Observations from 58 1/2 degrees north.

By Andy Williams.

There’s no denying it, we’re a long way from the equator in Caithness. It’s presented some interesting opportunities in site design that to be honest I’d not even considered before we moved here. Permaculture design literature will tell you not to do anything until you’ve lived on a site a whole year, so you’ll have observed it in all seasons before finalising your design. That sounds like excellent advice, but how many people can afford that? In a real world setting, most of us buy land with a view to generating an income from it, living on it, or both. It’s impossible to do much of either without putting in a garden or putting up some kind of structure, so inevitably a certain amount of design work happens immediately by necessity. In reality, I suspect most people designing and implementing a permaculture system do something along the same lines as we did, get essential things built/planted/running immediately after settling on the layout of the main structural elements of the site, while keeping everything crossed that we’ll not notice something major in six months time that we should have done differently.

Our land slopes vaguely to the northeast. Across most of the northern hemisphere, a south-facing slope is considered the ideal for agriculture because of the solar gain. Land with a 5 degree slope to the south has the same solar gain as flat land a hundred or so miles to the south. Since morning sun is considered cooler and less intense than evening sun, an east facing slope is generally better than a west-facing slope. Slope really plays that big a role in microclimate. Thing is though, up here the sun isn’t always south. At midsummer, the sun rises and sets only slightly either side of due north. And that means that for almost half the day a north facing slope is getting that lovely increase in solar gain.

So, let’s look at what that means to us with our northeast facing land. In the middle of summer our field has direct solar gain until well into the afternoon, then has less intense gain through the late afternoon and evening. Since we have 20 hours of light here in midsummer, that’s a lot of sunshine for land that doesn’t face south. In winter of course we have the opposite effect and the sun crosses a very narrow proportion of the sky. Our swales, and therefore also our fruit and nut trees, run on contour along the slope. We’d always planned on putting fruiting shrubs and dwarf trees in front of the main tree rows on the southwest side, where they’ll get good sun through spring, summer and autumn. I’m also now planning on putting early maturing varieties on the northeast edge too, to make the most of that light. I’d always planned on a self-powered subtropical greenhouse to the south of the veg garden, with the north wall insulated to minimise heat loss during winter. Now I’m also considering a couple of simpler large polycarbonate greenhouses for extending our short growing season. With the extremely long summer day length up here, the growth is incredible. With a little playing around with the timings we should be able to harvest and preserve the summer gluts and still get another crop established before the days get short.

We’ve changed very little of the design over the last 6 months, what we have has been mostly adding to it rather than significantly altering the layout. One such change is to the duck ponds. We’d originally intended to place them immediately to the south of the subtropical greenhouse, to reflect as much of the low winter sun as possible into the greenhouse. This summer we’ve decided we’d really love an organic swimming pond, so that’s taken the place of the duck ponds next to the house. Ducks are still on the plan, but their ponds will be a little further out, below the bottom swale spillway. Another change is inside the house. After one winter of having to burn coal we’ve decided we have to switch to wood. You can’t use coal ash in the garden and just generating that much waste for landfill doesn’t sit well. So, next summer we’re replacing the old back boiler system with a rocket mass heater in the lounge. It runs on stick wood, a surprisingly small amount of it, so we can be completely self-sufficient for fuel by 2019. We’re going to plant more willow. A lot of willow. Any surplus can be mulched or turned into biochar, making our home heating system not just sustainable but regenerative.

 

 

Earthworks update.

By Andy Williams.

It hasn’t rained. It hasn’t rained in a very long time. We’ve had one brief shower since early May, roughly eight weeks ago. Now normally I’d be loving the opportunity to get so much done out on the croft, but we have a lot of bare earth baking in the sun, waiting for rain to sprout the meadow seed mix we’ve spread everywhere. The existing pasture is coping with the dry conditions well, but everything we’ve planted is struggling. In late winter we planted well over 700 bare root trees. They’ve done well, but a few weeks ago trees that were healthy started suddenly dying, When we pulled back the mulch around the base of a random tree, we found that the soil had shrunk so badly that it had left a huge crack that took two spadefuls of soil to fill. Every tree was like this, apart from the willow.

We’ve had to barrow soil to every tree and shrub we’ve planted, remove the stones holding the mulch down, remove the mulches, fill the trenches, reverse the process, then water them all. It’s taken some time. While we were at it, we added a scoop of slow release fertiliser to the fill around each tree. It’s not something we plan on doing in the long term but these trees have had a very rough start and at this point their survival has become the priority. Under the circumstances, I’m comfortable bending the rules occasionally to accelerate the establishment of the system. This is extreme weather, and once established the systems should be resilient enough to cope with such events easily, but only if we can get it there. The earthwork systems we’ve installed should make droughts like these practically irrelevant, but only after they’ve actually had some rainfall to harvest. Is it any wonder I’m frustrated?

One silver lining to it being so dry for so long is we’ve been able to see some of the wildlife benefits of the earthworks. Even when they’re bone dry, hard baked soil with no plant cover, the birds love the earthworks. The crest of each swale berm has a healthy sprinkling of bird droppings. Many bird species won’t search for food very far from a perch, and for some species fence posts just won’t cut it. Instead of an unbroken field of grasses and scrubby plants it’s now got high and low points, sheltered and exposed spots. The diversity of birds in the field has already started to increase as a result, and now occasionally at dusk we see a barn owl hunting. I often find evidence of bird kills on the very highest points of the berms, though I couldn’t say what species is doing it. The berms will eventually be planted to productive tree and shrub species, so will really benefit from the enrichment.

This week, after much sulking  thought, I worked out I could just about get a hose to the lowest earthwork. This is a stepped pond, with a curved berm behind it, shaped to catch and reflect the southern sun. It has a contour ditch to one side that collects overland flow and directs it into the pond, and should the pond fill completely during a major rain event the ditch will act as a level sill spillway so the berm won’t blow out from the weight of the water. There are several level platforms cut into the sides of the pond, the largest being the highest, just a couple of inches lower than the height of the level sill spillway.  In the event of the pond becoming overfull, first it’ll soak the top platform, then start to soak into the berm. Only then will the spillway kick in, so the water can’t get any deeper. It means that should we choose to, we can release water from further up in the landscape, flood the pond and soak the berm to water the whole area. The back of the berm has been planted with willow cuttings and then the whole area has been seeded with a meadow flower mix. It’s a small pond by agricultural standards, but even after months without rain it has a couple of feet of water in the bottom. Once it’s greened out the plant roots will knit the soil together and it’ll be a source of permanent water as well as being one of the most sheltered places on the croft. When the willow on the back of the berm has grown, it’ll be woven together to make a dense screen that will really shelter the whole earthwork from the wind. I dug a lot of big stone from this pond, so I’d planned on adding them to the berm to act as heat stores. If you’re going to add piles of stones to an earthwork though, you might as well make them comfortable to sit on. I’m going to rebuild the first of the stone seats I put together, but it’s hardly a priority.

With the hose just able to reach the end of the water collection ditch I was able to finally test it all. You can spend all day double checking the levels, but until you see water in it there’s always a niggling doubt in the back of the mind. This is the only truly finished part of the earthworks. By the time I’d finished this one, the sun had baked the soil so hard that trying to work it with spades is just brutal. I’ll post the other parts of the system as they become finished, because in the raw form they really don’t look like much. Have a look at these two photos for the contrast.

I don’t expect the pond to be full very often, and almost never during summer. If it’ll hold a couple of feet of water when it hasn’t rained in months however I’m sure it’ll be significantly higher for most of the year. Most new ponds seep a lot more water than they do when they’re older, clay particles washed into the pond are drawn into the tiny seep spaces and partially block them, making the pond to hold water better. You can buy preparations to give a pond a head start, or to fix a leaky pond. Other techniques use ducks to manure the water, because duck poo has particularly fine particles. We don’t have ducks yet but we do have clay. I’ve mixed up a tub of clay and water into the consistency of double cream. I’ve watered a third of it down and added it to the pond while it’s full. The pond already seeps very, very slowly, so any improvement should be significant. When the pond is full it’s over 8 feet deep in the middle. It’ll be interesting seeing what sort of depth it settles at. The next phase of the earthworks isn’t going to be built for at least a couple of years, but I’m so pleased by how this pond turned out that I’m really looking forward to it.

“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.