleeping). Currently I’m listening to Chocolat by Joanne Harris. In fact, it’s not my ideal book to doze off to because I’m never heard or read it before (it’s different to the film). The best books to fall asleep to are old favourites, particularly children’s books, which make me think of my parents reading to me in bed as a child… Roald Dahl is particularly good and I’m waiting for someone to make a recording of The Overland Launch by C. Walter Hodges, a book I clearly remember my mother reading to me and my sister when we were young. Mr S-o-h has kindly made me a recording of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull which I listen to when he is away, so that I get to hear his voice, although part of the story makes me cry, which isn’t necessarily a good thing!

Insomnia socks!

Insomnia socks!

My real insomnia problem arises when I’m away from home. I go on courses quite often and end up sharing a room with people that I don’t know… sometimes even in a dormitory. Earlier this year I had to try to sleep in a very squeaky bunk bed in a room with six other people. Tossing and turning was simply not an option, so I ended up in the dining area at about 5am each day. I certainly go a lot of knitting done (see left). More recently I had to share a hotel room with someone I did not know at all and where there was no safe communal space to retreat to, so no chance of getting up and being creative… well I suppose I could have sat in the bathroom, but I think my room-mate would probably have been rather worried by that! So I had one almost completely sleep-free night when I achieved nothing.

The current hexipuff collection

The current hexipuff collection

And really this is my issue: I can see the point of sleep. It allows me to function properly the next day. If I have to have insomnia I’d really like to be able to treat it as an opportunity – making something, reading something, producing a permaculture design. And so, before I book any more courses I’m going to make sure that the place I’m staying has either single rooms or somewhere I can sit and knit worms, socks, snails or hexipuffs without scaring my fellow learners!

To dig or not to dig

I frequently hear about the value of using a no-dig system when growing vegetables, but a recent post by Deano on his Sustainable Smallholding blog has made me think quite a bit about this issue and about the entrenched ideas that can permeate specific approaches to gardening (or any other aspect of our lives).

If you have read much of this blog, you will know that I am interested in permaculture and using this approach for designing systems in my gardening and elsewhere. Often, in the permaculture world, one finds reference to no-dig systems. The idea is that, in nature, productive systems are able to establish and thrive without any turning of the soil like we use in traditional gardening and agriculture. In order to emulate natural systems, the principle is that organic matter applied to the surface of the soil becomes incorporated into the soil structure by the action of worms and other soil fauna; just like it would in a woodland.

Woodlands produce organic matter that is incorporated into the soil by the fauna

The theory is sound, but in practice it may not be the best option. Natural systems have no ‘agenda’ – the vegetation that develops on a soil is the one that can thrive there. When we garden, however, we have specific aims and a specific time frame: it’s no good having to wait for 30 years for a deep fertile soil to develop when we need to feed ourselves now. Usually the reason for digging is to loosen the soil and to incorporate organic matter. It is true that, in some soils, worms and other soil animals can do this quite quickly, but it is not the case for all soils, as Deano has demonstrated with his heavy clay soil. Clay is a valuable component of soils as it is mineral-rich, but it is also sticky, impedes drainage and dries rock hard, and when it is abundant in soil, it creates a difficult environment for worms. Its presence is to be valued but, like most things, in moderation. Other components of soil – sand, silt, organic matter, water and air – are also important. The addition of organic matter to a heavy clay soil can help to improve aeration, fertility (including the release of chemical elements from the clay) and drainage. Given enough time, worms will do the mixing for you, but if you need it to happen this year, then some mechanical incorporation is the answer.

One of the arguments against digging (or ploughing) is that it damages the soil structure and adversely affects the habitat of the soil fauna. This is, indeed, true. For example repeated ploughing can lead to the creation of a hard, impermeable ‘plough pan‘ at the depth that the plough reaches because it smears the soil at this level. In addition, digging or ploughing causes physical damage to soil fauna and flora – potentially killing worms and chopping up fungal mycelium, mixing up soil micro-organisms, exposing buried organisms to the surface and burying those from the top layers.

So, there are pros and cons… the essential issue is that you must know and understand your soil in order to select the right way to manage it. You must also understand what you need from your soil. It’s about making informed decisions. And this is, perhaps, the real issue: we should not allow sensible ideas to become dogma. There can never be a single solution that fits all situations, and by making rules and being prescriptive will inevitably lead to disillusionment when that answer doesn’t  work.

It’s not just humans who dig!

In fact, I don’t dig my vegetable beds much because, as I have mentioned before, there was very little soil in my garden when we moved in so we build raised beds. The imported soil was light and friable and supports large numbers of worms, which do mix organic matter in quite quickly. Having said that, however, I do dig. I particularly like in situ composting involving digging a hole and burying fresh organic matter – a mix of material high in nitrogen plus something like wood chip or shredded paper to provide carbon and improve structure – especially when I’m planting runner beans or members of the squash family. And sometimes I dig in compost for a quick addition and to stop the chickens chucking it around all over the place. Talking of which, the chickens do quite a lot of digging too!

But, perhaps I need to get to know my soil better in order to make more informed choices about how I manage it and, with this in mind, I’m going to be testing the pH of my beds soon and I will be thinking a bit more about the structure and texture of the soil.

Waste not…

I like to be green: saving energy, growing food, cutting down on water use, all the things that crop up throughout this blog. But from a different perspective, much of what I write could be about saving money: repairing rather than replacing, minimising fuel bills, buying packets of seeds rather than baskets of vegetables from the supermarket, and so on. Whilst some aspects of our life have required quite large financial investments (having solar pv panels fitted, for example) many of the changes we have made have required relatively little, on no, money and have saved on outgoings (for example filling the toilet cistern with rainwater rather than metered mains water).

What I want to write about, today, however, is about getting the most out of the things that you buy, by using all of everything rather than just some. According to Love Food Hate Waste, in the UK

We throw away 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink from our homes every year, costing us £12bn – most of this could have been eaten.

They say that this equates to every person in the UK throwing away, on average, 120kg of food every year. Yes, you read that right 120kg per year! I know that I don’t throw away anywhere near that, so someone is chucking out considerably more!  Actually, none of our uneaten food goes to waste here; one way or another it gets used: fed to the dogs, chickens, wild birds, worms or compost bin. So even if we don’t eat everything directly, some of it comes back round in the form of home-produced fruit, veg or eggs. And because we are not self-sufficient and have to buy lots of our food, the net result must be that the ‘waste’ should be considered a resource that increases the fertility of our land. Most of what goes to the garden one way or another is not food that could have been eaten, it’s usually peelings, pods, tops, outer leaves etc.

When we do have left-over food, we either eat it the next day or put it in the freezer for later use. I try, also, to use every scrap of food when cooking. Thus chicken carcasses are picked clean and then boiled up to make stock for use in soups, sauces, risotto, casseroles and so on. When collecting food from the garden, it’s often possible just to collect what you need, so there isn’t any waste at all. For example, cut-and-come-again lettuces allow you to pick as many leaves as you need and leave the rest of the plant growing. This also means that you get fresh leaves every time, not some that have been sitting in a plastic bag for a week. Of course, in good years, there are gluts in the garden and then preservation is necessary. But even simple measures, like sealing left-overs in a bag or container before putting them in the fridge can allow you to enjoy them a couple of days later without a risk to your health.

Scrapers, funnels and other extraction tools

However, I still like to get the absolute maximum out of the things that we do buy: I can’t bear leaving any of a product behind in the packaging. As a result I have an impressive array of jar-scrapers, brushes and scoops… if I’ve bought something (or even been given it), I am going to use every last scrap of it that I can! I also have a couple of special funnels designed so that one bottle can be held over another to allow every drop of liquid to be transferred to the new receptacle without standing around holding the bottles for an hour or so. I use these for all sorts of liquid, but oils in particular.

Bisected tube

I also cut open plastic tubes, so that I can access whatever has stuck to the side. This applies equally to food or cosmetics. About three weeks ago I apparently came to the end of a tube of moisturiser. When I cut it open I discovered that about 1/3 of the total original volume was adhered to the inside of the tube and could not be squeezed out in the conventional way, but could be accessed easily after judicious application of scissors. Call me cynical, but I can’t help feeling that the manufacturers would be quite happy for me to simply buy a new tube once no more moisturiser could be accessed through the nozzle. I guess that I’m not a good consumer from the perspective of manufacturers, even if I am a wonderful consumer from the perspective of the planet. But I know which I’d rather be!

Soil – getting to the root of things

Unless you are practicing an unconventional system of cultivation like hydroponics (see this great blog if you are interested in doing so) then soil is the foundation of everything you grow.

Gardeners tend to value their soil – they see what they are taking out in terms of crops and try to put something back – often by adding compost, soil improvers or fertilizers. My favourite addition to the soil is compost because it doesn’t cost me anything – I am converting what others would regard as waste (from the kitchen, garden or chickens) into a useful resource. I don’t tend to use commercial fertilizers or feeds, relying on compost, woody material from the willow hedge and other prunings, and worm wee. That’s not to say that I won’t use commercial fertilizers, I’m just too mean to buy them! I received a free gift of some organic liquid tomato feed earlier in the year and so I have recently been using this on potted crops – although it does make the greenhouse smell like someone has been storing fish in there for a week!

Unlike gardeners, many large-scale agricultural enterprises don’t use their ‘waste’ outputs as a resource, choosing instead to treat organic matter as rubbish and buy in fertility in the form of fertilisers derived from the petrochemical industry. In a recent post, Yambean highlighted the shocking waste when Spanish farmers dumped cucumbers in protest at being paid so little for them by the supermarkets. I asked her about this and commented that they would, surely, have been better composting them and returning them to the soil, but she tells me that composting is unheard of in that part of southern Spain and the soil is, as a result, completely impoverished. It’s shocking to me.

Soil is a complex system consisting of a mineral component, organic matter in various states of decomposition (from freshly fallen leaves and recently deceased animals to humus and root exudates) and living organisms (bacteria, fungi, worms, insects, other invertebrates, plant roots etc). It is common sense that we need to nurture such systems if we wish to make use of them. Unless we replenish the soil, it will not continue to be productive. This was the basis of the organic movement in the UK, you know? Ever wondered why the Soil Association (one of the regulators of organic produce here) is called the Soil Association? Well, it was founded in 1946, partly because of concerns about “the loss of soil through erosion and depletion”. In 1967, the association stated that “The use of, or abstinence from, any particular practice should be judged by its effect on the well-being of the micro-organic life of the soil, on which the health of the consumer ultimately depends.” So, you can see that their name really does reflect an acknowledgement of the key importance of the soil.

In large-scale systems, particularly where it is common to have periods when the soil has no vegetation cover, erosion is common. As the Soil Association noted in 1946, soil is not simply lost as a result of nutrients being extracted because we grow crops in it, erosion is also a problem. If you live beside the sea (as I do) you cannot help but notice the brown water around river mouths after heavy rain… this is the soil that was previously supporting plants. It does get replenished naturally – rocks weather and add to the mineral component, organisms die, excrete and shed parts of their bodies and add to the organic matter – but bare land is subject to high levels of erosion that can take a significant time to be replaced. Thus we lose substrate, nutrients and water-holding capacity because we chose to leave soil bare – a simple ‘green manure’ such as clover could reduce the erosion and enhance fertility (clover fixes nitrogen).

If we do not care for our soil is it any wonder that there is an increasing need to add to it from external sources and rely on non-renewable resources? Many people, when thinking of organic growing, focus on the absence of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertiliser, but I’d like to suggest that one of the most important reasons to support organic production is because its practitioners care for the soil and are, thus, ensuring that it is available for future generations to use too. In my garden, I would like to think that I will leave the soil in a better condition than when I found it… not just preservation, but enhancement.

A clew of worms

Finally planted into the ground on 7 July… so late!

In a period of sunshine over the weekend (few and far between this summer) I got outside to transplant some crops into final positions in the garden. Some of my tomatoes and curcurbits had remained in pots (albeit quite large ones) in the greenhouse until now as the weather has been so bad, but finally I decided to bite the bullet and plant them out as space is limited in the greenhouse and other plants are expanding. I may get no harvest from them, but an Indian summer is possible and I can always eat the squashes before they ripen. The picture shows maize (corn), summer and winter squash and tomatoes, but I also planted leeks, spring onions and salsify (sounds like a verb not a vegetable) elsewhere.

Chickens, finally happy in each other’s company

The chickens – old and new now an integrated flock – have been on the beds that were not planted up, keeping the weeds under control, cultivating, applying fertiliser and scrumming slugs. Trouble is that they scrum worms too. We have been quite worried that our worm population may have been severely reduced as a result of chicken predation, but I’m pleased to report that, even with the high water table bringing the worms nearer to the surface and thus more accessible to chickens, there was still a good population once I dug down just a few centimetres, including some nice big fat individuals. I guess they are thriving on the added organic matter (both compost and chicken droppings) and so it looks like we have a healthy thriving soil ecosystem. HURRAH!

Of course, the rain returned all too soon and I was back indoors, where my thoughts turned to my other worms… the knitted variety. I am using amigurumi worms to test out the new yarns that have arrived. So far I have knitted worms of: acrylic, pure wool, a wool and silk mix, cotton, bamboo and soya. As I mentioned in a previous post, the latter two superficially appear to be natural fibres, but in fact are a type of rayon, so are chemically processed.

A clew of worms

And the results? Well, as you can see from the picture, they have come out rather different sizes. All the yarns I selected were supposed to be the same gauge (double knitting wool) but I had to use different sized needles to account for the amazing variation. All of the yarns have produced acceptable worms. I think that the yellow cotton yarn (Peruvian with the proceeds helping to fund children’s education in the communities who produce it) made too big a worm, but I think that it would make a lovely sweater. The soya (blue) and bamboo (pale pink on the left) yarns are quite similar and both are silky, although the bamboo has more of a sheen to it. They produced nice firm worms (I used quite small needles: 3mm) but the lack of stretch in the yarn made picking up stitches quite difficult and in the end I had to resort to using a crochet hook to do this for the bamboo. This is a bit of an issue with amigurumi, but probably wouldn’t matter if you were knitting a lovely twinset or a pair of socks. Actually I really enjoyed knitting both of them. The acrylic is cheap and cheerful – it hardly seems worthwhile putting all the effort into knitting a big garment out of it because of the quality, but it actually lends itself very well to knitting critters although it is a little floppy and would have been better on slightly smaller needles. And finally the two woolly yarns – the greenish worm is pure British wool (an oddment that I had left over from an ancient project) and was a joy to knit – just the right amount of give in the yarn so that picking up stitches was easy. The lilac silk and wool yarn (on the right) was very similar, but a little softer (I have some lovely bed socks made out of it).

So my conclusion? Well, I’m still a fan of sheep’s wool. For my vegan customers I will keep experimenting with plant fibres (I have some hemp/cotton yarn ordered), but for me and those who don’t mind animal fibres, I will be sticking with wool.

Oh, and the next experiment is knitting a ‘bath puff’ with the hemp/cotton…. seems better than the nylon options available in the shops.

And, yes, clew really is the collective noun for worms!

Sick Chick

The past 48 hours have been fairly fraught in the chicken department – it turns out that Gytha wasn’t just cold. ..

Mr Snail-of-happiness had to go away on Wednesday down to Surrey; not long after he left I embarked on a thorough chicken house clean. When I pulled the tray out from beneath their slatted perching area I was worried to see that it contained a lot of liquid. I had noticed that Gytha’s rear end was a bit grubby, but since she has been active and eating well, I had not investigated. However, clearly something was wrong here. I put the cleaning activity aside and inspected Gytha – she had a sore patch beside her vent and a very dirty bottom. So, I came in and consulted the wonder that is the interweb-thingy. Several options seemed possible… worms, bacterial infection or possibly she was egg bound. I had already felt externally for an egg and couldn’t feel one, so went to look at poo. Ah, the joys of chicken-keeping! After inspection of the hen-house and all visible chicken poo round the garden, I was pretty certain she didn’t have worms and I couldn’t see any blood in any of it, so perhaps a bacterial infection? The answer, in the short-term seemed to be natural yoghurt. So I made a mix of layers’ mash, warm water and live yoghurt (which I make myself). This turned out to be very popular with chickens!

I went back to cleaning the hen-house in the drizzle… scrubbing all the bits with soapy water, rinsing with clean water, drying the floors and perch and then putting it all back together with a generous dusting of diatomaceous earth in the places where red mites hang out. Finally I filled the nesting boxes with shredded paper ( great security measure… what thief is going to steal your personal details when they have been shredded and then covered in chicken poo?).

That seemed to be all I could do for Gytha at that stage, so I went back to editing and intermittently fretting. Mr S-o-h was away overnight so I fretted on my own.

In the morning I inspected the area under the perch – not much poo, no blood. Gytha was quite perky. I gave them some more food with natural yoghurt and I went back to editing. After lunch, I decided to wash Gytha’s rear end, feeling that it would be better if she was clean. So, I filled a bowl with warm water and caught my chicken. I reckoned that the best place to try this operation was in the greenhouse, as she then couldn’t escape and it’s nice and warm in there. So, I inverted my chicken to see how messy she was and found her vent distended and blocked with a yellowish mass. I rinsed her off and dislodged some of the mass, but wasn’t sure how rough I could be with her in getting it out. The smell suggested to me that what I was seeing was rotten egg. Back to the interweb. My word, there are many sites about chicken keeping and a whole range of suggestions of how to deal with ‘bunged up’ chickens. The most sensible thing would have been to take her to the vet, but Mr S-o-h had the car and the bus ride takes 45 minutes each way… not a sensible option with a sick chicken, I felt.

So, first I tried introducing some oil (sunflower) into her vent with a syringe. This did not seem to have any effect, but I sat in the garden and watched her for half an hour to see if the lubrication would help her to pass anything. Nothing happened.

Finally (after the vets had closed) Mr S-o-h arrived home. Now there were two of us we could try the next suggestion – soak her in warm water for half an hour (yes, 30 minutes) to make her vent muscles relax in the hope that she would, with a big push, be able to pass the mass of rotten egg. We filled a bowl, Mr S-o-h collected Gytha off her perch and I sat on the kitchen floor holding her in the water. It was much easier than I had expected… there was a bit of a struggle, but the water was nice and warm and I held her firmly… and held her… and held her… my word the minutes pass slowly when you are sitting on the kitchen floor holding a chicken in a bowl of water. She fell asleep – my hands started to seize up. I considered the possibility of opening a chicken spa… and dismissed it. Finally I lifted her out, we wrapped her in a towel, then transferred her into a cat carrying box with a hot water bottle underneath. We left her with a bowl of water in the dark.

We looked for a result half an hour later – nothing.
We looked for a result another half hour later – nothing.
We looked for a result before we went to bed – nothing.
We got up this morning and took her to the vets.

We have a lovely vet – he’s not the nearest, but we have been going to him for years. He knows our names, what we do, where we used to work, that Mr S-o-h has been writing a book. We have never had to take a chicken to him before.

To ensure that we got the most out of our trip we took on of the dogs to be vaccinated too. According to the vet’s computer this particular dog was dead, but he resurrected her, so that was ok. He gave her the vaccinations and then came the chicken… I don’t think he sees many chickens, but he wasn’t fazed. He inserted his finger into her vent (I clearly could have been much rougher with her, and wish I had) and dislodged a mass of egg and other stuff. The diagnosis? A soft egg had become stuck and had rotted, plus she had developed an abscess. Poor Gytha.

We are home now – with antibiotics to be given in liquid form twice a day  and a new syringe to wash out her insides from the rear with warm salt water (our vet is very keen on salt water). We administered the first dose of antibiotics, straight down her through from a tiny syringe, when we got home and it turned out to be remarkably easy – although she may have worked out what we’re up to now and dose number two may be more of a challenge. The flushing out of her vent is going to wait until tomorrow – I think she’s experienced enough invasion for today. She’s had a meal of natural yoghurt mixed with mash and some dried meal worms and we wait to see if she recovers.

I’d better get back to work now, otherwise I won’t be able to afford the vet’s bills!

Chickens in more healthy times

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