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.