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


  1. Awesome Hepp. So are you gonna dig that entire pond out by hand? That's a lot of hole diggin' therapy if that's the case.

    Great to hear about how well you scored on the Foxwood purchase. Seems you found the right place.

  2. Cheers! I reckon there are about 100 barrows of soil to get out of there. If I do 20 on each visit …

    A cheap form of therapy indeed - the only drawback being that I get showered in soil every time I raise the mattock above my head for the downward swing. This then goes down your back and gets in your underpants… I suggested digging the hole out naked - but my wife was worried about what the neighbours would think about me ;-)

  3. Hi Jason, looks like you are having a lot of fun, look forward to hearing how large a chestnut crop you get this autumn. Its a stroke of luck to have a forest that produces nuts as well as wood. If you have enough to sell I'll have a bag. I planted one sweet chestnut in Feb this year but not expecting any kind of crop for 5 years at least. You can't beat a few chestnuts around Xmas.

    Notice you are not growing 3 of my favourite veg which have the benefit of being easy to grow: broad beans, runner beans and leeks. Any reason or haven't you had time yet?

    For the soil down the back thing have you thought about an overall. In Lincs the 19th century landworkers used smocks that came down to the knees. Your wife might prefer to see you naked rather than wearing one of those ;-).

    Just as a matter of interest are people who bought surrounding woods to you of a like mind, any kind of nascent community feeling at all?

    1. Hi Phil, well to answer your question about the vegetables … the thing is, I have not been doing any planning at all! This has all been very ad hoc so far - in fact I just wanted to peel back a bit of turf and experiment to see what would grow there without any real help at all. I do like growing beans and leeks, and will do when the time is right. Really, I want to get some raised beds in, but am concentrating on the larger systems to start with.

      As for the chestnuts - well there are probably around 800 chestnut trees, so there should be a few nuts. BTW I read that you can get a few nuts even in the first year, and definitely the second. Maybe your wait won't be so long. You can have a bag of mine for sure :-)

      I'll, give the smock thing some consideration … perhaps easier is to stuff my tee shirt into the back of my trousers.

      Funny you should mention the neighbours - some folks have moved into the neighbouring bit of woodland - a young couple in a converted truck. This was only last week and I haven't had a chance to speak to them yet, but I see they are growing stuff and have made some bird feeders. I went round to say hello, but they were not in. A couple of days later I got a call from the agent who sold me the wood saying there wed reports of some people setting up a 'hippie commune'. Apparently one of the neighbours is outraged - presumably he feels that the new arrivals will reduce the value of his property and are probably work shy, drug smoking layabouts… plus ca change.

  4. Jason -

    Unless you're digging in soil with a high clay component, you'll definitely need to line the pond and, sorry to say, the way you're constructing your downslope berm will guarantee that it will leak since sod piled willy-nilly with roots in it will provide avenues for water to trickle through.

    Sod is probably o.k. if the berm has a solid clay core with the sod piled on both sides. As for the liner; consider using Bentonite. It's a natural clay powder that is used to seal small ponds (and some larger ones as well), is much less expensive than poly or rubber and, if properly installed, will outlast the latter two several times over.

    The unidentified plant covering the forest floor appears to be nettle, a very useful herb.

    1. clay is fine if you have enough collect water to keep it full, with clay you need at least 3 metres of bank to go one meter deep, with a liner you can have steeper sides, EPDM rubber liner is more expensive but unlike PVC it is low impact, recyclable and non toxic, if you want anything edible or garden mulch from the pond it really is necessary, pvc gives off dioxins, EPDM rubber should last 80 years

      for the plant, it's not nettle, I have a few types like that here, one with purple flowers, not sure what they are caled, not typically herbs as they don't have a fragrance, more a wild flower

    2. Cheers Martin, but I wouldn't even consider not using a pond liner. I have a sordid history of digging ponds whenever I come into contact with a piece of land. So far I have dug them in England, Denmark, Spain and Guatemala.

      As for the plants, they are definitely not nettles. The best guess I have had so far is that it is Dog's Mercury.

    3. Oops! Beg your pardon. Us old guys all too often fling out advice and observation where none is needed.

      I'll retreat back under my rock now....

  5. the pond will also produce biomass for mulching, high protein chicken/duck feed, fish in the water makes it a fertillizer, edible and medicinal plants, edible fish, it is never ending, really glad I did mine, the digging is hard work, mine was clay and stone, but well rewarding especially when it's hot and you get your feet in there :)

    something you should look at doing, and you can use the soil you remove for the pond, making swales for water retention, you can plan how the water crosses the land, where it gets held up and where it gets released, you can collect road water if you have a road higher than the land and if it is all there is, pass it by reed filled swales to purify it before you let it further down

    this year I'm hoping to be self sufficient in water for the garden

    1. I have considered swales … not sure they will work in my situation as the pond is already at the top of a slope. Maybe I'll dig another pond a bit lower down (strokes his chin in contemplation).

  6. For that pond liner, try an old billboard ad. I bought a 20x30 ft used billboard advertisement for $60, four years ago. It has not leaked yet (crossing my fingers), even though the pond has frozen pretty much solidly, the last three winters.

    1. That's a good tip, William. The only problem is, there are no billboards within 200 miles of me :-) You get a few in major cities, but generally over here we don't 'do' them. As a matter of fact, I think they are illegal.

      Someone recommended getting a cheap plastic paddling pool and using that. But then it's probably made with dodgy gene-changing chemicals - and I wouldn't want al my men-fish turning into lady-fish ...

  7. we used old carpet followed by EPDM for the ponds I helped with during the "Permaculture In Action" classes I attended last summer.