A living fence.

By Andy Williams

Last year, after taking possession of the croft, we spent a week here living in our camper in the driveway. At the time the house wasn’t fit even to camp inside, but the bathroom worked so we were fairly comfortable. Our main reason for being here was to meet the people who were going to make the house liveable, but you can only spend so long looking at the view so I decided to tackle the front garden. It was choked with trees and undergrowth, and while I don’t like taking down trees unnecessarily, they were too big to be that close to the house. The tree slap bang in the middle of the garden was a willow, so rather than just add it to the burn pile I cut the branches into roughly foot long sections. These we stuck in the ground along the western boundary, my reasoning being that it was the direction of the prevailing wind and we knew the croft needed better wind protection. The ground there is also the wettest, giving the willow cuttings the best chance of taking. All there was in the van by way of tools was a folding entrenching tool and a bow saw, so we resorted to kicking a strip clear of the knee-high buttercup to get to the ground. We had to guesstimate the distance from the fence because the fence posts are at all kinds of angles, the bottoms having long since rotted away.

By the time we moved here in mid-winter the buttercup had died back of course, showing the line of willow weaving all over the shop. We’ve since planted a double row of Italian alder along that fence, but I’ve left in the willow to see if they take. Anyway, after taking the cuttings from the thicker sections, I was left with hundreds of twigs from the growing tips. Rather than just leave them on the ground I took a couple of the buckets that were lying around, filled them with rain water and shoved the twigs in. I found some comfrey growing in the understorey, tore plenty of leaves off and shoved them into the buckets to rot down in the water. Comfrey water is an excellent liquid feed, I reasoned it might give the twigs a reasonable chance of rooting. Just before we left the croft, I took a pee in the buckets too, just for good measure. You might be noticing a bit of a pattern here.

That was last September, and I’ve not really given the cuttings any attention until now. We’ve planted 200 willow cuttings along the eastern boundary, but they’re the fast growing Bowles hybrid variety. It’s the kind typically used for biomass crops, and can grow to ten feet in its first year. I plan to use it extensively, but that’s for another post. With the high yielding willow already being established on site I couldn’t think of a suitable use for the willow I cut last year, which is why I’d neglected them so long. Yesterday, while wrestling with the plastic hell that was developing in the potato bed, I decided to take a look at them. I had an idea brewing and besides, I wanted a break from fighting the mesh. The tops looked fairly dead, but the lower parts of the twigs were still green, living wood. Very few of them were showing any root growth but they all looked pretty healthy. These sticks had been completely abandoned all winter, through many periods of freezing and thawing. I took their survival as a good sign. But where to put them?

Our land is north facing. The house sits on the western boundary, and to the east of it is an old barn. Originally it was the house for the croft, and there’s a gentleman in his 80s living locally who was born in it while it was still in use. The roof needs serious repair, it’s four feet deep in the same manure we’re in the process of digging out of the garage, the gutters are missing and the chimney at the south end is leaning at enough of an angle to make me nervous in high winds, but the walls are still looking good and it’s an excellent windbreak. We’ve decided not to even attempt to tackle the barn until next year, but it does need to be factored into the site design. With the House one side and the barn the other, all it needs is a wall to the north and another to the south and it becomes effectively a walled garden. Extremely useful in a windy place like Caithness.

Rather than just building walls, we’re going to use buildings. I want a big workshop at the north end, with PV solar panels on the roof. The south-facing roof on the house is too small to take enough to be of practical use for panels, and with a long-term plan to take the croft off grid, it makes sense to make every structure serve several purposes. At the south end we want to put a big greenhouse, with some very clever systems installed. Eventually it’ll hold the aquaponics system. It’ll have to wait a couple of years however, because I want to take my time and build it properly, and we have our hands full already without having to go through a planning permission application at this point. Rather than just leave the south end of the garden open, we’ve put the willow cuttings in there. If they take, they’ll provide some shelter for the veg plot while growing slowly enough to not take a huge amount of attention to keep them from shading it out. We’ll take them out when it comes time to build the greenhouse where they’re planted. While we were at it, we planted a row of comfrey root cuttings just inside the willow. It’s a fairly shade tolerant plant and it’ll be handy having it right there in the veg garden for making liquid feeds. Not bad for two hours of work, and all free apart from a few quid for the comfrey.

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The beast is done.

Just a quick update today. The weather is fantastic and there’s no wind so we’re doing as many outside jobs as possible that need still conditions.

This morning I pulled five of the stone slabs that form the back fence, including the intimidating one. It’s about 4 1/2 feet by 3 1/2 feet and three inches thick at its thinnest point. I dread to think what it weighs. You can see in the photo how much of it was buried, these fences really aren’t built to be taken down! IMG_7723.JPG

I’ve worked out a technique that uses my body weight to help lever it out of the clay, which makes an asset of being 19 stone, but it still hurts. I need them all out before next Friday, when the cement mixer arrives. A shed is going where these stones currently are and I need to do a lot of ground prep before then.

You don’t need a gym, you need a croft.

By Andy Williams

We all know what a fence looks like. It’s metal wire strung between wooden posts. Usually yes, but there are occasional local variations. In the slate producing areas of north Wales they’re often wire twisted around slate posts. It’s a clever use of what would have been a waste product, and they last a lot longer than virtually any wooden post would. Here in Caithness they have a different variation of a fence. Stone slabs are set upright, with about an inch overlap where they meet. That overlap means that each slab is supported by the slab to either side while supporting both of them at the same time. It’s impossible for any one slab to fall over. Either the whole fence stays up or the whole fence goes over. Caithness tends to be fairly windy, so it’s an excellent solution for livestock. Animals have a solid windbreak to get behind in bad weather. It doesn’t need maintaining like a hedge or fence does. Clever eh? Only one little problem. What if you need to move a solid stone fence?

We have one marking the outline of our back garden, which has stood for 80 years. Over time, the soil inside the garden has built up until the weight of it has slowly pushed the whole fence over at an angle. Its position also means we have to either climb over it or walk around it to get into what will be the veg garden. It’s time for it to go. Simple. Just dig a bit, lift a bit, move onto the next slab, right? In reality it’s not quite that easy, as we discovered yesterday. Every slab is sunk a good two feet into heavy clay soil that hangs onto the stone so well that we have to dig a trench the full depth of the slabs, then lift each out by brute force. They’re typically roughly three feet wide and five feet long, and solid Caithness stone. The real factor in shifting them comes from the thickness, which can vary a lot. The thinner ones I can move fairly easily. I’m not a small person, and after a few months of labouring on the croft I can generally get by. Some of them are three inches thick however, and moving them hurts! In a whole afternoon we only managed to lift out four of them. The way the stones lean into each other means they have to be taken out in order, you can’t just move up and down the row. The next two slabs are  skinny ones. Lovely. But the one after that is three and a half inches thick, and the widest in the whole row. I freely admit it intimidates me. Today my whole upper body aches. I’m giving myself until Monday to recover, then it’s back to the digging. Only thirty of them to go. Doddle. No, really!

The slabs actually have value and are sold second hand locally. We’re going to use them on site. We’re going to turn them into walkways to access the veg garden in wet weather. Barrowing compost, manure and soil amendments out, and harvested crops in, would normally compact the ground and make an awful mess after rain. Not in our garden. We’re having a wide stone pathway running every third bed. It adds functionality to the veg garden at no cost.

Forget the gym. The gym is for the weak. You want The Croft Plan. It’s like a gym, but you never go home. You live at the gym now. And you’ll never leave.