Coping with Climate Change

COPING WITH CLIMATE CHANGE

The UN Climate Change talks in Paris of 2015 have been and gone. I’m not sure how optimistic I was feeling leading up to the talks, knowing that in previous occasions, important agreements about CO2 emissions had not been made. But I was pleasantly surprised when they announced on 12 December that an ‘ambitious and balanced plan’ had been agreed upon by all the nations of the world, to keep global warning to well below 2 degrees C.

o-FRACKING-facebook-1However, the global pact made in Paris has been criticised for the fact that significant sections of the document are ‘promises’ or aims and not firm commitments by the countries.

We didn’t need to wait long to find very disappointing evidence that our own government does not take seriously the aims it signed up to in Paris. I thought it had to be a ridiculous joke when only a day or two later, our government announced that they had just made it legal to FRACK under our once protected and cherished national parks. I was outraged!! What kind of sick people are they? Can’t they see how incongruous this was in the wake of their Paris commitment (I mean ‘promise’) to lowering fossil fuel use? How can they think that expanding the Fracking industry in the UK will help us reach our targets of lower CO2 emissions?

Along with this announcement, the government also added they were cutting subsidies to the Solar Industry – cutting the feed-in tariff again, making a mockery of their pledge at the Paris talks, and effectively killing off a newly emerging industry built by honest hard working British entrepreneurs, that would make us less dependant on fossil fuels.

Not only this, they also announced that they were making a crazy agreement with China to let them build and maintain a nuclear power station on British soil. This decision is so misguided that our secret service admitted to some grave concerns about national security; having such potentially lethal technology under the control of a non-democratic regime puts our country at substantial security risk. Not only that, but if the government knows that sea level rise is inevitable due to global warming, as discussed in Paris, they should also know that our nuclear power stations, most of which are positioned by the sea, are increasingly vulnerable to any natural disasters such as storm surges. Just look at the mess at Fukushima! We should be shutting these lethal power stations down – not inviting the Chinese to build more!

I sometimes feel so angry and powerless in the face of such troubling and devastating decisions by our leaders. There’s only so many petitions you can sign (and see them ignored) before you have to find a way of coping with these often overwhelming feelings.

12274741_10153561422126622_54982780085087732_nI find the best way to deal with this feeling of overwhelm and lack of power is to find actions you can take that you DO have some control over. So in our new home we have developed the following 4 strategies:

1 Become less reliant on gas so that we are reducing our potential ‘support’ to the Fracking industry. We currently have a gas cooker and central heating, so we decided to install a wood burning stove in the living room (I’ll write more about the process and costing of this in my next blog).  This means we use a lot less central heating – just having it on for 1 hour twice a day to heat water and heat the upstairs. My husband also bought me a cast iron pan (as requested!) so I can now cook soups and stews on the burner, further reducing the need to use gas.

2 Installed solar panels so that we could become generators of electricity in the daytime, further reducing our dependence on utility companies. We have space for only 6 panels on our roof because we have a dormer window taking up a portion of our roof space. Because it is Winter (and a very dull one at that!) they have contributed a small amount of power towards our domestic use, but this certainly feels better than nothing, and will lower our electricity bills over the year.

3 Be more energy efficient. We had cavity wall insulation fitted so we’d need less fuel to heat our home. We also have an app which tells us how much power we are using at any given time, so we can be more aware of energy use.DSCN4239

4 Grow as many organic food/herbs/medicinal plants as possible in our garden. I have plans for the conservatory to be my first zone 0 garden where I’ll be growing micro-green and salads all year round, and tomatoes in the summer. In my front and back garden I’ll be growing a mixture of organic fruits, medicinal and culinary herbs, and veggies, in a forest garden style. This will reduce our dependance on food and medicines with a high carbon footprint. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in!

I’m sure you might have already thought of other strategies that I haven’t mentioned – do share them with me in the comments below or on Facebook here. Thank you!

Designing Zone Zero

DESIGNING ‘ZONE ZERO’

In permaculture, we ‘zone’ our lives from the centre outwards, the theory being that the zones nearest the middle are the ones we give most attention to, our homes being in the very centre of these zones is considered to be in zone 0. But it doesn’t always follow that your home is the place you give the most attention to; in our modern lives many people spend most of their time outside the home at work etc. so their homes don’t get very much attention. However in my own life, I spend a lot of time at home so it gets a lot of my attention.DSCN3754

The important thing about zoning is that it’s a tool to help you make best use of the space, so that it gives you the kind of yields that you require.P1010196P1010196

If it’s the first time you’ve heard of zoning then it’s probably easier to describe how it’s used in the garden. In zone 1 – the place that you visit or pass by every day, usually several times a day, you would place the things that you need to give the most attention. For example, I would place plants such as salads and strawberries in this zone so that as I pass by, I can casually check for slugs or pest attacks, while harvesting them little and often so I can make the most of their yield potential. I would place fruit trees in a further out zone such as zone 3 because I don’t need to give them so much attention – in fact they only need pruning once a year, and the occasional visit to harvest the fruits.

Back in my zone 0 I have been noticing how the house functions for me now that we’ve been living here for 4 months. I’ve noticed that the way the house is laid out downstairs is very compartmentalised and this is really not working for me. So I started with a bit of permaculture analysis in my book (see image) and this is what I came up with:

 

What’s not working for us:

P10304601 We have a hall that separates the living space from the kitchen space, which I find really annoying because every time we have a meal, I have to serve the food out of a little hatch and then walk all the way around – through the hall – to the dining space. These flows through the house aren’t working well.

2 We have an old conservatory which is presently full of clutter waiting to go into the new shed, and it feels like it cuts us off from the garden.

3 The carpet in the living space is being trashed by our new kittens who seem to have taken a like to pulling it up at the edges!

4 The kitchen is very small and a little bit dated so could do with an upgrade – and both doors open into it which makes it feel smaller still.

5 No overhead lighting in the living space.

6 We don’t like the UPVC front door – it’s just ugly but it functions well.

7 The hall is small with lack of storage for coats and shoes

12274741_10153561422126622_54982780085087732_n

Things that are working well for us:

1 We’ve installed our new Moreso 5Kw wood burner which makes evenings lovely and cosy. It means we use the gas central heating less, and I’ve also started cooking soups and stews on it, saving further gas use.

2 We’ve had the solar panels installed and we are already generating energy every day, even though it’s winter time. This will save us money on our electric bills and help towards using less fossil fuels.

3 We have enough space! After living in a tiny wooden house, it is pleasant and novel for us all to have our own rooms and shed spaces.

 

P1030035Having looked at the things that were working/not working for us, I then considered what we might do differently, which became the basis for a new permaculture design. Up until this point we’d been intending to remove the conservatory and build a new extension, so we could move the kitchen into that space, and create a bigger dining space with a utility space (and extra shower room) too. But my husband raised his concerns that this was ultimately going to cost us a lot of money, and would also cost us a lot in time and energy too (as well as environmental costs!). Making lots of decisions in a short space of time and having people you don’t know in your home for weeks can really take a lot out of you, especially when you have a chronic health condition like me. It would feel like we were ‘over-reaching’ in terms of health and money.

So using the permaculture principle of ‘the least change for the greatest effect’ I think we’ve come up with quite a good solution:

1 Use some of the money we’d put aside for the extension to pay off the mortgage, thus lightening the financial load, and use the rest of it to make the smaller changes we want to make to our existing layout.

2 Remove the hall wall – which is not load-bearing and something we could do ourselves – and move the sofa slightly so that we can easily walk from kitchen to dining area and to put pots of stew on the burner. P1030023

3 Get the house re-wired (needs doing) and improve the lighting and sockets downstairs.

4 Use the south-facing conservatory to grow food in and around, effectively bringing the garden right up to and inside the house so that it no longer feels cut off from the garden.

5 Change the internal kitchen door so that it opens outwards into the living space.

6 Upgrade the kitchen reusing some of the unit carcasses.

7 Create a new log storage and recycling area outside the backdoor.

8 Put down a new wooden floor all throughout the ground floor (kitten-proof!)

9 Improve the hall area with more storage and with a new wooden front door.

Besides the permaculture principle of ‘the least change for the greatest effect’ I’ll also be using the ‘reuse/repurpose/recycle/freecycle’ approach to the changes and upgrades, and I’ll be looking for new items that are made of natural materials and that don’t pollute the environment. Using permaculture tools this way, I can create a better home for myself and my family that gives us the ‘yield’ of comfort, nourishment and a space to unwind and enjoy each others’ company.

I am really looking forward to using the conservatory as a growing space – one I wasn’t initially planning to have. This will be so useful because I can raised many of the plants for the garden from seed, saving lots of money. It’s good to get zone 0 working for us so that when it comes to creating zones 1 and 2 in the garden, we have a good foundation to build from. I’m hoping to create a front and back garden full of medicinal herbs, flowers and edibles as well as fruit and veg – that will be the next design I do, so watch this space!

 

9 Permaculture Tips for Increasing your Garden Yield

9 PERMACULTURE TIPS FOR INCREASING YOUR GARDEN YIELD

Just imagine being able to step out of your back door each day to pick fresh strawberries and red currants to sprinkle on your breakfast, or to gather salads and edible flowers for a large salad lunch, or imagine being able to harvest fresh vegetables just a few paces from the kitchen door each evening to add to your supper. This is the lifestyle that I’d become accustomed to in my old house before we moved to a new town just 3 months ago. In our small garden  – just 30x25ft – we harvested a diverse range of fruits, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers (see below for a full list).

In order to get such an abundant and diverse yield from such a small space I applied some very helpful permaculture strategies.

1 Nourish your soilP1000584

It’s funny to think that despite all our human accomplishments we owe our existence to a six inch layer of topsoil (and the fact that it rains). Soil is everything; without it, we wouldn’t be able to grow the food we need, and a rich, fertile, and deep soil is the key to higher yields.

In my garden, in order to get a really deep soil, I created two 5x5ft raised beds using reclaimed scaffold planks to a height of about 2ft and placed them in the sunniest part of the garden. I filled them with a bottom layer of wood chip, then a mix of top soil and manure. Initially, the wood chip was only used to help build up the biomass (and it was just what we had to hand for free), but I later happily realised that as the wood chip broke down, the mycorrhizal fungi in the wood spread throughout the beds, transmitting nutrients to the roots of my vegetables as it went. This certainly helped to improve yield.

Once these beds were established, I never walked on the soil so that it didn’t become compacted, and I didn’t ever do any deep digging in it, to enable the worms and micro organisms to do their job in tunnelling and bringing air and nutrients to the plant roots. I also made my own compost from kitchen scraps and my own chickens’ manure, and used this compost as a mulch on the beds each Spring and Autumn. This way I could add nutrients to the soil on a regular basis to help keep up yields.

From these 2 modest sized beds I harvested a good yield of vegetables all year round to supplement our family meals.

2 Increase your surface areaDSCN4547

The shape of your beds can have an influence on yield. If your raised bed is more dome-shaped with sloping sides, you are effectively gaining more surface area for more growing crops in the same footprint. For example, if your bed is 5 ft wide across the base, it might give you a 6ft wide arch of soil. This also gives you the opportunity to create little micro-climates that favour certain crops, as some prefer areas that are shadier during the day, and others prefer warm sunny conditions.

When I had the opportunity to create a new bed in my garden, I chose to create a more dome-shaped bed, with old bits of chestnut on the edges to help contain the soil. Along the south facing edge I grew asparagus, on the northern edge I grew wild strawberries, and in the slightly domed middle, I grew annual crops such as chard, kale and beans.

The wild strawberries did particularly well, and were easy to pick as they leaned out into the path, and I remember enjoying good yields of chard and beetroot in Summer and kale through the Winter months. The asparagus was still quite immature when I moved away, so I cannot 100% sure that I would have had abundant yields from this crop, although even in it’s immature state (it was only 2years old) I did get a modest yield.

Another example of growing crops in domed beds is called ‘hugelkultur’, developed by Sepp Holzer, where fertility is increased with the piling up of large amounts of biomass, increasing surface area and yielding greatly in a relatively small space.

3 Tessellate your cropsDSCN3167

Traditionally, vegetable crops are grown in rows, but this does not make the best use of space. You don’t find any rows in nature, where to make maximum use of any bare ground that becomes free it fills the space with plants in a roughly tessellating pattern. So to mimic this and to get maximum yields, it’s best to stagger your plants by arranging them in triangle formations. For example when I plant out broad beans and the packet advises leaving 9 inches between plants, using a dibber, I mark out a triangle pattern with the corners 9 inches apart and plant each bean in the holes. This means you get around 10% more crop in the same amount of space.

I’ve also learned from experience not to pack my plants too tightly, as this can mean they have too much competition for nutrients to reach their full size, and makes them more susceptible to pests too.

4 Use your vertical space

In a natural forest you’ll find plants colonising all layers in a 3 dimensional space, all the way from the ground to the canopy. We can mimic this in the garden by ‘stacking’ crops in multiple layers, rather than in only one dimension as mono-cropping does. In my garden I used this principle in different ways:

In my raised beds, I trained vegetables such as beans, peas and cucumbers up poles or trellis so that I could squeeze even more lower growing veg such as chard, salads or beetroot in between.

In the rest of the garden I grew fruit trees, shrubs and climbers, mimicking a natural forest with it’s different layers. For example I had strawberries on the ground layer, currants and raspberries in the shrub layer, and apple and pear trees in the canopy. I also had wineberries, loganberries and bayberries trained up the fences, and I used hanging baskets and tall pots to grow strawberries in.

5 Discover your plant guildsDSCN3381

A ‘guild’ is a group of plants that benefit each other, and by planting them together you can save space and increase your yield. For example I used the classic Native American combination, the ‘three sisters’ in my garden; sweetcorn, climbing beans, and squash. The strong sweetcorn stalks provide support for the beans to climb, while the beans fix nitrogen into the soil providing greater nutrients, and the squash grows between them all, helping to keep moisture from evaporating from the soil and to suppress weeds. I also had nasturtium winding it’s way through the crop. You can find a useful guide for companion planting here. Other combinations I’ve tried:

*Climbing beans with nasturtium spreading across the ground between them, which helps attract black fly away from the beans.

*Sowing radish and parsnip together so that I can harvest the quick yielding radish before the parsnip gets going.

*Sowing blocks of carrots and onions together so that the onion smell deters the carrot fly.

*Creating a jumble of various herbs and veg together to create a Polyculture to confuse cabbage white butterflies and other pests.

6 Grow your crops in succession

With successional planting you can grow more than one crop in the same space over the course of a growing season. My experience of the UK climate (living in the South) showed that I was able to grow up to three different crops in a single area over the course of a year. For example I would start with an early crop of Purple Podded Peas, followed by a quick crop of Summer salads, then in Autumn I’d sow a crop of Broad Beans to overwinter.

The trick is to use fast maturing varieties, or sow lots of things in modules so that they are ready to go as soon as they are transplanted, and to replenish the soil after each crop is harvested with a fresh mulch of compost.

7 Extend your growing seasonP1000074

Getting to know your garden’s micro-climates helps you to find the best spots to grow crops for a longer growing season. I put my raised beds in the sunniest part of the garden so that it would warm up faster in Spring and stay warm for longer in Autumn.

Other ways to extend the season include using a cloche over your crops to create a more sheltered environment, and growing seedlings in modules on a windowsill or in a cold frame so that as soon as the weather is warm enough you can plant them out and grow them on quickly, ahead of those sown outdoors. Putting black plastic over the soil in nearly Spring helps the soil warm up quicker so that warmer loving crops do better, sooner. I didn’t have space for a polytunnel or greenhouse in my small garden, but one day I’d love to have one so I can extend the growing season even further.

It also helps to get to know your plants. I discovered that a variety of kale called Ragged Jack (also known as Red Russian) was an ideal crop to overwinter, and as soon as the days started to get a bit longer in the new year it would reward me with an abundance of new leaves and tasty flowering shoots, a bit like Purple Sprouting Broccoli. I also discovered a perennial broccoli which was very quick to produce white florets in early Spring.

Perennials are very useful in the garden because they yield greater quantities year on year, and are quick to get going early in the season. It’s always nice to harvest rhubarb and red currants, when other annual crops are still in their modules. Sorrel is useful perennial that I enjoyed harvesting for early salads. I would have liked to have Ransoms (wild garlic) growing under my fruit trees as they yield delicious leaves and flowers in early spring before the canopy closes, but alas I had no room. Perhaps I’ll try growing them in my new garden?

8 Get more value from your yieldDSCN4572

You can increase the value of your yield, by choosing to grow crops that are expensive to buy in the shops, such as organic asparagus, blueberries, potatoes and tomatoes, This means that each handful of crop that you harvest is worth more in terms of cash value, saving you more money in the shops – and there’s something rather satisfying about that!

It’s also rather satisfying to be able to harvest things super-fresh, such as salad leaves or raspberries that quickly deteriorate when bought in plastic packaging. And it’s hard to put a price on a prickly cucumber still warm from the sun, and a variety that isn’t even available in the supermarket.

9 The only limit to yield is your imagination

This is a permaculture principle that amuses me, and stretches my mind to see the garden as more than a set of crops to weigh out in the kitchen. Permaculturists tend to argue that there are other slightly less material yields to be found in the garden system. For example it’s hard to quantify the enjoyment I get from watching it grow and how this feeds my sense of wellbeing, or how it provides me with gentle exercise while enjoying the sound of birdsong, or how sharing a glut of courgettes can help build community relations! These can all be counted as a yield and I find it fun to think of life in this way.

Hey you gardeners out there – do you have any top tips  you can share? For more ideas and inspiration here’s a link to my Pinterest boards: ‘Edible Landscapes’ and ‘My Garden’.

EARTHSHIP facts or fiction?

EARTHSHIP FACTS OR FICTION?

From the first moment that I heard about Earthships I was hooked.

12191565_1237129539646796_8913156381656707250_nFifteen years ago in Brighton (UK), I went to a talk by Mike Reynolds, the father of Earthship building and experimentation. He outlined his dreams of making housing affordable, built from recycled materials, off grid for water and electricity, and capable of freeing you from the rat race of rents, mortgages and endless utility bills. I loved the dream and I wanted to see if it could come true. So I became part of a group called ‘The Low Carbon Trust’ who got planning permission from a very forward thinking local Council to build the first English Earthship in Brighton’s Stanmer Park.

As part of the build, I helped design and run training courses, to attract volunteers to help with the build and to also seed the inspiration and knowledge elsewhere. As I’d never physically been inside a working Earthship before, all my knowledge came from the Earthship manuals 1,2 and 3 written by Mike, as well as testimonies from people who had built and lived in them. These were the days before YouTube. There is a film about Mike and his Earthships, called Garbage Warrior which was made during that time.

So how does the Earthship at Brighton measure up to the dream as set out by Mike Reynolds? I stumbled across an article by Steven Bancarz about how awesome Earthships are, and it struck me that this was another person selling the dream of their potential – and a great dream that is – but how accurate is it?

1 Sustainable doesn’t mean primitive254365_10150203769536622_376520_n

Yes I agree that Earthships do represent a very sophisticated version of off grid living; they have functioning bathrooms with toilets and hot showers, a normal looking kitchen, doors and windows as you’d expect in an ordinary house. An Earthship is so named because it is an independent ‘vessel’ that provides for your needs without being connected to the grid for water and electricity, so in order to live comfortably within it, you need to be able to live within the limitations of what it can provide. For example in Winter in the UK you’d have plenty of water, but perhaps not so much electricity if the weather is cold, dull and still for days on end. It’s about adapting to live within those restrictions, which we are not used to. But it’s possible.

2 Free Food

This was something that got me really excited. How wonderful to be able to provide for your food needs from right inside your home! In permaculture terms, this means food production in zone 0 – how easy it would be to grab a few fresh tomatoes, herbs or bananas right in your kitchen while you are cooking! Alas we have never been able to pick bananas from our Brighton Earthship as yet – perhaps one day they’ll flower and go into fruit, but it’s not something you can rely on for a steady source of food. 12208635_1237129456313471_108324358208520923_nOther crops have proved more successful though; I think I’ve spotted tomatoes and peppers and aubergines in the Brighton Earthship’s greenhouse planter. Perhaps if it was someone’s home (the Brighton one is a demo building used for courses and an office), the planter would receive more intensive attention and the yield would be greater?

The article mentions a fish pond or chicken coop to provide a constant source of meat and eggs. I think the fishpond is possible, but I wouldn’t recommend living with chickens inside your house, with the smells they make (!) and possible cross-over of infections.

3 Brilliant Water Recycling

Yes this is truly inspirational. They collect rainwater run-off from the roof in large tanks, which goes through various filters to make it drinkable and usable for washing, then it’s reused again as it drains through into the grey water beds inside the earthship and is filtered by the plants growing in the planters, and this is fed to the toilet which is then flushed out into an outdoor reed bed (see the article for a diagram of what’s possible). 

In the UK we can become very complacent about water use especially when it’s raining buckets outside, but it’s madness that we use drinking water to flush our waste with! We could be collecting rainwater from our roofs and using that to flush with instead. We could be reusing our bath water for the garden too in dry weather. I am hoping that I might find a way to introduce some of these concepts into my own house.

4 Warmth and Shelter11168535_1237129639646786_1204656865278531198_n

The idea with Earthships is that they are built with rammed earth (into car tyres) which creates very dense walls, which are also partly submerged underground. This creates a very large area of ‘thermal mass’ inside the building, which functions like a battery, storing the excess heat generated during hot sunny days and slowly releasing it during colder nights and winter days. The theory is brilliant. In practice however I don’t think our Brighton Earthship performs as well as hoped.

 I’ve spent some rather cold winter afternoons in there when the weather was damp and dull, and nobody knew how to work the wood pellet stove. If I was to do it all over again I’d introduce a simple wood burning stove to top up the heat on such short dark days as we have here in the UK Winter. We also don’t generally have too many blisteringly hot days in Summer, but when we do, the thermal mass works a treat and it’s a rather pleasant cool temperature inside.

5 Energy

Through solar and wind, and a bank of batteries, the Earthship is designed for self sufficiency. Again the dull quiet UK Winters can hamper energy generation and restrict the amount of energy available. We’ve had days when we dare not turn on the lights until absolutely necessary!

6 Freedom

12193638_1237129556313461_4250887438037579118_nThis is the part of the dream that really excited me – no more utility bills! Yes that’s true and it is brilliant, but there are other limiting factors to consider if you are living off-grid. You have to live within the confines of how much energy and water you can generate/catch and store, and without the grid as back-up, if anything goes wrong you are on your own. For many this is preferable, especially if they have the skills to maintain their systems themselves, but I don’t think this is for me – I’d rather be a part of a supporting network.

7 Easy to build

I would argue that building an Earthship is far from ‘easy’. Have you ever pounded a tyre full of subsoil with a sledge hammer? I have. It takes 20-30 mins per tyre. And that’s on a good day when you are feeling fit. There are a hell of a lot of tyres in an Earthship and so it’s not something I could do now that I have health problems. But for young fit people, it is certainly doable.

8 Cheap

It is possible to build a very basic model of an Earthship hut for an affordable sum – if you have the land to build it on. I know Mike Reynold’s team does go to third world countries to build cheap shelters out of recycled materials for people who have been made homeless through various disasters. This is great. In my experience in Brighton, our project ran over budget and would not have been considered affordable despite the number of recycled materials used. I think it may have been due to the various systems bought from Mike’s Biotecture firm that are really prototypes and not easily and cheaply available here. I’m sure other members of the Low Carbon Trust could give more details on this – I don’t have the facts.

9 Made of recycled materials248305_10150203769686622_1073500_n

Tick. Yes I learned to build with glass bottles, plastic bottles, car tyres, old beer cans, and whatever else we could put to use – along with plenty of concrete. I remember at the time someone asking ‘Do the buried car tyres create any off-gassing?’ and being reassured by Mike’s team that this was not the case – the tyres are sealed inside the walls. However as the years have slipped by, I am questioning this again myself and so I had a look online and found this article; apparently they don’t leach enough substances to be worried about. It certainly puts to good use something that’s a real waste problem.

10 Think different

The final point made is a good one. Yes being part of the Brighton Earthship project definitely helped me to think differently about the way we live, and how we could make our living systems more sustainable. It introduced me to permaculture, and taught me about creating looped systems so that we create no waste. 

P1010142Being a part of the Earthship Brighton project undoubtably set a course for my life that has taken me on a particular path every since; searching for ways to attain the dream that was sold to me. I’ve lived in a passive solar timber house with a wood burner for 12 years in a housing co-op, and now I’m retro-fitting my own brick house using some of the same principles that I learned back then, but instead of being off-grid we’ll be working out how to manage this while remaining part of the grid and becoming ‘prosumers’ (consumers and energy providers).

I’d love to hear of your own experiences of eco-building and Earthship building – or whether you agree or disagree with my own comments about them.

 

GARDEN DESIGN step1

GARDEN DESIGN STEP 1

In any good permaculture design, the very first step is always the SURVEY;  it makes good sense to be making good observations first, before jumping in and imposing your design ideas onto a space, otherwise you might make costly mistakes that you regret later. So this blog today is about my observations so far.

My new house has a front and back garden, and so far I’ve observed it from early June and around the Summer Solstice, past the Autumn equinox and into late October.P1030025

 

FRONT GARDEN

At the front we have something that used to be a rockery; a north facing slope in a shady position, full of rocks and overgrown with grass. It only gets direct sunlight in early morning and in the evening in the summer months, while the rest of the time it only gets reflected light – as the sunshine bounces off the white terrace opposite us. It is exposed to the cold north-easterly winds in Winter, and during Altlantic weather coming in from the south-west, although it’s partly sheltered by the houses and the trees behind us, it is rather exposed to the wind rushing up the street.

On the other side of the steps leading up to our front door with have an overgrown boarder containing a rose bush, and a shrub with variegated leaves, with a ground cover layer of some kind of spreading plant that I am yet to identify – I doubt it’s edible otherwise I’d probably recognise it!

 

Winterbourne garden 1BACK GARDEN

At the back we have a good aspect – south facing garden – but positioned on a north facing slope, and it is also overhung by trees. We’ve now been able to view the local Council’s plans to do maintenance work to the trees ,and we have realised that they will not be cutting any of the trees at the end of our garden. We were slightly disappointed that there would be no improvement to the light levels in our garden, but this means that at least we now know what we are dealing with!

We have observed that during south-westerly winds (that can be damaging) the trees do a great job of protecting our garden, and now as the Autumn plods on, the leaves are beginning to fall and the sun is shining through the branches. The garden still gets no direct sunlight, but sunshine does bounce off the house. During mid summer we observed that the sun gets high enough each morning to rise above the canopy and shine in the part of the garden that is nearest the house, and the rest gets direct sunlight all afternoon.

From these observations I now know that I need to be thinking about creating a garden that contains plants that love dappled and reflected light, and plants that don’t mind getting no direct sunlight all Winter. This is a completely new kind of garden from the one I had to work with in my old place, where I had a south facing garden that received direct sunshine every day of the year. I’ve had to do some research – and I was pleasantly surprised at the long list of plants that would be happy in my new garden. Here’s what I found:

EDIBLES FOR DEEP SHADE:DSCN5418

Mushrooms
Alpine strawberries
Mint
Hostas
Giant bellflower

EDIBLES FOR PARTIAL SHADE (dappled or bright indirect sunlight):

Asparagus
Bay
Beans
Beets
Blackberries (and all the other bramble berries) can be invasive
Black currants
Blueberries
Broccoli
Brussels sprouts
Carrots
Cauliflower
Celery – especially in areas with hot dry summers
Chard
Chinese cabbage
Chives & chinese chives
Cooking greens (collards, mustard greens, kale, pak choi)
Coriander
Cress
Cucumbers
Elderberry
Garlic
Giant bellflower (Campanula latifolia)
Gooseberry
Grapes
Horseradish (particularly good when planted under fruit trees because it repels fruit tree pests)
Kale
Leeks
Lettuce
Lovage
Micro greens (eg pea or fava bean shoots)
Mizuna
Musk mallow
Mustard Giant Red/Green in the Snow
Onions
Parsley
Parsnips
Pear (Conference)
Peas
Peppers (take longer to ripen)
Potatoes
Radishes
Raspberry (Autumn varieties)
Red Currants
Rhubarb
Roses (particularly Rosa rugosa, which has several shade tolerant varieties)
Salad greens (lettuce, spinach, wild rocket, endive, cress)
Spinach – especially in areas with hot dry summers
Spinach Beet
Strawberry (fruit may be smaller and not as brightly colored)
Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata)
Sweet potatoes
Wild Rocket
Wild garlic (Ransoms)
Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum)

I am also researching which medicinal plants I might be able to grow in my garden, as I use herbs to help me control some of the symptoms of Lupus. I’m also researching and recapping my ideas and knowledge about creating my garden with the no-dig method. I found some really helpful websites and blogs which I have added to my Facebook page here. Some of the best ones were:

LIVING WITH THE LAND PART5 – NO-DIG GARDENING (video)

HOW TO START A NO-DIG VEGETABLE GARDEN

WHAT TO GROW IN THE SHADY BIT

GROWING IN PARTIAL SHADE

5 ANTI-INFLAMMATORY HERBS IN YOUR BACK YARD

WHAT YOU CAN GROW IN SHADY SPACES

Do let me know if there’s anything you’ve grown successfully in similar conditions that you think should be on my shady list! Any advice and tips are welcome.

New Home: New Design!

NEW HOME: NEW DESIGN!

We’re now all moved into our new house at last, a semi-detached brick house in Sussex, in the south of the UK. It’s so lovely to be here, right at the start of such a big creative project! We have lots of exciting plans and ideas for our new house and garden.P1030025

The first step in any good permaculture design is the SURVEY. This means that the first step in applying permaculture to our lives is to make detailed observations. So in practice, we are currently observing and noticing where there can be room for improvement in energy efficiency of the house, and outputs of the garden. For example, we take note of how much sun hits the garden and house and for how long, and at which times of day. This provides us with important data so that we can use it to make good design decisions later.

Some of the first observations were made early on, before we even moved in. We noticed from the EPC (energy performance certificate) that the house had lots of scope for improvement in energy performance. It did have loft insulation – the loft had been recently converted – but it had no cavity wall insulation at all. So that was first on our list. P1030020We also had noticed that although the back garden faces south, it is also on a north facing slope and is overshadowed by huge trees on the bank behind the garden. This means that the house may not get much solar gain (passive heat from the sun) especially on the ground floor, where the living room also has a large north window, and therefore it’s even more important to save as much heat as possible with good insulation.

It was very easy arranging the cavity wall insulation. All it took was a phone call to a local company called Downs Energy, and a man came round very promptly to give us a quote. The following week we had cavity wall insulationwinterbourne garden 2 – just like that! We are already noticing the difference in temperature. We also noticed that the roof get’s a lot of direct sunlight all day, and has scope for solar. We need to investigate this option further. This photo below was taken at around 4.30pm.

The aspect of the garden – with it’s north facing slope and overhanging trees – means that although it is south facing, it doesn’t currently get any direct sunlight we noticed, after the Autumn Equinox. The local council have notified us that these trees will be trimmed over the next few months, which will make a huge difference, but how much of a difference, we don’t yet know. So this means that it’s hard to plan for what we might plant in the garden at this stage. But whatever happens, I am sure that I’ll be needing to learn how to Winterbourne garden 1grow things in a shadier and cooler micro-climate than the one I’ve been used to for the past 12 years! I’ll be writing some future blogs specifically about the garden because that’ll be of interest to people who have similar aspect problems.

I think this house refurb and garden design is going to be an interesting journey, and I hope that you’ll be able to relate to the challenges I face. You probably have lots of tips to share with me too. If you want to follow my blog, please do by clicking on the ‘follow’ button on the bottom right of the screen and you’ll be first to know every time I post a new blog. And do check out my Facebook page here too if you fancy!

 

 

On the move

ON THE MOVE

I haven’t written much of my blog this year because I’ve been so tied up with searching for a new place to live. We’ve lived in a housing co-op for 12 years now and it’s time to move on. garden1I’m sure I will reflect back on my experiences of living in a co-operative community as time goes on in future blogs, when I can look back with some perspective, but for now, I am looking to the future.

My garden has been such a special place for me over the years, to learn and grow in my experience of applied permaculture design. I will be sad to say goodbye in some ways, but I am excited about the prospect of starting a new creative project in a new house, where we will have full autonomy over decision making. Since January I’ve been saving plants from my old garden by putting them into pots ready to transfer to my new place. In this picture of the pots; I’ve saved a wild strawberry, chinese chives, sweet ciceley, and I was given a new lavender, and in the back of the picture with the large leaves is an avocado plant that my kids foundgarden2 in the compost heap and repotted to take with us.

I’ve been really quite ill this year and so apart from potting up the odd plant, I’ve really neglected the garden. I just haven’t had the energy to go out there and weed, cut the small amount of grass we have, and tend the fruits of my labour. But, this is where permaculture is really cool; the design was for an extremely low maintenance ‘food forest’ that I could neglect if necessary, and still maintain a growing yield, and this is what I have! So long as I’m prepared to squeeze myself around the overgrown paths and plants, I can still find plenty to harvest; raspberries, wild strawberries, day lilies, sorrel, and even asparagus earlier in the summer. The apple trees are laden with apples this year – more than ever in fact. That’s the wonder of perennial fruits and vegetables, they just keep coming, and they increase in yield year upon year.garden3

Our new house has lots of potential for improvement; there is a chimney in the living room in which we hope to install a wood burning stove. There is a south facing roof that we hope to get a quote for solar for and we plan to improve the energy efficiency of the house with cavity wall insulation. We have plans for an open plan ground floor with an extension, so along with interior redecoration and garden design (including a large shed we’re planning to build out of recycled materials), this is going be a really interesting creative project.

I plan to find time amongst it all to blog about it so I can share our journey with you – watch this space!

Urban community gardening

URBAN COMMUNITY GARDENING

On my journey into town and back, I pass a new urban community garden. B-UpzzNCSi6qYaMaWGrUf5Gh8IlCUG7p8zRddFvdsN0It sprung up as if overnight (but I’m sure it was probably longer!) but what I loved about it is that this garden used to be a road!

It is situated at the entrance to Cleveland Road in Brighton near Fiveways. Like many other road entrances in our area, which were far too large to be safe for pedestrians to cross, it has been narrowed, with the addition of a fantastic new garden for local residence to grow food in.

The sign reads:

“Welcome to Stanford and Cleveland community garden. This community garden is run entirely by volunteers. It was opened in June 2013. UVZrL83UzENqxZJ47I3uD1l1kL9gk5gj-Sq8L4xZTx4It is a garden chosen by local residents, run by local residents and visitors. We grow fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers.

If you’d like to know more about us or are interested in helping, please drop us an email to stanfordgarden@yahoo.co.uk or visit our Facebook page ‘Stanford Avenue Community Garden’. Find us on twitter @StanfordCommGdn ”

I just can’t help getting excited about seeing such a beautifully laid out food garden right in the middle of an urban area. Over the summer in 2014 I took a few pictures as I passed by.biAtOb3f9135e5euklMpitrzmb1w_enqBtCCUN98WNk

The sunflowers were amazing – so huge-  and I had to stop and look every time I was passing! There was sweetcorn, runner beans, leeks, herbs, chard, tomatoes and salad greens aplenty.

I love the way they’ve sneaked in a couple of fruit trees, and raspberries run all along one edge while strawberries line the edge of one of the paths. A nice design for easy pickings!

The last time I passed by this winter I noticed a beautiful new mosaic sign had been erected. The living willow arch is now dormant, the leeks are large and are being harvested, and the rainbow chard is standing tall and beautiful. Food growing certainly can be very beautiful and it really improves the local environment.

WZ1_5aH6Y0lia_NIwDGRwadrzTsQjKVwcOdbDZSsTBkI would love to see more urban community gardens springing up all over the city, as well as people using their front gardens to grow food in and share surpluses with their neighbours. We wouldn’t have food poverty in a world that grew food like this. Vancouver has got it right – they are encouraging urban food growing all over their city, and it’s very inspiring. Watch a little film about it here.

Are there any community gardens near where you live? I’d love to see your pictures – do share them on my Facebook page.

Defining ‘Permanence’

DEFINING ‘PERMANENCE’

The word “Permaculture” originally came from the merging of two words: permanent agriculture. This was later updated to ‘permanent culture’. So what does ‘permanence’ actually mean?

When Permaculturists use the word ‘Permanence’, they may be talking about something very different  from the same word used in the context of Western Culture.

In our Industrial Growth culture, we are living under many illusions of permanence. Firstly we are told to assume that our current culture must continue, and then we are told that our wealth can only be defined in terms of continuous growth of our economies, whatever the cost. natural patterns1And even though we are living in the midst of life-threatening climate change that demands us to change our energy habits, the industrial machine continues on, as if we can -and must- maintain the same level of ‘normal’. This is clearly a kind of madness.

When we observe nature we find that there is a different kind of permanence; a perpetual cycle of growth, decay and renewal. Working with and understanding nature’s patterns offers us a far stronger grounding in reality than anything else. There is no illusion here.

My father has just passed away, and so this whole concept of life, death and renewal has had a keen impact on me over the past few weeks. In the week that I spent most of my time by my father’s bedside, listening to his laboured breathing, I’d take a little bit of time out for myself and go and stand by a tree near my house. It is a giant old Ash, one side of it is completely dead, and is home to fungi, millions of insects and several woodpecker holes. On it’s other side it still has a few living branches. natural patterns3It gave me refuge during a time of watching my father’s life ebb away; it told me “here I stand, bridging the worlds of life and death; all is in it’s right place.”

All things arise and pass away. This is the natural law on planet earth. So how do we as permaculturists use this law to create ‘permanent culture’? In the context of natural law, we need to develop systems that follow self-perpetuating cycles of growth and renewal.

A woodland will remain in a stable state if it’s natural systems of growth and renewal are allowed to take their natural course and it receives the same inputs of light and water. Saplings grow to fill a gap in the canopy, then mature and fill the gap, they become part of the canopy before eventually dying and falling to the ground and becoming food for millions of organisms that feed the soil, and allowing space for new life to emerge and to repeat the cycle.

In the garden we can mimic this model by growing annuals in succession so that we have a continuous supply of a variety of crops. natural patterns2We can also plant perennial food plants that take up a more permanent residence, using their leaves and cuttings to create mulch and compost to build the soil. This establishes a stable productive system with minimal inputs from us. On a bigger scale, agroforestry mimics this to create a different, more sustainable way of mixed farming that includes animals and food crops in rotation, with stands of permanent tree crops.

In our human systems we can also replicate this model. A housing co-op can also stay in a stable state if it too receives the same inputs of time and energy from it’s members. New members join to fill a vacancy, bringing with them fresh ideas and enthusiasm, then mature into long-standing members with varied responsibilities, eventually deciding to leave if new opportunities arise or if they tire of meetings and have lost enthusiasm, making space for a new member to come and fill their space and renew the cycle.natural patterns4

Can you think of any more examples where we can implement this concept in our current culture? What would politics look like? What about energy and transport? How can we imagine ourselves a better future? Please do leave a comment here or on my Facebook page. And you can subscribe to my blogs by clicking on the ‘follow’ tab at the bottom of this page on the right >>>

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Diversity

CELEBRATING DIVERSITY

Yesterday I went to the cinema to watch a film called INTERSTELLAR. I really enjoyed going to space for nearly three hours, but I felt very uneasy about the premise of the film plot; in the near future we’d have a food crisis on planet Earth and the human race would need to leave the planet. cornIn the film, these future people were hungry and desperate as the monocultural food crop staples such as potatoes and wheat, one by one succumbed to blight, and they are left with only one viable crop to subsist on; a type of corn (or sweetcorn as we say in the UK).

Now I can see that could be a future world for us if Monsanto have their way, and insist on buying all the patents for seed, so that farmers globally are no longer able to plant a diversity of crops. We all know what happened in the potato famine in Ireland, when an entire nation depended on one staple crop which succumbed to blight. Let’s not let this be our future.

The future I’m going to want to live in will be based on Diversity.

I’ve been involved in a debate on Facebook recently sparked by an article that Maddy Harland wrote titled ‘Veganism and Permaculture?’, where she expresses her reasons why as a meat eater, she is promoting Graham Barnett’s new book ‘Veganism and Permaculture’. As you can imagine, passions ran high on the subject. There was a lot of arguments against meat eating based on the premise that we can’t feed the world on the current rate of meat consumption, which I would totally agree with – the current industrial meat production model is bonkers and utterly unsustainable.

I would also add that our current method of plant-based food production is also just as bonkers – just check out this article here about how it’s now standard practice to douse crops such as wheat in Roundup before harvesting. This means that most wheat products such as bread, are saturated with this poisonous chemical when eaten, adding to the health problems of our Western world, particularly autoimmune diseases. rainbow crops

But there is no need to despair. As permaculturists, we know that Plan A is going to fail, and so we are already planning what Plan B will look like -and it will be based on diversity. There are lots of permaculturists all over the world creating a Plan B, from Geoff Lawton’s visits to small scale sustainable farms here and here, to community gardens here and creating an oasis out of the desert here. There are so many more if you look on my Facebook page here.

In 2013 the UN published a report that declared that small scale organic farming was the only way to feed the world. We know that diversity holds the key to a healthy system.

rainbow chardDiversity of crops ensures that if one variety fails, we have others to turn to. This includes diversity of species and also diversity of genetics within one crop family.

An awareness of the diversity of micro-climates and soils ensures that each crop is grown in a spot that it is uniquely suited to. This means that local knowledge goes a long way to safeguarding our seed for the future.

The respect for a diversity of beliefs and ideas will ensure that a huge variety of food growing systems is implemented all over the planet. Imagine a world where one valley specialising in vegan food production, with small farms using a sophisticated system of legumes, humanure and composting to build soils, while in the neighbouring valley, other small scale farmers use animal rotation in their system for building soils and providing a small scale of meat production. The possibilities are endless, and will provide healthy good food for our growing population, that also caters for a diversity of tastes and diet preferences.Rainbow veg

In terms of health I am learning that the diversity of colours that we eat greatly enhances health, according to Dr Deanna Minich. This is because each colour of vegetable contains different phytonutrients, therefore the greater diversity of colours that we eat, the better balance of nutrients we will ingest. Ideally we would be eating a rainbow of vegetables every day.

The concept of diversity holds the key to a resilient future. It is the lesson that we learn from observing nature, where diversity is it’s strength, and we can become healthy resilient people by applying this wisdom to our own lives.

 

 

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