Sunday, 5 October 2014

'Ren Test' - Babies and Permaculture

I have invented, no created, quite literally, a new test. Conceived in late 2013 and launched about a month ago, it is unforgiving, incessent, and highlights problems and weaknesses in any design. It will weadle out anything that would fail in times of hardship, and it subjects every aspect of my lifesytyle to a stern examination. He is 4 weeks old and never stops. It appears that we make beautiful and well behaved children and terrible, unforgiving babies.

I had a load of posts lines up for this update, but this  'little bundle of joy' has reduced me to a jibbering wreck on a number of occasions, so this is about how a seismic event can change stuff, whatever it is, and a true test of permaculture design.

Permaculture is full of sects and groups ranging from yoga vegan hippies to survivalist hunting gun nuts. The ethics mean that you have to care about other people, the planet and not being a greedy shit, but after that, as far as I'm concerned its predominantly a set of principles, techniques and ideas to hang a design on.  its the art of clever design, both virtual and physical which aims to go beyond sustainable and into the realms of regenerational. The cleverest of designs aim to make the designer obsolete, producing maximum outputs with minimum inputs. A baby should not blow my designs off course.

Its a bit grand to suggest I'll reach this stage after 1 busy year. It's a lifetimes work, full of incremental change, but as a benchmark,  the 'Ren test' shows me how far away I am from my goals. 

I have to admit I was feeling a bit pleased with myself in the run up to the baby. The lifestyle changes I was putting in place were beginning to feel normalised, I was getting out to do my foraging and at least a bit of fishing, as well as getting stuff done in the house and the garden. We were eating well, and life was good. Its all interesting, and I will write it all up. When he stops screaming, and thats the situation, as lovely as he is, if I were a car, I was 5th gear and cruising, it now feels as if someone stuck a potato up the exhaust and poured sugar in the tank.I feel like the engine just blew up. 

Now dont get me wrong, I'm not moaning ( maybe a bit! ) and I wouldnt change anything (apart from the screaming! ) but what Ren has done in all his baby glory is subjected our lives to a stress test. The beautiful thing about this particular stress test is that rather than a major illness, or losing a job, or a natural disaster, it will pass, it's wanted, and it'll get better. It has highlighted the glitches in our lifestyle design though. As much as parts of the garden will get stronger and more productive over the years, pots and troughs, neglected for even a week in a hot dry Septmember will flop and fail without irrigation or better planning. A workload  that relies on me being out of the door by 7 and back by 7 are unfair on everyone, mainly Michelle, and being unable to take holiday easily means that even if I dont actually fall over one day, I feel like I might.

None of us are Superman, we have to be able to listen to ourselves in order to facilitate others needs. I have learned that my workload was too much. My inputs in this lifestyle design were unsustainable. I have had to relieve myself of a couple of the smaller jobs I do simply because the working day was too long ( I am now jiggling a baby at 7.30 in the morning rather than being on a job ). It was nice to take the money, but sometimes it just isnt worth it. The thing is, I'm not getting any younger, and to blindly continue physically working is short sighted, and definitely not sustainable. So hand in hand with lightening the physical workload has to come another income stream. This includes a lodger, which is a method of extracting an income from the house, our major expense. It also means further concentrating efforts on design and permaculture for clients, a more cerebral approach to making an income.

The garden, because of Ren has been subjected to neglect. Whilst this isn't perfect, in many ways it is helpful. Everything that has struggled, been eaten or suffered from pest and disease has to go onto a re-examination list. I need stuff out there that thrives without pampering. 

It looks like the fruit trees, artichokes, tomatoes and many herbs. might stay. Strawberries and  potatoes in pots  didn't do so well. Yields were low, but I might have some plans – watch this space, we will be constantly reviewing and there is more than one way to skin a cat. Slugs and snails have a lot of fun out there. Hand picking and dispatching is the only way of really controlling them ethically in my experience. It will be a major project next year to research, and select edibles and medicinals which are not of any interest to the critters. Lessons here can be learned from self seeders, wilder foods, maybe, and whisper it, even weeds!

And whilst I am sooo in love with all my family, and I get so much out of them, I was also gaining a lot from foraging forays, fishing trips and my permaculture adventures. This can't happen for the next couple of months. For now, everything needs to be reigned in. Even further!

Learning needs to be done as a family activity. This will most likely be youtube, TV, book and kitchen based. The kids like the cooking, and lotions and potions are always learning experiences. Any forays further afield will have to be built into the working week. It boils down to money, time and my own sanity! A tricky equation, but one I'm sure we can square.

A contraction of work should also allow me to reflect better and make better decisions. It has become clear to me that reflection is incredibly key to making sensible decisions. Ploughing on regardless in the way we are encouraged to do by societal pressure is often the wrong thing to do. Exhaustion leads to frustration and is only bad for the soul. When we look at things cyclically, taking in different events that change our situations, the adjustments we incrementally make, especially when they are concious decisions are actually empowering because YOU decided what to do, and YOU took responsibility. If those decisions help your systems and subsequent lifestyle then they begin to feed back in and make things easier in the longer term even if right now feels hard. So the thing is that we can all learn from unexpected changes in our plans, and the solutions are all there, we just have to learn to see them, and permaculture design with a little imagination enables that.

For Ren,
Please stop crying now...... 

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Gluts, Gluttony, Greed

I was thinking about my gluts the other day, as you do. I know, I know, I'm a bit weird, but they just never stopped coming this year and it was hard to stop thinking about them. This was mainly because I was either picking them or filling the kitchen counter with them. Gluts will take over when you start growing. Be warned, you could be as weird as me!

It led me to think about gluttony, and the fact that it was a deadly sin. I'd never made the connection of the two words before. I think we tend to look at gluttony nowadays purely as greed, it conjures up images of eating a whole tub of ice cream in front of the TV, or the Christmas tin of quality street in one go (guilty, I'm afraid). But when I think of gluts, I don't think of that sort of greed.

In the past few years, gluts for me have led to wastage, the fruit and veg coming in, life taking over and the inevitable walk  of shame to the compost heap. Its not good. The swing from excited Spring through to overwhelmed late Summer is kind of messed up, and I have been guilty of waste in the last few years. But THIS year has been a bit different. Aided by the pressure I have put on myself with this blog, a PDC still fresh in my brains and the fact that the last few weeks have been kept clear due to an imminent arrival, I have been canning, juicing, preserving and cooking up all the produce coming my way. There ain’t no raspberry gonna turn on me!

Eggs by the dozen, cucumbers, gherkins, beans, and tomatoes have just kept coming. Obtain a yield is a permaculture principle, but it is only realised when that yield becomes a useful one. Having a kitchen full of produce slowly rotting does not count.

So I made tomato sauce, and put it into sterilised jars ( thanks to big sister Debs for pointing that one out!), I made pickled gherkins, quiches to use up the eggs because quiches are very manly. I juiced cucumbers like they were going out of fashion, and now I’m going to live forever because I’m so alkaline. The apples from the garden have all been used, and whilst the meagre amount of sauce and pickles done this year won't save a great deal on the grocery budget, the process of learning to pickle, process and use stuff began. 

Learning these skills and using them is empowering. The most important part of my lifestyle design – it gives me the skills to take advantage of random opportunities like other peoples gluts or forage, to experiment, to feed us healthily, save a bit of money and extract me ever so slightly further from shitty food manufacturers. Next year, when the shack is up and running, and the perennials are another year older, we will have more to use and play with. My shift to freedom will accelerate.

There is a theory that a lot of the man made stuff we eat ( the ice cream, cheesecake, doughnuts etc...) the processed crap that tastes soooo good, does not trigger a 'full' response in our brains the way that a more natural food would. It's why Atkins or paleo diets work, because they split carbs and fats. The body will not want to continually eat a food that does not contain one or other of those, whereas a cheesecake, which contains about 50 50 fats to carbs ratios, produces a craving response. You don't get this from cucumbers. Or eggs. Or tomatoes. You can't physically eat too much of any of this stuff on its own, and I'm struggling to think of anything in its natural state that produces a response in me like a tub of strawberry cheesecake ice cream. 

So pickling, canning, etc..  is the way to really obtain a yield, minimising that walk of shame. So too is sharing and gifting. You ain’t gonna eat a massive bowl of tomatoes while you watch game of thrones. 

Gluttony in my mind then,  becomes the failure to take advantage of gluts, and avoiding wastage, stretching your yield, eating seasonally, and growing the right amount of the right stuff become the tenets to live by. It makes us healthier, happier and richer to live within these natural cycles, so be kind to yourself, avoid gluttony, and be as greedy as you can.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Hello Ren

Just a quick post. We had a baby boy last night and we called him Ren. I feel blessed and have fallen in love all over again, not just with him, but all of my beautiful family. Michelle especially has been simply incredible; brave and compassionate. I didn't want to bang on too much in this post, but this is just about the best advice I could impart to him. I hope when he is old enough he will live by it. I try to, but it is sometimes hard. It goes for everyone I know, especially my amazing  daughters. There are many truths here.


Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence,
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. 
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. 
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.
Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here and whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy

Max Ehrmann

I hope you like this as much as I do, I think it's a really helpful way of looking at stuff, I'm not a religious man, and personally I think this kicks the lords prayer's ass. Something I was made to recite for large swathes of my childhood. 

Just a quick note – posts might be shorter for the next few weeks, there's a lot going on which is annoying because there is a lot to write about. I'll try and punch through the sleepless nights and continual rocking. Also it is much easier to write comments on here now that my lovely friend Scott has sorted out some glitches, he has also made it easier to read on mobiles, so you can read wherever you like! Accepting feedback and self regulation is important in the permaculture world. I would LOVE as much feedback as possible, especially specific stuff. It helps me hone the ideas I write about. I also have a page on facebook called hisown2feet, please like it, or friend me under mark furmston. It means I can see you guys, which is lovely for me and makes it a two way process.

(Scott, is also the one loading/posting this post for Mark and typing this bit ; ) "hello readers"... and so would like to sneakily congratulate Mark and Michelle… and wish them, the girls and Ren all the happiness in the World! they're certainly adding more than their fair share.) X

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

From Patterns to Details

This is all about seeing the wood for the trees. In a physical project it is imperative to look at how the land behaves in order to carry out any design. The usual stuff, like slopes, species, climate etc... guides a design. These factors should be aiding the sustainability of the design, not fighting it.So when we have a dominant species we should be designing to take advantage of the soil and climatic conditions that species enjoys, as well as the benefits that that species brings, be it the way it interacts with the natural environment or the yield it brings. 

The glamour in permaculture, or self sufficiency is often stuff like hugelkulture, designing guilds, food forests or keeping chickens. Its these ideas that appeal to people because there is a physical, clever way of producing food, and lets face it, if you're that way inclined, its cool and interesting.

But the art of looking for patterns... well that is a bit like the cinderella in the rush for the over made up hugel/herbspiral sister. And it is a rush. I am guilty of doing this. If I look back at my ideas for the back garden and how to design my life, the patterns were ignored in the desire to get things done.

So I start again. Not completely, but as part of a critical analysis of what went before. The beginning is the Survey bit in SADIM (Survey, Analysis, Design, Implement, Maintain). After maintaing the elements I have put into my life, we go full circle. We re-evaluate, accept feedback, we build and tinker.

From the very top. If I was to be allowed a wish list? I would be travelling to all the people and places that inspire me. From Geoff Lawton to Joel Saladin. Ben Falk to Jack Spirko. I would be doing a second 2 week intensive course with Patrick Whitefield, and a 10 week internship with Ridgedale permaculture farm in Sweden. Then I'd come back to Hastings and set up a city farm with an educational growing hub for the unemployed youth of the town, probably receive an OBE, get the freedom of the city (Town) and just schlep around drinking in coffee shops, swimming in the sea and fishing. Oh yeah, and I'd spend the Winter somewhere warm.

That sounds good. Heres the reality. I have a family, I have a mortgage, I have debts. I have a job that requires me to be physically present and doesn't pay holiday. These are all limitations. Some which I wouldn't change, beautiful and charming, some I definitely would. But none the less, they all mean that disappearing to do this stuff is out of the question. This rather stark example shows us that by looking at the patterns, we can ascertain what is and isn't sustainable

When I finished the PDC, one of the first things I did was to volunteer at the community garden. It was good. I met good people and helped a worthy project. It wasn't sustainable because I did it despite having to work every other weekend and losing money we needed as a family. I wouldn't change what I did, but when the garden closed it was a relief as it meant I had more time and money for myself. It wasn't sustainable within my current pattern. 

Now I bring eggs and cucumbers (right now its cucs, next week probably courgettes!)for my neighbours and friends, and i'm getting the same hit from it, without having to volunteer time I haven't got.

And whilst 10 weeks in Sweden at Ridgdale does sound great, I decided to build my learning around my limitations. Cue Michael White, Lucia Stuart and Ben Fairlight Edwards, local(ish) foragers. All with different specialities covering herbalism, sea shore and everything else. It has become clear to me that foraging is definitely a passion, makes me happy and is one solution in feeding ourselves. It also has the effect of curbing to a small extent the limitations of money (food for free as Richard Mabey says) These guys are all amazing by the way – well worth checking out if you are in the area.

I will be getting out on the boats and learning as much as I can about sea fishing from my friend, Russell Field. This should be both social and educational for me, and again, a big step towards free, sustainable, healthy food. Just – got – to – find – the – time! 

The other thing I've been doing is making stuff with the kids. They are naturally predisposed to making potions and lotions, so this summer so far we've pickled gherkins, made bread, salves and oven dried tomatoes. Next up is tomato sauces and quiche. We are all learning. Together, and they seem to like it.

Finally, once it all settles after the arrival of the baby, I will explore the Permaculture diploma with as local as possible tutors. 

The point being that the patterns of my life, at least for now, limit my options. The beauty of those limitations, however, result in a beautiful solution. One that boils down to local learning, deeper connections with local people and the local environment, and one that sates my appetite without taking me away from my family or taking up more of my precious time. In fact, it brings us all together, eating, drinking and enjoying the things we bring into our lives.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Design For Life

'If you don't design your life, they will design it for you' – Jack Spirko, July 2014.

The premise of the above being that unless you take control, really take control, then governments and corporations will step in and make decisions that will directly affect your lifestyle.

I heard Spirko talking about this and it really struck a cord with me. We are all following a path designed to serve others, mostly those running large corporations and governments. From an early
age we are trained and encouraged to form part of a larger machine, one which is sold to us as the 'right path' – study, get a career, save for a pension, consume, retire. As long as you work hard, you can do what you want. But as always, its more nuanced than that. I wanted to merge this thinking with a psychological model I was familiar with. 

I came across Maslows hierarchy of needs at University. Its a model in psychology, showing base needs right up to self actualisation. The theory being that the basic needs have to be met in order to achieve stuff like love, respect, etc... If you look at Maslows hierarchy of needs, there are 5 levels; 

A Physiological level – Food, water, warmth – In order to fulfil these needs, its never been easier (at least in our comfortable western world) Most of us would supermarket shop, turn the tap or hit the thermostat. I do, but less and less. If there is no design or movement towards self sufficiency ( at least a bit more of it ), then we are constantly in the hands of enormous corpotocracies, companies enmeshed within governments, just doing what they want. One thing is clear from the constant scandal, criminality and subsequently the enormous power they hold - these people and their machines do not care about you. The fact that it is so easy to carry on using their services is the dangerous part. If you don't think about it, then life is easier, at least in the short term. Think about what happens if you carry on using the same provider. Your gas and electric prices will RISE, you are actually paying THEM for not shifting supplier. Same goes for all utilities, loyalty is not respected, the exact opposite to when you are using a local, small supplier. Think about what happens if all you do is eat cheap food from the supermarket for 30 years. Yeah, you'll have some clubcard points, but you will have fuelled and been a part of the industrialisation of the food chain, the marginalisation of small suppliers and the subsequent health risks. I remember when we used to say 'one day we'll wake up and it'll only be supermarkets left' – well we're there folks, and we overslept, most of us are still asleep and even you and me are hitting snooze. They are ALL like hypnotists. 'Shhhh now, sit back, you don’t want to think about this boring old stuff, we'll auto renew you/do your shopping for you/give you our best deal (delete as appropriate) so you just sit back and relax. Go baaaaack to sleep'. 

It takes an effort to find local, ethical alternatives, to extract at least a portion of your physiological needs from the hands of these vast corporations, but plan. Find a butcher, swap your energy supplier, put in a water butt. It takes energy to do these things, but its part one of your design, and once in place it'll afford you more time, money and quality of life.

It took around a month for the BBC to report that extra fracking licenses were being granted, and that a major reason was the Russian/Ukrainian war. Greater energy security was needed because of  the horrendous skirmishes on the edge of Europe – its a home run for our great leaders.  Our war machines (The UK are world leaders in selling arms to horrendous regimes throughout the world – what a great bunch of guys!) helping to create a new common enemy AND an excuse to make lots of money with fracking. A questionable at best technology. Security is very interesting at the moment. The current situation feels just like Orwell's 1984 – Eastasia and Eurasia – the two interchangeable enemies designed to keep the people in fear, and thus, controllable. Isn't this Iran, and ISIS, Mujahadin and Al Qaeda. The freedom fighters we nearly waded in to help in Syria are now ISIS. Iran are now potential allies. You aren’t meant to understand – it is designed that way – so that governments can be the only ones to provide you security, and hence you vote for them again and again. 

Shelter is also at stage 4. I'm not sure about the US or the rest of the world, but here in the UK, a shortage of housing has made it near impossible for anyone to get on the housing ladder. If you want to live in London, you have to be seriously wealthy. The system is broken for anyone under 30 and if I was 20 again? I would learn how to sustainably build. To take on a mortgage (death pledge is what that word actually means)  means you are paying vast sums back to the bank for around 25 or 30 years. You are the banks bitch! Your shelter is in the hands of the banks. I don’t need to expand on how worrying this is surely, suffice to say the guys that design and run the banking systems will be alright, always were and actually control the politicians. Still. Even after the last 6 or 7 years. I don't know what the answer for me is here, but if I ever make any money, or find a sugar daddy (open to offers, my mum says I'm pretty) then I would be overpaying that mortgage. The sooner we are free the better. If you are never going to be free, the sooner you square that in your head the better.

So once you've realised that you are a cog in the design, you are halfway to freedom, and you need to make that step to get to stage 3 – belongingness, affection, love from workgroup, family, friends, and romantic relationships. Surely they have no hold on this right? Well it depends on how you look at it. If we shop at monster shops, check out in those little self service things, order from Amazon for everything, overspend, and consequently overwork (I am guilty of the last one) then you are jeopardising stage 3. The system sends out messages. It advertises to you stuff that you don't need. It supplies you with easy credit (again), it allows you to carry on spending without any human contact whatsoever. It has never been easier to enslave yourself to stuff. If you find yourself here there can be a problem. I have spent years overworking, seeing too little of my family and friends and am designing myself out of that trap by minimising our exposure to debt, not by working harder, but by using all available resources (permaculture principle klaxon!) and renting out the spare room. Pay it off, walk away and give yourself a chance at actually having disposable income and a life. 

Esteem needs – Achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self respect and respect from others. Holy moly – its as if Maslow was  a self sufficiency guru!
Now please don’t get me wrong – I am not preaching as some sort of expert here – all I am is a fella on a journey to greater self sufficiency – and believe me I am nowhere near my goal, but I have been fired up by a few people, a PDC (Permaculture Design Course) and some good friends. I do know that to be a generalist, to try the new stuff, to build, grow, understand, gives you an enormous amount of satisfaction, and therefore self respect. Foraging and growing as opposed to simply buying, making as opposed to simply buying, building as opposed....... you get the picture. Gives you self respect. That ALWAYS (unless you are a knob about it) leads to respect from others.

Self actualisation needs – realising personal potential, self fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences – Now I'm sure there are ways of getting here without doing what I've been talking about, but I cant think of a better way. To go on this journey, to wrestle back control, to know yourself intimately – your strengths, weaknesses, capabilities. To have helped others on your way and thus created a real community on the journey, and to know that its been YOUR design, not theirs. To know that you did it despite them, to give yourself the power to design the unwanted from your life and support the wanted – holy shit - that’s a design for life.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Build it and they will come

Probably not always true, at least when it comes to East London Stadiums and West Ham, but I'm talking about the garden here, and the thing with wildlife in the garden, it takes little more than piling some logs in the corner to give some bug or another a home. These are ideas from one garden I've been working on....

I think this is a dragonfly nymph - St Leonards Spring 2014 
A pond. Probably the ultimate in habitat creation. Deep central zones, shallow edges, water margins, crevices, basking stones, drinking water. The watering hole on an African plain brings together all forms of Wildlife, a pond emulates just that. Dragonflies, water boatmen, pond skaters, freshwater hoglice, newts and frogs all appear as if by magic, but its not – its nature in all its awesomeness moving in to use a resource.
Teaming with different species, its hard to take your eyes off it. Predators, prey, life, death, birth and development. Its all here, because there's water and all its benefits. Larger animals will visit too. Foxes, badgers and birds. Its no wonder its top of the list.

In this pond

Wildflower meadows. Another way to create a beautiful habitat. They have a low carbon footprint as all you need is a patch of ground and a bunch of seed. It can be a bit hit and miss with the germination, but when it works.... you get this. Humming with insects, overwhelmed with colour and movement. This meadow was given a structure beneath it to both protect and support from Rocky the dog. Last year it came up and was quickly flattened – not this time. Often these stands of flowers are the show stoppers of the gardens I create or tend. They are always busy with bees and other pollinators.

Using existing resources to create habitat is a common sense approach. This garden is full of trees. Reusing this resource as part of the infrastructure is definitely a permaculture principle. The logs go in as a retaining wall, and the gaps (inevitably there will be gaps) are backfilled with brush and twigs. We have created a wall that is a genuine one off, has cost little in materials, a carbon footprint of almost zero (wood from 10 Metres away), and a habitat for insects.

With the excessive amount of brush and logs, we not only have wood piles in every possible corner, but our first hugel mound. Basically wood of various sizes and types (make sure the wood you are using is not alliopathic, like black walnut) buried in a pit and mounded up over the surface, then buried with topsoil and compost. The wood breaks down over time, creating nutrition, mycellium and heat. It also soaks up water, keeping the mound moister in the Summer, and as its a mound, and higher than existing ground, it won't flood in the winter. It appears to be working already, and the expected optimum time (when the wood has sufficiently broken down) is probably 1 or 2 years from now. The spinach and lettuce are not bolting, despite a lack of watering and a hot Summer so far (Bolting is caused by stress, often lack of moisture or excessive heat).

So we can build to attract insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. We can even build to attract mycorrhizal funghi, and just like a good festival – they will come. It is however, good to understand what we are building, and why. It is great putting together habitat projects, creating microclimates and niches but it is also possible to create problems for ourselves. Collecting pots together, as I have done on the deck in my own garden does conserve moisture for the veggies. It also gives a good home for snails. Moist, cool and food on tap. It means a sweep most nights and the inevitable cull. The lip at the top of large tubs tend to house the most molluscs, but also check under pots, any trays or old pots you have lying around, and go out at night if you can to pick them off. Its necessary – theyll eat it all if you let em!

And the shack – it's happening. It's slow – and I keep changing my mind about stuff, but the shell is there. Once this is built, it'll be beers on the deck and banjos on the rocking chair. Me and Michelle can hide from children and students, and Scotty Garret, master and Commander of BADASS (Bohemia Area Dad's Association.) will be popping round to tinker with rocket stoves and talk permaculture. And just like a pond for habitat creation, a shack will create a habitat for me and mine.


Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Triumph and Disaster

If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same – If,  Rudyard Kipling

Its a beautiful passage in a beautiful poem, and it is never more apt than when wrestling with anything horticultural. The possibilities for disaster are endless, the triumph we are presented with is fortuitous in many ways and to believe your own hype is to set yourself up for an almighty fall.

I'm getting slightly obsessed with the ideas behind failure and success right now. Its a subject we can all identify with, and at this time, it appears to be more and more commonplace to label life's little ups and downs with excessive gusto and hysteria.

TV especially appears to be shoving the ideas of success and failure down our throats by attaching a competitive edge to lots of things that should be fun, exciting and anxiety free – see Master chef, Britain's best allotment (or whatever the hell its called), The X Factor. In fact it feels like I could go on forever – all formats that either make the participants look silly or attach anxiety and failure. Failure that is to be avoided at all cost, failure that is the end of the world (If you fail you're out). Judges sit and (funnily enough) judge. Success at any cost? That is what seems to be peddled. The questions we have to ask is success or failure by who's standards? And what does failure really mean? Its certainly not the end of the road.

And I know these programmes and the other stuff we are bombarded with are classed as entertainment, and maybe I've got to chill out a bit, but what a double whammy – taking a pastime that always existed for its own sake and sucking anything good from it by attaching negative formats. What's wrong with having a sing and a dance (badly) if it makes you happy without some po-faced judge telling you you're not good enough. What's the big deal if the cake you bake doesn't impress some TV personality? Who are they to judge? I mean really, most of them are just bullies. I try not to watch this stuff, Simon Cowell especially upsets me – mean and nasty, pushing the idea of kids lives being over if they don't impress (or more accurately, conform to a bland formula of success).  You might think I'm over egging this, and maybe I am, but its important in my opinion to not take this version of reality to our hearts. It promotes anxiety, and a 'not good enough, you've failed' attitude – its also very often unkind and inhumane. Rant over, but it pisses me off and always will.

Don't get me wrong, I love a bit of success, but failure arrives when we attempt the new stuff and challenge the status quo. Failure is glorious, laced with lessons, helping us to be better at what we do. To never fail, is to never learn, and while success is nice, like the man said – treat it as an imposter. Believing anything else can turn people into assholes!

This blog is becoming more and more,  a why to garden as apposed to how to. Its because I think its a powerful tool for reconnection, yes with the land, but just as importantly for human healing and development. The most experienced gardeners and growers will be able to tell you many stories of failure, and will still make mistakes. This is what makes them experienced. To take failure and use it to achieve success, to not fear failure and experimentation and see it as a tool for future success. Once you have worked that out you will never fail in the Simon Cowell sense ever again.

So I want to be the anti Simon Cowell! not particularly in bank balance, but certainly in spirit. It is never the end of the road, simply a blip in the ephemeral nature of life. Be nice, be supportive, chase the extraordinary - don't be Simon Cowell!

And its funny, my favourite people are the flawed, imperfect, self deprecating ones. Able to admit to their faults and accept themselves as they are. Rather that than someone who believes they have no flaws. Very dull.

Level heads are required.  Often, especially with growing annuals, you have one shot, maybe a few depending on how organised you are! Disasters can always happen, inclement weather, pests and disease. Good growing weather can fool you into believing you've got it sussed, only for the following year to kick you in the nuts. We have to assume that failure will happen, and legislate through insurances. Experience is a great ally in this respect. I will sow more than I need, plant in different locations, try different varieties, and plant and sow throughout he growing season - all ways of mitigating the effect of failure whilst still being able to learn from it. Its been a good year so far. We have had a Spring (which is a bonus the last few years). Mild and recently wet, enables germination, all over the garden we have lush growth. On the other side of the coin, slugs and snails are having a field day, black spot, a fungal disease is popping up on the roses and Asparagus beetle has had a very nice time this year.
Daisy with the first Strawberry of the year! 

Failure in the garden is as perennial as the trees. If you are practising a more natural style of gardening, you are accepting a degree of failure. No quick fix solutions here - a softer, more nuanced thinking is required, and failures more often than not present us with solutions (the problem is the solution) More traditionally there is a 'quick fix' available in forms of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, enabling a solution in a bottle. The problem with this is you aren't addressing the cause of the problem, instead unbalancing the natural systems already in place to deal with it, and the baby goes out with the bath water.

So nothing is as it seems in the moment. A failure can feel insurmountable, like you're on your own, as if no one ever did the same, but the truth is that both success and failure are the same thing, a coming together of many random elements, culminating in different outcomes. Experience, both in horticulture and life at large is the thing that enables us to recognise and understand. Triumph is nice, but we learn more from disaster, those little lessons that enrich us and our future adventures, and the sweetest of all? Triumph through disaster, the ultimate learning curve.

So it is a inherently human condition to fail, make mistakes, overlook the infinite trip hazards, and even more human to accept, move on and learn from those failures. It makes you a better person to realise you can't control it all. A gardener will have to cope with this conundrum on an almost daily basis.

The Cherry in the front, despite the praying, begging and love sent its way, went south pretty sharpish after being planted – my afformentioned 'edge' – replaced with Rosemary, some currants, and a fig, to be pruned hard. The Cherry on the other hand is in intensive care, throwing out a few new shoots so at least its stable and not critical. Lessons from this failure? The front is a great big wind tunnel, bringing great gusts charging up the street and treating anything in its way to a large dash of hostility, the open, south facing aspect bringing a great pendulum of year round weather – hot to cold, dry to wet. The soil also held within a concrete pit, not particularly deep or wide – perfect for a Fig. The Cherry simply didn't cope. Its successors, selected to deal with a bit more weather – look at the leaves of Rosemary – waxy and tough, as apposed to the soft growth of a cherry tree. I should have known – in fact I think I did know in my heart of hearts, but I wanted to see how it coped. Now it will go to its sheltered spot out back.

So my mistakes form the basis on how we move on, and my successes should present me with an informed satisfaction. Informed and treated with the caution it deserves. Just because one year we have a bumper crop of peas or potatoes, never believe you've got it sussed. Nature presents us with infentissimal possibilities – weather, pests, diseases and human interference. Without getting too zen on you, stage one, in my opinion is to be aware of the external influences – or observe with as little commentary in your mind as possible. Look and see, don't analyse – which paths does the dog take? what's in the air? What grows where? Where is dry/wet? This information guides us to understand the environment we are in. How many players there are in our space, what the land does. Only from there can we build. See, don't judge. Learn, don't capitulate. DON'T BE SIMON COWELL!

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Why Bez is a weed

Wisdom is knowing what you have to accept - Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Seeds and weeds - these words will conjure up images of an unending battle between human and nature. Weeds, the gate crashers, the unwanted, the uninvited thugs, rolling in to spoil the party. Seeds, the method of dispersal for so many of them. Sitting, waiting for an opportunity to grab life from the soil, one day not there, the next popping up amongst the geraniums in the herbaceous border when the conditions suit.

It can be enough to make the most well balanced gardener go crazy if the attitude is all wrong. The traditional weapons of war in this ongoing skirmish will range from the use of hand tools to all out chemical warfare. Constant weeding can be thankless, and chemicals are not desirable for most sensitive horticulturalists, both methods can easily exascerbate the problem if we are not careful. Whilst there are few of us who would argue that it is less than ideal to have a border full of uninvited visitors, it is wise to arm ourselves with more than just methods of simple eradication. To fight without any knowledge is to pick a fight we are unlikely to win, a thankless and uninspiring task.

Weeds - by their nature are highly evolved, pernicious species that step into a situation when the opportunity arises. Often, we create those opportunities. Freshly dug over soil of a vegetable bed or ornamental border is a common one. I understand why we do it. It symbolises a good days work, it also enables new planting, and just as other traditional images creep into our collective mindset as wholesome and productive (fields of wheat and corn), a nicely dug over piece of land is indeed viewed by many as beautiful and good.

But it also suggests a scar on the earth, a waste of land and resources, a fertile soil with nothing in it will be colonised often by species specifically for those situations very quickly.  In this case weeds are natures elastoplast, healing a bare patch of soil.

It is also the case that digging in this way will both bring dormant seeds to the surface and break up roots of perennial species such as the dreaded ground elder or bindweed, thus your digging can become a very efficient propagation method (especially when rotovators are concerned - please don't use the rotovator!)

Weeds are purely uninvited visitors, often native, and always incredibly successful, that's why they are weeds. When we tune in to the natural systems we look after, these plants take on more nuanced meaning. This is where knowledge leads to acceptance

Just as a patch of bare soil will be colonised quickly, slopes will be stabilised, compacted soils will be loosened and habitats are created. Clovers fix nitrogen, and tap rooted individuals such as Comfrey and Dandelion bring nutrients up to the surface, aiding and abetting the plants around them.

Spring comes quickly, and often flatters to deceive. Here in the UK Spring does not arrive gently or reliably. It is a rollercoaster of a season, warm and cold, dry and wet and everything in between. Frost can arrive late and snow is not unusual. The temperature of the soil takes some time to catch up and a common mistake is to get carried away with the expectation of a new season on the first warm day. But when the annual weeds begin to get going, we have a good idea that direct sowing can begin. Reading and observing these seedlings can give us job prompts - and its a better way of gauging soil temperature than sticking your bare ass in the soil.

As you delve deeper, we can learn to identify what our interlopers are - many weeds are edible - nettles, chickweed, cleavers and dandelion being just a few. We can also tell what is going on within the soil - indicator weeds can tell us whether a soil is:

Acid ( Ox-eye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), curly dock (Rumex crispus) wild strawberries (Fragaria species), plantain (Plantago major) rough cinquefoil (Potentilla monspeliensis), silvery cinquefoil (Potentilla argentea), hawkweeds (Hieracium aurantiacum and pratense), knapweeds (Centaurea species).

Alkaline (true chamomile (Anthemis nobilis), bladder campion (Silene latifolia)

Wet (horsetail (Equisetum arvense) joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), silvery cinquefoil (Potentilla argentea), curly dock (Rumex crispus), mosses, creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens)marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis)

Dry rough cinquefoil (Potentilla monspeliensis)

When we start to understand this sort of information, weeds become part of a dialogue between the garden and the gardener. They are conduits of communication, food and job prompts. Far from being species which drive a gardener to madness in the race to elimination, they can be used, and even in some cases, appreciated. A group of plants arriving to help, just sometimes maybe too much.

So weeds, not so much all bad and more like, as with all things, a group of plants with a complex set of characteristics. I like to think that more understanding allows us to design our gardens in the most sensitive way. By tuning in, we waste less time and money on plants that will never fit in, on jobs that are nonsensical and we glean the more positive aspects of our uninvited guests.

The characteristics that all weeds DO share however are some of their coolest. They are pernicious, born survivors. Hard to kill, often spiky and they more often than not, don't fit in within a strict regime. They remind me of some of my favourite people. Bill Mollison, Jack Spirko, Tony Benn (RIP), Larry Santoya and, recently, Bez (Please check him out if you aren't already aware of him). These guys are tough, not always agreeable, often hated by authority, but always passionately spreading a worthwhile message. Trying to heal ground that has been messed up by government and corporations with no goal other than profit. These are the healing, ground protecting tough bastards that colonise and prepare ground for the more delicate amongst us. And as with their herbaceous versions, it is often easy to not see the problems until these strange, often belligerent species turn up and start making a fuss.

So it wont surprise you to hear that I want to be a weed. That is my goal - to be a useful, pioneering indicator species. To shout about the wrongs (and the rights - see permaculture, Alan Savoury, Ron Finley) that are happening around us. I want to help make the ground better for my children and grandchildren, so we don't end up with some awful dystopian future, controlled by a few - homogenised and bland and instead embrace the diversity in this world. We need to listen to those who are marginalised because more often than not they have more to say than whoever is on the front cover of Heat Magazine. We need to tune in because we have been tuned out for so long. And as for the seeds waiting to burst forth and show themselves? if you've read this far - they've been sown by now.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Antics and juggling

Its been busy and I haven't had the chance to write an update until now. Spring has arrived and nothing moves so quickly. Seedlings emerge daily,  demanding attention, their leaves unfurling in that unmistakeable iridescent green. Perennials bulk out quickly sending their crowns bursting through the soil, and tasks build up, seemingly unending in their numbers. It's exciting, but it can feel daunting and rushed if we are not careful. It is always worth sitting back, making lists, watching and observing at this time of year - we can go from a beautiful Summery day to hard frosts very quickly and its important not to get caught out in our haste to get things done.

It is invaluable to have protected spaces right now - greenhouses, polytunnels and windowsills allow us to get ahead. Cold frames enable us to harden the more tender species off before they are planted in final positions outside. We can end up in a state of flux during these 'in between' weeks, moving plants in and out as temperatures fluctuate - shading and un shading, protecting from the sun and heat one minute before protecting from the cold the next.

These jobs are worth gauging and noting. Many annuals, both edible and ornamental are labour hungry - the demanding prima donnas of the plant world. We want tomatoes, Aubergines, Melons and Cucumbers, but they demand our time and this should be evaluated. Last year, all this effort produced poor results from the Melon and Aubergine crops mainly because of the late arrival of Spring. Despite a lovely, hot Summer, a long season is needed for fruition and we didn't get one, so even with all the planning in the world we can still get unstuck. A season lost due to factors beyond our control.

Asparagus crowns waiting to be buried
Perennial crops, on the other hand, can get on with it to a certain extent. Berries and fruit will generally crop with little more than a bit of pruning and feeding, Asparagus and Rhubarb simply demanding a mulch and good soil. When we look at  Globe Artichokes, not only do we have delicious, high value food, but we have a handsome plant. In fact if we want high value crops - perennials seem to be the thing.
One rule worth considering is don't take too much in the first couple of seasons, allow the plant to concentrate on growing, not just fruiting - don't expect the world from a young plant, and it will repay you when mature for years to come. These are the 'can do' crops, your dependable mate - unfussy and tough - because they have a stored energy that mature plants possess, power in their bulk. They do not need us to till the earth either - allowing the soil and the life within it to get on with what it does best - live undisturbed and reward the species within it with it's complex web of exchanges, competition and cooperation. We can see a higher resilience in these crops - certainly worth noting when resilience seems to be a highly valued trait in this increasingly uncertain climate. When we design in permaculture we should always be aiming for a system that minimises inputs and maximises outputs, and that leads us to incorporate perennial systems when it is possible. That said - I will certainly still be growing plenty of annuals. What can I say? I like the fuss.

A pregnant Michelle amongst the chaos!
As the rain died away - and Spring began to poke her head around the door, other jobs rose up the to - do list. In order to take full advantage of the season, the shack needs to be built at Chataeu Furmston, it is not merely a storage space, more a multi functional element key to the permaculture design that is my back garden with bike space. The roof will be a water harvesting zone, the walls built in such a way as to maximise solar aspect, part of the building will house more tender plants, and it will be the final retreat for a heavily outnumbered male (1 wife, 2 little girls and 2 girl lodgers at last count, with no guarantee of any redress from baby number 3). The plan is to incorporate a watering system operating under gravity using raised tanks and irrigation pipes,      and as I learn, no doubt other systems will be put in place.

When this is done, I can begin to grow in a far more effective fashion. Much of the garden sees little sun right now, and space is an issue, so vertical growing in the right areas is paramount. Catch and store energy - a permaculture principle - we will utilise that solar energy for food production and basking in the sun amongst other things. With snatched hours through the last couple of weekends, the framing is happening and we have walls. Working in a confined space means shifting materials around constantly, but that's probably my fault for insisting on using as much recycled and found bits of timber as I can - there's a lot of crap in there. Its fun, but it does complicate things. As it happens I've had to buy some posts and 4 by 2 to frame out the building, but so far, pallets seem to be working as the 'building bricks' for the walls. They are not always square, they differ in size and pulling them apart can be a right pain in the arse, but they are free, sturdy and possess a void between the front and back- enabling me to insulate if I feel the need, and certainly giving protection to the inner wall. I'm loving putting the shack together and though I'm working towards an overall plan, its certainly an incremental design, built so we can change and maintain the structure easily. I like the thought that the shape could change or the functionality could be tweaked, and its how I naturally think - nothing is ever finished, just adapted and cyclical.

So this shack is in part another support system for the use of annual cropping. Granted it will carry out a lot of other functions, but it is a support structure for tomatoes, salad leaves and beans. Without this structure results would certainly be patchy.

The beauty of this time of year is the movement, the flow that begins, with or without you. And though its definitely a beginning, with the use of perennial systems, it is also the end of hibernation and rest - the sun waking our elements from slumber. When a garden under my stewardship really begins to work, it is usually when the perennials have found their feet, and the successes have succeeded and the failures have failed. Nature edits as much as I do, and it is right to allow her to do so as to fight nature borders on insanity, and definitely leads to it. Allow the flow and incorporate elements that utilise natural rhythms, you'll have an easier time of it.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Here come the girls!

Tomato seedlings growing away
Its silly, I know, to humanise plants, seedlings and seeds, but with so much information out there, much of it contradictory and most of it 'ticklist', its something that helps my little mind prioritise and it sorts things out in my head. Sow in March directly into moist raked soil - says the packet. Well what if its still cold in March? What if there's not enough oomph in my soil? Obviously you need a degree of knowledge for successful growing of crops, but empathy, and connecting with an intrinsic common sense goes a long way. One of my tools is to treat my seedlings like I would any little person, and if you listen and watch hard enough, the answer is often there.

After all, I'm spending a lot of time with these little fellas, they are getting a lot of attention, both in terms of how much they get from me, and how their performance reflects on me professionally, so they become 'my girls'.

The tomatoes are important at Pattendens (my main place of work). The clients eat a lot of them. 4 varieties this year, 3 cordon and 1 bush, and they have already been pricked out and potted on, this is an important step - they sit on propagators, so I am always keen to get them potted up as soon as the seed leaves are unfurled. Having their own pot means they are able to grow away without getting spindly in the race for more light with their mates, also the tendency for the whole pot to dry out is increased if we have a number of seedlings in one pot.

The organised chaos of the Polytunnel
Aubergines and Melons have been moved on in exactly the same way - all now sit individually in a heated propagator, the first perilous part of their journey to fruition completed. Moisture levels are checked regularly - not too much or too little - a balancing act for me as I only get to visit twice a week, although I will pop in midweek if I feel the need. Its a bit like having a small baby, high  inputs at this point, but it does get easier.

I leave the watering can on the propagation mat in the greenhouse. It warms the water nicely so my girls don't get a cold shower. Instead the watering becomes 'a treat' - a warm watering from a fine rose. A cold soaking every now and again might not impede germination and growing on fully, but I can't help but feel it doesn't help. I try to leave as much space between plants, to enable airflow and eradicate the build up of disease, I am giving them the room to grow - just as I stand away from my daughters and allow them to explore and grow without their embarrassing dad too close.

I will find different spaces within these protected environments for plants and seedlings with different needs. I am always attempting to 'read' what is going on and then act on those conclusions.

Past the danger of mice?
Out in the garden, I am doing similar work. Old bits of glazing go down on the soil, ready for sowing. This will warm the earth beneath, giving any subsequent sowings a better chance of 'getting away' - like baby turtles hurtling to the waves, so germination will be the first big test and I will be there to nurture and aid. We have mice at Pattendens too - and I don't like to put down poison, though I wouldn't be averse to a cat or two in this space. But I have to think differently if I want peas (and I do). It appears after a few years of wrestling with the problem of mice eating my peas before they get going, that the solution is to germinate them indoors and plant them as small plants. The pea before germination appears to be the treat - not the small plant (that appears to be pigeon fodder - but nothing a little chicken wire doesn't fix.) And the broad beans, whilst being a very easy baby, requiring little care and being happy plunged into cold Autumn soil, will turn into a gangly juvenile. Hazel coppice crafted into a support structure will protect these youths from getting too 'leggy' and the inevitable flopping, just like a drunk sixteen year old not understanding his limits.

It's useful, at least for me, to think like this when dealing with plants that we annually grow for crops - they require care and attention, and the inputs are pretty large. If we think like this it becomes less of a to do list and more natural. I have had clients and friends quite fairly say that the price of fruit and vegetables are so low, that it makes no sense to grow your own, and to an extent they are right - but that argument misses the main points. Yeah - its a hassle, if you're not naturally inclined to grow stuff (actually, I believe we are ALL naturally inclined - its just that we've forgotten over the centuries) and modern life gets in the way of nurturing something to fruition - there is often something that feels more urgent or important to do, and we have instant gratification everywhere. BUT if we swing the thinking around a little (or a lot) and looking after a tomato plant, or a row of spuds can be life changing. Bear with me.

The reason growing your own is so special is because it is not always easy. Like life itself, supporting a rubbish football team and going through adversity, you come through stronger, more philosophical and more able to deal with the future. You also learn how to grow good food, which is no small thing - especially in this uncertain world. Its a learning curve you will never master, you will be forever a student because for all the advice and books, and courses, and maybe even this blog, mistakes will be made. Anyone that says different is almost certainly fibbing. Growing food will always throw you a curve ball - because that's intrinsic in the nature. Its why commercial agriculture uses so many 'weapons' to curtail the chances of those curve balls - of course in the long term some might say those practices are storing up one whoopass problem in the not too distant future, but maybe that's for another day. The point is that growing food is an experience that can help the individual grow and heal. Nature can be read, and this is a intense course. The advantages of growing your own are actually infentissimal - its healthier both for you and the planet. Its also tastier. In the end it can be cheaper, though certainly not at first, but the real bonus is a connection with your piece of earth, and the mental gymnastics and common sense practised to perform to coax life and food from it. This allows philosophical thought and an escape from the vast amounts of bull shit that is heaped apon us every day. It connects us with the rythms of nature and unearths the meaning in things. It cuts through the noise, and creates peace. Of course that's until you get potato blight or Carrot root fly. Nobody said bringing up kids was easy!

Monday, 3 March 2014

A pragmatic approach

When you first learn about Permaculture, it can be pretty mind blowing, and when I finished the Permaculture Design Course it felt like I'd been broken down with the truth (scary), and rebuilt with the solutions (Amazing!).  Its a pretty intense experience. I think its the mixture of people, ideas, and knowledge, but underpinning it all is the fact that its just the beginning, and you return to the normal world a changed person, unleashed and brimming with enthusiasm. You start to see how badly designed most of our support systems are in every aspect apart from how they serve their owners. You begin to realise how unresiliant we are and how damaging lots of parts of our society are. It also teaches us in the same breath, how to undo many of these problems with the simplest of solutions. It took me many weeks after finishing to truly appreciate that the design principles and ethics are incredible, however underwhelming they may seem at first sight. In many ways this blog is me still wrestling with what I think and believe in light of this formative experience.

Cameron attempting to look, I think that's a mixture of macho and concern - who knows?

Every now and again we get a shock, like the bizarre weather that a lot of the world has been experiencing. Eventually a politician turns up to look to macho, thoughtful or worried (delete as appropriate) depending on what their spin doctor told them to look like. In the UK we had a lot of flooding, and entire counties cut off from the rest of the country. The problem is, politicians are not going to implement long term solutions because they operate within short term systems (elections every 5 years, the way we measure performance through GDP etc..). It feels like we are sleep walking into a worse world while simultaneously looking to the very people who sanctioned the problems to sort it out - kinda perverse eh?

And people do react to shocks like bizarre weather or catastrophe in different ways. Commonly people look to government to sort stuff out, angrily blaming and simultaneously asking for help. Looking forward, we often end up with polarisation of small minorities, with a large mass in the middle that keep with the status quo and struggle to take on board the problems we face. In many ways these patterns disempower people and keep the population dependent on the systems that cause the problems.

Its easy to see why you might not take these problems on board - its scary, for starters, its also not really encouraged. Corporations want you to buy their stuff, governments want you to pay your taxes and believe in them. If you carry out these tasks you are a good citizen, contributing to society, whether our society is doing the right thing or not. Thinking beyond earning money and materialism is often mocked and certainly undervalued.

Most marginal thinking is also heavily populated with a staggering array of opinion. Most of it is unpalatable to an ordinary, cocooned, western mind - when James Lovelock says we might as well not worry because global warming has already happened (and we are doomed) is just as unhelpful as a climate change denier like Lord Lawson (Holy Smokes, where do you start?) or an over zealous green activist who insists that we must never eat meat or drive a car. Add to this all the other clans and sects of alternative thinking and the piecemeal, confusing information channelled through the media, and its very, very tempting to ignore this stuff and return to the short term reward system that traditional consumerism and western society gives us.

But I like a bit of pragmatism, particularly the ethos that people like Larry Santoyo or Jack Spirko talk about. We build for a more resilient future, both personally and as a species not by expecting government to do something about it, neither turning from the world and systems you are in. Not by holing yourself up in a castle stacked to the eyeballs with canned food and enough ammo to hold off the zombie apocalypse. Not by withdrawing from society and living on beans, never driving a car and preaching from a pious position, but to take responsibility for yourself, for your food, energy and community by using the resources available and creating a position for ourselves where we are better able to cope with shocks, whatever they might be (more losing your job or getting sick than nuclear fallout). As a result, we could cut our dependency on the crooks and gangsters in government whilst we're at it. Lets not feed the illusion that they actually do anything for anybody other than themselves and their mates.

Spirko makes most sense when he begins to talk permaculture. It is the ultimate way of thinking when designing resilience, and the approach which Spirko and  Santoyo talk about is less pious and more practical - use all available renewable resources and design to maximise your resources available.

Because we have an opportunity. Oil will one day run out, but while we have it, maybe we should 'make our hand print larger than our foot print' (lets use oil - its a gift after all, but lets do good stuff with it) We could use these resources to make our futures more secure and resilient to crazy weather, energy and food shortages. We can terra form land to make it more productive. We can use our collective knowledge and wisdom to make our societies fairer. Its a bit of a journey that we need to make - the first part is for us to truly realise and understand that where we currently are - how we use the oil and the land and the food we have is unsustainable, (that's the scary part)- the second part entails the design of systems that build our resilience to an uncertain future - whether that is rising sea levels and snow in July, or breaking your leg and being unable to work. Its what I believe Permaculture is best at - designing our way back out of trouble, but lets not get wrapped up in extreme ideas, lets not panic, lets get pragmatic. And lets do it ourselves, now.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Rain,reflections, limitations and failure

I've found it tough to do all the things I've wanted to do this Winter while the rain hasn't stopped, but my ambition remains the same. This blog has been a great outlet to order and prioritise my ideas and thoughts. I knew I was taking on a lot, and I'm enjoying the ride, but there have definitely been some failures.

One of my projects was to create a rocket stove with my friend Scotty Garret and Bohemia dad (see links below for his blog). Its been ongoing, snatching pieces of time here and there, having a beer and tinkering while both sets of  kids play together, effectively cancelling each other out, a superb equation I never bore of.

Our 'almost' Rocket Stove

We've used tin cans as the feeder and chimney within a large tin, a wholesale can of cooking oil from the Chinese takeaway round the corner. The void is filled with a mix of clay and vermiculite. A contraption built almost entirely from recycled material. The theory being that if the chimney and feeder tube are the correct dimensions, then you can create a highly efficient  burn from a minimal amount of fuel (so many permaculture principles!). We have managed to create a burn somewhere on the range of 7 out of ten. Its not yet a rocket stove, which should produce a flame that looks like its coming out of the back of a - you guessed it - ROCKET! The flame is more akin to a intermittently fierce common garden fire. Tweaking and adding to the design is in progress, that's the joy of it, and its very clearly all about air flow. Where we are is a lot better than where we were Initially we had managed to create an exact opposite of a rocket stove, a structure which could put any fire out which was started within it, an anti rocket stove, a black hole, a fire extinguisher!

The first batch of beer didn't work. I had to go back to the home brew shop down on Norman road, and get more supplies. When I told the very nice lady what I'd done, she looked at me in the nicest possible way like I was the most useless berk in the world, I could read her mind ' Useless, just useless' as I regaled to her how I'd failed using a can't fail system.

I now know why though. And whilst the mixing and initial temperature control went well, the subsequent care (leaving it in the kitchen, the  coldest part of the house) meant that the fermentation process stalled. The next batch, one of the jobs for the weekend will be kept in a more central part of the house and will be wrapped in a special 'beer jacket' knitted by my mum (see left). I will give my beer the attention it deserves, just as I do any children or seedlings in my care That should do it, and if it doesn't, I'll be learning another lesson, so in a way, my methodology becomes 'win - win' (mental gymnastics people, I refuse to be too down on myself!)

What? I thought it was a boob tube!

Using a veggie box scheme was another eye opener. When you desperately want to support local businesses you can accept a premium on what you're paying for when you compare with supermarkets, because the point is to circulate money locally. When that price differential becomes so large that you are effectively doubling part of your food budget, it no longer fits into my aims for this project, which is to 'obtain  a yield'. The inputs to any system should be minimised, not maximised, and that can include money. I not only have a responsibility to my community, but also to my family, and how well we feed them. I am hopeful of using another supplier, better still, the food from the new supplier should be locally grown and far cheaper. This gives new challenges and opportunities, not only for me, but for Shell. Local food will dictate what we get, rather than simply picking what we want. Keeping us eating seasonally will improve diets, and it's my belief that the food delivers us what we need at specific parts of the year, but that's for another day

And I am simply not far on enough for my liking with the front and back yards. The planting of certain trees and shrubs is all very well and good, but the front still needs attention for the wall, and the build at the back is still to be started. I know what I want, but the limitations hold me back - namely, you guessed it, time (STOP. RAINING. PLEASE!), and money - inextricably linked, and even more so for someone with a day job like mine.

But I've laid the tiles down in the room designated to be a larder, with the help of my father in law Dave and it looks good. Its ok to let the wife know you want to better utilise the 'dumping ground', but it has to look pretty or you're not allowed to do it. Stylish AND functional. That's the key. The days are lengthening at pace now, and the local community is introducing me to new projects all the time. Its exciting when this type of thinking begins to spread, or more accurately, like minded people begin to connect, because they're inherent, these goals, its just that we've forgotten what we should be doing and it takes energy, time and guts to relearn this and reject the values fed to us all the time by most of the media.

We are all going to fail at times, but when the systems we are putting  in are aimed at unlinking ourselves from the treadmill culture of modern day western society, our aims and goals are so life changing it is important to stay the course. 'They', the media, the government, the top 1% don't want you to think like this. Far better to sate desire and control people through consumerism, but if we can begin to break their hold by taking responsibility for ourselves, and what we need, we can end up in a better place full of failure, learning and happiness. 

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Saving seeds

It is that time of year again, the rain has got even me feeling a bit down (serves me right for writing such a chipper mid January post). Living at the top of a hill has its benefits even if they seem distant when schlepping back from the pub, and I feel so sorry for those that got flooded out during the last few weeks and months because even without having your life turned upside down or indeed floating away, this weather has been thoroughly depressing.

A little respite from the rain (it does happen)

You can do little amidst these deluges to be honest. At work, out in the country, I had decided to throw the largely uncomposted material over the unmulched areas of the veggie garden as it appeared to me that it was getting a battering, I will be raking it back off anon, once the ordinary weather is back, and it'll go back into the large composting bins to complete its metamorphosis. I also spent a fair amount of time protecting plants from pests ( we have rabbits in these parts ) although in my experience they shelter as much as we do in this sort of weather, so damage seems to be down to a certain extent anyway.

The big job in January for me is getting some of the seeds going, and getting a head start. This means that there is more room available at a later date when the Spring really kicks in. The tomatoes ( 'Alicante', 'Gardeners Delight', 'Marmande', 'Ailsa Craig' ) all get sown in small pots, as do Aubergine 'Black Beauty',  Pepper 'Serrano', Pepper 'Corno Di Toro Rosso' and Melon 'Rugoso di Cosenza Giallo'. They will be pricked out and potted on when large enough - hopefully producing enough plants for myself and some friends. Also the potatoes have been selected and laid out to chit ('Maris Piper' and 'Nicola' so far, other varieties will be brought in)

The tomatoes could be sown later, there is no real benefit to the plants being sown this early and any later sowings will catch up, but it does free up time and space later on when things start to hot up. The trick is to keep potting on, any check in growth really seems to affect these crops, and you end up with unhappy stunted plants. The Melons, Peppers and Aubergines however, need a long growing season, and a warm start in a propagator so this is important or we may never get to fruition in its most literal sense. Last years 'non spring' meant that melon and pepper harvests were pitiful, even with a nice big polytunnel to play in and a hot Summer.

And I'm thankful that they need an early start, because when it doesn't stop raining and you feel like you haven't seen the sun for a couple of weeks it is the best thing to see, those green shoots and leaves emerging. It never loses its appeal, and its a fresh start, like a new exercise book, or a new term. Full of promise, a clean slate, hope, trepidation and something I'd recommend to anyone, period.

But the cool thing about seeds is you can save them.

I select in the main, open pollinated heritage varieties for my seed, these are the ones which can be saved with a degree of confidence. I bought some F1 varieties, where I felt choice was short or I wouldn't try to save seed from this year.

I am going to save seed from my Tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, Beans and Peas. I may do more - it depends on how much time I have, but I aim to do as much as I can. The squashes will be on my radar, but they are promiscuous and will need to be 'chaperoned', as will some of the Peppers ( pollination would have to be carried out by myself before any chance of random insect pollination ) Some of the carrots will be allowed to stay in the ground to run to seed in their second year.

Peas and beans were saved from last season, these are so easy I suggest everyone keeps some back at the end of the season. It is fool proof. Broad bean 'Aquadulce Claudia', Pea 'Lincoln' and Alderman', Runner bean 'Scarlet Emperor' and a French bean who's name escapes me reside in the shed awaiting warmer soils, or indeed are already in the ground producing young plants.

Not only will seed saving 'close the loop', but it begins a process which will produce plants with their roots (pun intended) in this piece of the earth. Because when the ancestry of a crop comes from the same piece of ground, it is there BECAUSE its predecessors flourished in this piece of ground. So instead of Runner Bean 'Scarlet Emperor' we now have East Sussex, Hastings, or indeed, Bohemia (yes I do live in Bohemia - cool eh?) 'Scarlet Emperor. And that seed, enough generations down will be genetically modified for this place.

If we select seed from the healthiest, most abundant plants, we will get healthier more abundant plants next year. We can, however also select for other reasons. Early cropping is helpful in most circumstances. Also size of fruits, colour etc... If we have pests, we can select plants that seem to cope best.

So I'm on the whole avoiding the F1 strains so that I can try and save as much seed as possible. Because if sowing the seed is one of the most hopeful things we can do, surely sowing our own, saved seed enhances that experience. We have ownership over the complete cycles and we can select for specific circumstances - how exciting and life affirming is that? I say its about as good as it gets.