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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Friday 30 March 2012


I haven't planted my potatoes yet, or sown many seeds. My to-do list starts with insulation, which I've been failing to do for so long that it's got past the season when it's urgent, and solar panels which I would have been really glad to have these past two sunny weeks. I have relatives visiting in just over a week, yet the house tarting up jobs I'd hoped to do by then remain undone. Why then, have I spent the last two weeks building a terrace that does not put food on the table, lower the fuel bills, or even make the place more pleasant for a family party?

Well, because I wanted to. About half way through, I did feel rather guilty about neglecting all the other, more important, jobs. Then I talked to friends about it and they said, Why shouldn't you do the jobs that you enjoy? I thought about this a while. It's true that growing food and heating the house are more important more basic needs, but appreciating beauty is important too. Having that terrace (provided that it doesn't fall down) is going to add quite a lot to my quality of life. Is that not worth doing?

Feeding the soul is just as important as feeding the belly. Granted, leave the belly empty for too long and the soul will be irrelevant, but leave the soul empty for too long and you might as well forget about the belly, as life will not be worth living.

Working to feed the soul

Terrace part 2

I've finished the new terrace!

I carried on heaping up bits of beech hedge and threading through bits of leylandii hedge, using larger pieces for the edge and smaller pieces in the middle, until I ran out of both. At that point I was about a foot short of the level I wanted, but my neighbours had been reclaiming part of their garden from the woodland and cutting back a lot of undergrowth, which they gave me. That brought the level up nicely, though the top layer was then composed of rather large pieces (as opposed to the small twiggy bits I had been using) so it's rather gappy and springy to walk on.

All the woody stuff has now been added to the terrace

At this point we started to wonder what a red kite's nest looks like. There are a lot of red kites living around here.

The final stage of the hugelkultur bed - add mud - was a bit of a problem. I don't have a lot of mud to spare. I wasn't keen on sacrificing soil from the vegetable beds for this project. What I do have a lot of is leaves. Some of them have been in bags for a year and are well on their way to making leaf mould, some have been sitting around in corners of the garden doing much the same thing, and some are just loose and dry and making the place look untidy (because it would be immaculate if it weren't for the leaves, honest!)

I went round the garden with a bag gathering up leaves and anything else that looked likely. The cut back hedge was a good source of beech leaves that had gathered underneath it. The pampas grass contributed generously, which is to say I attacked it viciously and extracted as much old leaf and stalk as I could. It retaliated by breaking my spade handle. I cleared paths and generally tidied the garden as I collected leaves. I left the half-rotted stuff until the end, to go on top and hold down the lighter dry leaves. This included the awkward corner round the back of the greenhouse from which leaves cannot escape. There was a good layer of mulch there, and very many worms. I hope they like their new home.

After all that, here is my new terrace, with chair.

New terrace being used as intended

Oh yes, I moved the washing line while I was at it, too, and shortened it because it was stupidly tall before. An angle grinder was involved, which was rather scary.

Here's a better picture of the view, which is why I went to all that trouble.

The terrace now has plants. If you'd like to read about them, click here.

Thursday 22 March 2012

A hugelkultur terrace

Well it seemed like a good idea at the time, that's all I can say.

I need to backtrack a little. It all started with the beech hedge.

Beech hedge dividing garden from driveway in an orderly manner

I have very mixed feelings about beech hedges. I love beech trees, I really do. A full grown beech tree is a most magnificent being. This is why I hate to see them cut back, forced to grow in neat lines as the gardener directs. On the other hand, if a hedge is what you need, I can't deny that mutilated beech trees do make a very good hedge. And...

... well there it is, in the photo just up there. There is a beech hedge in our garden. Since it's already there, what am I to do with it? I can't very well liberate the trees and allow them to grow to their full glory (I did consider it) and if I just let the hedge grow I'd end up with neither garden nor driveway. Cutting them down would be simply killing the trees and then I'd have the problem of how to separate the garden from the driveway. I'd probably have to plant another hedge...

So it seems that I must live with my beech hedge, and that I am responsible for maintaining it. The first thing we did to it was to make a doorway* in the hedge at the house end, as this makes life a lot more convenient. This gave us a cross-sectional view of the hedge which, as well as being rather beautiful, showed us quite how far the hedge has grown out over the (shared) driveway.

Cross-section of beech hedge

That could do with quite a lot of cutting back. I checked online to see whether the hedge would be likely to survive this treatment - the Royal Horticultural Society advised, To renovate an overgrown beech hedge, cut it back hard in February while still dormant. That would be Renovate as in Once more subjugate to the gardener's will... no, stop it Rachel! Well, we were a bit late, but the hedge didn't look terribly lively, so we thought we'd probably get away with it.

Some people would use power tools for a job like this, and Ian did try the chain saw, but it just threw its chain, so once again the old fashioned tools proved the better choice. I cut it with secateurs. Every single stick**. That wasn't the hardest part, though. That top photo doesn't show it very well, but there were three bumps on the top of this hedge, the final one having been half of an arch, joining a laburnum on the other side. The laburnum was uprooted over a year ago, and the arch has looked rather silly ever since. As for the other two bumps, we've never quite known what the point was. My radical pruning included cutting off the bumps.

Tackling a bump

This was very hard work as the trees were tightly entwined, and in some cases fused, so cutting one piece off didn't necessarily get it out of the way to make access to the next bit. The last one - the half arch - was the worst, with four fairly thick trunks all fused together. Also, I got harassed by blue tits while I was doing it. I saw why when I had the piece on the ground.

Felled nest box. Sorry, blue tits.

Ian extracted the next box and put it back in the hedge when I'd finished cutting bits off it. I think it's too early in the year for the box to have much in the way of a nest in it, and there'd certainly be no eggs yet.

I worked until my hands were aching and/or blistered, then stopped for the day. At this rate, it took me three days to finish the hedge. It looked quite tidy, if a little bare on top, from the garden side.

Trimmed hedge, as seen from the garden

From the other side, the hedge looks considerably more naked.

The aftermath of hedge trimming.

Pebble surveyed the wreckage.

Pebble was not impressed, though she did quite like being
able to lie under the hedge and be in the sun at the same time.
She's well camouflaged in beech leaves.

Once I'd gathered all the trimmings up off the driveway, I had a very big heap of bits of tree.

Many twigs. There are more in the garden.

What to do with all that? The obvious answer would be to have a bonfire, but my neighbour lives in a new, wooden house and has been a bit twitchy about bonfires since the builder set fire to their hillside, and that was before the house was built. It might be a bit inconsiderate to light a big fire on the land next door.

At this point, a couple of ideas came together. I've been reading about hugelkultur raised beds, which seem to be all the rage at the moment (look! They have one at Chants Cottage). This is big heap of old wood, covered in mud and left to rot down, making fabulous new soil as it does so. Idea number two has been in the back of my mind for some time. On the side of our house that has the view, the land is mostly very steep. So steep, that walking across it brings the very real danger of falling off. There are steps and when it's fine, we often go and sit out there with a cup of tea, but sitting on steps is not very satisfactory. I'd really like to terrace that land.

It would be really nice to have a level bit of ground here
where we could sit out and admire the view

So... how about a hugelkulture bed that's raised on one side and level on the other - a hugelkultur terrace? This struck me as an excellent plan for using up all the bits I'd just cut off this hedge, as well as the hedge we cut down a few weeks ago. So it was that I decided to create a hugelkultur terrace. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

I chose the largest hedge offcut to start with. In my mind's eye, this piece would settle securely into the hillside and other pieces could be heaped up behind it. The largest piece was far too big for me to handle on my own, so I recruited Ian to help. Here he is with the offcut, and you can just about see the wheelbarrow it's sitting in.

Piece of hedge, just about supported by wheelbarrow

The barrow was helpful in getting this round to the bottom of the hill, but getting it up was another matter. Between the two of us, we somehow managed to roll it up the hill, then attempted to settle it in position. At this point the flaws of naive physics were revealed. As Ian pointed out, if we were able to roll it up the hill, how much more easily would it roll down? We tried heaving it into several different positions, but there was no way it was going to stay put on its own.

The trunks of the trees were resting on the ground and I thought that if we could weigh down the branches on the uphill side that would make it more stable. To achieve this, I got underneath the piece of tree and sent Ian off to fetch some bags of rubble we had sitting around while I held the thing up on my head and shoulders. From my position on the ground I could reach in and place stones on suitable branches. Once that was done, I trimmed off branches on the downhill side, to reduce the weight there and so further reduce the thing's tendency to head downhill. At this stage it was possible to move away from it without the thing tumbling down the hill, but Ian still wasn't happy. He spotted a small post, of the kind used to stake large flowers, and stuck that through the middle and hammered into the ground. With this combination of measures, the piece of tree was more or less secure, but not an ideal base to support the remaining terrace.

Further building of the terrace would obviously need to take structural considerations into account. I turned to the leylandii offcuts and threaded these through the beech, with the ends resting on the uphill side. I then added more stones to weight this down, hopefully further pinning the structure to the hillside.

This is the uphill side, with stones

At the end of Tuesday, this is what my new terrace looked like from the downhill side:

Stage one of the hugelkultur terrace

I have done more since then, threading in more leylandii branches and adding more stones. I would show you a picture, but I worked until I ran out of daylight today, so it wouldn't be a very good photo.

Funnily enough, carrying loads of stones and branches up a steep hillside and building them into a terrace turns out to be really hard work.

To read more about the terrace, click here.


* There is no actual door in the doorway, though come to think of it, the neighbours did give us an old one that we've yet to find a use for...

** What's the word for something that's too big to be a twig but not big enough to call a branch? Well this hedge had an awful lot of them.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Basket making

Basketry has been on my list of things I'd quite like to learn for some time, so when I saw posters up around the village advertising four classes for the token contribution of just £5, and held in the next village, I jumped at the chance. After nearly giving up on the way to the first class because I got lost (I'd only been to the hall once before, and in the dark and the rain I couldn't find it), when I finally got there I thoroughly enjoyed it.

We were working with willow, mainly, though Michelle, our lovely teacher, had brought some other materials to mix in if we wanted to. We all made circular based, straight sided baskets (apparently rectangular baskets are a lot more advanced) but she was happy for us to have any size of base and sides we wanted. Most people went for log baskets, but I decided on a shallow tray. We already have a log basket and if I made another one Pebble would only claim it.

We learnt how to start the base with relatively thick sticks (Michelle did teach us all the jargon as we went along, but I've forgotten most of it), making holes in three of them and poking another three through. After a couple of rounds with thin weavers, these thick pieces are bent so they splay out like the spokes of a wheel, then weaving continues, always trying to keep the spokes evenly spread and forming a slight dome for strength (this was more relevant to log baskets; I ignored it for my tray).

When the bases were finished we learnt how to add the uprights - this involved lots of bashing. In fact, the bashing thing seemed to be quite an important tool for much of the work. The we learnt how to do the upset - one piece of jargon I remember, not meaning to annoy the basket but to set the upright bit on its way - before learning a new weaving pattern for the sides. To finish off, the uprights were bent over and woven into themselves, then handles were added. I have to admit that Michelle did the handles for me as I found the twisting of the willow to rope it too difficult. However, I did most of the rest of it myself, and I'm very pleased with the result.

I didn't get many pictures because mostly I was concentrating too hard on the classes, but here's one of Michelle teaching one of the other students.

Willow weaving class in progress

Before each class the baskets needed soaking so that the willow would be workable again after a week of drying out. As they got bigger this got more difficult, particularly right in the middle where you have the base finished and all the uprights at their full length. Michelle asked if we were OK to soak them at home - You'll need a stream or something (she would have done it for us if necessary) - it said a lot about our location that pretty much everyone in the class said, Yes, we could manage that.

Half made basket soaking in the stream

Our stream turned out not to be quite deep enough, even when I went over the railway line to a different part of it. I turned the basket several times during the afternoon but it was still quite stiff when I took it the class in the evening.

Here's a rather dark picture of the finished basket...

Finished basket

... and here it is full of paper pots on their way to the greenhouse, which is why I haven't taken a daylit picture of it (still full of pots).

In use

I really enjoyed the process and loved Michelle's attitude to using different materials. She's really inspired me to search the hedgerows for likely-looking shoots. Now I just need an excuse to make more baskets (until I get bored and move onto something else).

Sunday 11 March 2012

I can haz poo!

I got chatting to a lovely lady in the pub recently, who mentioned that she has horses. My ears pricked up... But you're a gardener yourself, you'll have plenty of use for the muck. I said. Yes I use it on my garden, but there's far more than I can use - come and help yourself, she replied. Needless to say, I didn't need asking twice.

This morning we went round to her house with as many compost bags as I could lay my hands on, and a spade. She lent us a wheelbarrow and while I filled bags, Ian ferried them to the car. With two car loads, we fetched twenty four bags of horse poo, in various stages of decomposition.

Bags of poo.

And just in case you want to see what poo looks like close up...


I have poo! I am one very happy gardener.

Now I just need to find out whether it's OK to use it fresh. I know well-rotted is ideal, but would it matter if I put it in the potato trenches as it is?

Friday 9 March 2012

Soggy seeds update

This post is a mixture of things I meant to tell you before I went away, but didn't have time, and things I've done since I got back, so I hope it doesn't end up being too long.

My seeds suffered a crisis of sogginess over Christmas, so rather a lot needed planting much earlier than they would usually. Looking back, I see that what I'd actually wanted to sow at that time was onions. None of these came up. It was probably too cold for them to germinate. On the other hand, the peas and beans had already germinated, which is why I was sowing them.

The beans given to me by a friend (District Nurse, climbing) were going crazy in their seed trays:

Beans seeking giants' castles

I potted these on before going away, and they are now standing in a row in the conservatory. I even found them canes.

Beans looking slightly less crazy

A couple of these have died, but most are looking fine. I just have to keep these alive until I can plant them outside. The usual advice for these things is, After all risk of frost has passed but what does that mean? We had frost on 12th June here last year!

The peas and broad beans in the greenhouse are mostly looking happy...


Broad beans

... though I did notice that some of them are looking a little chewed. I searched for and evicted half a dozen slugs before I went away, and the same again when I got back.

The onion sets are mostly still alive

Onions. Not dead.

and the peas that I sowed directly in the ground in December seem, against all the odds, to have survived. Well, quite a lot of them, anyway. I say all the odds but I have to admit, the odds haven't been that bad really. It's been a very mild winter this year. When we did have a cold snap I covered them with bracken, as planned, and rolled it back before I went away.

Bracken protection rolled back from peas

and just in case you can't see the peas in the above picture...

Peas. Not dead.

... here they are, looking a bit yellow but there are definitely quite a few still growing there.

A couple of weeks later, and the outdoor peas are still looking convincingly not-dead:

Peas. Still not dead.

Whereas the peas and broad beans in the greenhouse were outgrowing their paper pots, so I planted them out as well...

Broad beans and peas, planted out.

I'm sure I have more peas than beans, but the beans require far more space than the peas. The white rings are egg shells, which I've been saving all winter. These are to deter slugs, though I'm not very optimistic they'll work. I also put some twiggy sticks around the peas, to give them something to hang on to when they get bigger.

Sticks for peas.

Learning my lesson from last year I chose a calm day for this operation, and all the twigs stayed pretty much where I put them.

The tomatoes that I sowed with the salad seeds are now in need of potting on. There are two varieties, Roma, which I saved from just one tomato grown last year (I did manage to harvest more than that, but only saved seeds from one) and the unknown cherry tomatoes, seeds of which are left over from the year before. I have twenty three Roma seedlings that look healthy enough to pot on - an ideal number - and I've treated them to fairly big pots.

Roma tomato seedlings

Because the other tomato seeds were old, I planted lots, expecting a poor germination rate. Of course, they all came up, though they don't look very healthy. This means that, like last year, I have more tomato seedlings than I know what to do with.

Insipid looking cherry tomato seedlings.
The gap in the seed tray is where I've taken some out to pot on.

I also have some garlic coming up.

Garlic shoots

This is very pleasing because when I tried to buy garlic in the autumn I couldn't get it anywhere, and thought I was too late. Then when I was buying seed potatoes at the end of January, I noticed that Charlie's also had garlic, so I bought some. I hope it does better than last year's attempt.

After I'd planted out the peas and beans the other day, Ian commented that it's nice to see the garden looking like somewhere that food grows, again. He's right. It is.


Hello everyone, I'm back! Did you miss me? No? Oh well, never mind. I've actually been back for a few days, but it's taken me a while to recover from the trip. I went to Cornwall to help my dad. He has a house there that he's been renting out, and the last tenant was terrible and trashed the place. As soon as she left, he and I went down there to get it ship-shape for sale. Due to various constraints we had just a week and let's just say, it made replacing all the floors in my house feel like a walk in the park by comparison.

Anyway, that's not what I'm talking about today. Although I didn't have time to cook while we were there (all takeaways and pub meals - that was a bit of a shock to the system), I did manage a bit of foraging. I have mentioned that I'd like to try alexanders*. I've seen plenty of pictures of it, so it was just a matter of spotting it in the wild and putting name to plant. In the coastal town of St Ives it was growing everywhere, even by the roadside.

The darker green plants at the bottom of the picture are alexanders

Here's a closer view:

Alexander plant, with flower buds

I tried eating some (not from that roadside, from a more rural spot) and found that the stalks have a strong flavour, somewhere between celery** and fennel, if you can imagine that. I suppose that shouldn't come as a surprise, since all three plants belong to the same family. (Wikipedia reckons the taste is between celery and parsley, but I think there's a definite hint of aniseed).

The stalks were tasty but I didn't like the flower buds much, mainly because of the texture. I didn't try the leaves. The thin stalks were a bit stringy, like celery, but the stalks with flowers on had a fat fleshy centre to them. I sliced a few of these onto pizza (take out of packet; put in oven. I do not count this as cooking, even if I did slice some greens onto it) and it was very nice. The flavour wasn't so strong cooked as raw.

Although we were busy, we did snatch the occasional lunch break by the sea, so here's a nice picture of one of the St Ives beaches (I forget which one, not Porthmeor or Porthgwidden - we didn't get to either of those - and it can't be the harbour because there are no boats. Must be Pothminster, then, unless there's one I don't know about).

A St Ives beach. Probably Porthminster.


* I've decided that this plant doesn't warrant a capital letter, whatever Google's spell checker may think.
** I'm talking about celery that actually has flavour, not the insipid white stuff found in supermarkets.