Observations

There’s an old adage among beekeepers that says if you ask five of them for apiary-related advice, you’ll end up with six different opinions. I’m beginning to think that it’s much the same state of affairs with permaculture: the more I study, the more I find myself spiralling off in different directions or wading through a wealth of diverse ideas on a single subject. In a way, I suppose this is a good thing. After all, it must surely be proof that permaculture is a vibrant and evolving movement and that so many people involved aren’t simply following like sheep but thinking laterally and bringing their own energy and innovation to the field. It certainly makes it an endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking area for contemplation! I have to admit, though, that I keep coming back to David Holmgren’s twelve key principles as the basis for my own practice, partly because he is one of the founding fathers and I like what he says, but also because I think they provide a useful set of tools which suits my way of thinking. As we finally emerge from what has been a year of extraordinary weather coupled with two months where I have been largely out of action, Principle 1 ‘Observe and interact’ has been very much at the forefront of my mind this week . . . as well as what to do with the wonderful daily harvest we are still enjoying. 😊

For me, observation is as much about having an open mind as open eyes; it’s all very well wandering about assessing how well things have or haven’t stood up to the difficult conditions but making decisions about how to move forward or what to change (the ‘interact’ bit) may need several different lines of thought. This is partly because to some extent, we are dealing in unknowns: last year was abnormally cool and wet, this year abnormally hot and dry . . . who’s to say what next year will bring? In the absence of a crystal ball, we need to prepare for all eventualities and be ready to adapt our plans as we go along. Something that has been apparent is how well the lasagne beds and HΓΌgel beds have held up, despite being newly-established and seriously short of rain since last September. They will definitely be the model for any future planting areas we create: I think I can safely say our digging days are over.

Squash ripening happily on their hill.

One of the things that has struck me this week is how much better the hedges that Roger laid last winter are looking in comparison to the others. Although it might seem like a drastic thing to do at the time, this traditional approach to hedge maintenance reaps dividends in the long run, encouraging rejuvenation from the base and the renewal of the hedge’s life cycle in a way that the common practice of over- management, mechanical flailing and hard trimming to the same height every year cannot do. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the laid hedges are currently abundant in growth and green leaves and so thick that it’s impossible to see daylight through them whereas the others have been yellowing and shedding leaves at a rate of knots for some time now. We are on red alert to stop the council contractors from siding and topping the boundary hedge along the lane when they inevitably pass through on their tractors as that is the next one to be laid once the dormant period arrives. It’s a slow job but an ancient country craft well worth preserving and if it makes our hedges of native plants more robust and resilient, then it’s definitely worth the effort.

Principle 9: ‘Use small and slow solutions’ ~ like laying hedges, for example.

An undisputable benefit of good hedges is the habitat they provide for wildlife and it’s been noticeable this week just how many late fledges of young birds have been flitting around the garden, including blue tits, greenfinches and goldfinches. The latter are particularly active, little washed-out versions of their brightly-coloured parents feasting on an abundance of seeds around the garden with a special liking for the cosmos in the potager. Watching them swaying on the delicate stems and tucking in to the copious seedheads with their perfectly adapted tweezer beaks, I was reminded once more how important it is to always include such beneficial flowers in our planting plans.

The young goldfinches’ favourite feeding ground . . .
. . . but they’re not the only ones filling their boots.

I’m saving more seed than ever this year, both food and flowers, and one benefit of the weather is that they are all beautifully dry ~ which is a good thing, as I’m running out of space indoors for processing them all. Where flowers are concerned, we’ve already reached a point where certain characters are readily self-setting all over the place: we will certainly never have to buy calendula, borage, phacelia, buckwheat, Californian poppy or pansy seed ever again and there has been an encouraging number of cosmos, verbena and rudbeckia volunteers this year, too. Whether I will be able to salvage any viable sunflower seed for planting and the winter bird table is anybody’s guess at the moment as every ripe head becomes a feeding frenzy of birds, not just the predictable finches but also a good number of great tits and coal tits. Well, they can only eat them once!

Taking the time to look properly around the somewhat neglected garden, I was delighted to find a few pleasant surprises. I like to indulge in a bit of companion planting, albeit often in a very informal way, so for that reason I’m happy to let dill spread itself far and wide (there’s another seed we’ll never need to buy again). It’s a great culinary and medicinal herb, the flowers are attractive to helpful predators like hoverflies and parasitic wasps and at the same time, the smell is said to deter white butterflies so it’s particularly useful around brassicas. Nasturtiums are another helpful plant when it comes to an integrated pest management system and so I poked a few seeds in among the summer brassicas as a sacrificial plant for when those dratted butterflies appeared on the scene. Where the dill has revelled in a wonderful summer, the poor nasturtiums have hated it; in fact, the only ones that have grown are self-set volunteers from last year (and I think there’s a lesson there, somewhere). So, I was very pleased to find a couple of courageous little souls flowering beneath the cabbages, brave splashes of orange sunshine amongst the tired foliage, and with any luck they’ll be back next year. It’s been a tough season for the brassicas, too, not helped by the fact that there has been no let-up in flea beetle activity, but I did find a couple of gems. First, some crisp stems of green calabrese . . .

. . . and then ~ drum roll, please ~ a cauliflower! Well, okay, it’s not much of a cauliflower and I admit one out of twelve is hardly anything to crow about, but these were very definitely an experiment this summer and under the circumstances, I’m amazed even this one survived.

The caulis were a wild card this year and I believe very strongly that we musn’t be afraid to experiment, to push against the boundaries of perceived wisdom, taking ourselves beyond our comfort zone and into those marginal areas of thinking and doing that permaculture sees as such rich and fertile places (Principle 11 ‘Use edges and value the marginal’). Orthodoxy and tradition are good starting points for most things but when we are dealing with uncertainty and change, then we need to be flexible and open to new ideas . . . not to mention that being a bit of a rebel now and then can be fun, especially when it brings success! A good case in point is the asparagus bed that I created last year, first doing lots of research and reading into the dos and don’ts and then completely ignoring all advice and going full pelt down the maverick route.

Young asparagus plant last year.
Conventional adviceWhat I did
Clear ground of all weeds, especially perennials.Spread cardboard over grass and weeds and soaked with rainwater.
Dig a deep trench and fill with rotted manure and/or compost.Piled on several layers of organic matter, all to hand on our patch, to make a lasagne bed.
Create a ridge, plant crowns of F1 male plants and cover with more compost.Raised non-F1 plants from seed, planted each into a deep pocket of homemade compost and mulched the lot with hay.
Under no circumstances allow the plants to dry out, especially in prolonged spells of hot weather.Watered the plants initially last year until established; this year, they have barely been watered despite the drought.
Do not harvest spears until the third year (crowns) or fourth year (seeds).Mmm, we’ll see about that one . . . πŸ˜‰

If I’m honest, my approach was based as much on laziness and impatience as anything else. The idea of clearing and digging such a huge patch of grassland and hauling all that compost didn’t appeal any more than having to wait until autumn to buy crowns (and the price of those compared to a packet of seeds soon had me sowing rather than ordering). I didn’t want the work or the wait, Charles Dowding assured me a no-dig bed was possible so I just went for it; to quote the mantra Roger and I have used a great deal over the years, what’s the worst that could happen?

Asparagus bed this week.

As you can see, the asparagus bed is currently full of vibrant green ferny foliage, some of the plants being almost as tall as I am; they haven’t suffered at all through the heat and drought and are, in fact, still sending up thick spears. Inevitably, there are some female plants among them but I’m really not bothered as they will still produce spears (with 30 plants, we will have more than enough asparagus anyway) and I can’t imagine that whipping out any seedlings that might appear is as onerous a task as some horticulturists make out. The only weeds to have appeared in the bed are a few clumps of sorrel which are easily pulled and scattered on the surface; I shall soon be giving the plants a feed of compost and manure then I’ll chop and drop the ferns around them once they have died back to add another layer of organic material to the bed. No dig? No problem, I say. πŸ˜ƒ

On which subject, it has been interesting to look closely this week at what has been going on in my ‘absence’ and a huge relief (1) to have had a night of proper heavy rainfall at long last and (2) to have regained enough mobility to get back to a few garden tasks. The really good news is that all the beds have remained virtually free of weeds which just goes to show how effective mulch is as a suppressant. Weeding for me these days means working at ground level with a hand fork; I can’t remember the last time I used a hoe, and I much prefer this close contact with the plants and soil plus the opportunity to leave any volunteer seedlings which might be useful. The Not Garden seemed like a good place to start and is a good example of how our holistic approach to gardening works. I started by carefully weeding between the leeks, the most common intruder being various euphorbias including the ubiquitous mole weed. I then used a trowel to spread manure around the plants; it is so well-rotted and dry that it goes on as a top dressing almost in powder form, ideal for feeding soil still in cultivation. I then chopped a pile of comfrey leaves and used them as a mulch on top of the manure; leeks are one of our staple winter and spring foods so it’s important to keep the plants well-fed over many months.

Before the makeover . . . looking at the state of those bent tines, I’m wondering if it’s time to invest in a new little fork?

Next to the leeks were a couple of rows of peas, long since harvested. Roger had started removing the plants to make room for the manure pile, so I finished the job, separating the spent plants from the twiggy hazel sticks they had grown up as I went along. The hazel was a by-product of the hedge laying mentioned earlier; the sticks have supported pea plants through the summer and now, dry as a bone, have been piled up to be used as barbecue kindling. I think that ticks two boxes ~ Principle 5 ‘Use and value renewable resources’ and Principle 6 ‘Produce no waste’ ~ quite nicely. The only ‘weeds’ in the peas were self-set calendula which had already dropped their seeds so I removed them, spread some more manure and then put the chopped pea straw on top (there’s no art to that, I just hack things roughly with a pair of garden scissors). On top of that, I laid a few dead rocket and landcress plants that I had left to form seedpods at the other end of the bed; the theory is that winter and the worms will work all that organic matter into the soil and the seeds will germinate to give us some winter salad leaves without any need for raking or sowing. (Yep, lazy gardening once again.) Beyond the peas is a strip of oca, New Zealand spinach and swedes which needed no attention at all. The swedes are another experiment and I’m not holding out for a crop given the tough time they’ve had; the New Zealand spinach has also struggled but looks better for cooler temperatures and a bit of rain and should now give us a decent crop through to the first frosts. The oca has resented the heat but has bounced back this week and hopefully there will be a good harvest of crunchy tubers to come in late autumn.

Oca looking more enthusiastic after rain.

This patch of garden is one of only two that were in cultivation when we moved here and inheriting it was something of a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it gave us a planting area straight away, a mature rosemary bush and a crown of rhubarb I’ve since relocated but it wasn’t without its problems, some of which still persist . . . the euphorbia already mentioned, horseradish which is almost impossible to eradicate with those long persistent tap roots, wild strawberry plants which run amok but never flower or fruit, and the nightmare that is bindweed, to name but a few. Quite a bit of tidying to be done here, then, but in the process I discovered rows of golden and red beetroot I’d forgotten about (I’ve left them in the ground to provide winter salad leaves) and a carpet of young red sorrel plants. The red kale and rainbow chard have struggled but should go well now the weather is kinder; a sprinkle of manure and mulch of grass clippings and chopped dead leaves will keep everything snug and nourished over winter.

Manured and mulched: the rest of the muck will be spread when the oca and New Zealand spinach have been harvested.
It’s not a very big or impressive patch, but there’s plenty of future food in there (Principle 2 ‘Catch and store energy’ and Principle 3 ‘Obtain a yield’).

It has occurred to me that this piecemeal approach to garden maintenance is a bit like medieval strip farming but I think that in a system based on abundant polyculture and successional planting, it works a treat. There’s something very satisfying about giving small strips and patches focused attention and responding to their specific needs, rather than giving bulk treatment to the entire cultivated area and it means I can really get to grips with what’s going on in terms of sun and shade, moisture, soil structure, plant health, biodiversity and so on in a meaningful rather than superficial way. The second patch of leeks in the potager also received the muck and mulch treatment but here the weed of the week was white clover, not euphorbia. Now, don’t get me wrong: white clover is a fabulous plant and one that plays a crucial role in our ecosystem, especially as it stayed lush and green and continued to flower whilst everything around it was fried to a crisp. It makes a useful groundcover green manure, fixing nitrogen in the soil, helping to retain moisture, providing cover for beneficial predators like ground beetles and of course, is a fantastic source of nectar. On the downside, its spreading habit can make it invasive and if it grows for too long in the same space, it can cause clover sickness in the soil. I tend to give it the ‘enthusiastic toddler’ treatment, letting it bound about madly wherever it pops up in the patch, then reining it in when it becomes over-excited. So, I cleared it from around the leeks which had become rather engulfed, but I’ve left it to run to its heart’s content in other places, particularly beneath the winter brassicas. (Principle 8 ‘Integrate rather than segregate’ and Principle 10 ‘Use and value diversity’.)

White and crimson clover under kale.

Another candidate for the strip treatment was the row of climbing borlotti beans which have finished cropping well ahead of their Asturian neighbours. I cut the plants off at ground level and left the roots where they will continue to benefit the soil (and much life within it) by decomposing slowly over the coming months. I then unwound the spent plants from their poles which is less of a faff than it sounds, chopped them into smaller bits and scattered them on the ground along with a good dollop of manure. Finally, I gathered some dead phacelia plants from the mandala bed and laid them on top in the hope the seeds will germinate to give a green manure cover over winter. I shall do the same with the Asturian beans when they have finished, probably in a month’s time. The Three Sisters bed was unintentional but has proved an interesting exercise in observation, nonetheless. The beans have been incredibly slow to climb up the corn stalks and are lagging several weeks behind those grown up hazel poles while the volunteer squash trailing beneath are probably the least enthusiastic and productive on the whole patch. I acknowledge this epitome of companion planting as an ancient and wise tradition but on reflection, I’m not convinced it’s appropriate to our situation (Principle 4 ‘Apply self-regulation and accept feedback’).

The beans climbing the sweetcorn plants have only just started to flower.

It’s exactly two years since we decided to buy this property and we have been talking this week about how we now need to flesh out our plans for the next phase of projects here, retaining the flexibility to make changes as we go along but at least moving from some vague ideas to concrete intentions (Principle 7 ‘Design from patterns to details’). We want to keep adding structure and breaking up the space to create more interest and intimacy in the garden while at the same time increasing and enriching the ecosystems and food production within it. It’s not all about the garden, either; an organised outdoor cooking area under the shelter of the outhouse has been on the cards ever since we moved here and it’s definitely time to pin down our ideas and put that particular plan into action. When I set out to draft this blog post, my intention was to hang it loosely on the peg of ‘Observe and interact’ but what I didn’t bargain for was how the other principles of permaculture would muscle in on the act unannounced as the writing took shape. Looking back, there’s only one unaccounted for, Principle 12 ‘Creatively use and respond to change’ ~ but then, in many ways, it’s also precisely what this post has been about. The garden (and house, for that matter) has survived a hot, dry summer and weeks of casual neglect; it’s not looking very tidy or particularly attractive but it is bursting with an abundance of life and food, all managing very nicely on minimum attention. I’m happy that we’re getting there, building the resilience and regeneration that was always part of our plan: the task now is to keep on observing, reflecting, connecting, adapting and ~ most importantly ~ learning and enjoying, as we move forward into the next stage. We’ll keep experimenting, too; after all, what’s the worst that can happen? 😁

Principle 12 ‘Creatively use and respond to change’ ~ grapes could well become a staple fruit crop if our summers are going to be hotter!

A matter of principle

I’ve just come to the end of my French course; the fact that 30 days morphed into almost three months shows just how challenging and resource-rich it was and I’ve enjoyed every minute (well, okay ~ maybe not grappling with the subjunctive). Now I’m going to give myself time to absorb everything, read back through my copious notes and then start again right from the beginning, this time spending more time dipping in and out of the incredible range of linked resources; that should keep me busy for another year, at least!

Having re-established a fairly disciplined study habit, it’s time to get stuck once more into the 52-week permaculture course I started almost two years ago. I must be the slowest student on earth, but in my defence I have been a bit busy moving home and countries and at least I’ve spent a good deal of the last 18 months actually putting what I’ve been learning into practice. One of the many things I like about Heather Jo Flores’s teaching is her reminder that permaculture isn’t it; there are many different approaches to living an ecologically-sound, regenerative, abundant lifestyle and it’s important and enriching to consider a broad mix. However, I do feel that the principles of permaculture provide a pretty good framework for life so, as I pick up the course once again, it seems a good point to do a quick assessment of how we’re doing in our new home so far. I did this when we had been living in Asturias for several years using David Holmgren’s 12 permaculture principles, so I’m going to use the same idea but keep it fairly brief and choose just one current example to illustrate each point. If nothing else, this should give me something to refer back to and build on in the future.

Red longhorn beetle (as you can see, the male isn’t red at all!)

Observe and interact Last year was a nightmare where growing beans was concerned; having initially planted directly into the ground, I ended up replanting several times and then finally resorting to planting in trays as each successive crop failed. Close observation of the beans’ attempts to germinate and (in very rare cases) grow beyond their cotyledons suggested that there were undesirable creatures tucking in ~ bean seed fly and wireworm being the worst culprits ~ and given the less-than-great condition of the soil, they were really up against it. This year I have pre-sown everything in trays of good compost, starting them off in the warmth of the tunnel; this has meant nearly 100% germination, no pests and trays of plants that are strong and healthy when they go into the ground. I’ve been working hard on soil improvement and every planting hole has been carefully prepared; that’s been quite a task in itself as so far I’ve planted 40 climbing borlotti beans, 84 Asturian climbing fabas, and between 40 and 50 each of Dwarf beans ‘Purple Teepee’, ‘Stanley’ and ‘Delinel’ with more to come as we go through the summer. To date, I’ve lost just one plant, which suggests this is a principle well worth spending time on.

Capture and store energy When he hasn’t been picking cherries, Roger has been busy fetching logs from the coppice this week. This is all dead, fallen wood; we haven’t cut any live trees, and in fact there is so much wood already down that I doubt we ever will (we prefer to plant trees where we can!). For us, the coppice is a precious environment to be cherished and preserved so we take the minimum from it and leave plenty of dead wood in place for the wildlife. Logs need to be properly seasoned before they are burnt, so we are always working on a supply for a couple of years’ time, splitting the logs and stacking them outside to air dry before eventually moving them into the barn. This store of captured ‘solar’ energy will heat the whole house through the colder months as well as provide us with heat for cooking and water.

Obtain a yield Permaculture isn’t just about gardening so a ‘yield’ can mean many things, but since being as self-sufficient as we can be in fruit and vegetables is a top priority for us, then obviously garden produce is high up the list. This week has seen us eating globe artichokes, broad beans, peas, courgettes, cucumbers, peppers and chillies (from the tunnel), lettuce, chard, radish, a wide range of fresh herbs and edible flowers, strawberries, cherries, gooseberries and raspberries all fresh from the garden.

Gherkin cucumber: perfect for eating while small and sweet or for pickling with dill.
Cardoons reaching for the sky.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback When I was teaching, I used to encourage my pupils to be brave about making mistakes as that is the best way to learn and, as a learner myself, I’ve been relieved to hear the same advice being shared in both the French and permaculture courses. I love the challenge of learning new skills or exploring different ways of doing things but life isn’t perfect, and inevitably some things will go wrong along the way. Using mulches of organic materials in the garden is a practice we have embraced more and more and there are many benefits: weed suppression, moisture retention, topsoil protection, improvement of soil structure, creation of worm heaven . . . however, this week has seen me removing all the mulch from around the potato plants in what has been something of a cautionary lesson. Common sense should have told me that the ground needs to be full of moisture before applying a generous layer of mulch; with the significant reduction in winter and spring rainfall plus a period of prolonged drought through April and May, the ground remains very dry despite some recent rain, and scratching our heads as to why the potatoes aren’t exactly flourishing, our thoughts turned to the mulch. Scraping back revealed earth that was damp in some places but dry as toast in others ~ where rain had fallen, the mulch had absorbed the moisture but prevented it from passing through. Feedback accepted: I need to be more mindful of mulch and moisture in the future.

Unmulched: ‘Blue Danube’ potatoes.

Use and value renewable resources and services Hanging washing out on the line beneath a beautiful blue sky this week, I have been thinking what a blessing sunshine and warm breezes are, free and natural renewable resources that have the laundry dry and smelling sweet in no time. That said, it’s flowers I want to talk about under this heading. I have always loved flowers, preferring those of a wilder nature than what I tend to think of as more formal ‘florists’ flowers’, and our garden has always burst with colour and scent in a fairly chaotic scramble of blooms. I’ve grown them for aesthetic reasons and for the benefit of wildlife but increasingly now, I also see flowers as an essential and precious resource in other ways. Herbalism has long been an interest of mine and the strengthening, healing and balancing nature of using flowers as gentle home medicine has become something of a priority in recent years. This week I’ve been drying elderflowers, yarrow, rose petals, clover, daisies, thyme, calendula and honeysuckle to use in infusions to take as tea, to steep in oil and use in salves and soaps or simply to float in a soothing bath.

Next will be lavender which has so many applications, then meadowsweet and soapwort to follow. Flowers have much to give in the kitchen, too, and a salad without a sprinkling of delectable floral edibles just isn’t a salad in my book! I haven’t had any time for spinning or dyeing lately but I will get back to it, and flowers will play an important part in making natural dyestuffs then. What a wonderful resource ~ and the real beauty lies in the fact that they will be there again for more of the same next year.

Produce no waste Moving towards zero waste is an ongoing activity both in terms of applying the ‘refuse, reduce, re-use’ mantra and at the same time tapping into our waste streams to (in permaculture terms) turn pollutants into resources. Making compost has long been hailed as a positive and beneficial activity yet I am puzzled by the amount of local people ~ especially in such a rural area ~ who trail off to the local recycling centre every week with piles of green waste; it’s no exaggeration to say that last time we were there, the green waste bay was like a huge towering cliff face. I contacted the council out of interest to ask what they do with it all, as I know some councils in Mayenne turn it into compost and offer it back to local people; apparently in our council, it’s all chopped periodically and given to farmers. When I started the permaculture course, I had to sketch designs for three systems I wanted to put into place and, knowing we were soon to be moving here to a flat garden with plenty of space, a decent three-bay compost system was top of my list. We made it from found materials (other people’s waste) and it’s now in full swing, packed with compost at various stages of production.

Ugly but functional: we’ve since added another bay to the right and corrugated tin fronts which allow us to pile the bays to the top. The large left hand bay is used for breaking turfs down into loam and tough stuff like brassica stems left to rot under a very hot pile of grass clippings.

Every scrap of biodegradable waste goes in to the current pile; I ‘feed’ it daily with a compost bucket we keep in the kitchen and when each nitrogen-rich green layer is sufficient, I cover it with a carbon-rich brown layer of sawdust, dead leaves, shredded cardboard and the like. I also throw in small amounts of comfrey and yarrow leaves from time to time, natural activators growing in the garden that help to speed the decomposition process along. It’s a closed loop which is exactly what this principle aims for. Last autumn, I spread a thick layer of compost in the tunnel and let the worms work it down before spring planting; this week, we have harvested the first peppers grown in that compost and the trimmings from them have gone back into the compost heap. No waste. Not a scrap!

A bit prettier than the compost heap!

Design from pattern to detail This is a principle I wasn’t very sure about at first but now I see it as meaning to start with the big picture, an overall (vague?) plan for a project and then work it down to the finer details, using patterns found in nature wherever possible. I’ve written a lot about my mandala bed (sorry about that, I’m just a teeny bit pleased with it) which, following on from the composting system above, was the second design project I sketched out so I’m going to use it here, although I would argue we worked along the same lines when designing the Utility Cabin and Love Shack and also renovating the kitchen. I started with a plain circle and having fiddled around with several pattern ideas for paths and beds, decided to keep it simple with a radiating pattern, the kind that can be seen in snowflakes, starfish and many types of flower.

Radiating pattern in nature . . .

I’ve added each element one at a time and the planting has evolved slowly, working with intuition as much as anything. It wouldn’t win a Chelsea gold, but it’s brimming with food and life (although I’m not sure the blackbirds scratching the mulch onto the paths every morning is much of a bonus) and the beauty of it is that, if in the final analysis I feel things could be improved, it’s simple enough to go back to the starter circle and find inspiration in a different pattern for next year.

. . . reflected in the mandala bed.

Use slow, small solutions If we had to name just one priority for the garden, then soil improvement would probably be it. Making a productive garden from grassland was always going to take time: on the one hand, the soil here is a very deep and stone-free sandy loam; on the other, it is sadly lacking in nutrients and organic matter and also riddled with pests. We have been working at it from day one but there is no rushing this process; good soil takes time and we have to go patiently, step by step. I’ve been looking at the work of Ian ‘Tolly’ Tolhurst who, for several decades, has run a vibrant and productive organic market garden without any animal inputs. This interests me greatly as we currently have no livestock in our system here and, as I have written before, there can be serious drawbacks in importing manure from other sources. If we can manage to improve the soil using only inputs from our land then that would not only be desirable, but another no-waste, closed loop. So, how can we do it? Obviously, the aforementioned compost is an important element but since we can’t produce enough for the whole garden quickly, then when a finished bay is ready for emptying, we have to prioritise where it goes. Another very beneficial addition is soil from the coppice which we collect in modest amounts from time to time; this is such a valuable and nutrient-rich material that it can be used in tiny amounts ~ it is said that even a single trowel of woodland soil stirred into a bucket of water and then watered onto the soil brings huge benefits.

Mulches are helpful, too (putting aside the potato experience). As we have a large amount of mature trees, grass clippings tend to come mixed through with chopped leaves which is an excellent mulch mixture. Having established seven large comfrey plants, I am regularly chopping the leaves and laying them on the soil surface (I did the same with nettles before they flowered) as a natural fertiliser, and I also make comfrey and nettle tea to water on for the same purpose. Where we’ve needed to really boost planting areas, such as the lasagne beds for courgettes and sweetcorn, I kept coffee grounds separate from the compost bucket and sprinkled them over the surface. Dilute urine went on, too; I know this can evoke a ‘yuk!’ response even from many hardened gardeners but honestly, it’s one of nature’s finest fertilisers, it’s plentiful and free so why waste it? The Love Shack has lent itself to yet another function ~ the perfect place for a ‘wild wee’! πŸ˜‚ Tolly is a huge advocate of green manure and that’s another area I’ve been exploring and expanding over several years now.

Phacelia left to flower around a bed of young summer brassicas: it’s literally buzzing with insect life.

Phacelia is a great favourite and certainly the most enthusiastic, freely setting itself over and over if left to seed. I grow swathes of it in places to cut very young when the nutrients are at their highest ~ I’m about to cut a mix of phacelia and crimson clover in a patch for planting winter brassicas ~ and in other spaces, I let it bloom as it is one of the top flowers for bees. I’m hoping that by introducing it to all areas of the garden, I shall never have to buy seed again! Buckwheat and crimson clover are also successful and I’m planning to sow vetch along with phacelia as an overwintering cover crop this year. I let nitrogen-fixing white clover run wherever I can and where we grow peas and beans, the roots are left to rot away underground after the plants have finished. I haven’t been able to source trefoil seeds to undersow the summer brassicas so I’ve pushed a few nasturtium seeds in between them to do the job instead. It’s a slow and steady process, but we will get there.

Buckwheat flower plus admirers.

Integrate, don’t segregate Our property is surrounded by monoculture: to the west, a huge field of maize, to the north and east what seems like a prairie of wheat. The view to the south is green and leafy, a pretty pond surrounded by grass and trees . . . but look beyond the few oaks and silver birches and in fact, it’s really a conifer plantation. Inside our boundaries (please let those hedges grow quickly!) it is polyculture all the way: the greater diversity of plant species and varieties we grow, the greater our potential yield and the most diverse ecosystem possible. When it comes to planting, I’m a bit of a crammer and I love a fairly chaotic jumble so this principle suits me just fine. I haven’t tried planting an ‘official’ plant guild yet but that’s something I might dabble in a bit next year.

In the potager: lettuce, summer cabbage, broad beans, peas, parsnips, flat-leaved parsley, borage, heartsease, dill, sweet peas, celeriac, French beans, cauliflowers, calabrese, summer broccoli, tomatoes and calendula all crammed into in one bed.
In the mandala bed: lettuce, rainbow chard, strawberries, tomatoes, flat-leaved parsley, lemon bergamot, summer cabbages, French beans, calendula, Welsh onions, hyssop, lavender, sage and thyme growing in two sections.

Value diversity This follows on from the last principle and diversity is certainly something we embrace and encourage. When it comes to planting, several different varieties of things makes more sense than one and in fact, doing a quick mental assessment, there are very few vegetables of a single variety that we are growing this year (and those are mostly the ‘wild cards’ like swedes, cauliflowers and melons: if they’re successful in this first season, I’ll extend the range next year.) What has truly thrilled us this year is the noticeable increase in the diversity of wildlife and wild flowers on our patch; I’m hoping at some point in the future to have time to catalogue everything I see here but for the time being, it’s a pleasure to wander round and observe ~ then very often, head to some reference materials to identify the latest ‘new’ arrival, especially where insects are concerned. It’s very exciting and we have plenty of ideas for increasing the range of habitats in the future; the pond is filling at snail’s pace (it would help if it rained occasionally, ha ha!) but there are other things we can be doing in the meantime. For example, Roger has been using some scrap materials to make a base for a bug hotel which we’re hoping Annie and Matthew will help us fill when they visit next month.

These wildflowers arrived of their own accord.
Bug hotel-to-be.
Blister beetle: very beautiful but not to be touched!

Use edges and margins Permaculture is very big on using edges and margins as places that are often extremely fertile; in abstract terms, that also means stretching ourselves to the edge of our comfort zone and thought processes to encourage innovation. In the garden, we see the boundaries both as sources of food and natural materials for ourselves and also as important habitats for wildlife. Tackling that enormous hazel hedge last year was a huge job but it was definitely the right decision; it has let in more light which in turn has encouraged a wider diversity of wildflowers to grow below it, and as it thickens out it is creating a perfect habitat for birds. We leave the grass uncut inside every boundary, several metres deep in some places, and these margins create their own little ecosystems bursting with life and all-important wildlife corridors for useful predators which theoretically then feast on the beasties that love to tuck into the veggie plants. It’s fascinating to see how each ‘edge’ is currently frequented by a different array of wildlife: butterflies and burnet moths here, damsel flies and ground beetles there, grass snakes in one corner, toads in another.

The hazel hedge Roger laid last winter is filling out well.

Respond positively to change Unexpected changes aren’t always welcome or easy to deal with, but since change is a constant in life, I appreciate that developing a positive attitude towards it makes for a more balanced and sustainable approach. A couple of weeks ago, I finally had to admit that my Purple Peril, the bike I’ve had for almost 20 years, had reached the end of the road (actually, it was no longer capable of getting to the end of the road which is the very point). It is a rust bucket, bent and buckled with gears that are totally shot; Roger has fixed it and patched it more times than I can remember but there are limits, even with his super engineering abilities. Please don’t get me wrong and think me a spoilt thing, I appreciate how blessed I am to be able to go out and buy a shiny new bike. My reluctance in replacing it stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t convinced I would be able to find a worthy replacement: everything on offer seemed to be either a roughty-toughty mountain bike or a genteel Dutch (town) bike and I need something in between. Ta-dah . . . enter New Blue (I haven’t come up with a proper name yet so that will have to do for now)! This is just perfect, designed for riding on our rural lanes, zipping about town and going off down forest trails and the like when I fancy a bit of off-roading. There’s a fair bit to adjust to: the gear controls are all on one side and involve flicking levers to and fro; the handlebars have a sort of flat paddle shape to them which seems a bit strange; the seat isn’t as comfy as my old bike but the riding position is much better; the pedals are ~ well ~ a bit weird, if I’m honest. On the plus side, the gears are incredibly smooth and the chain doesn’t jump off and jam every time I change up, there are good lights, my basket fits and, joy of joys, without rear suspension there’s room for a luggage rack and panniers. Hopefully, this is the start of a beautiful relationship that sees us notching up many a happy mile together and cutting car use to the very barest of minimums. Before we moved here, I promised I would ride my bike whenever I could, not using bad weather or mechanical unreliability as an excuse. Well, there shouldn’t be any of the latter now. Time to stick to my principles. 😊