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.




Sunday, 18 September 2016

A new project: the annex

Of late, the blog has focussed on nature.

But our project is also about living lightly on the earth and reducing the carbon impact of our homes. We are proud of our A+ energy performance. But a lot of work is needed to achieve this. And now, a new chapter begins.

When we originally conceived the Cordwood project, it was Judith's pitch to us that not only would we build eco-homes, they would have provision for mum and dad should they wish it. Our home was built but 'the annex' was not completed, only being built as 'a shell' so that we could meet mum and dad's needs when it was needed as a 'Granny flat'.

Well, mum and dad are coming!  And we're preparing the annex for the builders who should arrive at the end of the month. And we hope to have them in before Christmas.

From 2013, the annex has been used as a store or general dumping ground. And what a load of detritus people can build up. No wonder mum and dad looked glum when we made our first planning visits to what looked no better than a dingy Steptoe's Parlour.

We had to empty the storage container to find room for the contents of the annex. What fun indeed.


And once cleared, our first task was to insulate the annex walls.

Ours is an eco-home and our walls are built with:

  • an external skin of Ancaster stone, 
  • an insulation-filled cavity 
  • and then a course of lightweight Celcon thermal blocks. 

These blocks are not only very effective at retaining heat, they are bonded together with adhesive rather than conventional mortar. Homes can lose 25% of their heat through their mortar joints. This use of adhesive rather than mortar makes the blocks even more effective.

Our architect calculated that even with this higher level of insulation, more was needed.

Starting last Sunday and with Sarah's initial help, sheets of 25mm polystyrene were cut and stuck to all the external Celcon block walls using plaster adhesive: a messy job!

The insulation is 99% complete - only a detail around the door hasn't been resolved.

And now we are working on making the annex airtight. More next time!


Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Harvest mice

Until you meet a harvest mouse (Micromys minutus), you aren't prepared for its' tininess or cuteness.

The harvest mouse is Europe's smallest rodent. An adult weighs 6g - as much as a 2p piece.


But this once-common micro-mouse is in decline. Same old, same old I'm afraid: changing land use; more efficient mechanised farming; unsympathetic land management. Leading to it being listed as a biodiversity action plan priority species.

So I didn't hesitate for a micro-second when it was suggested that our new meadow may be ideal for harvest mice.

They like rough grassland, preferably with a sward uncut for three years so that they can burrow down in the grass and hide from their catalogue of predators. These include other rodents, foxes, owls, kestrels and sparrow hawks as well as pheasants and cats.

Their defence against this battery of enemies includes being able to raise four litters of babies each year. Their nest is woven from living grass and has its entrance cunningly closed making it almost impossible to detect.

They are also successful opportunist feeders enjoying seeds, grasses, fruits and insects.

And then, they are our only rodent with a prehensile tail. This leads to it being a spectacular acrobat, balancing precariously on slender grass stems and reeds.

Harvest mice leave their home
Today was our special day. A dozen of the most excuisite  little creatures arrived in their carrying case. They had been fuelled with millet and sweet corn and after a small hesitation made their way into our meadow that currently includes a jungle of grasses, seeding wild carrot, and yarrow.

It won't be easy for our little group of pioneers to establish a colony. Hopefully they will use their carrying box as a base, stuffed as it is with straw, is supplied with food and smells like home. But we know that 90% of harvest mice die during cold winters. As well as facing that battery of enemies. 

We'll provide supplementary food to give them a fighting chance.

And we hope that you'll join us in keeping everything crossed that they make it through.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

nature's hidden world

For those of us fascinated by nature's astonishing diversity there have been some of those "I'n't nature brilliant" moments this week.
Mike invited us to join him for late night help in surveying Center Parks moth populations. 
As Jill and Mike do the technical bit, my role is highly-skilled 'moth wrangler' - catching the moths as they spiral around the mercury vapour bulb, drunk on light through a fog of midges and other smaller flying insects. I make tiny lassos out of spiders webs for the purpose. Or I use plastic pots. For the non-initiated, moths are attracted to a light, popped into a plastic pot for identification and released. I apologise for telling a friend that they were pressed between the pages of a book as children once did with wild flowers. And neither are they added dried to my muesli. And a very successful night with 43 species identified despite much ingress of small insects into the bronchial passageways. During the evening I sounded more like my grandfather coughing by the coal fire than at any time before.
The most exquisite moth caught was the delightfully named True Lovers Knot: the tracery of black and white on its wings a work of art. A new moth for us.
The Sexton beetle can't go anywhere without her mites ...
During the night we had visits from blundering Sexton beetles. These are nature's funeral directors, finding and burying the corpses of small animals. The beetles carry a cargo of mites during their prospecting journeys and we wondered what advantage this parasitic burden had for the overloaded Sexton beetles. 
Not surprisingly, the relationship is symbiotic (mutually beneficial) and not parasitic. After an Internet trawl, I found that the Sexton beetles chief competitors are flies who will seek out dead animals and lay their eggs on the corpse. This corrupts the stored dead body sooner than the Sexton Beetle can use it. The mites carried by the beetle leave their host when a dead animal is found and seek out and eat fly maggots, extending the period that the beetles buried treasure will be available as a beetle food source. That's a pretty fine bit of evolutionary development on the part of these two invertebrates.
Privet hawkmoth
And then, as if to give approval for our intrusion into their nocturnal world, the God of moths - a magnificent Privet Hawkmoth - landed. As big as a small bird, this mighty moth stayed for us to pay our obeisance allowing us to lift it and photograph it. A very special animal and another 'wow' moment.
We returned home with a renewed sense of awe at the natural world around us feeling immensely privileged to have had such first-hand encounters.  
And as a non meat eater, the evening will also be remembered for as large an ingestion of animal protein as I've had in many a year.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

George's Pond is six months old..

George's Pond is six months old so here's a photo to help us celebrate. 

The vegetation is slowly growing and a water lily donated by Trev and Linda is now flowering.

The plentiful June and early July rains filled the pond to its highest ever levels. We guess that the Bentonite granules we used to help seal the pond have taken up the water and that the seams between the Bentomat sheeting have been sealed. There are less of the mysterious bubbles now anyway.

Our little duckling family may be helping in the Bentonite mixing process as they have learned to take deep dives beneath the water and are dabbling in the muddy bottom. That's when they're not being fed by Jill on the terrace, being shooed out of the kitchen or invading toddler paddling pools!

George's Pond remains a great place to sit with a mug of tea.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

flower power

the front garden beds
Our summer garden is full of flowers at the moment: no wonder the beehives are filled to the brim with worker bees and honey. 

Butterflies and hoverflies are enjoying the 'nectarfest' too: meadow browns, green veined and large whites and red admirals were all evident today.

Throughout the garden we have chosen simple flowers as these are the ones that pollinating insects find easiest to access for their pollen and nectar.

Hot colours with vivid scarlet 'Lucifer' 
In the pictured front garden beds we have a froth of alchemilla mollis, allium sphaerocephalon and geranium 'Rozanne'. Bumble bees hug the Rozanne flowers, burying their faces as a child would do a well-loved teddy. The alchemilla mollis also cunningly hides the sometimes untidy allium foliage. And the head gardener has made sure that geraniums are everywhere. Insects love their flowers and the plants hum with busy bumble bee workers as the gardens of our childhood would once have done.

Our south facing terrace was so hot yesterday that our family of ducklings couldn't step out of the shade of the table as the paving slabs were too hot for their little feet. The hotness is added to by the reds, yellows and oranges of the 'hot border' - scarlet crocosmia 'Lucifer'  is matched in colour by the ivy-leaf geraniums 'Ruby' in their terracotta pots. Of course, these 'geraniums' are truly another plant species entirely - pelargoniums. They need little care or water due to their waxy, thick leaves so get a big sustainability tick. I love 'em but sadly, they are plants that insects do not seek out: for decorative purposes only.
'Phoebe's Border': a paradise for bees

When Phoebe (aged 18 months) arrived in her booster seat, she looked out of the car window at the ground covered as it was then with weed suppressing black plastic weighed down with pallets, tyres and bricks - and pronounced 'Rubbish'. She was being descriptive rather than critical. But still, it hurt.
Stung by this toddler attack, the bed became a priority and is now chock full of the simple flowers of salvias and geraniums 'Rebecca Moss' and 'Patricia' and veronica longifolia. In her honour, it is now 'Phoebe's Border'

The closely planted nature of our garden means that there is lots of cover for ground animals.
Our mollusc friends are doing exceptionally well this year. As a result we now have very few dahlias and and no lupins due to the voracious, rasping mouthparts of the masses of slugs and snails that now call our garden home.

Our family of mallard ducklings should be effective slug eaters. Unfortunately, the ducklings are tucked up by the time the slithery, slimy enemy emerges. And try as I might, I have yet to locate tiny, duckling size head torches to aid their nocturnal search.

Friday, 15 July 2016

enjoying george's pond ...

Once again, I must apologise to my reader for the delay in posting. Tooo many distractions!

Since we began work transforming our neglected and overgrown six acres, the single most satisfying thing has been developing George's Pond. 

We began work in the New Year, shaped and lined the pond and covered the Bentomat liner with compacted sandy soil. It is fed with rainwater that is collected on our roofs.

And, as you'd expect, here in the ethical left field the pond flies in the face of received wisdom. So:
  • No water pump. Our plant fauna and flora have developed over thousands of years to thrive where water oxygen levels are low.
  • No filtration. Algae is a natural feature of ponds and a healthy pond will achieve a balance - especially if only rainwater filled. It is often high nutrient tap water or run-off from fields that leads to high nitrate levels and then algaeal blooms.
  • No steep sides - gently sloping sides to allow easy access and egress for pond fauna.
  • No fish! If minnows arrive naturally, they will be welcome.... but fish eat the precious pond life we are trying to encourage and increase the nitrogen content of the water.
  • No topping up! Some ponds dry out quite naturally in the summer but pond life thrives when the pond refills.
mother duck and her ducklings
And the result of this zeal is now beginning to be seen. This week a blue dragonfly and a broad-bodied chaser were slugging it out to create breeding territories.

Baby toads and frogs hide within the log pile refuges we've built.

Stock doves and magpies are regular drinkers. And on a red-letter day a dozen crossbills landed in the Scots Pines above the pond. 

And plants are beginning to colonise the pond edges. We've helped along the way with friends' contributions of rushes, flag iris and water lilies. But most of the vegetation is going to be that which regenerates naturally or is brought in by visiting birds.

Ponds don't have to be large to give a vital helping hand to wildlife. In our garden dishes of water are used by birds for vital drinking and bathing as is the more conventional bird bath. We also have small ponds loved by frogs and have rainwater barrels resplendent with water lilies, wriggling with insect larvae - that are also enjoyed by autumnal grey wagtails. Any water vessel that doesn't pose a risk will be a help to the wildlife in even the tiniest garden.

In George's Pond there has to be an 'Arr' factor, doesn't there..?

We have it! A pair of mallards joined us in spring and two weeks ago mum came onto the lawn to proudly display her ducklings. 

George's Pond is itself only a baby being six months old and we know it will take a number of years for it to achieve maturity, its' own natural balance and for the vegetation to support and shelter the range of wildlife we hope it will eventually foster.

But the real problem this is all creating for my line manager is motivating me to work when I can sit on a log, huge mug of tea in hand watching dragonflies and ducklings in my pond. It may be a while before I can find the time to post again - but you'll know where to find me!