March 26, 2012

The Lucky Toad

The weather continues to be absolutely stunning!!

In the flat, our trays of suspended seedlings are starting to sprout (only the peppers seem intent upon hiding in the earth a little longer) and the Berner Rose Tomatoes now occupy every available window space on sills and in between panes planted out in their paper pots.

Out on the farm, everything is beginning to come alive. Daffodils and crocuses radiate from unexpected corners and the trees are bustling with tiny green shoots and swelling buds.

Looking out from the north entrance, the mulch mound on the bed in front suddenly begins to writhe and wobble and shake as if a mini earth quake had struck. Then out pops a big fat toad with large, staring eyes! He leisurely hops towards the little black plastic pond recently freed from the undergrowth, and wallows happily at its' edges. Watch out for the cats, we silently plea.

Funny the cat is so happy to be back on the land with her ginger companion Molly. Molly only lasted a week in her owner's new flat and is now (by default) our second farm cat.

We managed to rescue a small frog and a lizard from Funny last week. She is proving herself with the voles too, which is actually quite a good thing as they’re rather too fond of young tree roots. Would a collar with a bell keep her off the lizards as well as the voles? Is it up to us to pick and choose? Or should we simply let nature take its own course...?

We hadn't been organised enough to consider ordinary garlic during the cold spell. Yet a surprise was waiting for us in the corner of the greenhouse: a cluster of garlic cloves had been hidden beneath the earth and now dozens of lush green shoots have sprung forth.

I spent a whole morning planting them out, first meticulously digging over for couch grass roots. Couch grass is a real pest as it is incredibly strong. As long as one little shoot can reach some light the rest of the root structure will grow, hidden away in the dark and continue to thrive. It is a nightmare to dig out from amongst young seedlings. In France it is sold as a medicinal herb – maybe we should treat it as a gift and try to market it here?!

Using a trowel I make a hole about the depth of my hand and gently hold the garlic clove in the space, teasing the roots downwards whilst carefully scooping earth around to fill the hole, leaving just the greenest part of the stem in the open. Soon most of the bed is filled with the delicate green shoots, drooping in the heat yet quickly satisfied with a generous sprinkling of water.

It is a challenge to strike up the right balance between the land and the buildings. So much preparation is needed to get the land productive, yet we are also in need of a home. The main house has a semi functional flat on the first floor with a wood burning stove and dodgy electrics. The building is sound enough to occupy (with a bit of plastering and some paint work needed in parts), but has no running water upstairs. Although it will certainly see us through the summer, it cannot be relied upon for the long term.

Thus the big challenge of the moment is to assess the shell of the small house – a compact, two-storey building with a sound roof and a small attic yet no insulation, no electrical wiring and no running water. 

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

March 19, 2012

Spanish Weather & Borrowed Orchards

Suddenly the weather has turned almost Spanish – clear blue skies, 18°C and a fresh light breeze to make your heart sing. Lying on my back in the dry grass beside freshly dug earth I can feel the land holding me, the light blessing me and the fresh air clearing out all the dust and cramps of life in a flat in town.

To my left is a huge heap of dead branches stacked rather haphazardly into a thick hedge supported by a row of severed poplars. It is blocking a lot of light from the apple trees directly behind.

So using body weight to compact the stack as much as possible, we cut the stumps to about three feet high and tidy the branches to form a long, low mound. This will then be covered with leaves and dry grass. Once soaked by rains (bound to come soon!) it will in time rot down into a natural low boundary that still allows plenty of light to reach the little orchard.

To my right is the earth that has been cleared of its' winter mulch and dried out enough to be worked. Next to the elephant garlic now lies a row of sprouting beech nuts gathered from amongst the leaves in the town park. These will become the first seedlings to contribute towards the hedge that is planned for the upper field.

In the next ridge we begin to transplant wild apple rootstocks purchased from a nearby nursery onto which we have grafted an array of apple varieties, respectfully 'borrowed' from another park in town. All of the trees there are labelled, making the process of developing our orchard a lot easier.

Whilst keeping an eye on our adventurous toddler I now take on the fun job of shaping nursery beds outside the north entrance of the farmhouse. Using rocks unearthed from mounds of rubble and discarded heaps, I create small dry stone walls along the edges of the beds before laying mulch and cardboard and then more mulch to kill off the weeds and provide fodder for the worms.

Today a friend is here to help and the work progresses quickly. Five children play down by the stream, laughing and squealing together. Three hours later five children emerge dripping wet, cold and starving hungry, but still happy!

Making the most of the stunning weather we decide to gather all the good wood we can find before it inevitably gets wet again. Whilst clearing out the woodshed to make an orderly stack of the salvaged logs I come across a wooden grave marker commemorating the life of a man who died in 1945 by stepping on a landmine.

Distracted once again by my all too active little daughter I have no choice but to sit in the sun with her clambering all over me demanding cracked nuts and tea. From this vantage point I look directly onto the corner where the house joins the barn. A stable has been built here, tucked in between the ends of the two buildings, rather ramshackle but certainly useful.

If I magic it away in my mind’s eye I see the perfect fair-weather social space! Reopen the original arch of the Hall’s back wall, strip off the plaster from the lower part of the beautiful old brickwork on both sides, and you have a natural outdoor enclosure, extending the capacity of the hall and creating flow through from the courtyard to the plant nursery and the back garden. I risk criticism from my husband for putting our social life above the welfare of the animals, but really, there’s plenty of space for us all.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

March 9, 2012

The Life of Soil & The Death of Paper

The pressure is on to propagate enough seedlings to plant out later in the spring for a good harvest in the summer and autumn months.

We are still bound to our little flat in town due to the bureaucracy of terminating the contract and taking over ownership of the farm (and for the practicalities of the school run without a car).

So we have to find a creative solution for propagation in the flat that is also well out of reach of small fingers.

The flat itself has big, tall windows. The window sills are rather too easy to reach. So - using wire and wooden planks – we create shelves suspended from the curtain rail hooks. They hang about a third of the way down from the top of the window. Not even a gymnastic school child could reach them now!

Here they receive ample light from the windows and maximum warmth from the radiators directly below. Perfect for seedlings.

A typical soil on horticultural land will have between 2% and 5% organic matter (humus). The rest is made up of minerals (sand, silt or clay [or a combination of the three]). Sand facilitates drainage whereas clay retains moisture. This is because grains of sand are far larger than grains of clay – the larger the grain the more easily water slips through the grain mass. If your soil has too much sand, then the fertility is easily washed out.

You can avoid this by expanding the humus content. Methods include adding compost, mulching (with leaves, uprooted weeds, straw or hay) and sowing green manure such as clover, to be later ploughed back into the earth.

To prepare the soil for our seedlings, we mix a small amount of sand with some earth retrieved from a mound round the back of the farm. This is then mixed with a generous amount of peat-free organic matter (commercial compost, as our wormery still needs time to do its’ magic) and placed about two inches deep into a seed tray. The soil is now ready to receive the seeds.

It is now just a waiting game…

This is proving to be a very trying time for us. We are longing so much to simply get stuck into all the work that needs to be done on the farm, yet we are bound to wait, to drip feed our input according to school times, public transport and occasionally a borrowed car, to wait until all the relevant paperwork has finally been fulfilled.

Most evenings are spent talking over short term goals and tasks to be completed, researching methods and techniques - for both managing the land and renovating the buildings - as well as trying to articulate our business plan clearly on paper.

The German authorities love paperwork, to the point where a stamp is needed to confirm the authority of the person mandated to sign a particular document. When original documents have been issued in England, the process is pricey and protracted.

The transition from paper to a living and breathing reality of daily life on our own farm, is one that we can hardly bear to wait for.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @

March 3, 2012

First Plantings

After two years of sitting in pots, being shunted from one temporary home to the next, our two apple trees finally find their permanent home.

Two years ago we grafted an “Ashmead’s Kernal” and a “Kids Orange Red” (both old Gloucestershire apple varieties) onto rootstocks at Days Cottage in Gloucestershire, where we had both worked the apple season on many occasion. Both trees have survived the ordeal well.

It was an incredible feeling to lay them in the earth for good, for a future that we have committed to and that they have waited so long for.

First we examined the front pasture. Many young trees have been planted along the roadside and slightly up the drive way. The natural curve that they make protects the pasture from the nearness of the road and shapes the farm entrance in a welcoming embrace.

Our first tree - with a vigorous rootstock for full growth - we place on the crest of the slope in the middle of the pasture with the view to add more trees in its vicinity. Sheep and chickens will take it in turns to graze and forage around the trees - the sheep keeping the grass low to enable the trees to breathe and the chickens controlling the bugs and pest population. They will be the first to welcome visitors to the farm.

Our second tree, whose rootstock is slightly more dwarfing, we place in the upper garden near a cluster of older fruits trees and close to where we plan to grow our vegetables. Here the land is flat, protected on three sides by trees, yet open enough to gain full light from the south.

Once the trees are snugly packed into the earth we place the clods (that we had removed to make the holes) face down onto the bare earth around the tree to stop the grass from taking root once again and to encourage it to rot back down into the earth feeding the tree. Then we mulch around both trees, covering all the bare earth with woodchips and grass cuttings. This will stop strong weeds from taking root and extracting nutrients from the earth that the young tree will need to thrive.

This is the first day of the planting season and it feels so good to begin with trees.

The next urgent task is to develop a wormery. We need a location close to the house so that emptying the compost bin does not require a huge trek.

To the right of the north entrance is an old cesspit. The retaining walls are beginning to crumble and the cover on one side is unstable. The surface area is the perfect size and location for a wormery, and without blocking access to the pit, it is relatively easy to construct. We clear the concrete area, shift and lay rocks to form the front edge and find an old gate to provide the side barrier. We will begin by placing a layer of twigs and small branches on the concrete base (there are plenty lying in heaps from previous prunings) to create an aeration layer, followed by a layer of good fertile earth for the worms to make a home. As compost begins to pile up, the worms will work upwards. It will be important to include more woodchips and twigs higher up to avoid it compacting.

The cesspit itself is also an urgent matter of concern. For now, we stabilise the supporting edge for the cover and make it safe. The question is how we will proceed with establishing the right system for our waste when we move in.

The initial connection to the main sewerage system has been installed, which would mean relatively little expense to complete the connection and enable the conventional flushing down of waste into a sewerage processing plant. Some plants have been developed to process waste without negatively impacting upon the environment. Yet we would like to find a system that can utilise our waste to positive effect. The classic alternative is a reed bed system where the reeds do most of the purifying work, and you are ultimately left with clean water. Could it be possible to convert an existing cesspit to directly feed into a reed bed system?

It has become clear to us that every step of designing our farm must enable multifunctionality, low energy input and the re-using of existing materials wherever possible.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @