Tuesday, 14 February 2017

developing the birch border

Bracket fungus on fallen birch
February filldyke.

Sticky Baltic rain mixed with sleet, horizontal from the north east. All-pervading dampness evokes the isle of Skye on its less hospitable days. Raw. The air source heat pump outside has trunks of ice awaiting its' defrost cycle. A hardy blackbird splashes
in a chilly puddle by the road. Yesterday, the prehistoric silhouette of a heron perched high in a fir tree overlooking George's Pond, snake necked. Ravens pass overhead each day.

The weather has temporarily halted our stop-go development of the birch border; but we are now close to finishing the work.  Silver birch (Betula pendula) are short-lived, native trees: fifty years is said to be their tenure. We inherited a dual line of them, planted after WWII,  now with upright dead trunks among the remaining trees - standing deadwood sporting bracket fungus. As boughs slough off we stack them in piles that become crumbling and moss fleeced. Stumps, laced with fungal mycelia, rot. Rotting wood is at the very heart of biodiversity in this garden.

Cleared ground - and Big Bazza photobombing
Our ground is said to be over-fertile due to the use of spent mushroom compost through many years. Eutrophication. Brambles and nettles thrive at the expense of all else and must be hacked out of the soil with an azada to give a wider range of plants a chance. Black, weed surpressing plastic is peeled away. With ground clear, shrubs from other parts of the garden can be re-used: hydrangeas, box and mahonias. New plants will be bought. In time, the trees will be hung with climbers - the varieties of honeysuckle being my favourite for sweet scent, moth nectar and generous berries. In addition to providing food, climbers give shelter for invertebrates, birds and small mammals.

A nest box (number 39) is tied to a tree and we mark out the area for the birch border pond.

I slosh down to the hen run. It is an unlovely place at this time of year made worse by the need to keep the hens in due to the restrictions brought about by avian flu. The girls sound so sad.  Now the ground seems full of rain, so Big Bazza and I can wheel chippings that will be spread as a mulch on the sopping soil to conserve moisture during dry times on our sandy hilltop and to suppress weeds. Bazza is my monster equestrian wheelbarrow bought to improve my productivity by my wife, the Head Gardener, for my birthday this time last year. It contains the volume of around three ordinary wheelbarrows and so speeds my work.

Living the dream.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

seasonal bird counting

Early February days of middle winter. Today a cold north east wind for seasonal bird counting.


Tree sparrow - photo Mike Hill
Mist nets garlanded the garden at the weekend for our second annual bird-ringing. A house full and 80 birds caught, little, kicking bags brought into the utility room, measured, noted, ringed and released. Cameras. Questions. Several birds already carried rings from last year: old friends. A male blue tit, tiny in the hand sang lustily. A huge mistle thrush shat extravagantly over the floor and cupboard doors. A sparrowhawk alighted on the nets hoping to feast on birds that hung like washing - escaped before we could catch it. BTO pig latin bird name abbreviations  GREFI; GOLFI; LESRE; CHAFI.
During a garden tour a woodcock exploded from the safety of brambles: our first garden record. 
Siskin. Great tits. A small band of long tailed tits. A tree sparrow - a chocolate headed gem - all found their way into the nets. Next day, dunnock, robin, blackbird shinily ringed competing beneath the bird feeders. Bird bling.

Why did our garden wrens disappear for the hour of the RSPB garden bird count on the previous Sunday? And why should this absence rankle more than the count of abundant fieldfares?

Finally the Farmland Birds Survey. My wounded knee on its first journey behind the wheel for a month twitched and tightened. Farm tracks glistening, siren-voiced quagmires.  A bundle of 20 linnets rolled ahead of us. 
Biomass digestate like crumbly cake spread onto fields in clouds of steam. Chequered feral pigeons. A brambling. Birds sheltering from the knife sharp wind hidden from view. A kestrel disdained the conditions and faced the wind.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

inter-connected

Thursday morning was the coldest we'd woken to this winter. Frost and chilling fog wrapped the garden. The max/min thermometer read -3.1C but this was in a sheltered place next to the house. Away from shelter it would have been lower. This passes for a cold winter's day these days. 
continental robin showing blue fringing around face

Ponds had frozen and needed the heel of a boot to expose fresh water for the birds. We long for the arrival of spring on foggy, cold days in January. But if we take time to look, the garden is filled with birds - many are European migrants - or from further afield.

Predictably, the ground-feeding birds are first to emerge. Half a dozen hen pheasants  at my feet as I fill the feeders. Dunnocks and wood pigeons. And robins: our gardens host many migrant robins each year. 

When I go down to let the hens out, the orchard is chack-chacking with around sixty fieldfares. 2016 was our best apple harvest and we left lots of windfalls which now attract many thrushes -
including continental blackbirds, song thrushes and fieldfares. The fieldfares rise into the air and loiter noisily in the misty birches until I leave. Our local thrushes have to fight it out with the new arrivals. I'm pleased that a resident blackbird ringed  last year is still with us.

I watched a tiny, two-tone common shrew scurry through cerise flowers of cyclamen coum to vanish beneath the varnished leaves of a purple heuchera. We've dressed all the beds and borders with chippings which conserve soil moisture and also provide cover for invertebrates. These in turn provide food for insectivorous wrens and shrews. My Mammal Society book tells me that shrews shrink in winter. They reduce the size of their liver, their skull and brain. 

goldfinch
It's then the goldrush as goldfinches arrive to buzz and chatter at the feeders. Mike had given me an industrial sized feeder, an absolute mother, which I've sited on a sturdy former swing-ball post. It can be seen easily from the kitchen and threatens to suck hours out of my day. I'm captivated by the too-ing and fro-ing of the birds as they move from our Fragrant Garden feeders, to the seeding heads in perennial borders and wildflower meadow, to the feeders further up the garden. Greenfinches join the goldies. On the shorter feeder by the sweet chestnut pollard there's a redpoll. It has a silver ring on its right leg and is the only redpoll this year - last year they were numerous. Last February we caught a redpoll that had been ringed in New Mills in the north of Derbyshire, perhaps the same one? Next weekend we set up the mist nets and ring again. 
The bird movement is mesmerising. A male siskin arrives on the mother feeder. Redpolls and siskin are small birds but they take no sauce from the bigger finches.

And then the cherry on the cake: a male brambling. Bigger and more confident than its chaffinch cousins, this old gold and black beauty is immediately filling up on the tall feeder, 'bossing' it. It will stay in the UK during winter and then make a return journey to the continent to breed as spring approaches.


The influx of migrant birds is a reminder how inter-connected the world of wildlife is. The brambling feeding with us is dependent upon suitable habitat and food for breeding in the north of Europe; it is dependent upon there being suitable stopping-off points during migration; and then dependent upon there being sufficient food and shelter during its winter stay with us. As the world retreats behind borders, nature reminds us that the world is bigger, more inter-connected and richer than the  small locality we call home.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

checking nest boxes

Box repaired following woodpecker attack
The list of things we need to get done before spring is over-facing... I won't bore you with it.
But on the list is to check nest boxes before the birds begin prospecting for nesting sites and establishing territories. The BTO Nest Box Week is 14-21 February. For once, I'm ahead!

Professor Ian Newton tells us that two of the main reasons that birds don't breed successfully is lack of food and lack of suitable nest sites. I'm working on both fronts.

I've been a nest box maker since childhood. I remember the thrill of watching a blue tit occupying a nest box I'd knocked together as a child. What a sense of achievement!!

In January I  re-site boxes that haven't been successful over the past couple of years, repair damaged boxes and remove detritus in the boxes to prevent a build up of bird pests. As always, The BTO Nest Box Guide is my bible.

Great tits, blue tits, tree sparrows and stock doves used our boxes last year. 18 (50%) were occupied.

This year I'm hoping for continued success but never expect to have all used. I've put up a couple of spotted flycatcher boxes in what appears to be optimum habitat. But these are birds facing huge declines in their numbers and I haven't seen a Nottinghamshire spotted flycatcher in years. They are quite secretive and don't have a showy song or appearance. They do possess quite astounding skills in twisting and turning flight - and it would be pretty amazing if they bred with us.

I've grouped together boxes for tree sparrows having had them nest in one of my boxes in 2016. These won't all be used.

I have two house sparrow colony boxes but know that there's little hope of this shy bird using them just yet. I need more evergreen leafy cover for them.

I'm also trying to over-supply nest boxes in the woodland in the hope that aggressive blue tits and great tits will leave vacant possession of a box for passing marsh tits. We've recorded marsh tits a mile away from our garden ... there's a tiny chance.

I also have a dream that exotic Mandarin ducks will occupy one of the big, open fronted boxes now that George's Pond is there to attract them.

The boxes aren't always the exclusive domain of birds as I discovered in 2016 when a colony of tree bumblebees was found. I learned how quickly an arthritic knee can carry a man on this occasion. Small mammals and many invertebrates also use our boxes.

five bonny babies
My aim is to find time to begin some more systematic recording of box use and success in 2017. To help with this I'm hoping to begin bird ringing with an expert. Over time and along with the data collected by all other recorders, this data provides important information on changes to bird populations. The number of young successfully raised may give clues to help us understand how (for instance) climate change is affecting birds - one example of the potential use of this information.

But don't let's complicate this thing. Any garden - or even balcony - can find a corner for a nest box. Keep it away from the reach of cats and the heat of the sun. And with luck you can watch your own wildlife documentary unfold.

On a quite selfish front, I site nest boxes because I love to think that I've made a difference. Not only is there an immense feeling of satisfaction when birds breed successfully in a box I've sited, I love lifting the box lid and helping children to peek in and see the eggs or babies. It is this direct contact with the secret and most intimate world of nature that can be an enduring memory for children and potentially catch their interest in a subject that has been close to my heart since childhood.

Monday, 9 January 2017

a tinnitus of goldfinches..?

Is there something uniquely miserable about January rain lidded by a blewit sky?
The chains that conduct rainwater from our gutters to the rain barrels en route to the pond are barely trickling yet. But the rain is steady enough to prevent outdoor work; my jobs list (in preparation for the growing season) is long and impatient to be satisfied.
The birds respond in the same way to the rain as I do. In their case, where there was garrulous busyness on the feeders an hour ago, there is now silence.

This has been a good year for finches at Cordwood and I would like to think that this is, in part, a result of the cumulative effort of six years.
In 2010, my highest count of passing goldfinches was around 70. They were infrequent garden visitors to us. Then, I looked enviously at friends' feeders where greenfinches and chaffinches hung, feasted then dropped like ripened fruit to be replaced by their peers.

Here, on brighter days, there is now a constant movement of greenfinches, goldfinches and chaffinches between our feeders, the rosa rugosa in the foraging border, the seeding heads of perennials and grasses in the prairie beds and fragrant garden, the seeding plants standing in the wildflower meadow and my sister's feeders.

Raggedy rosa rugosa hips stripped
Lemon balm (Melissa officianalis) seed heads attracted very confiding goldfinches close to the kitchen window recently. Turkish sage (phlomis russeliana) has been especially welcomed by finches in the Prairie Beds and the hips of the Ramanas rose (Rosa rugosa) in the Foraging border have been stripped.

Finches queue to use the feeder
All of this food is supplemented by daily fills of the bird feeders: sunflower hearts, black sunflower seed, whole peanuts and fat blocks see a constant rain of birds, policed by a vigilant robin.

When the rosa rugosa produced hips for the first time in 2015, our population of greenfinches rose. Now these birds are as abundant as goldfinches and scrap it out for pole position on the feeders.

Yesterday, the beautiful, tinsel chatter of the goldfinches in the trees above enveloped the garden. If God suffers from tinnitus (as I do) -surely it will be as lovely as this. Quite overwhelmingly lovely - and then these little nomads were away and the woodland garden suddenly silent.

2015 was exceptional for its redpolls. This year we have had a solitary individual visit fleetingly with the same for brambling. The house sparrows I am trying to encourage rarely venture from the close cut privet. And their pretty cousins, the tree sparrows call cheerily from bushes around the orchard but rarely venture out.

Chaffinches (numbers swollen by continental migrants) have taken years to master the feeders, having previously been content to be ground feeders, catching discarded seed from the wasteful birds above. Perhaps the chaffinches had to work on dexterity and balance before becoming confident as users of the feeders. Or perhaps, the swelling number of asylum-seeking pheasants escaping the shotguns on the fields next door are out-competing them? We no longer have pretty, big-eyed stock doves cleaning up beneath the feeders. And the collared dove calls distantly. But pheasants proliferate. British male chaffinches rarely stray more than a few miles from their natal site (where they were born). Presumably, some of the birds we now enjoy are the children of earlier Cordwood birds?

We look forward to another bird ringing session at the beginning of February. It will be interesting to see whether any of last years' birds have made it through and what this years' ringing tells us about changes in populations.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

opportunities on the shortest days ..

Dusk in the darkest time of the year. The shortest days, when tools are away by 4:00pm. The hens have put themselves to bed early too.
We woke this morning to a good frost and this clear evening sky - already with pin pricks of starlight - suggests we may have the same again tomorrow.
But these days, when the colour has been washed from the plants so that we live in a sepia world, present opportunities to do garden development that wouldn't be possible in the verdant months.
We completed our ground preparation of the recreated vegetable and fruit garden beds last week. This part of the garden will now rest through the winter, awaiting spring with its four year organic cycle ready to roll.
By the house, we have been developing what I am calling 'The courtyard'. Framed by our existing greenhouse, we will add a large potting shed and workshop in the New Year. A log shed will be built to screen the car parking area. A large 'dipping' pond will be constructed to hide a fall in levels. And Dave worked hard to lay a path of recycled sandstone slabs over the weekend. The surfaces will be golden gravel to match the drive and the Fragrant Garden paths. I found a black metal lamp post on the auctions and bought it for £30. When it's in place, I'm hoping it lends a Narnia-esque feel on snowy evenings.
The small birds have been hammering the bird feeders all day, emptying tubes of sunflower hearts and a tray of peanuts. Goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches. Great, blue and coal tits. A nuthatch. All feeding apparently insatiably. The ground feeding birds - pheasants, wood pigeons, stock dove and dunnock - trammel the soil as food rains down. Robins flick their tails and 'tick' in energetic competition with rivals.
A hullabaloo of cock pheasants crashes into the branches overhead as blackbirds strike the end of the day. It must be a male thing - the hen pheasants are much quieter when going to roost.
The silhouette of a buzzard, heavy winged and mewing passes over. Then fifteen wagtails 'chiswick' to one another as they bob south to their roost. Starlings have already flown into neighbours' conifers and chatter like children having a sleepover.
Darkness closes around. I wait for the tawnies to
begin to call.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

the enduring spell cast by Lawrence Hills...

Dad's shed stands at the end of what will be the fruit garden.
The days of autumn and winter both close chapters on the year and provide opportunities for new beginnings. This is one of the joys of gardening and what makes it special. Gardeners are always looking forward to the next season and planning for it.
Readers of this blog may remember that Lawrence Hills (the doyen of organic gardening and founder of Garden Organic) cast his spell over me in 1978. Always interested in gardening, my passion for growing organic fruit and vegetables was fired by the great man. Organic food seemed an almost impossible ideal all those years ago when even wholemeal flour and free range eggs were largely unavailable. I am pleased that we were able to demonstrate to ourselves over thirteen years of allotment holding that Hills' ideas were sound.
The way we were - our allotment
The hiatus in which we built our eco-home and began developing our Cordwood gardens took us away from vegetable and fruit growing for too long. And has seemed an age since I felt that unique, primal connection with the soil and growing ones own food that I am beginning to re-engage with again now.

We began to develop our vegetable and fruit gardens in the summer, digging over ground that had been used to raise perennial plants. Ours is a sandy soil and the digging was not as arduous as that of turning clay. Neither was the ground too infested with perennial weeds - we had covered the soil with black plastic as a highly-effective means of organically killing weeds.

Over the succeeding months, the four sections of the vegetable garden emerged, compost and well-rotted manure were added and wood chipped paths were created around each 1200mm (4') wide bed. There can be little as low in food miles as walking down the garden path to collect fresh vegetables. Our choice is limited at the moment, but leeks are currently featuring heavily in our cuisine. 

wildlife plays a key part in organic gardening
This month we sited dad's old garden shed at the end of what will be the fruit bed and are now within two metres of completing ground preparations for the final section of the garden. The shed will provide necessary space for storing the growing and diverse collection of garden tools I am acquiring. Summer and autumn-fruiting raspberries, four varieties of rhubarb, blueberries, redcurrant and blackcurrants are all ready in pots waiting for planting. A thornless blackberry will be purchased in the New Year.

Within, and necessary to all the fruit and fertility, the compost bins, leaf compounds and comfrey are the needs of wildlife: so ponds, insect hotels and flowering plants will be integral. They will play a vital role in the organic control of pests.

And although I now understand that Hills may have been more of a writer and thinker than a practical gardener, I still feel his hand on my shoulder gently guiding me. My hope is that in 2017 we will have created a model organic fruit and vegetable garden that will do justice to his immense legacy.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

the pond takes a huge draught of rain ..

The wake of Storm Angus has draped itself over Nottingham in curtains of rain since yesterday. Roads flooded. My rain gauge overflowed.

Perhaps I was alone in welcoming the soaking rain. I sent a text to our neighbour (who has a large, vegetable growing business next door) mischievously celebrating the deluge, knowing the reality would be different for his business. He replied that the farm was flooding and that he'd be prepared to pump the flood water that made the fields unworkable up the hill into our pond. I didn't take him up.

George's Pond fills under glowering late afternoon skies
Our pond is unusual. It is fed by rainwater we gather from the roofs of the two bungalows which travels down pipes and rain chains and into drains that feed the pond.

Our countryside has lost most of its ponds and wetlands. Those that remain are frequently polluted by nitrate-rich run-off from agricultural fields or catch pollution from roads. The consequence for animals and plants that require an aquatic habitat is obvious - their numbers are in speedy decline. Even the once common toad is no longer common.

George's Pond is our response to all this. Our site is at the top of a sandy hill and has never (as far as we know) had any pond. We have created it to help wildlife. Twenty metres in diameter, it was bentomat lined and then this matting was covered with compacted sub-soil. We finished work in January and therefore  missed some of the earlier heavy winter rains. I'm hoping that this year the pond will drink a huge draught of rain, become bloated - and prepare itself properly for the coming year.
Pond dipping

There is much that is counter-intuitive about natural ponds:
I have learnt that fluctuating pond levels in natural ponds are to be expected; indeed some highly successful ponds completely dry out in summer.
I have also learned that our aquatic wildlife has become adapted over millions of years to thrive in conditions of lower oxygen and so that ponds do not need fountains or rills to add extra oxygen.
I already knew that we wouldn't accept the many gifts of frogspawn and newts that arrived: the risk of spreading disease being too great.
I have also learned that the pond does not need to be planted because vegetation will arrive naturally over time. On this latter point I have reminded myself that although the pond may have time, I may not - so have planted a few favourites including snakes head fritillary, yellow iris and rush.

Although my movement activated camera suggests the pond is only used by wood pigeons and stock doves (and a strange creature I call 'The Claw' who landed on the camera leaving a mysterious and disturbing image) we know its impact is beyond this.

When Adam and the boys pond dipped they found lots of tiny invertebrate life.

We know that kestrels and sparrow hawks use the pond for drinking and bathing - and Jill thought she disturbed a couple of hobbies there. In Jill's case she does demand a level of proof that would test the resources of a major science university and so this latter siting can't be verified.

We do know that we attracted a passing group of crossbills on one amazing summer afternoon.

And now our pond prepares to sleep and sate itself on rain. Distant spring is anticipated eagerly.


Thursday, 10 November 2016

plums and custard (Tricholomposis rutilans)

Among the leaf litter and rotting wood, our autumn fungi fruit.

It seems to have been an excellent year for fungus - whether this is part of a national pattern or a response to the stacks of rotting wood we have built about the place since coming here, I'm not sure.

There are around 14,500 species of wild fungus recorded in the UK - more than eight times more than there are flowering plants.

This stunner is new to us this year - Plums and Custard (Tricholomposis rutilans). It gets its name from the way it looks not tastes: being very bitter and inedible, it's not one for the frying pan. Only about 12 species of our native fungus are good or tasty to eat.

The specimen we found has a striking plum or claret coloured cap although I understand that cap colour can be variable.


custard yellow gills
creamy white spores
Its gills are custard yellow contrasting with the plum-coloured stalk. Gill colour is not a reliable indicator of spore colour (just as flower colour is not an indicator of pollen colour) as the spore pattern shows that its' spores are white to cream colour.

Obligingly, this one was growing on a pine stump - just as the books tell us it should do!

The mycelia of fungus are its' hair like 'roots' and are present throughout the year. The fruiting body which in this case is beautifully plum-coloured emerges briefly to cast its spores.

Dead or decaying matter is vital for healthy woodland biodiversity. 

Saproxylic organisms (pertaining to dead or decaying wood) are those that are involved in or dependent on the process of fungal decay of wood, or on the products of that decay, and which are associated with living as well as dead trees.

They vary from woodpeckers to fungi.  Over most of Europe saproxylic organisms are under threat, due to the removal of woodland cover and impoverishment of what remains (Speight 1989).

Deadwood supports up to 90% of the biodiversity of woodland (The Tree Council) and plays a key part in breaking down dead wood as well as a vital part in enabling tree roots to access nutrients. Fungi also contribute to the biomass of woodlands e.g. there are 200 species of midge that require specific fungus for food or as the food for their larvae. A pippstrelle bat can consume 2000 midges in one evening. So without decaying wood the entire diversity of our woodland flora and fauna is impoverished.

It seems plums and custard could be making a tasty meal for woodland wildlife after all. Just not me!



 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

'Is it a number one sir?'. Managing meadows.

Our meadows are young and still verdant with new grasses. It is necessary to remove this nitrogen-rich growth before fertility is returned to the soil. If we don't, vigorous plants will crowd out the less-robust ones and lead to fewer plant species in the meadow. Perversely, wildflower meadows do best on less-fertile soils.

So, time for a meadow haircut, but unlike someone asking for a number one all over, our meadows need more than a one-size-fits-all hammering.
meadow during mowing

To remove all the top growth would deny voles and mice a place to tunnel and be protected from kestrels and owls. It would mean that sleeping hedgehogs lose safe places to hibernate. Many moths, butterflies and other invertebrates use meadow plants as winter hosts for eggs or larvae. Bumble bees make nests in the cover of a thick sward.

Gatekeepers and meadow brown enjoying ragwort
Our cutting regime sees some areas of the meadow cut close each year - and this management will encourage a certain type of low-growing flora. Other areas will be scuffed and the surface of the soil broken to allow the seeds of annual plants like poppies to grow and for the seeds of perennials to spread. This breaking of the soil surface was traditionally done by animals grazing the pasture after the hay cut. The wet winter ground was 'poached' by their feet, providing a fertile seed bed. And finally, as I have already said, some areas are left unmown to provide safe haven for the range of grassland invertebrates and other animals. These unmown areas will provide shelter over winter and hopefully provide a reservoir of wildlife to move out into other areas of the meadow when it begins to grow again. Winter finches should enjoy the seeds left in the unmown areas too. Wildlife likes untidiness!

The caveat I enter here about the unmown sections is that I cut by hand seeding heads of dock and ragwort. Useful for wildlife (ragwort flowers provide a really useful source of nectar for a range of invertebrates), these are very much in the 'bully' category of meadow plants who will colonise and dominate if their seeds are allowed to spread uncontrollably.

Our dream is to create a species rich meadow. We have already introduced harvest mice into the unmown area. We are enjoying the company of a juvenile kestrel at the moment who seems especially interested in the rough grass and its snack-size inhabitants. My dream is to see a barn owl quartering the ground...
Planting an Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa) on the edge of the meadow grown by Mike

This time we've used a strimmer with a brush cutter head and removed the arisings with rakes - thanks to our pal Mike for his muscle. The 'green hay' as we term it has been layered up in a compost bin with manure and wood chippings - all thoroughly soaked. This first layering will probably have a second airing after what I hope will be the final lawn mowing of the year. The compost will be mixed with grass cuttings - adding oxygen and green fuel to the compost to speed its progress. Compost itself is a wonderful place for wildlife.

We finished a hectic six hours by planting an Indian Beantree (Catalpa bignoniodes) seedling. This had been nurtured by Mike in pots for eleven years and was grown from seed collected from a large specimen once growing outside St Nicholas Church on Maid Marian Way in Nottingham. Close to the church is the famous Nottingham castle that has a notable specimen of an Indian Beantree - perhaps our new tree is related to this august plant? Clumber Park, twenty miles to the north of us is believed to be the northernmost Catalpa.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

elements of thermally-efficient building

An update on the fit out of our extension showing elements of our eco-build.
internal wall showing foam glass, thermal and conventional block work


The internal wall construction shows:

a narrow course of glass foam bricks at the base of the wall that prevent cold crossing from the concrete slab up into the walls. Thermal (or cold) bridging is the term given to those places in a building where cold enters. In a thermally-efficient house these are designed out or their effects quantified in calculating the heating needs of the building.

the next course of large grey blocks are termed thermal blocks and their function is insulation. These are light weight blocks.

above the thermal blocks are conventional or brieze blocks. Traditional build sees internal walls being 'stud' - plaster board and timber construction. In our home these heavy blocks act to regulate the temperature of the building. They absorb the heat of the building and release it to keep temperatures constant. The walls are rendered with 'hardwall' plaster which has almost no insulation value - allowing the walls to absorb and release heat easily.
self levelling floor screed covers underfloor heating pipes

The second picture shows a self-levelling screed being pumped to cover the underfloor heating pipes. This method of heating is more effective than the conventional wall-mounted radiators of the traditional home. Below the black plastic hides 200mm of polystyrene insulation.



Sunday, 16 October 2016

Clash, reggae and Lawrence Hills ..

1978 was a great year. A vintage year. Newly married and in our own home it was a year of The Clash and the Pistols. New Wave music. John Peel. Wonderful reggae from Culture and Joe Gibbs. Nottingham Forest weren't having a bad time of it either. During that tumultuous time I began a lifetime love of bread making when the only bread at our local co-op was that made by the management during a bakers' strike and I had to bake my own. And 1978 was the year I bought my copy of Organic Gardening by Lawrence Hills.
I'm still playing all that music. My football club ain't doing too well, I'll be honest with you. Folks love my bread! And my old Lawrence Hills and it's companion Fruit and Vegetable Gardening are well-thumbed, underlined and annotated and remain the very heart of my gardening credo.

Our garden in Sherwood, Nottingham was our first attempt at growing fruit and vegetables organically and holds special memories.

And years later it was with huge sadness that we gave up our allotment in Leapool, Nottingham after thirteen productive and fascinating years to take on the building of our home and to develop the six acres of the derelict and neglected former mushroom farm that we now call our gardens.

From 2009 we've had a big hole in our lives, unable to grow our own vegetables and fruit and unable to enjoy the unique pleasures of an organic garden. We've missed that process of eagerly scouring catalogues for seed varieties, preparing the ground and then watching the young plants grow to productivity. All without chemicals or artificial fertilisers.

But house built and gardens tamed, now is the time to create our own organic vegetable and fruit garden again.

The Head Gardener's (HG's) list of development work for the autumn includes preparing the four vegetable garden beds and preparing and planting the permanent fruit bed. We completed the third of the four vegetable beds before the weekend. This has included digging over the ground to remove perennial weeds and the roots of the many remaining perennial flowers and grasses that we had previously nurtured in this part of the garden. Then the marking out of individual plots - before barrowing well-rotted manure and compost onto the soil to give the thin Nottinghamshire sand some heart.

I have already discussed the importance of the soil to organic gardening. Next we must consider the rotation of crops to ensure that there is not a build up of pests and diseases.

The vegetable garden is divided into four annual beds, each following the previous:
Next years' potato bed dug and ready for more compost and manure ..
  1. Potatoes - organic matter added to soil to build soil fertility
  2. Legumes, corn and squashes - benefit from previous years' fertility and build on it by adding their own fertility through root nodes
  3. Brassicas, leaves and beetroot - appreciate fertility from previous years and also firmness of the ground as legumes are hoed off leaving soil well anchored by root structure
  4. Roots and onion family - do not need high levels of fertility and complete the four year cycle.
Potatoes follow roots and onion family into their ground when the cycle begins again.

During the development stage we were unsure which bed would be in which location so have a haphazard planting. This will be rectified as 2017 develops.

In the photograph, the HG surveys work so far beneath a glowering and decrepit cherry. She'd raised questions about its' condition and domination before so I sent a text to our notoriously busy tree surgeon friends. The tree needed a pick-me-up and thorough seeing-to.

Me: 'Arternoon Nate. Is it too late in the season to prune a venerable cherry tree?'

Reply: 'Should be ok at the mo just no later really now it's getting cold'

Me - 'Aha - you've fallen into my carefully prepared trap. When are you free?'

Reply - 'We'll be with you in the morning'

an early season drug of produce from our allotmenting days
You can almost here the resigned exasperation in that reply ..

I must say that the boys got their retaliation in good and proper as, on their recommendation, I'm now reducing by two thirds the height of a three metre high and thirty metre long privet hedge with an uncooperative Aldi chainsaw. My progress did increase when the HG pointed out that I was using a Stihl chainsaw manual which explained why none of the diagrams looked anything like the machine I was using.

But with sixty years of unpruned cherry tree growth taken  care of, we can look forward to productive and shade free gardening ahead. I am a passionate gardener from a line of such. Little gives the gardening satisfaction of a well-managed vegetable and fruit bed and the resulting delicious produce waiting on the plate. The reclaiming of our vegetable and fruit gardening is one of our most-eager anticipations.



Wednesday, 12 October 2016

godawful environmental news - but I have no-cost solutions

There's been more godawful environmental news this past week: the population of our common toad (bufo bufohas fallen by 70% in 30 years and we've had the worst annual butterfly count since records began.

The national decline in toad population isn't seen in our garden. Although we've no evidence of them breeding at Cordwood, their miniature juveniles were plentiful - ask our guest whose bedroom had to be cleared of them during one summer sleepover! Toads seem to be liking our conditions and are turned up in every corner of the garden.

The reasons for the toads' decline are not yet clear. But changing land use and habitat loss (including land drainage), road deaths, pesticides, reduced invertebrate numbers must all play a part. Toads are probably less likely to breed in garden ponds than frogs and so perhaps have not been able to make use of this resource in the way that frogs and smooth newts have been able to. The fatal fungal disease that is affecting amphibians must also be taking its' toll.
None of these factors play in our six acre site and the toad population remains healthy.

By contrast, we've seen the same decline in numbers of butterflies that others have reported. We've recorded the same number of butterfly species this year as last, but numbers of each species were often very low:

Garden butterflies 2016 
Small copper on aster flowers - October
  1. Brimstone
  2. Orange tip
  3. Peacock
  4. Small tortoiseshell
  5. Painted lady 
  6. Common blue
  7. Holly blue
  8. Speckled wood
  9. Red admiral
  10. Green veined white
  11. Small white
  12. Large white 
  13. Meadow Brown
  14. Ringlet
  15. Gatekeeper 
  16. Small skipper
  17. Comma 
  18. Small copper 
Of course, for most of us in the UK the spring and early summer were dismal from a weather perspective - and this must have affected early-flying butterflies. August and September, by contrast provided dry and warm weather that looked ideal for butterflies.

An example of the decline is that of the small copper (pictured). This little gem of a butterfly has been fairly easy to see throughout the summer in previous years. It took an eagle-eyed Linda, during a tour of our prairie beds last week, to spot a couple on the asters. Her photograph is shown - and is the only record we have of small copper this year.  Ringlet was only recorded once and common blue was scarce.
The newly planted 'super buddleia' (three different coloured buddleias in one planting hole) should have been a magnet to butterflies, but even though loaded with flowers didn't live up to it's name of 'butterfly bush'. In this, the first full year of our Prairie Beds the simple flowers of Joe-Pye Weed (eupatorium pupureum), Cone flowers (echinacea spp) and Ice plant (sedum spectabile) to name a few provided lots of nectar in accessible form loved by bumblebees and honey bees but saw very few butterflies enjoying the action.

On the positive side, we have had reasonable numbers of speckled woods and the white butterflies. And meadow browns and small skippers were frequently seen in our enlarged meadow grassland. At the end of the season red admirals and commas appeared in more-or-less usual numbers.

Butterflies are more likely to be affected by factors in surrounding areas than our toad population. Very few of our butterflies would live their entire life-cycle in a garden.

So for the butterfly decline we must probably look at the reduction in their larval food plants due to intensification of farming and use of herbicides and pesticides; fragmentation and loss of habitat; loss of sites for overwintering larvae - and climate change.

We should be careful about demonising our farmers. It is true that they are the agents of massive change in land use and this has undoubtedly been a major factor in the collapse in so many species' numbers. We must remember that farmers are simply doing as we (through our government) demand: they are producing cheap high quality food.

We should take the opportunities that Brexit offers to reshape grants and funding to agriculture.

'No-cost' actions I would immediately take as world leader:
  • measure all government actions against their contribution to biodiversity and sustainability especially environmental and farming policy
  • divert taxpayers money currently given to wealthy landowners for simply owning land to agri-environment and other schemes where there is science to support its impact
  • allow existing hill farm and other subsidies to be used for 'rewilding' schemes to create large areas for wildlife
  • give extra focus within existing funding to connectivity so that isolated habitats can be joined up
  • provide organic farmers financial support to create a 'level playing field' with their intensive neighbours
  • give planners powers and resources to prevent development that adversely affects wildlife
All to be 'measurable' so that the impact of our actions can be properly assessed.


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

the heart of the garden ...

Our aim is to live lightly on the land.
We are lucky that our eco-home is central to this, conserving energy and water and feeding electricity back to the grid when sunny days see our consumption exceeded by the supply from our solar panels.
The philosophy of encouraging biodiversity is another strand and many of my blogposts have been on this theme.
But close to our heart is growing our own food. When we first acquired the Cordwood site I overheard neighbours from the nearby retirement village describing us darkly as 'Good Lifers'. To those unfamiliar with British TV, 'The Good Life' was a comedy based upon the misadventures of a couple who tried to live sustainably.
But, as Mr Bennet told Jane in Pride and Prejudice "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?" I am a Good-Lifer and proud!

I am proud that I am from a long line of gardeners, beginning growing vegetables and fruit organically in 1978 when we married. Having had our life de-railed in 2010 by the building of our home and the development of our gardens, I'm delighted that the time has come to reclaim one of the things that gives me greatest satisfaction: growing organic food.

The heart of a good garden is the soil. And taking care of the soil is the single most important job of the organic grower. If the soil is healthy, so will be the plants.

Completed compost bins look across the first phase of the Vegetable and Fruit Garden
And here's my super soil-sustainer - my six compost bins, recently completed. and all sustainably built from recycled 1200x 1000mm pallets. Giving me capacity for over 7 tonnes of compost!

Into my bins go annual weeds, grass cuttings, hen bedding, manure, kitchen waste, dampened cardboard and paper and shredding and chippings. Out comes gorgeous crumbly compost that not only provides fertility but organic matter for retaining moisture and mycelia that will improve the water absorption and mineral uptake of my plants' roots. Into the soil via the compost go myriad invertebrates too, creating a complex web of life.

Composting also has the benefit of using up material that may possibly go to landfill and the inevitable release of greenhouse gases.

Organic matter trapped within the soil acts as a carbon sink - locking carbon away and reducing global warming.

A final advantage of composting is that all the turning that the compost requires to oxygenate it gives a wonderful work out for the middle. I should have abs that Peter Andre would envy!

All of this compost will be used to improve soil quality as new beds are established over the coming autumn and winter. Where beds have been established, compost will be used as a mulch to be drawn down into the soil by busy worms, improving soil structure.

And there is a pay-off for wildlife. The soil is rich in organic matter and remains undisturbed as we use 'no dig' methods. Soil invertebrates thrive in these conditions providing food for birds, hedgehogs, amphibians and other invertebrates.

My eco-credentials are frequently tested by the incursion of moles who find this all very much to their liking. I know that up to 46% of  a tawny owls early summer diet can be juvenile moles. I love tawny owls. But having my carefully sown rows of seedlings blown apart as if by a series of land mines does test my patience.

In the meantime, on some of our farmed soils:

The Committee for Climate Change reported that Britain had lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850 stating that soil degradation is due to intensive farming. The EU Joint Research Centre has said that soil biodiversity is under threat across 56% of the EU blaming 'unsustainable exploitation of soils' as the main factor.









Tuesday, 20 September 2016

making a building airtight ..

We are getting our annex ready for the builders.

Those metaphors have been in an absolute whirl this week with all shoulders to the wheel, hands to the pumps and noses to the grindstone.  There's tiredness here, I can tell you evidenced by my admission that tonight, in addition to my dinner I have eaten half a box of Matchmakers, a mini-Magnum and two nectarines.

Ceiling Majpell goes up
Enough about my fallibilities.

In an eco-build the first and most-obvious element is insulation - put a warm jumper on. We finished our part of the annex insulation over the weekend: 25mm polystyrene sheeting cut and fixed to the inside of all exterior walls with plaster adhesive. Dirty, dusty work.

So, that was the jumper. But without a wind proof layer, the warmth of the jumper will be blown away - hence the need for airtightness.

It was Steve (aka 'The Great Man') who spotted SIGA airtightness products during a Grand Designs programme way back in 2012.

The Swiss SIGA system entails using rolls of fibreglass sheeting that have their joins taped to make them airtight.

And all those weeks and months of fixing Majpell sheeting to the insides of exterior walls and ceilings and use of excessively sticky tapes with names like Sicral or Rissan came back to haunt us.
Use of Sicral and Twinnet

Corner detail using Fcntrim and Corvum
But, we became quite good at the task when we built our house and in 2013 achieved the best score for airtightness that our examiner had recorded.

That was then - and it has taken some time to reclaim all those arcane techniques  and skills we'd previously mastered.  Some call it 'distance decay' - I call it plain forgetting.

But anyway, between the four of us we've almost finished.

Some tasks remain: the entries into the ceiling will be made airtight with Rissan tapes; the floor will be lined with black plastic sheeting that will wrap up the walls and be taped in place with Sicral. These will be undertaken during the building process.

Airtight walls and ceiling
I have one doorway to complete tomorrow. And then we can welcome the builders.