Archive for March, 2013

Ourganics: a Permaculture Smallholding

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Ourganics is as much about people as it is about growing food,’ Pat Bowcock told us as she showed us around her 5 acre (2ha) holding deep in the Dorset countryside. ‘I couldn’t have done this without my mum and my kids – and 1500 people a year come through here.’


Pat at the sluice where the water enters her land.

It was originally a water meadow, a traditional irrigated grass field designed to give early grass in the spring for sheep. Pat has cleverly transformed the irrigation system to water the crops she grows, including vegetables, a forest garden, a polytunnel and willow. When the water enters the field it’s stored in a pond at the top, which gives full control over the flow through the garden.


The flood garden.

The flood garden is the main vegetable growing area. The water is let into it and floods the paths, coming half way up the retaining boards to give the right amount of irrigation to the vegetable beds. It only works because a large bulk of water can be let in from the pond at one time. Vegetables are Pat’s main cash crop but these days she’s finding it harder to sell the veg as more and more people are growing them for sale as she does.


The forest garden.


The hugelkultur.

Pat is trying an experimental hugelkultur – a high raised bed with slowly-rotting wood buried beneath the soil to give fertility over a period of several years. This method has become popular since Sepp Holzer introduced it to the permaculture community worldwide. Pat’s version is unusual in that it has boards on the outside but these are necessary when using flood irrigation.


A general view.

She originally planted a lot of willow, which grows well with all the water. But she found it takes a great deal of work in proportion to its value, so now she’s taken some of it out and what remains is harvested by the customer. She gets her firewood from the other trees, mainly the mature ones in the old hedges.


The polytunnel.

The polytunnel is watered by a hose with a little electric pump. This gives more control than flooding. Inside the tunnel there’s a small pond, which no doubt attracts frogs for slug control. But Pat pointed out that it’s also her water-level guage. It goes up and down according to the height of the water table and allows her to monitor the whole water situation on the holding.


Pat’s house.

Over the years countless people have helped, some paid some for a swap. Ourganics is open seven days a week and anyone can come and work in exchange for some food. As Pat said, it’s as much about people as about growing food.

Vegetable Gardening: Sowing Seeds

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it’s nearly the end of March and I haven’t sown a seed yet. I reckon that here in the south of England early April is about right. I used to rush to get them in early so as to make the harvesting season longer. But over the years I’ve learnt that a more relaxed attitude often gives better results.
Seeds sown too early, often in a warm spell, can suffer a check if a cold spell follows, and this check affects the plants’ vigour throughout their life. Or they just struggle with generally low temperatures. Later sown seeds are much more likely to have reasonable temeratutures throughout their early life and grow steadily.

Well-grown lettuce plants in modules.

I raise all my seedlings in modules. It’s more work than sowing them directly into the ground but it gets the little plants off to a much better start. It means fewer losses to slugs, as they spend their most vulnerable time in the greenhouse, which I can keep slug-free. It also means fewer gaps in the crops, and where you re-sow into a gap you get a much smaller plant which never really catches up with its neighbours.
A variation on modules is rootrainers. Orgiginally developed for trees, these are useful for deep-rooted plants like sweet corn and runner beans. I was introduced to this idea by Deano Martin, who kindly gave me my first set of rootrainers.

Pea plants in rootrainers ready to plant out.

The real expert gardeners say you can’t beat peat-based compost. Moorland Gold is a brand of compost based on peat particles dredged from reservoirs, so using it doens’t contribute to the destruction of peat bogs. I’ve used it with success. But I have also used my own mix: 2 parts municipal compost, 2 parts of fertile topsoil and 1 part sharp sand – and I really can’t say it performs any worse. It’s much cheaper, too.
Municipal compost is made from the garden waste people take into the local recycling centre. It’s low in nutrients, but that’s just what little seeds need. For a potting mix, where more nutrients are needed, it can be replaced with seived garden compost.

It’s very easy to get this wrong, either too much or too little – and the weather makes a huge difference to the amount of water needed. Until the seeds germinate you need to keep the surface layer moist. But once they germinate I always water from below, ie I stand the modules in a tray of water so the compost can suck it up. This way you can be sure you get the water where it’s needed, down at the bottom of the module where the roots grow. Keeping the surface relatively dry helps prevent damping off disease.

Everyone has their own recipie for raising seedlings, depending on what kind of gardener they are. I would describe myself as the no-frills, laid-back kind. It works for me.

Fivepenny Farm

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Fivepenny Farm is not only a fine smallholding, it’s the nerve centre of the Peasant Evolution Producers Co-operative. Jyoti Fernandes is both the farmer of Five Penny and the main mover and shaker of the Co-operative.

Jyoti shows us some of her cheeses.

When Jyoti and her partner Dai came to Fivepenny ten years ago it was a blank sheet of 21 acres (8.4ha). They could lay it out just as they wanted. This meant they could place the house, the garden and the polytunnel right next to each other, so when the children were still little Jyoti could care for them and get a bit of farm work done too. Where they’d lived before the vegetable garden was far from the house and this made any work at all difficult with small children.
This is the permaculture principle of zoning and it makes a huge difference to your productivity, whether you have kids or not. I’ve seen the power of it on many different holdings I’ve visited over the years.
The planning authorities made them move the house after some time. (I think they just wanted show some muscle because they’d had to grant permission overall.) Now the house is midway between the garden and the cowshed, which is a good placement too. Jyoti says milking is her favourite time of day, and you can see she loves her cows. She points out the importance of the concrete floor and apron of the cowshed. It means you can scrape up the manure and make use of it elsewhere on the farm, rather than it being trodden in. She’s also built a hay barn, using timber from the wood you can see across the valley.
Jyoti’s energy is incredible. The amount of work it must have taken in the early years – bringing up children, constructing a farm from scratch, and making a living from the land all at the same time – makes you wonder how she did it. But she doesn’t look worn down by it; she looks energised and inspired, living the life she loves.

The Cooperative
The key to making a living on a smallholding like this is to sell direct to the consumer and to add value to the produce. Jyoti sells most of what she produces on her market stall in Bridport. She keeps Jacob sheep, which grow slowly and wouldn’t be considered economic by a large-scale sheep farmer, but she sells the sheepkins on her stall and they can fetch as much as £150 each.

Jacob sheep at Fivepenny Farm

Adding value means processing, and that’s where the Cooperative comes in. Making apple juice multiplies the selling price of apples several times but in order to do it you have to have officially approved premises. So Jyoti got together with other smallholders in the area and raised the funds to build a barn on Fivepenny Farm for processing all their produce. Built by forester and green frame builder Mike Gardner, the barn is a wonder to behold. Inside it has a fruit processing room, a dairy for cheesmaking and a butchery.

The Barn

There’s a remarkable number of smallholders making a living off the land in this corner of England. Without the Cooperative and the barn at Fivepenny I’m sure there would be a lot fewer of them.


The Cooperative

Mike Gardner

Permaculture Design Course on Dartmoor