Monday, September 30, 2013

Autumnal Musings

Autumn has arrived at Fox Wood bringing with it cooler and wetter weather and causing all sorts of life forms to die off and others to emerge out of the moist soil.

I've been quite busy over the summer, travelling around Europe and moving house, so the amount of time I have been able to dedicate to Fox Wood has not been as much as I would have liked. Even the pond is starting to put on a new green growth.

Down in the forest, things are emerging from the ground, like these puff balls.

That's not the only type of fungus to emerge - plenty of these are growing in the field …

The wood is quiet and misty, like somewhere from another time.

It won't be quiet for long, in a couple of months I'll be coming in with my chainsaw to coppice the first half acre in a 12 years rotation cycle. Don't worry, the trees will grow back, and it is good for the wildlife.

I found this bottle. A badger must have dug it up and left it lying around in the wood. It was covered in soil and must be at least 100 years old. Inside it a small plant has started to grow. It's a message from the past.

The reason for my last visit was to collect berries. Because of the rampant growth of brambles we have thousands - millions probably - of blackberries this year. Some of them ended up in a pie last night.

There are also sloes aplenty. They have now been popped into a gin bottle with some sugar. By Christmas I'll have a bottle of sloe gin.

Autumn is a time of plenty. I haven't had any fruit from the young trees this year, but it will take them a while to get established. Perhaps next year I will get some. Unfortunately some of them have been attacked by rabbits. This is the peach tree.

The other trees are doing well. This one is a carob tree that I grew from a seed I picked up in Spain. I don't know if it will survive the winter, but it is doing okay for now.

Plenty of other trees are being planted too. I'm starting an oak nursery and aim to plant 500 a year. These are the first few, but the acorns won't be ready for another couple of weeks.

It's another use for the soil I'm digging out of the pond. As for the field itself, you might remember it was covered in thistles for most of the year. This proved to be a hit with the local bee and butterfly populations, with masses of each getting nectar from the thistle flowers. Now, however, the thistles have died off and I have cut them down to the ground. They are making an unusual mulch.

The chestnut trees are laden with nuts. They look to be pretty healthy …

And the silage plastic I laid down is doing its job of killing off the grass in readiness for next year's initial planting of ground cover - one of the first steps in turning this field into an edible forest. It doesn't look pretty … but it will do!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Can you dig it?

The basic shape of the pond

I figured out a while ago that if I was going to be growing produce in our field then I would need a source of irrigation water. I looked into the cost of getting a bore hole drilled, and although it would be in the region of a couple of thousand pounds (just for the hole, without any pumping equipment) I figured it was a necessary expense.

Then I read Joel Salatin's book, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, and changed my mind about drilling down into rocks that, naturally, should act as a sealed off water source. After all, water is one thing that we don't lack in these increasingly soggy isles. And so I decided to dig a pond.

It would have to be quite big. And going by the permaculture principle of trying to find at least three uses for everything, I realised that installing a pond would provide the following:

  • Irrigation water for the fruit trees, poly tunnel and flowers
  • A source of drinking water for local wildlife
  • Fish 
  • A place for ducks to live (on a little island) which will eat the slugs 
  • An added feature to increase the biodiversity and somewhere that threatened newts can call home
  • A source of drinking water for humans (although it would need purifying first)
Six uses was good enough for me to justify hiring some earth moving plant … but the recent rains had made the access track muddy and I had no idea how to get it up there … and so I started digging by hand. Freelance work is taking a bit of a holiday at the moment, so I had a week and a spade and a mattock - what more did I need?

I had also planned to build the retaining wall out of local stone. Again, I would need to spend money on buying rocks, getting a cement mixer and a generator and some bags of cement. But as I started digging it made sense to pile up the sod into a retaining bank. I'm making it good and thick, and will plant things in it so the roots hold it together (once the vegetation has rotted and the whole thing has settled down and compacted). This pond keeps getting cheaper and cheaper!

Alas, I can't see any way round buying a decent pond liner, but so be it. The plan is to construct a wood store with a sloping roof right above the pond area (you don't need planning permission for a building with no walls - see picture below for what I'm planning), which will catch the water and replenish the pond. It rains pretty much all year round here, so I don't anticipate there being any problems. Given that the land is all sloping, the poly tunnel and fruit trees are down the hill a bit - and a cast iron Victorian hand-cranked pump I bought on eBay will get the water flowing when needed.

I'm hoping to build something like this one, which is at the Eden Project

Aside from digging the pond I have been clearing brambles with a sickle, and mulching around the trees.

My method is to raid the local cardboard recycling banks at Tesco and spread them out on the ground around the trees. Underneath the cardboard is all the kitchen waste and scraps that I can accumulate. On top of the cardboard I'm spreading a load of sticks and then piling on soil (full of worms) from the pond basin. The result is a kind of mini hugel bed mulch which is spreading slowly but surely and should be ready next year for planting up with some ground nitrogen-fixing plants, such as clover and strawberries.

Under the one above is a slimy mush of coffee grounds, fish heads, mouldy rice pudding, vegetable peelings, tea bags and curry. I have temporarily given up on my wormery because of the swarm of fruit flies it is producing (which fly into neighbour's windows). So this is the new method of 'disposing of' organic waste.

The rest of the field has become a forest of thistles - some as tall as me. As such it has become a wildlife haven, with thousands of bees and butterflies swarming all over it. I was recently asked if I'd be interested in having somebody else's bee hives up there, but on balance I'm going to say no. Honey bees are economic producers and I'm not overly concerned with their welfare. Wild bees, such as the many different species of bumble bee, are severely threatened and yet hardly anyone is talking about them - even though they may be acting as keystone species. That's why Fox Wood will remain a wild bee zone.

The vegetable patch

This is continuing to expand, as you can see above. Whenever I have some spare cash in my pocket I buy another 10m of chicken wire and strip back another patch of turf. I'm digging them over and adding rock dust, which is apparently an organic fertiliser (and an impulse buy!). I now have growing:

  • Regular peas
  • Chick peas
  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Purple sprouting broccoli
  • Kale
  • Garlic
  • Chilli peppers
  • Red sweet peppers
  • Gooseberries
  • Blackberries
  • Another kind of berry whose name I can't remember (said to be a 'super berry'!)
  • Pumpkins
  • Lettuce
  • Sweetcorn
  • Strawberries
  • Figs
  • Rhubarb
  • Artichokes
  • Guji berries
There was also a melon plant, but slugs ate it. 

An embryonic peach

Down in the forest …

The chestnut trees are planted in rows to make harvesting easier

I have had some very welcome news! I invited Greg from Future Tracks to come and visit for a morning and assess what I had. Greg is a proper woodlander, a skilled coppice and greenwood worker who also runs survival courses and is a green building builder (more on that later).

When Greg and I walked around the forest it's fair to say that his mouth fell open in something like reverential awe. My inexpert opinion of the wood was that it was 'okay' but Greg seemed to think I had wildly underestimated its potential. Whoever planted up the wood, he said, clearly knew what they were doing. This is what I learned that day:

  • I have a perfectly planted and spaced wood that is 90% chestnut, and 10% oak and hazel, with a few ash trees
  • The chestnut wood is highly prized locally for things such as fence posts and building. It is a hardwood that contains tannins, stopping it from rotting when placed in the ground, and vastly superior to the cheap imported wood (often from China and the tropics) which has flooded the UK in recent decades and is now falling to bits having proved to be a false economy.
  • The trees are perfectly placed for easy cutting and extraction. When one is cut down, four new ones will replace it within a decade.
  • There is a long row of huge poplars which will need to be taken out a couple at a time to permit the chestnut to be felled. This will need to be done by a tree surgeon, but the size of the trees mean they will be worth a good sum.
He outlined a plan for coppicing and will help me during my first season of work (next winter). The wood will be divided up into 12 zones of a half acre each, starting at the eastern end and working west. Each year one zone will be worked and the felled trees dragged out by local shire horses and stored in the woodshed for curing. The cut zone will then be fenced off from deer while the new shoots form, and we can expect to see a profusion of wildlife take over as long dormant seeds on  the forest floor germinate, attracting many rare butterflies and birds. I will then return to this zone in 12 years, when the  carefully managed shoots will have grown into 20 foot high trees, and the whole things starts again.

Greg also had some other money-making ideas for me. He suggested being an oak tree farmer! Well, this certainly appeals to my Druid soul, the idea of collecting and germinating hundreds of acorns each year and then selling them on after two or three years. The same could be done with the chestnuts - that is the ones that I don't sell to the local shops during harvest time in the autumn.

The forest floor is currently covered in this … not sure what it is

Elderflowers, growing in one of the darkest recesses of the woodland which I plan to turn into ...

Wine! This is my first attempt at making my own wine. Here is my rhubarb wine, and also a strawberry one, which is fermenting merrily

Hogweed unfurling

The row of poplars, probably planted originally to protect the young forest from stiff southwesterly winds

A passage of oaks which I rescued from encroaching brambles. The oaks, I now realise, lead one down into the forest, beckoning to the curious 

This was our Christmas tree that was in our flat in Denmark for three years. It seemed to die when planted out, but magically came back to life recently. 

That's all from Fox Wood for now - happy Solstice everyone!

A stone circle not too far from Fox Wood

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Earth Restoration Operative in Action

It's a funny thing to note that six months ago I was spending an unhealthy amount of time both reading and writing about peak oil, climate change and the catabolic collapse of industrial civilisation, and yet now that I've actually started to take some kind of action I barely have time for either.

Summer seems to have come in Cornwall, like someone flicking a switch. One day it was cold and wet, the next it was burning sun - and it has stayed that way for the last ten days. I have been spending my days lugging wheelbarrows full of rocks, digging holes, cutting wood and clearing brambles, to say the least.

I've been thinking a lot more deeply about how this patch of land can work as a permaculture project. It's evolving slowly, which is how it should do. My aim is to vastly improve the biodiversity and soil quality of this patch of land that has somehow fallen under the orbit of my control, and at the same time manage the surrounding woodland in a sustainable way. By synchronising with nature's rhythms and listening to the land I hope to be able to create a harmonious place that is a refuge from the industrially ravaged land that surrounds it, perhaps providing a place of resilience for my family and valued friends in the process.

Although I'm still doing some copywriting and translation work to keep financially afloat, I am able to spend at least three days a week working on the land. The last two weekends we have stayed in the caravan and the children are getting attuned to living without TVs, iPads and all the other things that 21st century kids are supposed to crave.

Here's a bit of an update of sorts of what is going on at Fox Wood.

A friend with a 4WD camper van managed to drag our caravan up onto the land. He'd just spent the morning in public dressed in a biohazard suit and clenched in a giant metal fist as a protest against Monanto, so his help was doubly-appreciated.
Sofia demonstrates how the compost latrine works. It's a bit basic … but it's okay until I build a proper compost toilet.
Another friend had a couple of willows that needed a home. Here's one of them  I planted. I have placed it close to where I am planning to dig out the large pond, as willows are water-lovers. Because they grow so quickly they will be a good resource for making things. I'm planning to plant a couple of dozen more.
The thistles that are covering the pasture land are starting to flower beautifully. As I mentioned before, I'm letting them thrive for the first year - they are one way that the land is re-generating as minerals are brought up from the subsoil. The flowers provide food for bees and the thorns keep the rabbits away. Later, they will make green mulch when I mow them down in the autumn.

I have cut an access path through them using a miniature hand-held scythe. I want to leave the roots intact - they make excellent channels for the roots of beneficial plant species as they rot down.

I also cleared a fairly dense patch of brambles, revealing four young chestnut trees. Plenty of scratches to show for my efforts!

One of the apple trees I planted. In total I have put in ten fruit trees this year and they are all doing well now the chill winds have died down.

The ground is now covered in buttercups. Beautiful, but also poisonous.

The enemy - creeping brambles coming up under the ground. I've been busy with  the shears but may have to employ a pig or two in the long term.

The self-fertile almond tree. In the background you can see my rhubarb slug-protection teepee.

This is the inconspicuous entrance to the five-acre wood, which slopes down steeply towards a river bed.

Down in the wood, everything is in leaf. Some finches have taken residence in that box and there are chicks in there.

The bracken is … prolific.

This is an ash tree. Nobody knows how long it will take before ash dieback disease spreads to Cornwall, but for now the tree is in rude health.

Back out of the woods again, this pea is literally the first food I am likely to eat from this land. 

The track leading onto the land needed a bit of upgrading. Rather than buying in gravel, I'm putting down barrows full of rocky solid from the potato farmer's field.

The track is rich in wildflowers.

A bit more domestic - I found this antique pewter tea pot in a junk shop in Copenhagen. The bottom is corroded and full of holes, making it an excellent place to grow a gaud.

All food waste from home goes into the wormery. When the trays are half-way decomposed I dig a hole next to a tree and put it in, worms and all. I'm improving the humous gradually, and the tree roots have something to feed on as it decomposes. The worms have babies in the other trays and the population remains about the same.

Zone 1.

I have not really started on the large-scale mulching yet but this is a start. This peace tree has home-made compost underneath the cardboard. Grass impairs the growth of young trees - eventually there will be no grass at all - just shrubs, trees and mulch.

Sunburned me.

I've come to the conclusion that I need to hire some earth moving equipment to dig out the pond, level the terrace for the poly tunnel and make the ground around the caravan level enough for an awning. Did I mention the hugel beds?

My new chainsaw arrives in the post tomorrow. Good job as the fridge is full of mushroom spores that need fresh hardwood logs to impregnate … I never thought I'd be into fungiculture, but here I am - life is strange.