January 2014


A quick update that’s too long for a tweet but too short for a blog post: The brasse of firewood from this post has nearly all been converted into heat and we just had another brasse delivered this morning. The wood would (ahem) have gone sooner, but the weather has been incredibly mild. So mild, spring flowers are beginning to appear. It’s also been annoyingly wet, so I haven’t been able to cut the dead-standing chestnut I’ve relied on in years gone by.

Yes, I feel like a failure. Yes, we’re €250 poorer. But we looked hard at the situation and decided being warm is a fundamental human need. And on a positive note, I can finally answer the question: “How long will a brasse of oak last if I live in a yurt in the southwest of France through a mild winter?”

Eight weeks.

While I’m here, I’d like to share a piece of news that will make some readers smile knowingly and others feel a bit weird. In this post, I said you’d be hearing a lot more about Transition from me this year. Two days ago (just 24 days after that post was written), Rob Hopkins – yes, the Rob Hopkins, who co-founded the Transition Movement – emailed me (!) to ask if I could write something for the Transition Network.

Very. Exciting.

 

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The pallet pig ark has long been one of the most-read posts on this blog. It’s the first animal structure I ever made and will always be my favourite. But although I’ve shown it in place a few times, I’ve never actually demonstrated how it’s put together.

(Apologies in advance for the new, low-quality photography that will sometimes be featured in this blog – I’m now carrying an inexpensive smartphone. In the near future, you can also expect low-quality videos, but they should be worth watching if the microphone is any good. I can’t wait to record the birdsong in spring and early summer.)

Back to yesterday – as part of preparations for the 2014 glamping season, we moved the now-called pallet goose house from the orchard to its new location at the bottom of the guest field. Here it is ready to go up:

pallet house parts

I’ll walk you through the assembly and point out adjustments made since January 2008. Bearing in mind this is at least the ninth time it has been assembled, you’ll see why I’m deliriously happy with the structure. All the pieces can be moved by one person except the base and back wall. This wall is attached using two L-shaped brackets (added because the pigs kept pushing it off the base):

pallet house back

Next, a nice, light side is attached with an L-shaped bracket. You’ll notice the chicken wire holding in the straw insulation has gone. This was a terrible idea, as it broke so easily. Fortunately, I had some ply lying around and bodged these onto the uprights to make a more airtight inner layer. I didn’t bother with treating it and it seems to be fine:

pallet house side 2

Before screwing the L-shaped bracket down, the wall is fixed with long bolts through the top (we’ll come back to that piece of leaning wood in a few seconds):

pallet house top fixing

And bottom (this shot is of the second wall, to add confusion):

pallet house fixing

The front wall is then added and the leaning piece of wood at the back becomes a lintel:

pallet house lintel

Finally, the roof is lifted on from behind and screwed directly into the top of the uprights:

pallet house finished

I originally put the roof on a light wooden frame but it broke the first time it was moved. On the ground at the back of the house will be a container for catching rainwater.

All that remains now is to make a door from another pallet and we can herd the geese down the field to their new enclosure. (Could be a low-quality video opportunity there.) We haven’t kept geese behind an electric fence before, so there’s room for a bit of chaos in the days ahead. It’s basically there to keep our dogs away during the day and foxes out at night.

One of the first things I heard about permaculture was how easy it is – a “no-dig” solution to the world’s insatiable demand for food. My mind conjured up images of someone (me perhaps, or Her Outdoors) wafting seed at the ground, then coming back  later to wander through our very own Garden of Eden, trees dripping and ground heaving with all manner of perfect fruit and vegetables. A smallholder’s paradise, where chickens take care of the pests and all you need to do is lie in the shade and plan what you’re going to do with today’s harvest.

It’s an attractive image, especially when you’ve spent seven years creating this:

veggie patch work

This was our veggie patch yesterday (the first time Her Outdoors has been happy to have it photographed). The ground was initially dug over by pigs, and all the “raised beds” were dug by hand, fertilised with Pepito’s manure, wood ash from our burner, rotated to help prevent disease (“help” is a key word here), nurtured, slaved over, repaired using wood from écovallée and stared at dejectedly. It’s been a labour of necessity, love and hope – and if you’ve ever done any gardening (I haven’t – Her Outdoors did this pretty much on her own), you’ll have looked for an easier way to get the results you want.

So when someone tells you about no-dig food production, you look into it.

Having read a bit and watched a few permaculture videos on youtube, permaculture can be fantastically easy. Provided you have the ground terraformed by JCBs, have uncountable tons of topsoil and manure delivered by fleets of trucks, and a huge amount of money to spend on seeds. Oh, and a sub-tropical climate with massive amounts of rain followed by months of sunlight. And plenty of time. And help.

What if you have none of those things?

One answer, found through permaculture, could be hugelkultur. If this is the first time you’ve come across this excellent word, it won’t be the last. Anyone who’s tried it raves about it. 

Last winter, we built a small “flugelbed” (any Swedish-sounding word works for us) in the polytunnel. It wasn’t a real krugelschmugel – more a raise bed half filled with rotting wood and manure, topped with earth from molehills. It’s been great. Carrots thrived in the sifted soil, free from pests who haven’t evolved to fly up to that altitude. Unfortunately, the deer have enjoyed breaking in and using it as a salad bar, leaving beautifully cropped plants next to telltale hoof prints. Our response will be to create a deer-proof fence around the polytunnel when we get round to it, which will surely do… something.

But that’s not the point right now.

The point is that we’re starting our first shnugelbed outside. It’s a very long-term project but one we’re very excited about. Lacking a JCB, Her Outdoors prepared the area to be used by leaving a tarp on the ground for a year or so. After the rain loosened the clay-heavy soil, she spend a few weeks carefully removing the bindweed:

veggie bed digging

Yesterday the hugelproject looked like this:

veggie bed before

All we needed to do next was place the soil to one side of the (uphill is wise here):

veggie bed after

We’ll be returning to this project regularly to monitor its progress. In a few years, the results should be spectacular.

We actually had a break over the mid-winter festival season which, as any athlete will tell you, means it takes a while to get back into shape. So we’re back on half days of manual and womanual labour for a few weeks.

While the weather is unusually cold in the US (future ref: Polar Vortex 2014), unusually wet and windy in the UK (future ref: Breezy in Blighty 2014), and unusually hot in Australia (future ref: Bloody Hot Here, Mate – You Probably Want to Get Yourself a Beer and Hide 2014), it’s been unusually mild here. Daytime weather this week is about 15C and sun, which is perfect for working outdoors.

Her Outdoors is moving manure and repairing raised veggie beds. I’m strimming and felling trees. More on all of this soon.

I’ve been wondering how to start this year’s posts, in which I will explore the theme of “community sufficiency” as mentioned in this post. But we just watched this youtube video, following a twitter tip-off, and I thought you might be interested (click on the captions button and marvel at the Russian-sounding language that is Portuguese a short way in):

 

One thing I may have written before is that our nearest town, Lalinde, was the first in the Dordogne to start the journey to become a Transition Town. I’ve been to a couple of events and helped the core people put together this blog – and they’ll certainly be featuring here in the months ahead. Along with news of how our new local currencykindofthing, the JEU, develops. (It’s more of a time bank, but I’ll get into that later.)

Final Interesting Thing for Now: I heard just before the New Year that two people are moving to Lalinde as a direct result of the transition initiative. It’s understandable – if we had the money in 2007, we’d probably have moved to Totnes.

Happy New Year, by the way.