Saturday, 3 September 2016

Starting a Food Forest

Friday 2nd Spetember. I've been researching ways to increase our harvest whilst also improving the land on which we live. Time and time again I come back to a permaculture idea of a food forest. It seems to me to make absolute sense to work with nature, not against it and emulate it as it is so successful at being self sustaining.

The idea of a food forest is that just like any forest there are several layers of growth from tall canopy trees to root crops, each layer is comprised edible plants of some sort and as leaves drop from trees and annuals die off, the forest floor becomes richer with organic matter feeding the plants for the next year. This is a long term plan. We can't plant fully grown trees and shrubs, so we will plant young trees and plants and over time they will grow to provide the layers.
Image source: Permaculture a Beginner’s Guide, by Graham Burnett

 By recreating a forest with it's multi layers of growth I can have a highly productive area of edible plants that doesn't need constant tending and planting each year. It will become more productive as years pass and will build better and better soil. We want to leave this small space in better condition and with more trees and vegetation on it than when we arrived.

 So I've identified an area that would be ideal for a food forest. Ideally I would lay down a very thick layer of cardboard and cover it in around 30 - 40 cms of wood chippings, but I don't think we will have access to that volume wood chippings and so, to start off with, I am going to put down a weed suppressing membrane and a 15 - 20 cms layer of wood chippings and then in a couple of years remove the membrane disturbing the soil layer as little as possible and let nature take over.
 I ordered some membrane which arrived yesterday and to keep myself distracted from the latest hatch that was happening in the incubator I started to lay the membrane.
This first section of membrane is six and a half feet (2 metres) wide and approximately 40 feet (12 metres) long and it seems to hardly make a dent in the area that I've earmarked for the food forest. I am excited by this project, I like the idea of creating something more permanent on this land. It won't replace the raised beds which I will continue to use for growing annual food crops, cutting flowers and herbs, but it should add a new dimension to the smallholding.
 As luck would have it, on Wednesday evening the tree surgeon delivered another load of composted wood chippings. This is by far the most well composted material that he has dropped off. Much of it is a rich almost black colour, just like the soil found on a forest floor, so will be ideal for the food forest area as well as being used to enrich the soil in the raised beds.

Once I had lightly pegged down the membrane I loaded a wheel barrow to overflowing with wood chippings and tipped it onto the membrane. As you can see, it hardly shows on this large space and this sheet of membrane is only the first of many. It's going to take an awful lot of wheel barrow loads to cover this area! I thought that I'd cover the areas that I want to put plants in first and leave the pathways clear until later. As we are having some tall but spindly sycamore trees taken down from just behind the piggeries before too long, I will use the chipped upper branches to cover the pathways as these don't need to be composted chippings.

I already have some fruit shrubs and perennial herbs that I can plant in the food forest and will propagate as many more as I can from these small plants.

I've recently started reading the blog of a couple who live not too far away from us who have outgrown their garden and two allotments and are taking the plunge to become even more self sufficient and are buying a smallholding in Orkney. James and Dee's blog about their adventure to self sufficiency and living in a more environmentally friendly way can be found at Happy Homestead. It's well worth a read. 

I've been chatting with them via social media and invited them to come for a cuppa and to have a look at what we are doing here (what this really means is that I'm going to pick their brains and ask them for lots of advice). To my delight they have offered to give us some of their fruit bushes and herbs that they have growing in tubs and that are too large or too many to take with them to their new home. They will be ideal for planting in the food forest and I am extremely grateful for their generosity.  We are also going to rehome their chickens which they feel would be too stressed by a fifteen hour car journey to their new homestead.

Saturday 3rd. Yesterday I continued to add barrow loads of composted wood chippings to the first stretch of weed suppressing membrane and planted it with a tayberry and loganberry given to me by my daughter's father in law. I also put in some autumn fruiting raspberries which came from Mr J's mother's garden, a rowan tree that my daughter gave me for Mother's Day, some herbs that I grew from seed and some currants that came from the local garden centre. I am starting to think that the food forest will be filled with plants that came from, and therefore remind me of, friends and family.

I've identified a small area that is lower than the surrounding soil and it seems to be a perfect place to have a small wildlife pond. In heavy rain it fills with water and creates a puddle about four feet by three feet and around four inches deep. If I line the base of this area with waterproof membrane, it should fill up in no time which will give us a pond that ends up about seven or eight inches deep. It won't be very big, but it would be nice to have an area that attracts frogs, toads and other wildlife. There is a large sheet of bitumous liner at the back of the piggeries, I think it is what was used to line a large surplus water store as I can see a circular outline on a concrete base by the rear piggery and the liner seems circular, so I will use a piece of that as a liner for the small wildlife pond.

As I am creating pathways through the food forest area I will make sure that a path goes around the potential pond and that I leave some space for planting around the edges of it. The good thing about the location of the pond is that it will be away from the chickens and the ducks so that the wildlife won't be a sitting target for their beaky attentions.

It is very wet today, I have tried laying out the next section of weed suppressing membrane, but the wind has picked up and is blowing it all over the place. Instead of working outside, I am doing more research and firming up ideas about the food forest and catch up with reading a few of my favourite blogs. I'm looking forward to an afternoon curled up on the sofa under a quilt reading. It must be time to make a cuppa! 

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If you want to know more about food forests, this article on the Permaculture Research Institute is useful.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

August round up

While I'm waiting for the eggs in the incubator to hatch I thought it would be an ideal time to have a good look around and see what we've been up to over the August Bank Holiday weekend.
The Four Horsemen chickens have been badly behaved. If you are a chicken, I imagine that you'd think it was super-dooper behaviour, but I'm not and I don't appreciate the chickens escaping to the front garden and then promptly kicking the chipped bark off the shrubbery and onto the gravel of the driveway and yard.
The answer to this problem was simple, I needed to finish putting the wind reducing netting onto the wooden fencing around the paddock. It's one of those tasks that I keep meaning to do, but had also found dozens of other things to do instead. So I stapled the green netting into place and blocked off their access to the metal five bar gate which then did a good job at keeping them in the paddock.

However, I had spoiled their fun and so instead they looked for something else to amuse them. It turned out that a kitchen garden filled with lush green leaves was the place to have fun. So each time they made a bid for freedom, they headed straight for the rows of spinach and chard. This was also an unsatisfactory state of affairs, we can't have four small birds eating the food that I am growing for us and all the chickens for the autumn and winter. 

The solution was to create a small pen by the chicken shed for them to live in during the day until they are too large to squeeze through the flexible chicken netting. They aren't very happy about being enclosed in the small space (it's about 12 feet by eight feet), but the alternative is that they go into an even smaller chicken run.

The Dozen are growing rapidly and have seem to have spent the weekend sorting out their pecking order. They have squabbled and argued a lot for the last couple of days and I need to research whether this means that they don't have enough space or whether that's just what they do. It wasn't noticeable with Big Red and Little White or with the Four Horsemen. They are at that awkward stage where they are losing the last of the fluff on their necks as their feathers grow through and it makes them look like funny little punky creatures.
 We have found a very local farm shop that sells straw. It costs 50p more per bale than the straw we've bought previously but it's an awful lot of closer, which saves us time and petrol. On Saturday afternoon we collected eight bales of straw so that I could refresh the circles of love. I am slowly moving the Cream Legbars towards the rear of their field, a few feet at a time so that the change doesn't upset them too much. I moved their shelter first and then built a new circle of love for them. In the circle I will dump all the wood shavings from their houses, weeds, greens, old straw and vegetable plants as I lift them. They then scratch through it and turn it into rich compost. The Legbars haven't really got the hang of keeping the material inside the straw circle, so I will add one more bale to make the access opening much smaller. I then plan to add a second layer of bales which should provide them with much needed shelter from the wind in the autumn and winter. The field shelter (a glamorous name for two pallets held together with baling twine and an old rug thrown over the top) is fine for providing a shady area in the summer, but the wind whips across this field and I want to offer them some shelter from the relentless gusts.

The area that has been the circle of love for the last few months is ready to be sectioned off and planted up. I will put some kale, chard and spinach in this spot that will be fed to the chickens (and possibly us too) in the cooler months.

 In the older girls' side of the field I moved their circle of love in May, so it is staying in approximately the same place until spring. Big Red and Little White know exactly how to use the circle of love and together with Jack and Diesel can spend hours scratching through the material finding good things to peck at and eat.

The vegetable garden is looking quite full in some beds and I am very pleased with how well some of the crops have grown in the not-very-good soil that they have in the raised beds. For our first year and given that we have had to make the raised beds and import soil and composted horse manure, I am rather proud of how much as been achieved in just a few months.
 The hedge that we planted with Jane in late winter is starting to spread nicely, I noticed that a couple of the wild roses had flowered and are now forming fat little rose hips. It will take a few years for the hedge plants to merge and form a thick dense hedge, but I can see the beginnings of it already.

 In other areas the weeds from the field next door have dominated. I understand that in the past the farmer who worked the fields that surround our smallholding had managed the weeds, but there is a new farmer working the fields and he seems to be leaving the weeds to grow. Unfortunately I think that they may well smother the hedge plants in a few areas and short of making masses of extra work for myself in managing the weeds outside our boundary, I may just have to accept that in these patches we will have to put up with massive clumps of thistles and thorny brambles.

Elsewhere in the garden some cultivated plants seem to be running amok. The pumpkin plants are looking very healthy and I now have six good size pumpkins and about a dozen smaller ones developing on the plants.
 It looks as though I will have a pumpkin that I can proudly give to my grandsons in October for them to use at Halloween. The next thing that they need to do is turn a rich orange colour as they ripen.

We've moved Frederick and Mrs. Warne's duck house to a more sheltered spot and turned it so that the doorway isn't facing towards the direction that the wind blows for most of the autumn and winter because having soaking wet bedding won't be much fun for them.

The young ducklings (that have stolen our hearts) continue to grow rapidly and on Sunday I extended their run to give them an extra three feet to play in. I have started leaving the cat litter tray filled with water in the pen. They are old enough now that they won't just sit in the water all day long getting cold, but will paddle in and out at different times during the day. We have identified an area in the duck enclosure that we plan to separate off so that the ducklings can have a lot more space to run around before they are large enough to join the adult birds free ranging in their space. It took us a little while to get the set up right for the chickens and chicks and we are just starting to get a set up sorted for the ducks and ducklings.

In between sorting out the birds and pottering in the garden I have continued preserving fruit and vegetables from the garden and have been blackberry picking in the hedgerow of the fields surrounding us and yesterday we made a trip to see our friends Jane and Dave. Jane has been a friend for the best part of thirty years, our children played together when they were young and Jane and I share a love of gardening. They have a small garden around their house and Jane has started an allotment area with a friend this year (I have parsnip envy having seen photos of her crop). Jane had kindly collected some poultry carriers for me from someone nearby to her who was selling them and it was time we picked them up from her and got them out of her way. While we were there she also gave us several plants to boost the perennial border, shrubbery and a fabulous fig tree which I'm hope will settle nicely in the new food forest that I will be planting over the next month or so.

The warm weather has brought with it some hazy dawns and beautiful sunsets, I wish my camera could do them justice. 

Now I need to go and check on the progress of the hatching eggs and of course, it's time for a cuppa!