May it bee

Sorry, i couldnt help it.

So, bit of a slow news month really. At the beggining of may we were planting out lots of seedlings; squash, brocolli, cabbage. We have quite a few squash left over so we have been squeezing them in all over the place.

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My garden at the end of may

All the plants in my garden have shot up. From the left rhubarb, broad beans, onions, potatoes, carrots. There is a healthy row of comfrey which we use for a fertile mulch and make a stinking ‘tea’ to water plants with as it is high in nitrogen and gives plants a boost. The herb garden is looking amazing, flowering chives, rosemary and salad burnett and borage.

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Eds polytunnel, which is mostly tomatoes with basil, coriander, parsley, chilli peppers, aubergines and capsicums.

We ate our first few broad beans the other day from plants in the polytunnel, they were amazing to have them so fresh, i haven’t eaten them in years. They popped in your mouth like fresh peas. Ohhh yeah…

Rhubarb, our dexter cow, had her calf on the 11th of may. The calf is another hiefer and is strong in healthy. We haven’t named her yet, some suggest Snowy (she is black). Please comment if you have a better suggestion! Rhubarb is not the best mum but she is getting better, when the calf was born she was headbutting her when she was trying to feed but recently i have seen her giving her an affectionate lick. Lady is an excellent mum, she was very concerned about the new calf and checked up on her when she was lying under the apple trees. Rhubarb was off stuffing her face with grass postpartum understandably!

Many of us were away during may setting up and organising a small gathering called Green Earth Awakening in the blackdown hills in Devon. A buddhafield camp with strong skills and land based workshops as well as beautiful shared live music, childrens activities, drop in crafts, shared meals, meditation. See the article on http://www.foodforafuture.wordpress.com (which i haven’t written yet on 1 june but will in the next few days)

Regarding the sawmill, we have a new bandsaw but it needs some work to install. For a start it needs to be perpendicular to the steam engine. Annoying, to put it mildly as we have spent the last five years building the new barn to house the sawmill in. We are going to build a new extension on the barn to house the engine now, but a roundwood frame for obvious reasons. There is some serious tinkering to do. But when it is all ready it should all run more smoothly than before.

To excuse the title pun, we have some bumble bee squatters. I noticed a week ago a hole where badgers had gone after the bees nest in the ground and now they have moved in with Ed and Sophia.

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April, warm, dry and leeky

The strong smell of the lovely  laurel flowers drifts through the forest in early April. A big group of us started to cob the outside of the new badger house so dubbed because it now has the old badger house door.

The cob was made with a mixture of sandy soil and lime. Six buckets of sandy sub soil to one of lime. We mix it all up with wellie power in a big tarp. Then it is smoothed out over the walls. We did two layers during April. The lime is added to make it easier to apply the mix and help to weatherproof it.

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cobbing the walls with a lime and cob mix

Some parts of the wall needed a bit of chickenwire to give it integrity, there can be cracks between the bales or gaps under the eaves. These get stuffed with straw, the chicken wire goes over the top, held in with long staples made of metal fencing wire. The cob is smoothed over and you would never know.

The walls cracked quite a lot in april as we had virtually no rain. They have been hosed down a few times which stops them drying out to quickly and cracking.

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Saving the piano from the wreckage

In other news, we took down the old badger house, which was a big old ‘slug’ bender hybrid. It was about 15 years old or so I think. It had cob walls in some places, pallets with bottles and cob, big recycled windows and a bender roof of bend hazel and hornbeam branches. We spent a day dismanteling it together. The bottles were all taken down the hill to be recycled. The wood will be burnt in the steam engine and rayburn, some of the straw is good enough to use for mulch. Windows were taken down to be used in the barn and any new structures. And the piano… is in the new badger house. The site now is just a flat piece of land with a tidy stack of straw bales. All the materials were organic (or recyclable). A beautiful demolition.

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Finley in the kale forest

Food wise, april was a month of leeks, kale and yes! purple sprouting brocolli which is such a treat when it is first ready but then we ate it every day for a month. We are still eating bought in potatoes at the moment to supplement our brassica based diet. We unearthed some stray carrots too, tiny ones that are a pain to wash. That was a treat.We did have a couple of cauliflowers and a few calabrese. We have got lots of milk and some hard cheese so lots of leek and potato bakes and leeks with mashed potato and roast potato with cheesy leek bake, leek and potato soup with kale… Supplemented with nettles and the first salads, sorrel, chives and tons of wild garlic.

I planted out quite a few things in my new beds, asters, dahlias, poppies and a little wildflower patch of seeds that i have saved from hedgerows whilst walking and hitchhiking around in Devon. I miss the meadowsweet and blue alkanet which grew everywhere where i lived before. I also did a resowing of my carrots in places where they were looking thin. The wonderful thing about having a dry spring is that there have been virtually no slugs or weeds. But we have had to water our seedlings as there was almost no rain at all.

So many beautiful wild flowers coming out, red campion, white dead nettle, ground ivy, winter purslane, herb robert, cow parsley, wild comfrey, lungwort, phacelia, borage, blueberry, currants, gooseberries, rocket, kale, chives,unfurling ferns, buttercups, daisies. And of course, the apple blossom. Here is hoping for an abundant apple harvest this year.

March milk madness

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Kiwi entwined around a plum
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Lady, our jersey cow

March has been the super milky month. Ladys calf luna was born on the fifth of on the full moon hence the new age name. We stood outside the cow shelter like kids excitedly peeking at the calf and giggling at her cuteness whilst trying to be quiet and not disturb the new mother and baby.

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Luna, born on the fourth of March

After a week of the calf taking all the milk we started to milk the cow. We started off only taking a small amount of milk so the calf could have most of it but now a few weeks on we are getting about six litres a day and milking her out to increase production. We have started making butter and cheese and having lots of white sauce potato bakes and putting whey in everything. The evening milk (which is more creamy) is poured in a cream separator which is just a massive kilner jar with a tap. The milk is used for cheese making and the cream is used for butter making. To make butter all the cream is poured into a butter churn which is a another big jar with a handle on top which turns wooden paddles that churn the cream into butter. Sometimes it is quite quick and sometimes it takes 45 minutes. You churn it for ages then there is suddenly a golden lump of butter in there. There is also some buttermilk left over. So you sieve the butter and squish it with the scotch hands (to get all the liquid out)which are wooden paddle things which have grooves on one side. Then you can roll it into a round or squidge it into a brick. The first cheese i made was a simple cottage  cheese. This is very easy to make. I used milk that had had the cream separated. I added a few drops of rennet and left the milk in the hay box with a hot water bottle over night. The next day i heated it on the stove until it curdled. This is when the curds (used to make cheese) separate from the whey. The curds look like white lumpy bits that gradually all stick together. When I thought it had separated as much as it was going to I took it off the heat and strained off the whey which is kept for cooking. Traditionally it would be given to pigs to help fatten them up. So then i just added some salt and chopped chives and you have an easy soft cheese.

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The greenhouse full of our precious green babies

During the forestry weekend in March we  did some more felling in the area we are clearing next to the communual garden and also some tidying up here around our houses. Some trees are a cause for concern if they have a large crack inthe trunk and are right next to someones house for example. Fortunately there was only one casualty…a wheelbarrow. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and will be sorely missed.

In the garden this month we are mostly eating leeks and kale. We have had to buy in potatoes as we had a bad harvest last year. So lots of leeka dn potato soup and leek and potato bake with the occasional rabbit thrown in. We are eating the last of the parsnips now and the purple sprouting broccolli is just starting to come through.  Winter purslane is a great wild green to put in salads and it grows in profusion up in the woods around our houses. We also have rocket, chard, spinach, sorrel, parsley to add into salads.

The plum and sloe blossom is starting to come out and is a beautiful welcome into the warmer part of the year. Daffodills and primroses have sprung up all over the woods and the yellow celandine is everywhere too. I have seen the first red campion and the birds seem to be singing their more upbeat spring songs.

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Roundhouse frame in the wild garden

Sophia and I have been tidying an abandoned garden which got pretty overgrown as no one has been working in there for a couple of years. Earlier this year we scythed the brambles and nettles and discovered that it is full of fruit bushes. Gooseberries and blackcurrants, also a fig, a kiwi, a mulberry, a japanese wineberry. Sophia has planted willow in there for her basketry and a bed with some salads. We are going to continue rennovating the wild garden when we get the time, but in a way it is nice to have a garden that is a bit mad and does its own thing. It is full of self seeded rhubarb and garlic and comfrey and hazel and oak and some bamboo someone planted and lots of fruit trees.

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piles of brambles after clearing the wild garden
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Tiny greenhouse and polytunnel in wild garden
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New little beds in my garden

I have dug some new beds in my garden with the help of the lovely wwoofers as always. This year I am growing some flowers in addition to all the vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions and broad beans) and  I am very excited about growing woad to use for dying. Woad is a plant from the brassica family (cabbages) and produces a beautiful blue dye from its leaves. It was thought that the celts used it as a body paint but this now seems unlikely. It does dye cloth though and although it isnt native has been used in this country for thousands of years. I am sure when i harvest it the temptation to paint my self blue and run naked up to the valley to the hillfort will be overwhelming.

Smoked cow, a roof on the little guest house, things start to grow

The new guest house now has a roof albeit a (hopefully) temporary one. We hope to cover it with our own boards once we have them sawn. It was finished enough for volunteers to stay in it for our february forestry weekend.

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We have started to cob the inside of the new guest house. To start with we collected some of our handily sandy clay soil, put it all on a tarp, added water and mixed in some straw. Then we squidged it lots with our wellies to mix the clay lumps in with the sand until it is sticky. We kept rolling it up into a slug and seeing whether we thought it was ready. You can see when it is well mixed, when the different colours of the sand and clay are mixed together and there are hardly any air bubbles. The straw gives it some body, helping it to hold together. Traditionally animal dung and hair would also be used.

First we filled in the cracks between the bales with a straw clay mix, with lots of straw in. Then we wetted the walls and applied the cob to the walls. I find it fun and satisfying smearing it on with my hands, smoothing the wet sticky mud over the rough dry straw.

Houses were made from mud (cob) in this country until very recently. Where I come from in Devon there are a lot of cob homes, barns and walls, still thatched as they would have beeIMG_0332n when they were built up to three or four hundred years ago. It is a versatile material, allowing room for creativity. Walls undulate naturally, there are no sharp straight lines or unnaturally flat surfaces. I lived in a cob house before I came to Tinkers Bubble and I can say from experience they certainly keep cool in the summer (not always great in our climate!) and retain heat well in the winter. Cob walls are strong and breatheable. Which is very important in damp old england where almost every house I have lived in has had mould on the walls. Traditional plasters and paints would also have been breatheable as they would have been made with natural materials. Modern homes are sealed up with concrete holding stones together, uPVC windows, concrete beneath the floors. Finished with chemical paints. No airflow. Personally I find this stifling.

Natural materials lend themselves so much more to creativity. I prefer curves to straight lines.

IMG_0329John cobbing the walls inside our new guest house with anni helping

I reIMG_0220ndered the fat from our bullock Brisket this month.

Which just means putting it all in a pan and heating it until all the lumps had melted. You can tell it is only fat left when it stops sizzling and you stop seeing any bubbles. Then I strained it through a sieve to remove the stubborn bits that refused to melt and poured it into sterilised jars I had handily placed in the oven earlier.

This was only the beggining of project preserve cow which Rosie headed up with Eds help. We sold most of the meat as we don’t have a freezer and can’t store it, but we obviously ate as much as we could and wanted to try and preserve some.

Rosie built a smoker from an old oil barrel. The meat was threaded onto wire strung up inside the barrel. A fire was lit beneath the barrel and apple wood shavings were placed in the bottom of the barrel to give the lovely smoky flavour. The first time, the meat was left to smoke for two long and was a little on the charred side but delicious! We ate that batch as we didn’t think there was much point storing it. The second batch went a lot better. We certainly learnt a lot from it. Ed told me he had smoked meat in a filing cabinet before! Maybe we could have a go at that next time.

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Rosie also salted some joints of beef, which will be an ongoing saga.

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February forestry was all about clearing an area of Douglas Fir next to the communual garden which was some hazel in between it. We plan to reinstate the hazel coppice by planting more hazel and caring for the existing trees. Another reason for felling in this area was to let more light into the adjoining garden.

We had ten volunteers who came for the weekend, five of whom came from Runnymeade eco village. It was interesting to find out about their experiences of land based living. We probably felled around thirty trees. Straight logs are cut to between 8 and 16 feet to be used in the sawmill. Wiggly logs are cut to 4 feet so we can cart them up the hill for firewood.

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Tomato seedlings
Tomato seedlings

In garden news, Ed sowed his baby tomatoes in his house in january with hot water bottles to give them a head start and they are now in the greenhouse. I sowed onions in the greenhouse in january too which are coming up now. I sowed part of a bed of onions in the autumn to overwinter but very few of them came up. I also sowed broadbeans and only one plant has surfaced! I will try again this spring. It is exciting to be planning what I will grow this year and looking forward to spending more time in the garden as it warms up and all the weeds start growing again.

There is still some apple tree pruning to be done and a few plum and stray trees to prune before the sap starts rising again, as well as fruit bushes if we get the time! We are still eating leeks, potatoes, carrots and kale in different forms every day, but with nine different people cooking, you get a good variety.

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The first inklings of springkling have arrived in the form of crocuses and daffodills following the snowdrops. Winter starts to loosen her grip.

(Also in the slightly more graphic form of copulating frogs in our pond.)

Life stirring.

and… er… humping stuff

First Forestry Weekend, New House, Brisket is Beef

So, whats been happening…? Some colder weather has finally arrived, after the first daffodills came out… Frost that reaches us up in the  trees has been rare until recently. IMG_0106      The communual garden Work is continuing on the new guest house, just called the little house at the moment, although it aint that small. The frame was built from split douglas poles and bolted together. Around this the straw bale walls are going up which are held in place by hazel pegs. Its like building a giant lego house, out of straw…    Many many straw bales have been carried up the hill on the backs of cockneys. When the walls are in place we will cover them with cob. IMG_0087  The little house, its actually a bit better than this nowIMG_0095The joists being laid on the roundwood frame IMG_0152Pedro splitting a bale. There is a tool for this, its like a long hinge with holes in. The bales need to be split to fit in certain places. You need to keep the bale together because if you take off the string it just falls apart. The tool enables you to end up with two seperate bales, if you do it right! IMG_0156making beautiful window frames   A silly arty picture of the cows. They dont stay still to get a nice group photoIMG_0134 Brisket our 2 year old dexter bullock went off to slaughter just before the forestry. We had a big team of people to help us get him in the trailer because the dexters arent halter trained and are quite frisky and naughty. It went pretty smoothly though. Brisket and Rhubarb both went in the trailer as we had filled it with hay, the trick was getting her out. I will miss him and his antics but he is another mouth to feed which we dont need as we are very low on grass this time of year. We picked up the offal a couple of days later and had hgaggis for dinner! Although we had a scottish volunteer staying with us and he said the scots would never make haggis with beef, only mutton. I hadnt tried it before, it is very rich. Our forestry weekend was a success with extra volunteers coming for a long weekend and working very hard. We are clearing an area of woodland on the edge of the communual garden. This will let more light  into that area and also to the struggling old hazel coppice beneath the douglas firs. Besides providing us with lots of wood to process in the sawmill. No one was squashed which i count as a great success. During the forestry we had a friend who happens to be an engineer come and tinker with the steam engine. It was very much appreciated help. When i say tinker i mean fix lots of things. Hopefully it will be running more smoothly now. If you are thinking brrr i dont know how they cope living outside like that Fear ye not for we have a sauna. The ultimate in efficiency for cleaning large amounts of dirty people in one go with only one fire and a freezing shower which produces amazing noises like eeeeeeeeeeee aaaaaa thats f*ing  cold!!!! and eeeeiiiiiiiiiiiii  fuuuuuuuuuuuuuu… wer’e toasty

Coppicing weekend and the return of the Dexters

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In November we had our coppicing weekend. We invited 15 volunteers to live and work with us for a long weekend, Friday to Monday. Everyone who said they would come did, which meant we had to squeeze them all into benders and empty dwellings and spare rooms and get a bit cosy! It was very wet and muddy so their dedication is appreciated even more.

Coppicing is a type of woodland management that has been in use for a long time in Britain. Certain types of trees respond well to being cut off close to the ground, regenerating with long straight shoots which can be used for firewood, charcoal making, hurdles, basketry, fencing, thatching spars and many more things. Hazel, Willow, Ash, Sweet Chesnut, Hornbeam and even oak have been coppiced traditionally.

Coppicing increases biodiversity as when a stool is cut more light can reach the forest floor allowing wild flowers to grow. Larger trees can block out light and stop other species thriving on the forest floor. Woodpiles left to season (or just rot!) are a wonderful home for insects and small animals.

In the first picture you can see Sophia and Heather cutting the main stems of the stool (the previously coppiced hazel tree). First we cut the main stems usually at about four foot off the ground so when we cut close to the ground we have a decent piece of firewood that will fit in the cart.

The stems are then cut down lower and at an angle so that rainwater can run off. If cut off horizontally they are more likely to rot and cause damage to the tree. We then shape some of the straight bits of hazel into stakes which are driven into the ground in a circle around the stump. These are then woven with brash to form a rough basket around the tee to stop the deer from eating the young shoots. We call them Fairy Rings which sounds a but mystical. Someone suggested Angel Baskets! The rings will last long enough for the stems to grow, and then they will of course biodegrade. Unlike the plastic tree guards you see littering woodlands and verges all over the country.

We were also treated to venison stew during the weekend. A dog injured a young deer very badly so it was dispatched, hung, butchered and eaten by us. It was sad that the young deer was killed as we have seen it and its family grow up on our land, springing away startled many times as we approach and surprise them.

So the coppicing weekend was a great success, we got a lot done and had a lovely time, despite there being standing room only at dinner time! We had a couple filming for their film We the Uncivilised which is all about land based projects in the UK. We have been filmed quite a lot recently, but as long as that is used to inspire others then it is a good thing in my opinion.

Linking in nicely to the lack of space at the volunteer weekend is the new project of building a really quick little house for volunteers which Pedro and John are working on now. Pedro reckons he can do it in a month, lets see…

The frames are being assembled in the picture below while John removes the bark from another tree.

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The barn still has some work to do on it, mostly cladding the walls with stockading. (The rougher bits of wood that cannot be used for planks or beams that are sawn in the sawmill.)

We have been cladding the outside of the kitchen and also some of the inside, which is pretty hectic as their is always someone cooking in there and they don’t like having hammers and planks of wood getting mixed up with their leeks and cabbages. Its nice to think of the kitchen being a little bit warmer this winter though! We also need to re roof the kitchen as the current boards are rotting through and their are a few drips.

So in cow news, our young dexters have returned from where they were grazing and they are a lot bigger. They were frisky calves when they left and now Brisket is a proper bull with a shaggy coat and strong body and Rhubarb is possibly pregnant after an escapade with a neighbouring bull. We will have to wait and see. We will certainly be eating Brisket.

We have also just got our jersey called Lady who is calving at the end of February. So in March we will have lots of milk. Rhubarb has been asserting her dominance with her little horn which we need to keep an eye on. Poor lady has a little cut on her side. If she gets any more we will separate them. You can see where ‘moody cow’ comes from.

Our feral cat had her third litter of kittens this year which some people tried to look after but they sadly died. They were only four or five weeks old.

Death is a part of life. We need it to continue.