Update After a Very Busy Summer

It really has been a busy summer, which is why I have not updated this blog until now. There is always plenty to do around here, what with the polytunnel and vegetable beds, the orchard/forest garden, the (now 15) ex-battery hens, our dogs, and our conversion of our old stone steading building. Then there is the small matter of my full-time job as a writer! When I am writing all day Mon-Fri I do not always have the energy or inclination to write for fun. That said, I do want to keep some record of what we are doing here. I am really proud of what we have achieved so far and love moving to a more sustainable way of life. Perhaps I can even inspire others to do the same…

Summer Crops:

The polytunnel and the vegetable beds have been pretty productive this year, in spite of the bad weather earlier in the year and the unpredictable summer. As I mentioned way back in the spring, I conducted a little experiment with mulches for the potatoes and without a doubt, the seaweed mulch proved most effective. The potatoes mulched with seaweed were markedly larger than those mulched with grass or earthed up. Not very scientific, of course, but enough to convince me that is the way to go for next year.

At the moment we are eating: mixed salad, radish pods, tomatoes, courgettes, summer squash, broccoli, kale, spinach, chard, French beans, runner beans, potatoes, garlic and onions. There are peas, broad beans and runner beans in the freezer.

At the moment the only problem really is that the chilli peppers are in flower still and only the first few fruits are beginning to form, so I am not sure we will get any before the colder weather arrives. (Probably because the summer has been rather a cool one on the whole.) Perhaps I will bring them indoors from the polytunnel for the winter to see if I can get them to fruit properly.

Orchard/Forest Garden:

In addition to the crops from the vegetable beds and polytunnel, we have also enjoyed a variety of fruits from the orchard/ evolving forest garden.

We enjoyed strawberries, gooseberries, black currants, red currants, mahonia berries, and wild and cultivated raspberries over the summer and have some raspberries in the freezer for later. At the weekend we harvested the dessert apples from one of the trees in the orchard (variety unknown). They are delicious (though tart) eating apples.

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Gooseberries in the forest garden in the early summer.

Some I have wrapped for storage and I started to preserve some of the blemished fruits over the weekend. We now have jars of windfall apple jam, foraged blackberry and apple jam, pickled apple slices (with apple cider vinegar and dill seeds from the garden), several jars of apple pie mix and some dehydrated apple crisps. There are still quite a few apples left from that one tree, some of which we will be juicing over the next week or so.

There are also still lots of apples to come (mostly cooking apples, from four more trees), and two plum trees heavily laden with fruit that is very late to ripen and which I hope will ripen before the weather grows too cold.

Chickens:

We have rescued five more ex-battery hens and though, sadly, two have died suddenly over the last year, we now have a flock of 15. Unfortunately we are currently tackling a red mite outbreak but other than that they seem to be doing quite well. The white chickens (the first we got) are no longer laying but are enjoying a pleasant retirement in the orchard and of course are still contributing to the compost and the garden. The latest hens are still rather timid but integrating both lots of new hens has gone relatively smoothly. Of course we are enjoying plenty of eggs from the younger hens.

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One of the newest arrivals.

Steading Conversion:

After a year of red tape we finally have the planning consent and the building warrant and have been allowed to begin work on the conversion of the stone-built outbuilding that will be a forever home for me and my husband. It was a long and frustrating process getting all the paperwork in place. The work will take us a long time because we are doing most of it ourselves but at least things are now moving! So far we have gutted the interior, removed some wiring, propped the existing floor joists and removed a very thick stone wall to open up the space that will be our kitchen/dining room. We have also removed most of the stones (a mammoth task!) as we will be reusing them elsewhere in the conversion project. There is just some rubble and a few more large rocks to move which we will be doing at the weekend. Then we can put in the structural beam specified by the structural engineer and remove the props.

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Two thirds of the wall on the left is now removed. The portion nearest the window in this shot will stay to form a wall of a walk in pantry/ cold store. The window will eventually become French doors into the garden. (These original stone floor slabs were a surprise and though they can’t stay there they will be used in the cold pantry.)
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Before we started to remove the wall (one of the right of this image).
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Works in progress.

It is a slow and steady process but it feels great to have started properly at last.

I’ll try to update more regularly over the coming months!

 

 

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Happy New Year!

This blog is over a year old now and we have been working towards our more sustainable way of life for even longer. Some things can be hard but on the whole I am feeling very positive about how much we have accomplished here so far. Still, as always, there is a lot more to do!

It is that time of year and the windowsills are filling up again. There are some salad things and pea shoots in the porch, tomatoes and chilli peppers germinating and as of today, seed potatoes chitting. I’ve ordered more seed potatoes than I did last year, having learned how many of them we collectively go through and knowing that we can successfully grow them here. I will also be planting out a few seed potatoes from our last year’s crop, to see how well they do. More onion sets have also arrived.

In spite of several minor setbacks, we are further ahead than we were this time last year with growing things. There are winter cabbages, onions, strawberry plants and a few other bits and bobs in the polytunnel still. peas and beans will probably go in there next month. There should have been broad beans and peas over-wintering but they were unfortunately gobbled up by rodents in the autumn so didn’t get a look in!

We have the consent we needed from the planners to go ahead with our outbuilding conversion so are currently getting plans drawn up for the building warrant and hope to actually start work in earnest in the next couple of months. We have to think about how to meet the stringent insulation requirements while still using eco-friendly materials and doing this affordably without compromising our sustainability goals. I feel we are actually getting somewhere – but more on that at a later date, once our architect gets back to us with her drawings based on out ideas.

The chickens are doing well, though we plan to build them a better home in the next few months as the coop we bought is not great. One of the main problems is the front door, which has jammed shut in the very wet weather. We are thinking along the lines of customising a small, wooden garden shed, which will be easier for us as well as better for them, though we have not yet worked out the exact plan.

I hope everyone had a good festive season and I wish you all the best for the coming year.

 

Time Flies…

Oops. I really did mean to update this blog a lot sooner than I have done but things have been all go recently on the work front and of course there is always lots to do around here.

Just after I wrote my last post we celebrated one year here, one year since we started to transition to this more sustainable way of life. It does not feel like a year but we have done a lot since we got here. We have made a lot of progress and eaten a lot of home grown food. We erected our polytunnel, prepared vegetable bed areas, rescued the chickens, did work on the house and – great news – we finally have the planning permission to carry out our planned eco-conversion/renovation of the outbuildings!

There have been many successes and several failures – by and large though the baby steps we have taken have really added up and it is pretty staggering when we look back and see how far we have actually come.

The garden is not looking at its best at this time of year but we do have a few things still growing. I have planted onions and garlic and a few swedes and Brussels sprouts still in the vegetable beds and in the polytunnel there are a variety of winter cabbages, beetroot and a few other bits and bobs. Some herbs are in on the windowsill for winter, others are drying nicely. There are plenty of jars of jams and chutneys to see us through the coldest months and a few things like peas and beans in the freezer. We have one small pumpkin/squash on the windowsill still.

The chickens all seem to be doing well. We are still getting two or three eggs most days even though the weather has got so much colder. The girls saw snow for the first time the other day – they were not too impressed. I gave them some porridge to warm them up.

I still have a lot of tidying up to do in the vegetable beds before the ground freezes too hard and the orchard/forest garden is the main area that will get my attention over the winter. Time flies and there is no rest for the wicked…

More Demolition and a Little Construction

We spent a lot of the day doing more work in gutting the outbuilding. Most of the stud work is now in the pile for reuse.

Before
Before
After - Another section mostly stripped.
After – Another section mostly stripped. The carpet had to go to the dump but a lot of the rest will be reused on other projects.

We also managed to find the time for a tiny bit of construction. We put together the basic run we have bought for the chickens. It is just a small one because most of the time, once they have settled into their new home, they will be free range in the orchard/ forest garden. This lightweight frame should also allow us to corral the chickens onto some of the beds so they can fertilise them and scratch them up.

The coop and run roughly in position in the orchard/forest garden.
The coop and run roughly in position in the orchard/forest garden.

First Early Potatoes and Outbuilding Work

The first early potatoes went into the vegetable beds today. I made a shallow trench, lined the bottom with grass cuttings from the orchard/ future forest garden and planted them with chits upwards. I will earth up the shoots when they appear above ground and again when the plants are around 23 cm tall. It is too soon to place the companion plants but later the potatoes will share their bed with some thyme, marigolds and one or two other beneficial plants.

First Early Potato Bed
First Early Potato Bed

We have also done some more work on stripping out the outbuilding – removing stud work and revealing the stone walls behind.

Progress in stripping stud work away from the stone walls.
Progress in stripping stud work away from the stone walls.

The wood we removed is rough and has lots of nails that need to be removed but I have stacked it in a corner. Since we are trying to reduce the waste we create it is great that we will be able to reuse some of this wood to make a store for fuel for the stoves. Some of it can be used to make frames for vertical growing in the polytunnel. I may also make a cold frame at some point. We also have some glass that can be recycled for this purpose.

Wood for reuse.
Wood for reuse.

Onions, Planting, Outbuilding Work and More

The weather has not been quite as lovely here today. It has been cloudy and much colder than yesterday but we have all still been really busy and we have achieved a lot on all fronts.

The vegetable beds are now all complete! Eight beds, ready and waiting for us to plant up in the next couple of months. They are a bit stoney but the soil is good.

Vegetable Beds Ready Completed Vegetable BedsWe have also planted out hundreds of onion sets – first outdoor planting of the year. There is one full bed and also the edges of two more, in the centre of which we will be planting vegetables which like onions as companion plants. A few more went into the edges of the orchard.

The bed is pretty stoney but the soil seems good.
The bed is pretty stoney, as you can see in this picture,  but the soil seems good. Some red and some white onions have been planted and we still have quite a few left over for replacing any duds.

Some other planting has been done in the garden, some flowers and shrubs to entice pollinators and disguise the fence in front of the polytunnel.

New Shrubs next to fenceThere has also been some more progress in gutting the outbuilding. Some more panelling and carpet has been removed, we have taken a lot of old carpets down to the recycling centre and some old stud walling has been removed to reveal the pleasing arch behind. This mirrors the south-facing arch to the front of the building that will be glazed to provide solar gain.

Stud Wall RemovalThe warmer weather we have had over the last few days has also brought on the tomato plants I have overwintered in the front porch. There are now several tomatoes growing on the plants!

Tomatoes Tomato Plant FruitingIt has been a really busy day but it feels good to be moving forward more quickly now spring has officially arrived.

Stone Walls and Ecological Building Methods

Stone wall with studs yet to be removed.
Stone wall with studs yet to be removed.

Yesterday, as well as going to the course on hen keeping, I also did some more work on the outbuilding, gradually revealing more of the old stone walls of the barn. They are solid and with the exception of a few patches of crumbly mortar, seem to be intact. It is good to know we have such solid walls to mold our plans around.

Before work started.
Before work started.

People tend to think of old, nineteenth-century stone-built buildings as damp and drafty. In fact, many of the perceived defects of these old buildings are due to later twentieth-century additions. Plasterboard is not right for the inside of these walls, for example. The solution when it comes to creating healthy and comfortable buildings seems to me to be about rejecting many of the building standards of the last century and combining simpler, age-old techniques with modern ecological method and innovation.

After. (Brick sections fill the stone arches in the external walls that, for some reason, were boxed in in the 1970s and are yet to be revealed again here.)
After. (Brick sections fill the stone arches in the external walls that, for some reason, were boxed in in the 1970s and are yet to be revealed again here.)

Stone walls actually have fairly good insulative properties, which can be enhanced with the right methods. They are solid and have great thermal mass, so regulating temperature. Putting insulation layers inside them is counter-productive (though common!) as it basically stops the heat gathered in the stone to radiate into the house.

As we make decisions about how to treat the insides of our stone walls, we will be thinking about working with rather than against the properties of the stone. Although I am no expert, we plan to explore the possibilities of an internal clay/straw daub or render, straight onto the stonework, which helps regulate moisture levels and heat within the building at the same time as increasing the insulative properties of the walls – a sustainable, healthy and effective building method.