Spud bed, round two.

By Andy Williams.

Well, that’s the potato bed finally done. Remember that all I had to do was dig up that one last sheet of roofing metal and I’d be ready to build the no till bed? Well the metal sheet came out easily enough. The two more sheets of baling mesh I discovered while digging it out however took a good deal longer. Still, finally it was done and I was able to start barrowing manure out of the garage to build the first layer of the bed. Digging manure out of the garage always seems to take longer than planned because of all the plastic mixed in with it, but for a while it seemed to be nothing but manure for a whole glorious afternoon. I was able to blast through it quickly for once instead of picking over it, feeling the wet goat crap seep through my work gloves.

For the record, my hands have never been softer. I wonder if there’s a market for ‘Goat Shit Spa’?

Anyway, I was about halfway through covering the area with manure when it occurred to me that I could modify the bed structure to better suit the materials we had. A conventional no till potato bed is a thick layer of compost or reasonably rotted manure covered with a mulch such as straw or hay. The chitted potatoes are put on top of the compost, and the mulch is pulled together to cover them. The potatoes root down into the manure/compost and the tubers develop there. Generally the limiting factor with this technique is the depth of the layer the potatoes grow in. It’s often used as a technique to grow a staple food while transitioning from lawn to vegetable garden. The grass and weeds die under the thick layers of added materials, while the potatoes grow. What if you have a near limitless supply of manure to use though? We had a huge bale of spoiled hay to use up on this bed, far more than we needed to just mulch that small area. Our limiting factor is the small area of ground free of creeping buttercup, not the materials needed. I decided to see what would happen if I used a layer of manure, a layer of hay, then another layer of manure with a hay mulch over the lot.

I was spreading the manure I’d already barrowed out, when I went to move the wheelbarrow. I shoved the fork into the ground out of the way when I heard a thud that made my heart sink. I knew that sound. Buried roofing sheet. The area over it was already a foot deep in manure but there was no helping it. Digging it out took the rest of the morning. The new section of baling mesh I found while digging it out took a chunk of the afternoon. Still, by the time the light stared to fade to evening I had the whole bed completed. I’ve left most of the fence stone slabs in behind it to give it a little wind protection, and where the one is missing I’ve left a keyhole indent into the centre of the bed, so we can access the whole bed without having to step on it. Overall I’m rather pleased with it.

Where the raised beds have been built in the main veg garden, we have a serious problem with buttercup. We’ve decided to sheet mulch them with membrane until next year, by which time the buttercup should be dead. I still had some hay left, so next to the raised beds, I made some large mounds of mostly rotted manure and have mulched them with some of the hay. We plan to plant squash and pumpkins through the mulch into the manure compost, and train the plants out over the sheet mulch. That way we can actually get some kind of yield from the beds without uncovering them. That’s the theory anyway. We’ll see how it works in practice.

Gimme shelter.

By Gabrielle Williams.

Here is a perfect illustration of the effect of wind on plants:

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Check out the contrast on this hawthorn, between the leaves above the level of the stone wall versus the leaves below. This is what we’re up against here in Caithness and the reason that we’ve planted so many trees around the perimeter, to act as a shelter belt for the site.

Even the clumps of rushes are helping to give a certain amount of cover for the new trees. We’ve observed that those trees which are in proximity to rushes seem to be further along. So while it’s tempting to ‘tidy’ the site by removal of those rushes, we’ll leave them in situ to serve a useful purpose, until the saplings are more developed. The rushes will find the site more hostile after the swale systems are created anyway, although they’ll still need to be dug out.

The hawthorn pictured above is due to be relocated, along with its pretty daffodil companions, as they’re right where the kitchen herb garden is going to be.

Ex-seed-ingly good.

By Gabrielle Williams.

Do you feel excited when reading seed catalogues and make a long mental list of all the seeds you want/need/covet? Does the arrival of fresh new packets of seed make your breathing quicken and your heart sing? Me too! Build a little seed bank in your soil (with apologies to They Might Be Giants).

Just look at these beauties:

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I’ve planted the watercress in the ditch at the other side of our lane, where the overflow from the septic seeps. It’ll polish the water, provide habitat, look more interesting than a damp ditch and give us a sustainable source of seeds to harvest, to use once we’ve created ponds.

The flower seeds have been sown in various locations: along the lane, round the berm next to the old croft house, along the top of the field next to the wild seeds we’ve planted. I’ve saved some, such as the red sunflower, to bring on in pots as well. The sainfoin is a good forage crop for ruminants and we’d like to get it naturalised here; it’s also nitrogen-fixing, as is the lupin. All the other flower seeds, such as the cornflowers, are great for encouraging bees and other pollinators, but also for creating delicious, sweet hay. Of course, it’ll make the site prettier to look at as well, which is a bonus: where practical and idealistic meet. Beauty is a yield too.

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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How hard can a spud bed be?

By Andy Williams.

On Tuesday, frustrated that we still have no veg in the ground, I decided to work on a no till potato bed. There’s an area near the derelict garage that’s been buried under an old hay bale since the last owner lived here, that seemed relatively free of buttercup. It’s not under any of the areas I want to put structures on, won’t be in the way when we put in more veg beds and won’t encroach on any paths. Perfect. We’d not even have to move the old bale very far. I thought I’d probably be done before lunch, leaving the afternoon clear for some heavy work. Oh how naive.

As I rolled the bale away, I found the edge of a piece of the plastic mesh used on hay bales, sticking out of the ground. No big deal, that would come up easily, wouldn’t it? It was only an inch or so underground. That was true for about a foot, then it went straight underground at right angles. Ah. Oh well. Still be done by tea time, eh? As I dug I found more and more sheets of the plastic mesh, all interleaved through the soil at different depths, tangled in places. This mesh is evil stuff. It’s weak enough to tear if you try to pull it out with brute force, though it’s impressive how much it’ll take when a few strands are twisted together. Like most plastics, it’s pretty much rot-proof so it couldn’t just stay in place. The advantage of no dig is we would probably never need to dig down that far again, but knowing it was there would be like an itch in my brain that wouldn’t go away. Every time I looked at that bed I’d *know* it was there. It had to come out.

When we bought the croft I’d said that really such decent pasture was wasted on us. We wanted to change the site to something much more diverse, so we’d have coped with transforming former forestry plantation land, a bog, or exposed bedrock. We’d certainly looked at all three during our land hunt. Appearances could be deceptive however. The front and back gardens, along with the area we’re transforming into the veg garden, are riddled with plastic and baling twine. In permaculture terms, it’s the whole of zone 1. You can’t sink a spade in anywhere without it catching on a strand of that indestructible string, and when it’s buried in a clay soil it’ll stop your spade just as surely as stone will. We’ve filled bin bags with the stuff, along with food wrappers, baling twine, pet food pouches, baling twine, strands from rotten clothing, baling twine…. You get the idea. I’ve found plastic 18 inches down. Not once, but over and over. It’s literally everywhere, and getting rid of it is going to be an ongoing job that will take years. Luckily, removing it is fairly satisfying.

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This mesh however is a whole different level of frustrating. It goes down well over a foot, and as I’ve removed it, I’ve worked out far beyond the area I’d intended for the spud bed. I’ve filled a large wheelbarrow with it three times so far. Well I say ‘it’, but there’s a co-starring role for the baling twine of course. Last night, just as I was finishing, I came across a sheet of corrugated roofing metal. It’s four inches down. It’s large. I’m sure though that after it’s out I’ll be done though. No, really. No laughing at the back!

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The living seed bank.

By Andy Williams.

Last autumn, with the croft purchase imminent, we started collecting wild flower seeds from hedgerows while out walking. We plan eventually to get bees, but when we hit the books, a lot of varieties of meadow flowers have entries that read “present throughout the British Isles, except the North of Scotland”. It quickly became clear that we’d need to introduce wild flowers, along with flowering tree varieties, to give the bees sufficient nectar sources throughout the year. Luckily we were given permission to collect seed from a privately owned ancient meadow, which really increased both the volume and diversity of the seeds we were able to collect. It’s possible to buy wild flower meadow seed of course but it’s incredibly expensive and we liked the idea of gathering it from places where we have fond memories, bringing a little of the wild places near our last home with us.

With spring finally looking like it might be here, this morning we decided to use the seed in a small, prepared area as a living seed bank. We plan to harvest seed from the varieties that do well here and increase the area covered each year. We chose an area at the top of the site, where pressure from creeping buttercup is the lightest. Much as I’d love to have the area around the house as a wild flower meadow, until we’ve managed to take the buttercup down a little, nothing is going to get a look in. The field hasn’t been grazed or cut for a few years, so the dead grass is very thick. Raking it out was hard work, but without soil contact we’d have been throwing precious seed away, effectively. I cleared an area roughly 3 metres by 5 metres and ran over it with a push mover a couple of times. Not much in life makes you look as optimistic as running up and down pushing a tiny hand mower in the middle of five acres.

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It’s not perfect, but at least the seed will stand a chance now. I mixed the seed with half a bucket of damp sand. It’s always breezy on the top field and a lot of the species we gathered have very fine seed.

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We broadcast it over the area and scuffed the whole area with our boots in the hopes the birds will struggle to find the bigger varieties. While I was going through boxes looking for the bag of seed I came across an envelope marked ‘BIG’. I’d forgotten I had these. One of the sites where I previously worked had started last year putting in wild flower strips in their lawns. They cut them before they set seed which always baffled me, but left one that was away from public view. This one was of giant varieties. Mallow plants over 7 feet tall, giant millet and others I’d never seen before. I had to have some, hence the forgotten envelope. We’ve put hundreds of trees in around the top field. many of them hardy flowering species. Generally we placed them up to four feet from the fence line, but along the top of the field there’s a strip about 7 feet wide that’s impossible to get a spade into. We had to plant the trees in a little further as a result, but it’s left an unused strip that I’ve been looking to use for something. I mixed a handful of sunflower seeds we’ve been using for edible shoots in with them and planted a strip about 10 feet long. It’ll be interesting to see how they cope with the wind but what the hell, it’s all biomass.

Watch the birdie.

By Gabrielle Williams.

Last September, when we took possession of the property, we spent our first night sleeping on site in our camper. That morning, I opened the front door into the house and was followed indoors by a little wren. I took it as a good omen, despite being a rational and phlegmatic human who isn’t usually given to flights of fancy. Since then, we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the variety of birds that we’ve seen around the croft, considering the paucity of trees and hedges. Feathery roll-call to date is: buzzard, curlew, blue tit, great tit, blackbird, starling, chaffinch, wren, dunnock, robin and, of course, the ubiquitous crows, gulls and pigeons. There’s also an owl or two, judging by the plethora of pellets in the field.

Say hello to my little friend:

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We’ve a fat ball feeder and a seed feeder in the front garden. This blue tit comes to visit us most mornings with its mate. They seem keen to come inside, occasionally headbutting the window enthusiastically; seen here clinging to the render beside the window. I’m thinking about placing a few stickers on the glass, to make it more bird-friendly.

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In the last couple of months, we’ve planted in excess of 650 trees and shrubs. It’s going to be interesting to discover what other bird life might be encouraged to join us here, once habitat has been increased. We’ll be installing bird and bat boxes in the trees as soon as they’re big enough.

Here’s Buzz, eyeing up his lunch:

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