Archive for July, 2013

Permaculture Principles on a Smallholding

Written by patrickw on . Posted in Uncategorized

It’s always interesting to revisit a place which I designed. In fact to say ‘I designed’ is over-egging it a bit. Usually people get me in to give them a bit of basic advice and then take the detailed design forward themselves. Those first, broad-bushsroke decisions are the really important ones, and often the most baffling for a new occupant.

Dan and Maria’s smallholding is one such place. I revisited last week, two and a half years after my initial visit, when I walked round with Dan and gave him some advice. The land is all very steep. At the bottom, in the most sheltered position, was a field mostly of grass and a little less steep than the others. This is the area I suggested for the vegetable garden. It’s sheltered but well ventilated and the soil is good. Their neighbour has a digger and he made short work of terracing it for vegetable production.

I strongly urged Dan that they should pitch their yurt in the corner of this field. This is the permaculture principle of zoning: put the element which needs most attention right outside the back door. In all my experience of permaculture design this is the most powerful design decision that can be made and Maria and Dan’s experience has bourne it out.

“Living right beside the vegeteables is incredibly important,” said Dan. “You can talk about the importance of compost and getting the soil right and it’s true, but the energy of being right there and giving the plants all that that attention is even more important, especially if you’re doing it for a living.” And I must say the truth of it is there to see in the quality of their garden, full of abundant, healthy plants and not a thing out of place. They make a living on a very small area, selling salad and other veg to local markets and restaurants.

“It’s specially important when you have young children,” added Maria. “They can be inside the yurt while you’re just outside, within earshot, working.”

On my first visit, one of the steeper fields, higher up was partly grass and partly bracken and bramble. I suggested this would be the place for the orchard they planned, and to plant the trees on the bracken area rather than the grass as it makes a better companion for young trees. This they have done and the growth of the young fruit trees is impressive. Dan is cutting down the bramble and bracken regularly, with the intention that the grass should eventually recolonise. This involves cutting several times a year and I was deeply impressed by the amount of work he’s putting in.

The third field was totally overgrown with brambles, bracken and gorse. Here I suggested a timber and firewood plantation, and they’ve planted 16 species of trees and shrubs to give a wide variety of produce in the future. (Hazel, sweet chestnut, hornbeam, black locust, oak, silver birch, small leaved lime, field maple, rowan, wild cherry, crab apple, hawthorn, guelder rose, spindle, alder buckthorn and common dogwood.) Here too Dan is cutting back the regrowth regularly, though perhaps more often than necessary in my opinion. Once young trees get their heads above bracken and gorse they invariably win the competition and shade out the lower-growing plants.

“We really appreciate having the use of this land,” said Dan. “We once lived on some land that wasn’t being looked after properly and we resolved that if we ever got out own we really would look after it well.” Now they’re doing just that. Their smallholding is both productive and brimming with wildlife, with soil well conserved and everything in its place.

It’s always a satisfying experience for me to see people making a go of a smallholding. I know just how much hard work and how much skill goes into it and I take my hat off to them. In this case it’s also satisfying to know that I played some part in bringing it all about.

Living on the Land – at Last!

Written by patrickw on . Posted in Uncategorized

I usually reckon that if you want to make a living growing vegetables for a box scheme you need five acres (2ha) and a tractor. That’s what Ruth Hancock and her partner Jason ‘Mole’ Cole have got in east Devon at their smallholding, Fresh and Green. In fact Ruth confesses to a certain love for her tractor and a weakness for buying second hand machinery to pull behind it. She hardly ploughs, though. Her main implement is a disc harrow, which cultivates the top layer of the soil but leaves the soil profile undisturbed – a good compromise between the no-till ideal and the practicalities of growing a crop.

Ruth, with tractor and compost heap.

I also maintain – and I’m far from being the only one who says this – that the real key to success on an organic market garden is to live on site. There are such a diversity of jobs to be done, often from first thing in the morning till well after dark, that living off site and commuting to work is a crazy proposition. But that’s what Ruth has been doing for the seven years since they got the land. (Mole mainly works off site as a contract gardener.) But now at last they’ve got temporary planning permission to live on their land and by the time you read this the mobile home will be on site.
Box scheme customers want a lot of variety in their weekly box so a much greater range of crops need to be grown than would be the case on another kind of market garden. This makes for a large number of small crops, so constant attention is needed. The customers also want supply throughout the year, so successional cropping is necessary, which adds to the complexity.

Just some of the diversity of crops on the farm.

One of the greatest challenges for organic growers is slugs, and picking them off the crops by hand is an essential component of a control programme without the use of chemicals. Slugs mainly come out after dark, which makes for a ridiculously long working day if you can’t take a break for an hour or so and start again when the sun has set. This is easy enough if your home is right there on the farm but hard if you live miles away.
Chickens and ducks, when integrated into the crop rotation, can seriously decrease the slug population. They also add another welcome product to the boxes, while they clear up the remains of a previous crop and weed the ground ready for the next one. This is the ‘chicken tractor’ idea which is such a favourite of permaculture. Ruth has both chickens and ducks and also pigs, which can take on heavier cultivation jobs. All these need looking after, feeding and in the case of the poultry shutting up at night, letting out in the morning and egg collecting. This is another important reason for living on site.

The pigs: before and after.

Polytunnels are an essential component of a box scheme. People expect tomatoes, cucumbers and other tender crops in summer and salads in the winter. None of these can be reliably grown outside in the British climate. Controlling the humidity and temperature in a tunnel is the organic way of preventing fungus diseases, and the only realistic way of doing this on a small scale is to be on hand to open and close ventilation as necessary, at any time through the day or night. All in all they had an undeniable need to live on the land, but such is the nature of the planning system that it took them seven years to get permission.

Inside one of the polytunnels.

I have a personal connection with Ruth and Mole and their land. Mole came on one of our permaculture design courses and when they first got the land they asked me down to give some advice on designing it. So I was very happy to be with them on the land last week when they celebrated getting their planning permission. One of the things I had recommended was a network of windbreaks and I was pleased to see them growing well. Good shelter makes a big difference to plant growth on most sites but it’s often sadly neglected. Next to telling people they need to live as close to their vegetables as possible, it’s often the most valuable thing I can recommend to people designing a new growing site.

One of the windbreaks, with Italian alder for height and a mix of native shrubs for a thick bottom.

Permaculture Design Course on Dartmoor