orWine Tastings in the Comfort of you own villa or B&B while on holiday in Tuscany or Liguria

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Friday, 18 July 2014

Terracing above the Pond

Some of my loyal followers may remember me talking at length about how to design a pond the permaculture way some 2 years ago.  The most ardent followers may even remember us digging with a bunch of helpers.  You may be forgiven if you think that this pond surely by now is well up and running, flourishing and teeming with wildlife.  However...  In permaculture design we use the SADIMET model: Survey, Analysis, Design, Implementation, Evaluation, Tweaking.  Yes, and now we are at the tweaking stage.  First of all the trick to grow clover in the base of the pond to seal it didn't work.  Secondly, the area above the pond site was still too steep and subsequent landslides filled in much of what we had previously dug out.

So first of all we had to secure the area above by terracing it.  Luckily we've been having plenty of helpers around.  First and foremost may I present you with our long-term helper for the summer, non other than Jaap, the son of Conspiracy Cousin, Buddha Barti, who had been living with us until his untimely demise last year.


Regular readers might see the resemblance.

Anyway we also had some short term helpers and despite the heat we built some terraces above the pond using old palettes as support.  Zosia and Igor from Poland helped during the first stage.


And Marianna from... well actually she's a bit confused... French, American, Italian, English?  Anyway, I knew her from one of the permaculture courses I helped to teach.


Next step is to excavate the pond a bit more again and this time we'll try lining it with cat litter made from pure bentonite to keep the water in.  If that works, we'll start planting.  We're off to the European Permaculture Convergence in Bulgaria next week, from which I'll be reporting back.  Jaap in the meantime will hold the fort back at the ranch with a couple of friends of his.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Playing with mud


Weeelllll....  I'm shamefacedly looking at my feet for not having posted anything for almost a year... you know... we've been traveling here and there... from Bulgaria to Italy to Ireland to Germany to Italy...  To those of you following my blog regularly, and amazingly despite my lack of recent posts the numbers seem to go up, yes we are still looking for new pastures.  Although maybe not in Bulgaria as we had recently planned, but kind of the opposite end of the continent in Ireland.  But nothing is certain yet, so at the moment we're still in Italy (at least for the last 3 weeks and the coming 10 days, after which we'll head to Bulgaria).

So, were to begin?  An explanation for my muddy feet would be a good way to start.  What I'm really dreaming of, as and when we finally find that ideal plot of land at the best location, is to build my own house there.  It's quite a daunting task if you have never constructed as much as a dog shed and just glean your knowledge from a couple of books and some pretty pictures on the web.  So when my good friend Giorgio, one of the fellow participants of my permaculture course a couple of years ago, sent me an e-mail saying he was organising a 5-day introductory course in cob building, I didn't need much convincing.

The course was held at an Ashram in Eastern Italy (I won't reveal their exact location, as their building is being built illegally) by Koenraad Roggenman and James Thomson from House Alive all the way from Oregon.  Koen, who is a fellow Dutchman, has had 15 years experience in building and teaching building with cob.  It was a hugely inspiring workshop and I was amazed at how easy building with this material actually is.  I mean, even I could do it!!!

This is at the beginning of the workshop.  There were 9 participants and 2 helpers as well as the two teachers.  The helpers had laid the foundations before our arrival.


First we learned different cob-mixing techniques.  The ingredients are clay, of which there were abundant quantities around at a very pure form, sand, straw and water.  The traditional method simply involves squidging the ingredients around a tarpaulin with your bare feet.  Very satisfying!!!


The faster but more upper-body strength intensive method involves lifting the tarpaulin and treading and kicking it from the outside as demonstrated by our teachers here:


Then we got building.  It's just so easy!  Here's me working on a shelf or bench, built into the wall.  You simple sculpt around it:


And in this short period we learned much more.  We learned how to make earthen plaster:


We were even encouraged to make some quite artistic plasterwork:



And we learned how to make earthen floors:


In those 5 days, with all the other lectures and practice sessions in between, 10 of us working maybe 3-4 hours on site per day managed to build the wall of a 20m2 house to the height of about a metre.  Given that the wall is 50cm thick, I reckon that's pretty good progress.  There is a second workshop on that site starting today with 25 students lasting for 10 days.  If they don't manage to finish the walls, they are a bunch of woossies in my opinion!  

Whilst I might not be quite ready to build an entire house from scratch on my own at this particular point in time, this workshop has been really inspiring and confidence boosting.  I will start with a couple of little projects around our house in Italy and Coen said he'd be open for further invitations from Europe to organise a workshop if and when we find our spot in Ireland (or wherever...)

In the meantime I really enjoyed my time playing in the mud... :)


And I promise I will write another post real soon about what's been happening at our land back in Italy as well as report on The European Permaculture Convergence in Bulgaria, where we will be heading soon.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Planting Trees and Asparagus Bed

First of all apologies to all my blogging friends for not frequenting or commenting on their blogs, my internet connection is a little difficult what with us having no electricity where we are still camping in Rozovets, Bulgaria, being dependent on the good will of the local bar to re-charge the laptop, but the connection there being extremely slow.  Whilst when in the nearby provincial town the connection is faster, but I'm limited in time until my battery runs out again.  So here come the latest news from the Rozovets project:

At the end of September we visited the plant sale at the Balkan Ecology Project in Shipka, about hour's drive north of us and purchased some plants for Vasko's land.  This is a great permaculture project run by an English family and their Bulgarian neighbours.  I might get around showing you some pics from there too some time soon.  Anyway, what we bought and subsequently planted is this:

A pea tree caragna brevispina.  This is a nitrogen fixing tree growing up to 20 metres high producing edible pea-like pods.  Although it grows quite tall, it is slender with light foliage and doesn't throw too much shade.

A Cornelian cherry cornus mas.  A shade tolerant shrub, small tree producing delicious cherry-like fruit.


A Japanese quince chaenomeles speciosa.  Another shade-tolerant shrub producing quince-like fruit.


Autumn olive elaeagnus umbellate.  A nitrogen fixing small tree producing delicious and nutritious berries in late autumn.


A sea buckthorn hippophae ramnoides. Another nitrogen fixing shrub which makes an excellent wind break and produces berries rich in vitamins and minerals.


2 chocolate vines akebia quinata.  A climber producing edible leaves and fruit.  The leaves make a good addition to the salad bowl, while the fruit has a delicate sweet flavour.  Can also be grown as a ground cover.



A dewberry rubus caesius.  A small shrub which functions as a ground cover in shady areas, producing small edible berries.


We also bought some asparagus plants, the variety being 'Washington'.  We've seen them in Shipka and they grow to an enormous size.  It was recommended to keep them indoors over the winter before planting them, but as we have nowhere to put them we chanced it and made a nice 'lasagne bed' for them on a sunny spot.  We put cardboard mulch down, topped by cow shit and finally a thick layer collected from the pine forest above of a mixture of pine needles and horse shit.  We lined the bed with bottles of wine mostly consumed by ourselves during our stay, but as you can see, we still have some way to go...


Finally in the medicinal herb bed the liquorice is doing well (also purchased at the plant sale).


And the bits where we haven't planted anything in particular yet we have sown some green manure, such as in this case, buckwheat, which is growing rapidly and already in flower:




Friday, 23 August 2013

Hobo Rocket Stove

Like London buses, so with my blog posts: None turn up for ages than you get two in a row.  But I just wanted to share this little project with you, that we did yesterday: a hobo rocket stove.  It is simplicity in itself.  This is how we did it:

  1. We took a dog food tin kindly donated by Eddie, the Beagle and cut open the bottom end as well as the top end (removing the dog food of course, which was appreciatively gulped down by said beagle). 
  2. We took a 5litre olive oil can which we got from our recent trip to Greece and emptied it's contents into other containers.
  3. Wearing heavy duty gloves (!) and using a simple tin opener off my multi-tool implement, we cut a hole the size of the dog food tin in the narrow side, near the bottom and stuck said tin about halfway inside.
  4. Still wearing said gloves and using the same tool, we then proceeded to cut another hole in the top, a bit larger than the other hole.
  5. Next we stuffed a little straw into Eddies tin, top by a few small dry twigs.
 Finally the test: we lit the straw with a standard cigarette lighter, although matches may also have performed the same job and put a small saucepan with approximately 1/2 litre of water on top.


I set a stopwatch from the moment we lit the fire and kept feeding it with small twigs.  All in all just a small handful was used and within a mere 11 minutes the water was boiling!

And this picture perfectly demonstrates why it works so well and why they call it a rocket stove:

The fire literally rockets out of the back of the small tin and then upwards, creating a lot of heat very quickly.  This will makes us our daily coffee at least now and save us on camping gas from non-renewable containers.

So now we're cooking hobo style:




Thursday, 22 August 2013

Keyhole Bed for Medicinal Plants


We have now camped on Vasko's land in Rozovets, Bulgaria for over a month and are well finished with the survey and analysis of the land and finished the design starting to implement the first permanent design elements.  Vasko's wife Elka has a keen interest in medicinal plants and so one of the elements which we have already put in place is a keyhole bed for medicinal herbs.  The keyhole bed is a classical permaculture design, which is both space saving and pleasing to the eye.  The idea is that you plan a large round bed with a space free in the centre, so that the wide bed is accessible from either side without the need to step on the bed itself.

From the soil analysis we gathered that we he have two distinctly different soils: 1) the lower, southern part, which has a reasonable depth of sandy silt over a layer of chalk and possibly some clay a bit deeper down.  The ph is pretty much neutral and it is low in nitrogen and magnesium. 2) the higher northern part with almost no topsoil to speak of, just a rock hard chalky surface.

We decided to place the keyhole bed on the northern side, at the border between zones 1 and 2 in relation to where we intend to construct the strawbale house next spring, with the entrance pointing north for easiest acces from the house and also therefore having the path at the postion where there will potentially be the most shade from the plants.  So one of the first considerations was to create some topsoil, but first we wanted to outline the area and level it.

The dimensions of the bed are an outside diameter of 4 metres and an inside diameter of 1.2 metres.  That way the bed has a width of 1.4 metres all around and can easily be accessed from both sides with a reach of 70cm.  We had already dug a swale (more about that on another post), so we wanted it to fit below that.  With a stake in the centre and a piece of string of the appropriate length we measured the outer circle.  Then with an A-frame we measured a level diameter and placed stones around the lower perimeter with the stones from the mysterious stone-walled hole we found on the property.



Next we dug the soil from the higher end to the lower end to level the bed, a difficult and bone-breaking job, given the aforementioned hardness of the ground.  We then completed the stone circle, leaving a gap of 60cm at the northern end for the path.  Next we measured the inner circle, lined it with stones and connected the two circles to give a small path into the centre.


Now we were ready to make some soil, having also loosened the subsoil somewhat.  First we covered the area with some weed cuttings from the land to form a thick mulch.  The countryside above the land is mostly grazing land for cows, sheep and at least two herds of wild horses, so we went on numerous trips up the hill with a bucket and spade to collect their offerings and pile it on top of the mulch.  Meet some of our generous donours...

And this was the result of our efforts so far.  We also added an old hollow tree trunk we found, which adds a little height.

Finally we topped it all with some shop bought compost, as we haven't produced any of our own yet, and started planting and sowing some things, such as the hyssop in the foreground:

and the cowslip in the tree trunk:

For a full list of the herbs planned, see below.  We have also started enjoying the fruits of our labours, such as these delicious sweet and seedless grapes, more than we could eat, so we are attempting to dry them in the garage, protected by mosquito netting so the wasps don't get to them



And these small purple figs:



Now for the list of medicinal plants for those of you that interested.  I separated them into shade-tolerant and sun-loving plants and listed them more or less in descending order of height, the idea being to put the tallest shade tolerant plants on the northern side and the lower sun-loving plants on the south, if that makes sense.  I'm also giving the Latin names, their chief medical properties and other uses, as in permaculture every element should fulfill multiple functions.

Shade-tolerant plants:
  • Lovage levisticum officinale - skin and digestion aid - edible, makes a good addition to soups with a celery like flavour
  • Purple Loosestrife lythrum salicaria - wound herb, soothes sore throats - bee plant
  • Burdock artcium lappa - skin problems, anti-bacterial, rheumatism - edible root, dynamic accumulator
  • Comfrey symphtum officiale - bruises, sprains, broken bones, chest complaints - edible leaves, dynamic accumulator, bee plant
  • Sweet Cicely myrrhis odorata - diuretic, aids digestion, antiseptic - edible leaves
  • Clary Sage salvia sclarea - eyes, tonic, menopause - bee plant
  • St. John's Wort hypericum perforatum - skin, burns, anti-depressant - leaves and seeds as tea substitute
  • Peppermint mentha x piperita - digestion, headaches, colds - edible leaves, tea, ground cover
  • Yarrow achillea millefolium - blood stemming, menstrual problems, influenza - edible leaves, dynamic accumulator
  • Borage borago officinalis - blood circulation, rheumatism, anti-depressant - edible leaves and flowers, bee plant
  • Chamomile anthemis nobilis - calming, digestion, colds - ground cover, tea, dispels pests
  • Bergamot monarda didyma - antiseptic - edible leaves, tea, bee plant
  • Lady's Mantle alchemilla xantochlora - menstrual problems - ground cover
  • Red Clover trifolium pratense - PMT, menopause - ground cover, nitrogen fixing, edible leaves and flowers
Sun-loving plants:
  • Liquorice glycyrrhiza glabra - stomach ulcers, hepatitis, insect repellent - edible roots, dynamic accumulator
  • Centaury centaurium erythrea - stomach, liver, gallbladder - bee plant
  • Mullein verbascum densiflorum - ear infections, coughs, pulmonary problems - bee plant, dynamic accumulator
  • Tansy tanacetum vulgare - digestion, expels worms, rheumatism - edible leaves
  • Hyssop hyssoppus officinale - antiseptic, tonic - edible leaves, bee plant
  • Fennel foeniculum vulgare - digestion, anti-bacterial - edible leaves and seeds
  • Fenugreek trigonella foenum- graecum - digestion, lowering cholesterol - edible seeds, dynamic accumulator
  • Lavender lavendula angustifolia - calming, headaches - bee plant, used in perfumery
  • Sage salvia officinalis -colds, coughs, tooth whitener - edible leaves, bee plant
  • Feverfew tanacetum parthenium - migraines, fevers - attracts pollinators
  • Lemon balm melissa officinalis - depression, cold sores, insect repellent - edible leaves, tea, bee plant
  • Nasturtium tropaoelum majus - respiratory complaints - edible leaves and flowers, ground cover
  •  Marigold calendula officinalis - skin complaints - edible leaves and flowers, dispels certain harmful nematodes
  • Cowslip primula veris - anti-axiety, cramps, blood thinner - edible leaves and flowers, bee plant
  • Thyme thymus officinalis - anti-septic, coughs - edible leaves, bee plant, ground cover
  • Purslane portulaca oleracea - high in omega 3 acids, skin complaints - edible leaves, ground cover

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Visiting Other Projects

While traveling around Europe recently we took the opportunity to visit a couple of other projects for new inspiration and connect with friends.  On our way to Bulgaria we took the scenic route via Hungary and visited my friend Kristina in the village of Nagyszékely (don't ask me how to pronounce it, the Hungarian language remains a closed book for me) some 70km south of Lake Balaton.


I know Kristina from my Permaculture Design Course in Italy and she shares her time between Budapest and this village, where she participates in the activities of a small community.  It is a very rural area in a gently hilly country and 10 families within the village have got together to form a small community bound by their common interest in permaculture.  It's not so much an eco-village, but a naturally grown community.  It now attracts visitors from all over Europe and other parts of Europe willing to experience their way of life.

Kristina works a great garden with a great bio-diversity, using techniques such as companion planting and mulching.  She also has a few beautifully creative elements such as this 'willow tent'.  From the outside it looks like an ordinary shrub...


...but if you creep in through the gap, you are in a wonderfully secluded shelter:


We also visited a few other members of the community.  My favourite one was a tour of a food forest by one of Kristina's neighbours (her name escapes me just now).
Around every corner, something new and productive turned up, a mixture of annuals and perennials, vegetables, fruit, herbs, grains.  Her enthusiasm was infectious and the forest truly inspiring.  I leave you with another few images:



This week we visited another project in Greece in the seaside town of Pefkohori in the Chalkidiki of Northern Greece by my blogger friend Mary.  She has followed my blog for some years, but unfortunately her English garden blog has been inactive for some time.  Nevertheless, we have stayed in contact and exchanged seeds.

The garden she works together with her parents has some big challenges.  For a start they don't have much money to spare.  The soil is very poor and near the sea (500m).  The summers are very dry.  Although they've had the property for 35 years, running water has only been installed 2 years ago and they still don't have electricity and for shelter they have a small self-built house.  So she has been experimenting a lot with drought resistant heirloom vegetables and they collect the little rainwater off their roof in a large storage tank.  Keeping ground-covering plants plants to improve the soil is difficult for them for two reasons: giving shelter to venomous snakes and fire hazard.  A wild fire last year only stopped 500 metres from the property, narrowly averting disaster.

Mary's elderly parents still very much enjoy working the land, the father usually busy with some project or other around the house, the mother watering the plants:

I love the way Mary experiments with different types of seeds.  Here she has sown sesame for seed production, which I never realised what a beautiful plant this is:

This is a really interesting long Chinese bean variety:

Also this year they started keeping rabbits for food production and chickens are planned for next year.  Mary made the cage herself from recycled materials:


After enjoying a few days of Greek hospitality and a few dips in the sea we returned to Bulgaria, more of which soon.  Thank you Kristina and Mary for your hospitality... :)