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The Permaculture Smallholding: Winter ‘To-Do’ List

Written by patrickw on . Posted in Uncategorized

Caroline Aitken talks us through a list of jobs to help keep us busy on the short winter days to come.

Winter is upon us and here on my smallholding in Dartmoor we’re enjoying the fruits of our labour while preparing for the growing season ahead. The outdoor working day is shorter now the nights are drawing in, but there’s still plenty To Do.

Clearing, Composting and Mulching
In the annual veg garden we’re cleared the harvested beds which will need to be mulched with compost. If you are on an exposed site you could cover the compost with another layer of mulch such as straw or bracken to protect the soil while the beds are out of use, but if you have a major slug problem like we do you may choose not to, as these kinds of mulches can harbour hibernating slugs and protect them from freezing weather.

mulch 5

An organic spot mulch made with newspaper and woodchip.

As we’re about to use all of our compost on the beds we started making a new heap a few weeks ago. Compost is made in layers of greens (soft, green sappy materials high in nitrogen) and browns (dry, fibrous materials high in carbon but non-woody) at a ratio of about 2:1 in volume. Layers are built up over time as materials become available and the compost should be ready to use next winter. If you have at least a cubic meter of fresh materials all at once you could try making hot compost. Because of the volume the heap gets nice and hot as the microbes get to work. This speeds up the process and can make compost in just 2 months, although it would take longer in cold weather. Once the heap has heated up and is beginning to cool down again you should turn it to get the uncomposted materials on the outer edges in to the middle. Turning not only mixes in the materials to get even composting, but also aerates the heap to get those microbes activated again. Many weed seeds will be killed in the process so you can be less choosy about what you throw in, and some pathogens will be killed too, although I wouldn’t recommend including materials known to be diseased.


Fully matured compost, with a light cover of leaves.

Perennial crops will also benefit from being mulched with compost, and our WWOOFers have been putting a good layer of our neighbour’s well rotted horse manure around the fruit trees. Young trees under about 4 years of age will benefit from being mulched with either a woven plastic or an organic spot mulch to reduce competition from grass. Herbaceous perennials will be dying back now so you can chop and drop the brown foliage to create mulch which will protect the roots from heavy frost, especially if the plant is a bit tender. In our garden we have lots of ferns, bracken and Crocosmia (Montbretia) all of which produce lots of fibrous leafy material which is ideal for mulching as it forms a good mat on top of the soil.

We have around 30 fruit trees so pruning is a big job which we try to start as soon as possible to make sure we get it done before the spring. Having has such a mild autumn there are still a lot of leaves and fruit on the trees so we’ll need to wait for those to fall before we begin pruning. Cool dry days are best, not too cold and not too windy. I find pruning is a real pleasure when I get into the zone, and once I’ve got my eye and my hand in the work gets quicker and easier, so I try to give myself a few hours at a time to get in to it.

Blackcurrants can be pruned from autumn onwards, so we’ll be removing the black, three year old wood to soil level to build up a good crown of shoots. We grew our blackcurrants from cuttings three years ago and we had our first good crop this summer. Other currants should be pruned after about mid February, just taking out dead and crossing wood and reducing the length of leading branches by up to two thirds.

Prunings are generally too woody for composting unless shredded, but they make a wonderful crackly bonfire. These piles have built up over the past few weeks, so we’ll check for hedgehogs and other hibernating animals before adding them to the bonfire.


Our piles of prunings and brash, waiting for November 5th, the English Halloween.

We have plenty of other jobs on the list such as tree planting, netting the winter brassicas, making leaf-mould and keeping the wood store well stocked. Trees should be planted before February, and need a day when the ground is not too wet or frozen solid, and wood needs to be bought in from the woods to dry out in the woodstore before we can use it in the woodburners. This will keep us busy outside while the light holds out, but on the long winter evenings we’ll have plenty of time to plan the year ahead. Now is the time to order seeds before they get out of stock. We will be planning our annual veg on rotation and the guilds or groups of plants we be growing in polycultures. There is great joy in plotting next year’s bounty while we enjoy this year’s and applying what we’ve learned from the mistakes, successes and failures.

Sowing and Planting
In October I thought I could draw breath and put my feet up for a moment I remember that I need to sow broad beans by the end of November to get an early crop in the spring, and there are overwintering crops like spring and summer cabbages and cauliflowers to plant out too. The greenhouse is already full of delicious winter salads like pak choi, red mustard, mibuna and mizuna.

winter salad

Pak Choi, mizuna and giant red mustard.

It’ll be February before we know it and the snow drops will be showing us that there is still life out there! Then it will be March and there will be loads of seeds to be sown and the garden will be in full flow again. Looking at the list it’s clear that we can enjoy the long nights by the fireside, but we can never rest on our laurels!



Ploughing and Permaculture

Written by patrickw on . Posted in Uncategorized

‘I can get someone to plough it for you!’
    Claire Gregory, a former participant on one of our permaculture courses, had just achieved her ambition: she’d bought a field on the edge of Sheffield, where she lives, to establish a wonderful diverse community gardening project. The offer came from a well-respected local gardening activist. Not sure whether to accept, Claire emailed me for my opinion.
    ‘Certainly not!’ I replied. ‘Whatever you do, don’t let anyone plough it!’
    Well I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m a permaculturist and we’re well known for our  no-dig/no-plough principle. But it’s not as black and white as people sometimes assume. On our permaculture courses we don’t teach people ‘Thou shalt not dig.’ Instead we have a session entitled ‘To Till or Not to Till?’ tilling being a general word for digging and ploughing. We look at the reasons both for and against tilling. It turns out that there are more good reasons for not doing it than for doing it. But it would be arrogant and foolish of us to ignore the reasons why it might sometimes be a good thing. After all, people have been doing it for thousands of years.


Seagulls feasting on earthworms – just one of the ways ploughing destroys soil fertility.

    There’s general consensus among people who know about soil that not tilling is best for soil fertility in the long run. Ploughing and digging are more often a matter of fulfilling some short-term need, like turning under a vigorous growth of annual weeds on an organic farm, where spraying them with herbicide is not an option, or mixing compost into a garden soil which has a drastically low humus content.

Starting a New Project
But in Claire’s case, what short-term need could be met by ploughing? People sometimes mention relieving soil compaction. There was no evidence that the soil of Holly Hagg, Claire’s project, was compacted and if it was ploughing is not the best way of curing it. There’s a machine called a subsoiler which is specifically designed to do this. On a smaller scale a broadfork is the tool for decompacting soil.
    A well-established sward of grass gives ideal ground conditions for starting a new project like Holly Hagg. It’s a large site, with many different elements, including vegetable garden, forest garden, herb beds, pond etc, all being developed over a number of years.  You can walk on grass, drive on it and store materials on it. The network of roots and stems helps keep the soil uncompacted and gives a surface that’s a pleasure to move around and work on. As each part of the site is developed the grass in that area can be mulched out or dug just before planting up with the intended crops.
    By contrast, a ploughed field would be a terrible surface to work and move on, muddy in winter and hard in summer. Soon it would be colonised by thistles, docks and so on, rather than the benign grass that was there before. The soil would be exposed to erosion and easily compacted by any activity.

An Orchard
I can only assume that the person who so enthusiastically suggested ploughing was running on automatic. ‘What do you do with land? Simple, you plough it!’ It’s not the only time I’ve come across this attitude.
    My colleague Sarah Pugh asked me if I’d like to help her students with their permaculture design projects by being available to advise on any problems which cropped up. One of these projects was an orchard and it wasn’t long before the students rang me up and said that their client had just had the field ploughed prior to establishing the orchard. What could they do?
    Well it was too late by then to do anything about it. Everything I’ve just said about establishing Holly Hagg applies equally to an orchard. Imagine floundering around in winter planting trees on a ploughed field. It doesn’t bear thinking about.


Planting an orchard. Imagine doing this in a ploughed field!

Permaculture Design
Two important points about permaculture design emerge from these stories. The first is that you need to get your permaculture designer in right from the start. Permaculture is good at dealing with wholes. People sometimes think they will make the overall decisions themselves and get a permaculturist in to design a specific part of the site. This is almost always a bad idea because those overall decisions are the most important ones.
    The other one is the principle of ‘do nothing’. Often I find when giving permaculture advice to people that the most important things I can tell them are not so much what to do as what not to do. This ploughing business is a good example. Not only is it unnecessary work but in this case positively harmful. Other times it’s just a matter of saving people a lot of hard work. The look of relief on their faces when I tell them they don’t need to, for example, get rid of the gorse growing on a hillside before they plant trees there, can be one of the most satisfying moments for a permaculture designer.


Harvesting, Storing and Preserving Autumn Produce

Written by patrickw on . Posted in Uncategorized

Here at Patrick Whitefield Associates we’re settling down to the new regime, with Caroline Aitken and Morwenna Lewis teaching the residential Permaculture Design Courses and Patrick teaching the Land Course Online. You can see the background to these changes on a previous blog post here.
    In keeping with this, the blog is no longer written by Patrick alone but by all three of us. We hope this will give a wider range of posts on a whole spectrum of permaculture-related subjects. We also very much welcome your comments on our blog posts. You may have something interesting to add from your own experience, disagree with something we’ve written or simply have a message for us and other readers of the blog. We look foward to hearing from you.
    To start us off, Caroline has written this topical post about what to do with all those juicy autumn fruits which are dripping off the trees just now.


Harvesting, Storing and Preserving Autumn Produce

Autumn is the time of year when many of us are busily processing our tree fruit harvests. Making jams and chutneys, syrups and cordials and maybe the odd tipple like fruit wines and infused spirits. There’s plenty that can be done with your produce, but sometimes it can be hard to find the time needed to do it all. Here are a few tips and recipes to help you manage the glut and fill your larder for the winter.


Quinces and plums

Fruit Harvesting
There are various approaches to harvesting top fruit – apples, pears, plums and the like. It really depends on how you want to use the fruit. If you are harvesting table fruit that you want store for a few months it is worth climbing the tree to pick the fruit so that it doesn’t bruise and spoil in storage. You can get long, telescopic fruit pickers which avoid the need to climb (some of us just need an excuse, but not everyone wants to dangle for their pudding!) which are essentially a bag on a stick, with a toothed rim to pull fruit from the twig.
    If you’re harvesting fruit for cooking you can be a little less precious and collect it from the floor. The simplest method is to lay out sheets or tarpaulins beneath the tree canopy and give the tree a good shake. You can then gather up the sheets with the fruit inside. If you don’t want the fruit all at once you can wait for it to fall of its own accord and collect the ‘windfalls’. Once on the ground they can be collected by hand or using a clever device called an ‘Apple Wizard’, this is a round wire cage with a handle which you can roll along the ground. It really speeds up the collecting and saves your back, but the undergrowth needs to be fairly short for it to work effectively. Fruit pings inside the cage as you roll over it and can then be emptied into a bucket. All of this falling, rolling and pinging does bruise the fruit, so you’ll need to process it within a couple of days before it spoils.


The ‘Apple Wizard’ makes collecting fallen fruit quick and easy.

    For smaller fruits and soft fruits you can also lay sheets down and drop fruit as you pick with both hands. Alternatively you can use a berry picking comb or ‘strigger’, a toothed tool which combs the fruit from the stalks. This works best with harder fruits as it can squash softer ones, and it does often bring the stalks with it.

Fruit Storage


Windfall apples must be used quickly before they spoil.

Certain varieties of apples and pears will keep for months if stored correctly. You need to be sure it is a ‘keeper’ as some varieties won’t keep, however well they are stored. Select fruit which is undamaged and fairly clean. A tried and tested method is to wrap whole fruit in a single sheet of newspaper and place in a cardboard box. The wrapped fruits can be placed on top of one another, but don’t cram them in too tightly, or in too many layers to avoid apples being squashed or bruised. You could also find a friendly green grocer and collect the boxes and trays that their apples are delivered in. The purple papier-mâché trays have apple sized indentations in them which hold the fruit in place, well spaced apart – ideally fruit shouldn’t be touching. Patrick has used this method for storing his apples for years with great success. You can also build or buy fruit storage units which are usually a wooden frame with lots of shallow, slatted trays for the fruit.


A storage unit for apples or pears.

    Your storage area must be rodent-proof. After taking such care to store your harvest, it can be heartbreaking to find nothing but a pile of mouse droppings in their place a few weeks later. Outbuildings are rarely mouse-proof, so you might consider using a heavy-duty plastic storage box, or covering your storage unit in a fine wire mesh.

Preparing Fruit
Some fruit and vegetables won’t keep, so they need to be eaten, frozen or preserved. Preparing food for any of these things can be time consuming, so here are some tips for speeding things up.

Apples and Pears
If you’re going to freeze or cook these fruits you don’t necessarily need to peel them. If you really don’t want chunks of skin in the pulp you can use a blender or food processor to whiz them up once cooked and the skin becomes barely noticeable, especially in jam. Cores must be removed though, and I find the traditional ‘chitting’ method the fastest. Take the whole fruit and lay it on its side, then cut off one whole side as close to the core as you can. Turn the fruit onto the flat, cut side, and cut the next side off. Continue with the two remaining sides. If you want smaller chunks which will cook quicker you can quickly chop these big chunks up by hand or in a blender. Alternatively you can hold the fruit and take off big slices, like discs, all the way around and work your way in to the core. This is how my mother cuts her apples for apple pies and the slices sit in nice layers which cook quickly and evenly.
    If you don’t want to fully pulp the prepared fruit it can be blanched before freezing. Submerge the fruit into a pan of boiling water for about a minute, then remove with a slatted spoon and place in a colander to drain. It can be bagged up and put into the freezer once it’s cooled down. Pulping or stewing fruit in bulk and freezing in to smaller portions makes it easier to use and speeds up jam and chutney making too.

Stone Fruit


Plum trees can produce huge crops which don’t keep fresh for long.

Plums, cherries, apricots, peaches and nectarines can be very easy to pit when the fruit is really ripe – you simply cut around the middle of the fruit then twist the two sides, leaving the stone in one side which can then be easily pulled out. This can be tricky with plums and apricots, so if you’re going to cook or preserve the fruit you can cook them whole or partly chopped with the stones in and remove the stones later. Once cooled it’s pretty quick to pour the pulp into a shallow dish and run you fingers through to find the stones.

Jams and chutneys are very simple and easy to make and will keep for months. Keep your batches small so that they cook quicker – this uses less energy and less of your precious time, making it feel less of a chore and easier to fit in while cooking dinner for example. I would also recommend printing out your labels if you can – writing them can be fun but it can also take hours and once you have a template you can use it forever. Jam funnels are a great help too, making jarring-up quicker, safer and less messy.


Jam funnels can really speed up jam and chutney making.

    If using tricky fruits like haws, rose hips or medlars you can cook them whole and then remove the seeds later. Martin Crawford swears by his Moulinex sieve, a hand operate device which pushes out the pulp but not the seeds – but for fruits like haws and rosehips you’ll need to use a muslin cloth too to ensure the fine fibres have been removed. I use a colander, a fine plastic meshed sieve or muslin cloth depending on the size of the seeds. For rosehips and haws I have adopted Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall’s method. He whizzes them in a blender before cooking, then stews them with water and strains them through a double layer of muslin cloth, twice. This is by far the fastest way to prepare them and I’ve never had any trouble with fibres.


Fruits with lots of fiddly seeds can be cooked whole…


…then passed through a muslin cloth.

Permaculture Design Course on Dartmoor