A passion for PERMACULTURE
Permaculture is a key feature of this thriving community smallholding in mid-Wales. Ros Mortis, a resident at Tan-y-fron Housing Co-op, tells the story
Take one overgrown acre in mid-Wales, add barrow loads of enthusiasm, a pinch of horticultural knowledge and a passion for permaculture… and see what happens! It’s less than five years since our household of nine (six adults, three teenagers and various pets) moved into a large, ramshackle old house that came with a neglected orchard and vegetable garden areas plus a few acres of unmanaged mixed woodland. With a stream running down past the kitchen and a south-easterly aspect, the place might sound idyllic, but the stark reality was a formidable list of work priorities and a very modest budget.
HEALTHY HOME-GROWN FOOD
We did not set out to become self-sufficient, but we were determined to produce as much healthy, home-grown food as possible, including meat and eggs. We started with a dozen rescued chickens from a local farm and were soon collecting a daily supply of eggs. Since then, our flock has expanded to include quail, ducks and recently, four turkeys. To keep their food bill down, and so the birds aren’t taking away valuable growing space for human food, we are attempting to integrate them by growing plants that we too can eat or use such as quinoa, berries, comfrey, etc. One of this summer’s projects has been to create a ‘Chicken Cafe’ in our orchard by planting leftover winter brassicas in a disused quail pen. The chooks go in to feed, then are shut out again allowing the plants to recover.
GET GOING ON GROWING
We created light and room for our polytunnel by felling 33 huge Leylandii trees that overshadowed the property, and once the tunnel was up we really could get going on growing as much and for as long a season as possible. Fortunately, we have easy access to plenty of well-rotted horse manure as well as mulch chippings from those Leylandii. Soil building has begun in earnest, along with growing, and the crops are coming in.
A major priority has been sorting out the polytunnel, fencing, hedging, weed clearance, creating beds, making chicken coops and tree maintenance, so we have tried to be creative in roping in as much help as possible with these projects.
We started off by holding ‘Volunteer Days’ a few times a year inviting friends and family to spend a day (usually a Sunday) to help us with specific jobs that
could involve people of all ages and with different levels of strength and ability - bringing timber down from the woods, scything the orchard, fruit picking, stream clearing, and so on. We have got much better at organising these events by getting the correct tools and safety gear ready, planning what needs to be done, and, importantly, making sure there’s plenty of food and drink ready for the day!
We are extremely grateful to every one of our hands-on helpers, including our ‘Wwoofers’ (UK and overseas volunteers who stay with us for an agreed number of weeks) helping out for a set number of hours per week in exchange for food and lodgings. We joined Wwoof UK nearly two years ago and the help we have had has been invaluable - extra pairs of hands enabled us to excavate our polytunnel to create a self-watering system.
GUILDING (sic) THE CHERRY
One major infrastructure project has been to create our first four vegetable growing beds enabling crop rotation. On a very large sheet of paper we scribbled various designs, guided by memories of the Permaculture Design Courses most of us have attended. We already had two apple trees growing in the vegetable garden area so we included two more fruit trees (a cherry and another apple) in our design and started to create four guilds, one surrounding each tree. The benefits of ‘guilding (sic) the cherry’, or any other fruit tree, are simple and straightforward. Bulbs (eg daffodils) planted closely around the trunk of the tree discourage rabbits, squirrels, etc from damaging the bark. A circle of comfrey can be ‘chopped and dropped’ as green manure and a circle of peas, beans, onions and garlic help with nitrogen fixing.
Having established a healthy, nurturing environment for the fruit trees, and making sure we provided access to the beds by sowing green manure pathways (again to build good soil), we planted vegetables in the outermost circles which meant losing some of a very large lawn. We have divided each of the four beds (allium, legumes, root veg and brassica) into ‘cartwheel’ beds. The allium ‘cartwheel’ has segments planted with leeks, garlic and several varieties of onion along with appropriate companion planting. There are mulched pathways around the perimeter of the vegetable beds using layers of cardboard or newspaper under wood chippings to try and keep the weeds at bay. We do not use chemicals, neither do we get too distressed by weeds unless they are of the persistent and deep-rooted variety (hogweed!) in which case they just have to be dug out. We try to cover as much ground as possible either by interplanting or allowing edible ground cover such as nasturtium or squash. On the rim of each ‘cartwheel’ we are gradually introducing step-over planting with homepropagated lavender, sage, thyme, etc., all chosen to encourage beneficial insects and deter pests. Unfortunately, we have not found anything that works for Cabbage Whites except netting.
DON’T EXPECT A 100% YIELD
Growing organically, we do not expect a 100% yield, but each season we are getting better at protecting crops at most risk, for example by using non-chemical solutions such as diluted soap spray against aphid attacks. We have also introduced mouseproof hanging shelves in the polytunnel after losing almost all of our first seed sowings. We have got much better at harvesting rainwater (an important permaculture principle is ‘Catch and Store Energy) from our sizeable house roof, as well as from every other structure possible including the chicken house. As we are not on the mains water supply (our household water comes from a well) we are well aware (no pun intended) of the value of water as a resource and have installed a number of 1,000-litre bowsers around the site, each with a hose serving essential growing areas; a recent rather quirky project has been to start growing on top of the bowsers using capillary matting.
A major advantage of living within a community - we are a registered housing co-op - is that there is never a shortage of ideas and enthusiasm, although there are occasions when there is not sufficient time, money or physical energy. For example, we are desperately keen to improve site drainage by creating two grey water ponds and we hope that this season’s volunteers will help us to make a start on that project. We are also up and running with beehives and a bee garden in our orchard and awaiting our first swarm to provide us with honey for our homemade bread, but we still need help to clear hogweed there. The plan is to recruit a couple of pigs next spring to help with this. Also, the dry stone walls around the orchard are in a sad state and overgrown with ivy. Plenty of work for willing hands!
There is never a shortage of ideas and enthusiasm
MORE: www.permaculture.org.uk www.wwoof.org.uk