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.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

All change!

We have had some good news, no, some wonderful news. Shell is expecting again, and the over whelming emotion is excitement and hope, at least for the grown up members in the Furmston clan. When the girls were told, on an exciting trip up to the smoke to see cousins and the best of friends, the reaction was unexpected and turned the mood. Choice extracts from the reaction include uncontrollable sobbing, shouts of 'Prove It!', 'Be UN pregnant!', 'I wished you'd never told us' and subsequently whenever their mum eats, 'I suppose that's for the baby' before huffing off. Anyway - after a tirade of abuse, hysterics and uncontrolled crying, they whimpered themselves to sleep and we just don't really talk about it. It turns out  that they like it the way it is. Bet and Daisy really are great mates, and they, incredibly quickly worked out that this unexpected happening (believe me it was unexpected) was going to change stuff. The baby is going to take up our time, mess up and try to eat their toys, and just change the balance of the relationships. They're right of course, but its amazing how raw and honest and quick the thinking was. We can learn a lot from the honesty of small children it seems.
When a grown up thinks about a baby we often think positively about it. A child's reaction is almost more realistic. Untarnished by romantic thinking, it comes down to the nuts and bolts of it, and while neither way of looking at it is necessarily correct, both aspects have their merits and points. Who can blame them, I didn't think I could love another child the way I loved Betty, and I was in my early thirties! Obviously I was wrong, and it appears experience can help us envisage the future.

It makes you reflect, this sort of news. Luckily for us its a nice,  exciting bit of news, but we need to start getting systems in place to cope with a new arrival. All of a sudden there's an urgency to getting the larder finished, so that the space is utilised better (the  amount of stuff a baby needs is NOT FUNNY!), the kitchen gets its subsequent makeover and I can preserve and ferment away in relative peace, making the most of any garden harvest. The fruit trees have been planted, and now Blackcurrant 'Ebony' and Redcurrant 'Rovada'  go in alongside them. It doesn't look like much now, but we build in layers.

 The beginnings of a food forest - 2 layers in.

The weather has stopped me getting the shack up and running, but I am on high alert for any dry weather. This feels like the most wishful of thinking at the moment, but the shack is key, for storage, growing, a work space, and an escape (especially if its ANOTHER girl!)

The house is big enough to take students for the next year or so, which has been an essential part of our finances for the past few years, so we will try to maximise this on the lead up to our new arrival. This is possibly the most time sensitive aspect of our financial design, and I always liked doing it because the largest expense we have ( the house) has a chance to pay us back.

We have been trying to pay off our credit cards to the detriment of holidays and treats. We will redouble those efforts in an attempt to rid ourselves of this debt by the due date. The less pressure there is on finances the better.

And a new kid, one that is bound to wake up in the middle of the night is going to be tiring. I have decided to do more fitness work, as well as the on going pursuit of a healthier diet that gives me more energy. Its hard waking in the night and then putting in a physical day so this is an important plank of the design.

In many ways, the pregnancy has come at a good time, the period of time it takes to 'cook' the bubba means we are not going on any crazy jaunts, and the nesting instinct goes naturally hand in hand with our designs for the house, garden and life.

So just as we put in systems and tools to help with the onset of Spring, where experience tells us its going to be busy, we need to do the same with our 'invisible systems'. There will be increased pressure on resources, energy and time, and in this calm before the storm, it makes sense to use time and energy to get ahead of the game. We put in frames to stop the Broad beans (Aqualdulce Claudia since you asked) from flopping, and we do so using hazel coppice from mere metres away. Using available resources whenever possible is paramount to permaculture design.

Broad beans beneath support

We improve and protect the soil now, just as we aim to get fitter and healthier to cope with increased stress. Improving resilience.

We prune back hard to cope with Winter and prepare for Spring, just as we minimise our financial exposure  to shelter us from hard times and give us a means to invest and grow when the time comes.

And in this crazy, surprising, and very often, beautiful world it's nice to have something to look forward to, with trepidation, hope, and most of all happiness. Whether the kids agree with me or not!

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Produce no waste

Produce no waste, another, you guessed it, permaculture principle, and a key part of any design.

Its so easy in the UK to 'deal with' waste - some blokes come and take it away and put it into a hole in the ground that people rarely see or feel compelled to think about. I'm guessing this might change at some point, as land becomes scarcer and money becomes an issue, but for now its easy to not care.

There are loads of ways I want to bring this principle into our home; buying less, taking less things to the dump, making do and mending, up cycling and recycling and preserving and fermenting. Often it is hard, with small children wanting the latest Skylander or Moshi Monster - and I don't want them to grow up feeling resentful about my decisions or lifestyle choices. As a dad I believe my first responsibility is to make sure my kids grow up understanding these issues without being scarred by 'their weird dad' - this  is a war of attrition, they will be subverted, they just wont know about it.

If, when we design our systems, we take this principle into account, often our design pattern becomes cyclical.  Loads of the systems we rely upon are linear; stuff gets dug up from the ground, fuel is burnt transporting and manufacturing it into something to be consumed, and it ends up back in the ground in wholly unusable form often damaging the environment and the soil we rely on. Worst still our very economies are measured on this model of consumerism. Short sighted and dangerous, I say, but very difficult to change.

So I do what I can.

Having cycles within design systems curtails the weaknesses that linear and short term thinking present us with, and when we look at systems within the natural world it is suddenly obvious that  nature is the ultimate designer (evolution over millions of years is probably something we should pay attention to) and to attempt to emulate, or even improve upon these designs is the cleverest thing we can do.

Composting is awesome - here is why:

When something dies in a natural system, there are a ton of ways in which that animal or plant matter will be broken down into something useful for another organism. The process is initiated by detritivores or scavengers that specialise in carrion.  Stuff is then broken down into smaller and smaller pieces by woodlice, worms etc..., and we end up with bacteria, mychorrhizal fungi and nematodes creating a soil so complex, life sustaining and important that I'm not even going to pretend that I understand it.
So here's a nice picture!

Soil science is vast - but in a nutshell it supports life as we know it, sequesters carbon and is far more complex than we ever thought.

So, when you start to think about it, is really important, like life sustaining important, and deserves more respect than it generally gets. Its called dirt, right? Worms are not for nice little girls, but horrible boys, yeah? Beetles and bugs are squashed underfoot by the unenlightened and poo, don't get me started! but all of these things are vital, and I would venture, as close to fundamental as we can get.

We are also (sighs) losing topsoil at an alarming rate.
Conventional agriculture encourages the depletion of topsoil.  The United States alone loses almost 3 tons of topsoil per acre per year and one inch of topsoil can take 500 years to form naturally. On current trends, the world has about 60 years of topsoil left. Modern agriculture ploughs the earth into submission and then adds fertiliser derived from oil extracting activity to give it some oomph.

After this our crops are often heavily treated with pesticides and fungicides in order to deal with the problems that arise largely due to the fact that we tend to grow monocultures on such an industrial level. So we try to alleviate at least our pressure on the system by growing our own and using compost in a no dig system.

Composting mimics natural processes in an accelerated fashion if done correctly. To take the waste from the kitchen and the garden and create a life rich soil with it is nothing short of godly. When you realise that the soil is a living, breathing organism, rich with life on a scale as mind boggling as the stars above you, it is no wonder gardening has the ability to rehabilitate and heal. The first building block to the gardener, it is the very foundation which supports life, both on our little plot, and in our wider world.  Adding compost to the earth protects and nourishes the soil. It allows the soil to take what it needs, just as would happen in a forest environment as leaf  litter falls to the floor.  Even better, it is just about the easiest thing you can do - it happens on its own, stuff breaks down with or without you, and while understanding carbon to nitrogen ratios is helpful, it is not essential.

One of my first lessons in growing was how to double dig. It is useful, to break up compacted soils at the beginning of a growing process on a new plot of land, but as a permaculturalist, we learn that digging should be used sparingly, bisecting earth worms and destroying mycorrhizal strands, as well as exposing beneficial micro organisms to the surface harm the complex communities that we are only beginning to discover. It is clear, however that there is a web of life within the soil, and the soil that produces he most life is the soil most full of life. Mulching with organic matter is in my mind a wholly good thing. The blanket of a mulch is the end of a process that is in equal measure both amazingly simple and amazingly complex. It is the end of the line for what goes in, and the beginning for what comes out. A perfect cycle.