“Testing, testing” the soil

By Brendan Williams, (age 11).

We did some ph testing recently of our soil. We took samples from the top field, bottom field, middle field (the garden) to see if it was acidic or alkaline for our little plants.  Oops I didn’t even explain what we did. We got 3 jars, put some ground up soil into the separate jars, added water, then waited (a few impatient days). After it had settled, we put the water into a test tube, then added a ph solution and barium sulphate. We shook the test tube to mix them together. We checked against the chart. Dark green for alkaline, pale green for neutral, slightly acidic is pink and very acidic is red. All 3 of our samples were neutral! We were quite surprised in the garden sample, cos there was SO MUCH PLASTIC and creeping buttercup there, yet it was fine (amazing, right?) Now we know that our plants should be happy with the soil.

 

Hope you enjoyed my first blog  🙂

 

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It’s the suspense that gets to you.

By Andy Williams.

It’s not often you find yourself waiting impatiently for rain when you live in the UK, but that’s what I’ve found myself doing for the last 36 hours. Here’s the thing. I’ve read all the books, researched online, then read the books some more. But until I see my earthworks dealing with a real rain event, there’s going to be a niggling doubt there. And it’s not rained in a week. It’s meant to rain tonight and tomorrow so I’m keeping everything crossed while muttering at the dark clouds on the horizon.

Today , after finishing tidying it up with spades, we’ve planted the berm of the swale up a little. We’ve put in the only proper apple tree we have, that a friend kindly gave us. I’ve carved it a little niche in the berm and lined it with stone to protect it while it’s little. We also put three autumn olive bushes around it. They’re a nitrogen fixing fruiting shrub that should do well here. We’ve put in 40 hybrid willow as a nursery crop, along with a few sycamore we found growing in the old garage. The plan is to replace them gradually as we buy the fruit and nut varieties we want. They can be chipped to be turned into a mulch that will encourage the fungally dominated soil we want to develop on the berm. We’ve put in four black locust on the end of the berm nearest the veg garden. They only produce a thin canopy even when they have leaves and will be coppiced routinely once they’re established so won’t cast any shade. We’ve added several buddleia for pollinators and even a few marigolds.

This is a very new swale, and it’s all bare earth. Covering that fast is vital, to prevent erosion of topsoil and stop invasives from moving into the open niche. We have a bee-friendly meadow seed mix ready to go on tomorrow, assuming it gives us some rain, but in the meantime we’ve seeded the berm with vegetable seeds. you know all the half empty veg seed packets that build up in your tin? All those saved varieties, bits shoved in unlabelled envelopes because ‘of course I’ll remember’? Wild seeds collected on autumn walks? We put the lot in a tub, added some sunflower and rocket seeds, gave it a good mix and spread the whole berm with it. Who knows, maybe we’ll even get some veg from it.

Under a foot of topsoil the ground is hard clay here. It’s hard work getting into it even with a mechanical digger. This means the bottom of the swale ditch after a week of wind and sun is like concrete. I plan on broadforking it (you know, assuming it ever rains) to break it up a bit and planting daikon radish fairly thickly to decompact the subsoil. In the meantime, I’ve put a sandbag across the pond entrance to keep the ditch from emptying into it. Hopefully a little soak should soften it up.

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The pond…. I really had meant to dig a very small one. It had to be small, I’d already decided where the berm was going to go! But then I hit water and had to reconsider. I’m delighted with hitting reliable ground water, but it has made us evolve the plan. We’re going to enlarge the pond, to make better use of the water. Basically, the digger is coming back for a few days.

Still no rain. You know, in case you’re wondering.

Well, well.

By Andy Williams.

I went for a walk along the new earthworks this morning. We’ve yet to do the fine work with the spades so the pond in particular is still a little rough, so I wanted to see how much digging I’m in for this weekend. What I found was almost two feet of water. Superb. The top of our field is the ridge in the landscape, so it’s from the water table. This area is covered with wells and springs, but you can’t just sink a hole anywhere and hit water. We have a deeper, older ditch that was originally dug to take the water from the barn and it’s occasionally wet at the bottom (oo-er!) The new pond has water barely a metre down, and it’s not rain water. I noticed when I was using the digger that at one point I had water flow, but this is a lot more than I was anticipating. If this is reliable through summer it’s a huge deal. Over time we’ve always planned to take the croft off grid, so reliable water for livestock makes life a lot easier. What’s stunned me is that this water already has a pond skater. This pond is less than 24 hours old and someone’s moved in.

There’s a spot right at the top of the field that’s reliably wet. If we can develop that into a functional spring, we could gravity feed that water to anywhere on site. It’s starting to look like the site design has acquired another pond.

That’s no ordinary ditch…

By Andy Williams.

I know, I know, it’s been ages. I promise we’ve been very busy though. One of the frustrating things about having this blog is that when we’ve been doing interesting stuff we’re generally too busy to spend long blogging. We’ve had a couple of weeks of good weather, so have cracked on.

The front garden is almost finished. We’re waiting on a load of wood chip to be delivered. Once that’s spread over a load of cardboard it should take out the ground elder and few flowered leek. We’ve kept some of the leek in a pot, for something a bit different in the herb garden, but it can get away from you in the ground.

We finished marking the swales in the top field. We’ve bought a load of reclaimed timber to build a decent shed and some other reclaimed bits and pieces for the back garden. I’m sure I’ll blog about them when we get to it.

Best of all however is we’ve made a start on the earthworks! We hired a mini digger to level the shed site and booked an extra day to get a few other jobs done quicker. I must admit, I love it. It just gets things done so much faster and easier, it’s worth every penny. I’ve dug the lower swale and made a start on the integrated pond. I’ve designed it to work a little differently from a conventional swale. Rather than hold water until it infiltrates into the ground, this one drains into the pond at the end. It can be turned very easily into an infiltration swale, giving us the option to regulate the hydrology of the site throughout the year. The digger goes back after tomorrow so I’ll not manage to dig the other two this time, but it’s encouraging to see some of the main system components going in.

It still needs a little tidying with spades to finish, and I’ll need to go out during the next major rain event to tickle the spillway from the pond, but you get the idea. That digger will be back to visit again very soon I suspect.

Meet bucket.

By Andy Williams.

Bucket is wise. Bucket can tell us things. Bucket can be a surprisingly illuminating diagnostic tool. Hang on and I’ll tell you all about it.

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I dug this hole back in March, so I could use the soil as a mound for the hazel tree we planted on it. We have many such holes around the croft that were dug at the same time, and they’ve been surprisingly interesting. We knew the ground here gets saturated very quickly when it rains very soon after buying it. As soon as we started planting we learned that we had roughly 18 inches of good topsoil over clay subsoil. Since we intend to dig ponds eventually this was excellent news, but it affects the hydrology of the site. At least one of us walks the fence line every day, checking the trees, so it’s easy to keep an eye on these holes. Immediately after rain they have up to four inches of water in them, draining to an inch or so within three days, and being no more than moist within four to five days. I put this down to a combination of water being infiltrated into the ground and the drying effect of the wind. Soon after we planted the trees I found the bucket jammed between some rushes. I shoved it into the hole so it wouldn’t blow away, intending to pick it up later, and promptly forgot about it until every time I passed the tree.

It added another dimension to water table observation. I’d read about using a bucket to monitor rainfall in a book I read years ago, but the author hadn’t thought of sticking it in a hole to get two sets of data. I really wish I could claim credit for it properly.

Typically, you stick a bucket somewhere it won’t blow away and watch it over a year. It’s as simple as that. If it always has water in it you have a wet climate. If it often dries completely you have a dry climate. All pretty obvious so far yes? Where it’s useful is in determining unusually dry spells, when pasture may need extra water to stay alive. Unlike proper rain gauges the bucket factors in moisture lost to the wind. It won’t however factor in moisture lost to ground infiltration, but my hole does (seriously, stop sniggering). Rain in Caithness is regular but not very often too heavy. In terms of inches of precipitation it’s similar to Kent, apparently. Windier though. The bucket has so far not gone beyond half full, but hasn’t gone lower than four inches deep either. The sun and wind evaporate the moisture fairly consistently, so will be having a similar effect on the pasture. Our soil isn’t waterlogged, it’s intermittently wet because moisture is slow to percolate through the clay subsoil. And that can be fixed easily through sensitive earthwork construction. It’s a game changer for our understanding of this site. And that, I think you’ll agree, isn’t a bad result from a forgotten bucket.

Chicken of the woods.

By Andy Williams.

I’ve always enjoyed spending time outside, even as a kid. As an adult, when I could afford better toys, I went through the whole bushcraft thing. Wild camping, friction fire lighting, foraging for wild food and so on. It was that interest in wild foods that originally motivated my research into alternatives to industrially produced food. We experimented with all kinds of foraged ingredients but nothing is quite as exciting as finding a prime mushroom spot. A few years ago we were exploring some ancient woods and came across chicken of the woods. It’s a gorgeous fungus, top of our wish list, but unfortunately this example was old and woody. In its prime it’s said to be similar in taste and texture to chicken meat. Still, now we knew of an infected tree we just needed to come back earlier next year and we’d be sorted! We’ve never found it on that tree or any other in all that time.

Fast forward to deep winter at the croft, and I came across chicken of the woods inoculated dowels on a gourmet mushroom specialist site. I scanned the list of woods it would work with and saw ash among the species recommended. We had an ash tree that needed to come down. Beautiful. I stuck to the shiitake spawn I needed at that time for inoculating sycamore logs and stumps, but never looked at that ash tree the same way again. Yesterday it was the ash tree’s turn. I removed the branches but left seven feet of the trunk and branch stumps on the roots. I ring barked it, and drilled plenty of holes for the inoculated plugs that I’d ordered a month previously. The seller recommends at least fifty plugs for a tree this thick. I used a hundred and twenty. I *really* want to eat chicken of the woods. You can buy special white wax for sealing the plug faces but it’s just white cheese wax really. Why be white? White is boring. I went with red. The tree looks….. unusual. I rather like it.

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While I was at it, I’d ordered a load more shiitake spawn. The stumps of the sycamores lie very close to a stone wall, so I can’t ring bark them with any kind of saw. I’d been a little light with the plugs I’d tapped into the stumps during the winter, my main interest had been the logs cut from them and I’d only put the extras into the stumps to use them up. This spring however the stumps have started sprouting new shoots. Small ones but still, not ideal. They’re very close to the house and those trees were big enough for the roots to be potentially causing problems for the foundations. I decided to reinforce the shiitake inoculation. A lot. I’ve yet to inoculate the severed branches of the ash, but after they’re done I’ll put the surplus plugs into the stumps too. This is how they looked before the sealing wax.

Now they look just as odd as the ash trunk does. Sooner or later people are going to work out this isn’t your average croft. I’d like to point out that I’ve made no groan-worthy puns like not having mush-room for farming, or being a fun-gi. That’s the other Williams. You’re welcome.

Say hello to my little friends #2

By Andy Williams.

Finally, we have some livestock. No, not chickens. Think smaller. Think much less aggressive. Think just as likely to eat you given half a chance. We finally have our worm farm. We’ve been burning all our food scraps and vegetable peelings since we moved in, so as not to attract vermin. We don’t generate much, after croft work all day we tend to demolish meals, but vegetable peelings are a resource that I don’t like wasting. The worms turn that waste stream into valuable worm castings and liquid plant feed. You can buy commercial units but they can cost upwards of £90 and it’s hard justifying that sort of expense when we’re on a tight budget. This is my solution.

I started with a pair of 80 litre recycled plastic tubs. I drilled a load of holes in the bottom of one, and fitted a tap in the side of the other, right at the bottom.

I put a double layer of weed membrane in the bottom of the first tub, to cover the holes, and filled the tub with worm bedding material. In my case, I used old manure and hay. When we were digging the old manure out of the derelict garage, there was a thick layer of hay that was reasonably intact. It was full of composting worms, so I set a load of it aside for this project. I’d also set aside a bucket of really prime material that was more worms than manure, and had been feeding them with old coffee grounds. I added this bucket to the top of the tub while I was at it.

I put a couple of bricks in the bottom of the other tub, and put it up on a stand I made from stacked rocks. I put the manure filled tub inside the one on the stand. Quick bit of advice here, it turns out that 80 litres of wet manure is quite heavy. Shocker eh? It would have been much easier to put the manure in after putting it on the stand. It was raining, I was rushing. Give me a break. Anyway, I added some clean cardboard to the top, this keeps the bedding moist. I’d cut a scrap of plywood to size, and put it on top as a lid, held down with a rock. Job done. To add scraps I just take the lid off, fold the cardboard back and put them on top of the bedding.

Job done. The liquid feed will collect in the bottom tub, and get drained off using the tap. To harvest the castings I’ll just start adding food scraps and coffee grounds to one side. Within a few days most of the worms should have gone to that area. allowing me to harvest the other side and replace with fresh bedding. Then I’ll repeat the process on the other side over the next week or two.