I can smell autumn dancing in the breeze, the sweet chill of pumpkin and crisp sunburnt leaves.
What a surprise to wake to the sound of wind rattling around the eaves and a cool, fresh breeze blowing through the bedroom. Wind is a rarity here at the best of times but seems especially strange after the long, still, sleepy days of summer. Autumn usually creeps and sidles in so softly and slowly we barely notice but this year it has come knocking loudly on the door, all bluster and blow. Time to pull on my boots, get out there and revel in the change. 🙂
How different the morning light is already, the mountain tops in the distance sunlit as I start my walk but so much of the valley still cloaked in shadow. It’s cooler, too, with a new scent to the air: not the dank, dark mushroom smell of death and decay that will come later, but a deeper, earthier tone than of late, something that seems to reflect the subtle shift of colours in the landscape.
I’m not a fan of high winds, they can be disturbing and bring damage and destruction in their wake. A fresh breeze is another matter, though; there is something very energising about it, a sense of vitality and vibrant action that I love. There is mesmerising movement in the trees, a rippling dance shimmying through the undergrowth, a noisy, bustling, chaotic joie de vivre that makes me smile and quicken my pace. The equinox is behind us and yes, we have tipped beyond that point of balance but it is certainly not all gloom and doom and darkness: there is still plenty of joyful living to be done!
As a teacher, I was always aware that a windswept playtime would more often that not be followed by an unsettled session with fidgety, high-spirited, bright-eyed children; to be sure, it wasn’t ideal if there was serious work to be done, but in a way I used to feel there was something healthy and wholesome about the electric charge crackiling and fizzing through the classroom on windy days. It does us no harm to stir the pot occasionally, to shake everything up like a giant snowglobe and let it all settle into a different pattern. It’s what fuels creativity and innovation and stops us stagnating or becoming too predictable and set in our ways. Perhaps, childlike, we should all go out on a windy day and dance with the trees?
Autumn is generally associated with a carnival of colour but the days of bright fire are still some way off; the landscape here is still predominantly lush and green, yet walking through the woods, there are little hints and subtle touches that speak of what’s to come.
As the woodland path starts to drop towards the river, there is a more open space where I often saw roe deer grazing in late spring and early summer this year. When we first moved here, this steep slope had been recently harvested, and the landscape still bore fresh and ugly scars to show where towering eucalyptus had been felled and carted away to be pulped into toilet paper. It has been left to regenerate naturally and although the eucalyptus has come back (of course it has, try stopping it), there are plenty of young native trees in there, too, including birch, oak, cherry, holly and chestnut.
It has been a fascinating process to watch ~ proper rewilding in action, I suppose ~ and I love the eclectic colourful mix of the understorey. In spring it bristles with the white spires of asphodel, in early summer it is a sumptuous purple haze of bee-ridden foxgloves but at this time of year, the gorse is centre stage, all bright sunshine and coconut perfume.
In fact, there is still a wealth of wild flora available to those who feed on it; this season’s preferred colour combinaton is most definitely yellow and purple.
From colour to touch, and at this time of year I find I am drawn more than ever to textures with a deep, atavistic need to reach out and explore with my fingertips. From the bright, brittle symmetry of fern to the soft floaty fluff of seedheads, the jagged layers of a rock fall or perfect dome of a captured raindrop, the pompom flowers and glassy leaves of ivy and a dizzying choice of tree barks . . . I am in tactile heaven!
I’d hoped to find an interesting selection of fungi but they were very thin on the ground. Perhaps it’s still a little early but I did at least manage to spot a few, even if they weren’t the most inspiring.
One thing there is no shortage of is chestnuts. They are everywhere and it’s a dangerous business wandering about under the trees, especially in a wind, believe me; I can categorically state that being chestnut bombed is not a pleasant experience! They are a wonderful food, though, and a handful cooked with squash from the garden and a selection of warming spices makes a dish that is just perfect for the season.
So, like the circle of the seasons and the year, I came full circle back to our home, hair in a wind-teased tangle and cheeks feeling warmed and kissed by the busy breeze. The sun had climbed from behind the mountain, flooding the valley with light once again and the promise of a lovely day. There is still so much abundant growth, so much lush verdancy and it will be with us for some time to come. I’ve enjoyed my little taste of early autumn, the chance to blow the cobwebs out and waken my senses to the season, the change in the air . . . but I’m still enjoying the summery things, too, so let’s not rush! 🙂
I feel a deep sense of gratitude for my food every day but at this time of year, when we are surrounded by such abundance, it seems even more pertinent. It isn’t just that we are spoilt for choice when it comes to fresh foods from the garden but also the fact that we are able to process and store so much of nature’s bounty to sustain us through the colder, darker months ~ and that is a very wonderful thing.
As soon as the squash plants start climbing through the walnut trees and endangering the local sheep by hurling themselves down the mountainside at great speed, we know it must be time to start the annual harvest. It’s not easy to capture the steepness of the orchard on camera but Operation Squash Salvage is definitely a two-person job which generally sees Roger slithering and sliding about on the slope, wielding a knife and trying to stop the squash from escaping once cut while I meet him halfway down the slope to collect the prizes and pile them into the wheelbarrow (oh, and do useful things like take photos, too).
I love cleaning the squash up and laying them out in the yard for their first drying session; in a few days’ time, I will carry them up to the horreo balcony where they can ripen slowly in the autumn sunshine over the next few weeks before moving into their winter store. This is just the beginning: there are still plenty more to come but already I find myself enthralled by this year’s array.
The three blue-skinned ‘Crown Prince’ ( at the front of the photo) and all the butternuts were grown from commercial F1 seed but the rest all came from seed saved from a single squash we grew last year . . . and that in turn had been grown from seed saved in the same way from the year before. I find it endlessly fascinating that so many different types can come from the same fruit, such an incredible diversity of genes from the open-pollinated varieties we have grown in recent years. Last year, every single squash had firm, orange flesh, great flavour and made excellent eating; they kept brilliantly, too (we ate the last one in May) so fingers crossed, those traits have been passed down to their mongrel offspring.
The squash will form a large part of our winter diet but there will be plenty of other things on offer, too. We have a terrace full of Jerusalem artichokes and a good row of parsnips, both of which make great starchy comfort food, while in the main patch a selection of different kales will provide a reliable source of greens.
Rainbow chard (or leaf beet) grows pretty much as a perpetual crop here; the stalks and mature leaves giving us a useful and versatile vegetable and we can pick the baby leaves all through winter for salads. The plants suffered a bit in the last hot dry spell of weather but I’ve cut back the tired foliage and they are already putting on vigorous new growth.
Actually, despite the season and the shortening of the days as we head towards the equinox, there is still a tremendous feeling of growth and abundance everywhere around our patch and it never fails to amaze me just how much food it is possible to yield from a relatively small space. The terrace in the main garden would probably amuse many ‘expert’ gardeners, given that its shallow width only allows for the shortest of rows . . . but currently there are several varieties of lettuce, land cress, rocket, spring onions, purslane, calendula, nasturtiums, Florence fennel, cabbages and leeks all flourishing cheek by jowl and promising good food for several months to come.
Earlier this year, we created a mini hugel bed for the tomatoes in their blight-free shelter and we have certainly enjoyed the best ever crop this season; all that chopping of wood and carting of compost was well worth the effort and once the plants have finished this year, I shall be topping it up with another dollop of good organic matter.
The tomato crop is slowing down now but we are still enjoying plenty of summer on our plate. The tunnel is literally heaving with peppers and aubergines and also the best melon crop ever (their fruity perfume greets us at the door), while outside the globe artichokes have produced a bonus crop.
We are not self-sufficient by any means (and we’re not trying to be); in order to produce all our own food, we would need to keep livestock and grow grains to mill for flour, as well as find homegrown alternatives for the luxuries like tea, coffee and olive oil that we enjoy. However, there is something very satisfying and downright joyful about gathering the bulk of every meal from the garden. I’m still enjoying my ‘fruit burst’ breakfast; the figs are cropping very early this year and so heavily that we can’t hope to keep on top of them, but we’re trying our best. I feel like a monkey in a David Attenborough documentary, reaching up with expectant paws to pluck sweet fruits from the heavily laden branches.
For lunch, there are plenty of goodies on offer from the ‘salad bar’: romaine, cos and oak-leaved lettuce, baby chard and beet leaves, land cress, rocket, baby nasturtium leaves, purslane, spring onions, celery, peppers and cucumbers along with a wide range of herbs and edible flowers.
We’re not vegetarians but we eat (and love!) a lot of vegetarian meals; it makes perfect sense when we have so many wonderful ingredients to hand. One of our favourite dishes is roasted aubergines stuffed with quinoa (or bulgar wheat, pearl barley, rice or whatever grain is to hand), lentils, garlic, chilli and preserved lemons with natural yogurt. To accompany that this week, we made a vegetable ‘hash’ from courgette, peppers, French beans and New Zealand spinach. The courgette in the picture was really verging on the baby marrow but the beauty of ‘Black Beauty’ is that it stays firm and flavoursome even at that size. The beans are the fifth crop we’ve grown this year and are as tender and delicious as the first one, while the New Zealand spinach is creating a wonderful sprawl of succulent groundcover and proving itself a real winner in the kitchen. Mmm, not missing the meat! 🙂
I do enjoy a bit of foraging for wild food, too, and we’ve recently had a real treat in the shape of a bowl of blackberries. I realise that probably sounds a tad tame but the fact is, this is not berry country and despite having oodles of brambles with pink flowers full of pollinators every year, the fruits are either tiny and dry or non-existent. This season, though, has brought us treasure, and while I realise they don’t look too spectacular in the photo, they were totally scrummy cooked with pears and topped with an oaty, walnutty crumble. The polite way to eat that, of course, is as a hot pudding but I prefer it cold for breakfast with a dollop of yogurt. Well, why not? It’s a tasty, nutritious and sustaining start to the day . . . there is most definitely life beyond cornflakes!
It would be easy to become complacent with all this wonderful food to hand but we have been doing a fair bit of experimenting lately, both in the garden and kitchen. We usually sow a row of overwintering peas in November and then make further sowings in spring but beyond June, mildew becomes too much of an issue to make it worth growing more. This year, we’ve decided to try a very late sowing out of interest and there is a promising little row of new plants bombing up their sticks. We’ve also planted pointy (summer) cabbage to try for an autumn crop and they are looking very fine and beginning to heart up nicely. I noticed a while ago that where I have cut lettuce and (very lazily) left the stalks in the ground, lots of new lush growth has sprung up so I’m wondering if this would be a more sustainable approach in future, rather than growing endless successions throughout the summer?
It’s early days in my fermentation career and so far the results have been mixed. The sauerkraut was a complete revelation and instantly converted me from someone who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole to a crazy woman now willing those cabbage to get going so I can make some more. On the flipside, fermented cucumbers and courgettes made a promising start but quickly deteriorated into a foul-smelling, slimy mess fit only for the compost heap. However, I am not a quitter by nature and having been encouraged by my fermentation guru (you know who you are! 🙂 ) to try with grated courgettes rather than sticks, I’m having another crack at it. So, far, so good; the jar is bubbling away like an Icelandic mudpool and smells very fresh and fragrant. Just a few more days to go before the moment of truth . . .
Something else I’ve been experimenting with is making cottage cheese to go with those lunchtime salads. I would love to be able to buy fresh milk for making yogurt and cheese straight from the producer in refillable bulk containers but unfortunately, I haven’t managed to crack that one yet. We usually buy whole milk but having read in several places that any fat from the cream would end up in the whey, I plumped for a litre of semi-skimmed; the only other ingredient was the juice from one lemon. The process couldn’t have been simpler: I warmed the milk and lemon juice slowly over a low heat, stirring occasionally, and turned the heat off once it boiled. I left it to stand for a few minutes, then poured the whole lot into muslin over a bowl to separate the curds and whey, squeezing the muslin ‘bag’ to remove as much moisture as possible. Job done! In truth, this isn’t really what I know as cottage cheese (which is made using rennet) but more like a ricotta or paneer; I had read several criticisms of it being dry and tasteless, requiring the addition of cream and lots of flavourings to make it palatable, but I didn’t find that at all. It had a very fresh, clean, slightly lemony flavour and needed just a tiny sprinkle of sea salt, although I can see that some chopped fresh herbs would make a tasty addition. One litre of milk yielded 150g of cheese and 850ml of whey, a nutrient-rich liquid which is perfect for bread making. It was a lovely exercise . . . maybe we should have a house cow, after all? 🙂
Next experiment in the kitchen laboratory: fig jam! Of course, having a productive veggie patch isn’t just all about the harvesting, we do have to spend a certain amount of time looking after everything, not least the soil. I’m a bit of an obsessive when it comes to feeding the soil and the circle of the year sees well-rotted manure, homemade compost, green manures and green mulches being used on a rolling basis. I’ve been clearing a patch for winter salads in the tunnel this week where I’ve been trying a no-dig approach for the last couple of years, simply piling manure and compost on to the surface. I used a hand fork to lift a few oxalis seeds but otherwise just pulled the other weeds plus lemon balm and nasturtium volunteers and chopped them to use as a mulch between plants elsewhere, then sowed with a mix of lettuce, oriental leaves, chard and rocket. I’ve been making good use of the very prolific beds of comfrey scattered around the patch, too.
I regularly add chopped leaves to my comfrey tea bucket ~ this patch has been cut five times this year and seems to grow back overnight! The resulting potion is foul-smelling but to me it’s a black gold, making a wonderful feed when for everything in the garden when diluted in water, whether growing in pots or in the ground.
I also use comfrey leaves as a mulch, chopped and placed in a thick layer directly on the soil and this week, I’ve been tucking a decent blanket of it around the purple sprouting broccoli plants on the terrace above the squash garden. Broccoli is one of our favourite staple crops and we usually enjoy a prolonged harvest stretching from January to May, but I have to admit it is a bit of a high maintenance character in our little corner of Asturias. It doesn’t enjoy hot, dry spells so we have been hauling cans of water a fair bit over the summer to keep it happy. It also attracts a plethora of pests and a constant bombardment from flea beetle, whitefly, slugs, snails and caterpillars means we have to be very vigilant gardeners, checking every single leaf every couple of days to remove the little critters. By this time of year, the worst is over and the plants have started to romp away; as they spend a long time in the ground ~ almost twelve months, in fact ~ I felt it was time to give them a bit of a boost. The terrace was planted with a green manure cover crop of Hungarian grazing rye and vetch last winter, then topped with well-rotted manure. I’m hoping the comfrey mulch will provide a natural slow-release fertiliser to see the plants through the autumn . . . now the only problem I have is the blackbird population scratching it and scattering it in their morning hunt for food!
Finally ~ and just to prove it’s not all about food ~ an interesting little story from the world of flowers. For reasons I have never been able to pin down, I have struggled to grow French marigolds every year here which is disappointing because they are such an excellent and beneficial companion plant as well as very pretty, a great food source for pollinators and a useful natural dyestuff. I love them but they just don’t want to grow; germination is scanty to say the least, even using fresh seed, and most of the seedlings fail to thrive. Given how I used to end up in trouble for the jungle of volunteers that popped up in our less-than-tropical tunnel in upland Wales, I can’t for the life of me understand why they don’t self-set readily around the patch. It’s all a bit of a mystery. Anyway, thankful for the tiniest crumb, I was thrilled to find a single late volunteer hiding beneath the cucumbers which has grown to bush proportions in recent weeks and has just started to bloom.
Here’s the incredible thing: it has produced four totally different blooms all on one plant in a way I have never seen on French marigolds before. Maybe it’s taking those mongrel squash on at their own game? I don’t know, but it was certainly well worth the wait! 🙂
Change is in the air. It’s still summer, still shorts and sandals and bright blue skies and warm sunshine but there is a new softness to it all, a smudging at the edges of each day which hints at seasonal change. Mornings, creeping in a little later now, are fresh and beautiful with surfaces flaunting mosaics of dew and whispers of mist threading the valley. The swallows are still here, swooping and spiralling on practised wings, but their days in our skies are numbered. I shall miss them once they’ve gone, as I always do, but there is sweet solace in the robin’s autumnal song, serenading me as I eat my al fresco breakfast.
I love these quiet, treasured times outdoors, breathing deeply and watching nature as it goes about its business, and the importance and relevance of such observations brings me back to the topic of permaculture. Fear not, I have no intention of turning my blog into Permaculture Central. Why would I? It’s just one philosophy, a single strand in my life which is woven from many colourful threads, all of which I love to include in my ramblings and musings. However, I’m hoping that readers will forgive me just this once for indulging in a sequel to my last post where I announced that I had embarked on the year-long #free permaculture course.
Week 4 and I’m still going strong. 🙂 I am no stranger to distance learning or life as a mature student, having studied for both a degree and PGCE through the Open University whilst caring for our young children at home; I was very grateful for the opportunity to achieve a professional qualification without sacrificing our precious family life or missing those priceless early years with our little ones. I’m not pretending it was easy (it most certainly wasn’t) but I believe the rigorous mental stimulation made me a better mum and I know for sure that being a mum made me a far better teacher. This course is a very different beast: there are no deadlines for written assignments or exams, no requirement to follow the structure and no time pressure to finish yet it is such an in-depth, resource-rich course that I find myself going off in all sorts of fascinating directions. If I manage to finish in 52 weeks it will be nothing short of a miracle!
The only drawback of all this study is that it leaves less time for other things and that, of course, includes blogging. To mitigate against this a little (and to be super efficient at the same time), I am planning to combine the two at least occasionally where it seems appropriate; after all, much of what I’m studying in the world of permaculture is the type of thing I write about anyway. This week, I’m examining the principles of permaculture which includes a ‘hands on’ activity of making flashcards as an aide memoire and ~ since my artistic skills with pencil and paint are laughable and I’m leaving the digital artwork until I reach the actual design stage (let’s face it, that will be more of a vertical rockface than a steep learning curve) ~ I’ve decided to use the medium of blog. I have lots of photos and I’m comfortable with writing so in a way I’m hoping this little exercise will give me the opportunity to consider not only how Roger and I are already applying these principles in our daily life but also the areas where we can make changes and improvements.
One thing I have learned this week is that there are as many sets of permaculture principles as there are permaculturists, but for my ‘flashcard’ exercise I’ve decided to use David Holmgren’s circle of twelve principles, partly because, as the co-founder of permaculture, I feel he knows a thing or two but also because they are the ones I was familiar with before embarking on the course. For each principle, I will share a few ideas ~ in particular, those aspects which I think we have already embraced in our lives, bearing in mind permaculture is an holistic approach which spirals outwards far beyond gardening ~ and then choose one photo (mmm, that’s the tricky part) to illustrate. I’d like to underline the fact that this is not in any way meant to be a lesson or expert discourse, rather it’s just the brief notes and thoughts of an enthusiastic student on a voyage of discovery ~ and if I’ve made mistakes, it’s because I’m only one thirteenth of the way through! 🙂
Observe and interact
All permaculture designs begin with reading the landscape, not just the topography and climatic factors but the behaviour of animals and plants, too, and the changes that occur through the cycle of the seasons or the movements between locations. Ideally, a whole year’s worth of observation should be carried out before making any changes. Everything is considered from an holistic point of view and careful observation allows us to mimic nature in ways that benefit all elements within a system. For us, this can mean spending quiet times in the natural world as we tend our patch, studying how plants in the garden respond to different situations, harvesting produce and walking through the meadows and woodland, foraging for wild foods and medicinal plants or watching the bubbles form in our sourdough starter.
Catch and store energy
Storing and using surplus energy, food and resources is an essential part of permaculture and a key tool in becoming more automonous, self-sufficient and self-reliant. For us, this entails planting and harvesting woodland for fuel, storing nuts and good ‘keepers’ like squash, drying, freezing and making preserves, capturing the rainwater that falls on our roof, growing perennial vegetables, maintaining fertile soil and saving seeds. The principle can also include areas like learning skills from other people; for instance, I would like to be taught how to make baskets and then grow some willow just for that purpose.
Obtain a yield
Something I hadn’t really considered in any depth before this week is how living a home-based lifestyle as we do helps us to realise a much greater all-round yield from our most expensive asset (our house and land) than under the social norms of modern society where much time is spent away from the home working, studying, shopping, socialising and the rest. It’s certainly food for thought. Yield refers to all harvests and includes those foods we can forage from the wild (which this year, for the first time ever, has included blackberries from our hedges). Planning for a harvest is important, both to ensure we don’t go hungry and also that any surplus is used wisely and doesn’t become ‘pollution.’ Careful management can result in very high yields from very small spaces which is why permaculture can be so successful in tiny gardens. For us, it means drawing up and adjusting a planting calendar each year, sowing seeds throughout the year for successions of crops and saving some for next season, increasing the diversity of foods we grow (and including perennial plants among them), experimenting with new food crops and ways of using them, swapping surplus and giving ample time to harvesting and processing. Every meal we eat starts with what’s ready in the garden (or orchard, field or hedgrows).
Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
I find this an interesting principle, one that in many ways is based on discouraging inappropriate behaviour in all elements of a design. For us ~ the human element ~ that means a commitment to living simply, treading lightly on the earth, wasting nothing, being resilient and self-reliant, working with and caring for nature and basing our interactions on co-operation and peaceful negotiation. In the garden, it encompasses ideas such as plant guilds where plants are chosen and sited together in order to ‘help’ one another; for instance, we plant lettuce in the shade of taller, long-maturing crops, nasturtiums as a sacrificial crop amongst brassicas and comfrey as a companion plant to asparagus. Green manures help to reduce weeding and although some management and culling of plants is necessary, we try to develop a garden of self-reliant, self-reproducing plants as much as possible. Accepting feedback from nature entails asking ourselves what works (and what doesn’t!) and adjusting our approach accordingly.
Use and value renewable resources and services
This is a principle that we are constantly working on, increasing our use of renewable resources and reducing our reliance on bought commodities and fossil fuels wherever possible. This includes using sunshine and wind to dry our laundry, either outside or in the barn, or the heat rising from the woodstove during wet, winter weather. We also use the same heat sources to dry foods for storage. Our woodland supplies us with fuel for heating the entire house (we use fallen wood and coppicing as much as possible) as well as cooking and heating water for drinks, washing dishes and washing ourselves during the cooler months; it is also a source of useful materials for practical activities such as replacing fence posts or staking young trees. We capture rainwater from the roof in a butt placed close to the polytunnel and turn all biodegradable ‘waste’ into compost, which we use to feed the soil along with manure from the local farm. We use plant materials in various ways, including for making herbal medicines and toiletries, natural cleaning materials and disinfectant and producing natural dyes. Spinning sheep’s fleece provides a ready stock of skeins for making new socks, hats and gloves when needed.
Produce no waste
This principle asks us to adopt frugality as a positive lifestyle choice (in my opinion and experience, that doesn’t mean being tight-fisted, doing without or feeling ‘poor’ ~ far from it, in fact) and once again, to walk lightly on the earth. Closing as many loops as possible is an important goal and the way that we use wood, water and compost here goes a long way down that route although a compost toilet would be a big winner! The seemingly ever growing list of Rs ~ rethink, redesign, refuse, reduce, repair, reuse, repurpose, recycle ~ are central to the principle and an acknowledgement that recycling is the absolute last resort is vital. I would argue that there is much creativity to be found in working backwards through the list and tapping into waste streams! Caring for what we already have is also key, so it’s important to develop and use skills for maintainenance and repair, as well as considering ways in which we can use other people’s waste. We avoid waste through doing things ourselves whenever we can, composting, making things from scraps, meal planning, preserving surplus food (mostly in reusable / repurposed containers), sharing surplus, maintaining and repairing things (I’ve just patched a 16 year-old pair of jeans), living to daylight hours (why waste hours of electricity to light a dark house?), showering or basin washing and combining reasons for car trips. We have been working towards zero waste for some time but packaging still remains a serious problem.
Design from patterns to details
Permaculture is not simply a list of elements. We might have an organic garden, use renewable energy sources, ride our bikes and drink herbal tea but that doesn’t make a permaculture; the crux of the matter is the way those elements are linked in a flow, the patterns and relationships between them ~ and that’s where the ‘design’ bit comes in. This principle marks a switch from the previous ‘bottom up’ perspective to a more overarching view of systems as a whole. Nature is full of patterns and these can be used to inform good design in structure, time and process, starting from a wide-angle view of the overall pattern and then zooming in to the fine details. Once again, it’s not just all about gardens; when we were planning and implementing the renovation of our house here, the design started with a consideration of pattern, in particular the natural patterns and flows of our daily life and activities within the home. Our garden layouts, our use of polyculture and plant stacking, our (until now unconscious!) use of zones and sectors and various handicraft activities all reflect this principle in action.
Integrate rather than segregate
This principle is about engaging the whole system, choosing elements that perform more than one function and functions that are supported by many elements. So for instance, the walnut tree I focused on in my last post performs many functions: releases oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, absorbs and releases water, creates structure in the landscape, acts as a windbreak, provides habitats, casts shade, produces wood for fuel and practical activities, produces nuts for food, produces leaves for mulch, compost and natural dyes . . . yet I could name many different plants or elements within our patch that also perform those same functions. It’s all about relationships and once again, practising polyculture, sowing green manures and using plant guilds is a good example of what we are already doing. Turning a ‘dead’ area of the garden into a small pond and wildlife habitat has led to an increase in our frog, toad and grass snake populations which in turn helps with pest control. This principle works at a community level, too; a quiet lane runs through our property and the blue seat we placed in the shade of a fig tree is there for all to use, a welcome resting place for passersby after the steep climb or simply a peaceful spot to sit, relax, contemplate, enjoy the flowers or chat.
Use slow and small solutions
Small-scale, intensive solutions can produce both greater yields and diversity and underpin the goal of self-reliance, as well as being a far more efficient way of getting things done ~ I love the way that permaculture values hammock time! Doing things slowly gives us the time to observe, learn, enjoy, improve and relax, and is surely a welcome and healthy antidote to the rush and bustle of modern life stuffed as it is with fast travel, fast food and fast fashion, disposable commodities, social media and instant gratification. Making our own sourdough bread and yogurt, preserving, pickling and fermenting foods, foraging, collecting stone for building, coppicing wood, collecting, chopping and seasoning logs, making compost and comfrey fertiliser, using well-rotted manure, growing dye plants, seed saving, spinning, dyeing, knitting and crochet, making birthday cards and gifts and walking and cycling are just some of the ways we do things slow-time here. Preparing all our meals from scratch together is a real biggie and I’d argue that where ‘Slow Food’ is concerned, you can’t get much slower than starting with planting a few seeds! I think a good example of a small-scale solution would be solving the strawberry problem. Slugs and snails tend to thrive in the humid climate here and we knew that protecting a strawberry crop planted in the ground would be nigh on impossible. The solution? Build a trough from scraps of timber, raised high on stilts to prevent the slimy ones reaching the plants. Outcome? An ongoing, bumper crop of delicious, juicy, unblemished, slime-free strawbs!
Use and value diversity
Striving for diversity ~ biological, ecological and cultural ~ makes a lot of sense to me; there is much wisdom in the warning not to put all your eggs in one basket, and again having choices and back up plans (ideally for other back up plans!) gets us a long way down the path to automony, resilience and self-reliance. On our patch, we encourage and extend diversity through polyculture, exploring new plant species and varieties, seeking and using wild foods, seed saving (particularly open-pollinated and heirloom varieties), creating dishes and menus from the choice of home-produced foods we have and creating and encouraging mini-ecosystems. We value cultural diversity, too; I’ve written many times about the privilege and mind-broadening experience of living and learning in different cultures and countries. Sharing our space with neighbours and friends of different nationalities is a hugely pleasurable and enriching thing to do and our life reflects many ideas and approaches we have learned from other cultures. Diversity extends to structures, too: here, the house offers us shelter and warmth (and obviously somewhere to wash, sleep, cook and relax); the underhouse barn traditionally provided accommodation for animals but now acts as a utility and storage area; the barn gives us a workshop and tool store, an area for drying washing on rainy days and a useful space for indoor exercise; the polytunnel allows us to trap solar energy and extend the growing season; finally, the horreo in itself is a wondefully diverse structure, the perfect embodiment of ‘one element, many functions.’
Use edges and value the marginal
Physical edges ~ for instance, where fresh water joins salt water in an estuary or where forest meets field ~ tend to be fertile, dynamic places with much to offer. In permaculture design, valuing edges and marginal places (and ideas?) is a key principle that reminds us not to overlook or forget about such areas. Here we try to use edges as multi-functional elements, such as growing plants up fences necessary to keep wild boar out of the garden or letting wilder plants such as apple mint ramble along the bottom of them; dry stone walls built to create terraces have proved to be excellent habitats for lizards and favourite spots for useful and edible self-setters to appear; making wavy path edges by reusing old curved terracotta tiles has created mini ‘keyholes’ where herbs and flowers thrive. Beyond the garden, the margins offer us good forage of wild foods as well as a diversity of habitats for other species. By planting a wealth of flowers and herbs at the margins of our patch along the sides of the lane, we share our edges with others in the community.
Creatively use and respond to change
Change can seem frustrating, worrying, unwanted and threatening but it’s the only constant in life and being able to respond to it in a creative way not only builds resilience but can be a very uplifting experience. Flexibility creates durability and is essential if we are to pursue a lifestyle of sustainability and regeneration, now and in the future. Permaculturists often state that ‘the problem is the solution’, as illustrated by Bill Mollison (the other co-founder) and his observation that there is no such thing as a slug problem, rather a duck deficiency. This principle, therefore, is all about making changes to our own habits as well as responding positively to the unexpected. Certainly, choosing to move from ‘mainstream’ living to the way we now live here, making important choices about things like food, travel, energy and shopping, trying new ideas such as growing and eating different foods, adopting new gardening practices, making soap and toiletries rather than buying them, planting trees for the future and adjusting our lifestyles to try and help tackle the problems of the climate crisis are all ways we have embraced change. The ongoing ban of growing potatoes in our region of Asturias, now in its third season, has forced us to think creatively: no potatoes, now what? The solution has been to grow more starchy vegetables that we can use in their place ~ squash, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and, for the first time this year, oca. It’s too early to try the oca, but I can happily report that the other three at least make fabulous chips!
Phew! So much to take on board and of course, all these principles are part of a whole system revolving around the triad of permaculture ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. I’m quietly surprised at how much we are already doing without having realised it was a valid part of the permaculture concept, but of course there is plenty more to be done. Reflecting on what I’ve written, I can see that there are some very pertinent elements that would help us to move forward including solar panels for hot water and electricity, a compost toilet for humanure, going back to keeping chickens, ducks and bees as we have in the past, learning and using new handicrafts and skills, involving ourselves in community projects with like-minded people, finding our ‘tribe’ and thinking of ways to share our space. I can’t promise that we’ll ever crack it completely or achieve the full interconnection and flow of a true permaculture . . . but I’m inspired to give it a go and at the very least, it’s keeping me out of mischief! 🙂