500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth

Giving thanks to Workawayers

August16

Visiting my great aunt on the way back from the UK last week really brought home to me how important our visitors are.  My aunt – always the most lively person at any gathering, has decided to return home after eleven years as a foreigner.  The main reason seems to be that she spends a lot of time alone – at first there were lots of other British couples about, but for one reason or another – exchange rates reducing pensions or homesickness, they have gradually dwindled.  We arrived back from our trip to a house full of eight, six of whom I’d not met before.  Though many don’t envy us our choice of lifestyle – house-sharing is always a careful balancing act, this constantly evolving group has saved us.

I was nervous at first – as most people would be, but I’m getting to know our new guests. I’ve cried with laughter on at least two occasions in the last twenty-four hours, and we have had some AMAZING food.  Rosie made a tagine in a Squash accompanied by a delicious beetroot and fennel salad – all from vegetables growing in the spiral garden. I’m cooking lunch. There are ten of us here right now and the standard has been set very high.

As we don’t have children, and the countryside in this area is depopulated of young(ish) professionals, without our volunteer visitors we would be rattling around this big old house alone.  It can sometimes be stressful coordinating the activities of so many people, however, in general, our visitors are creative, intelligent and willing, and committed to living a sustainable lifestyle. I am incredibly grateful to spend so much time amongst people with whom I can share ideals, and meals.

Nature’s potting compost

February4

Often during the summer months, the old lady who lives opposite can be spotted in her garden frantically spearing the ground with a fork. Every time a new mole hill appears, she’s out trying to kill the creatures in her own vindictive whack-a-mole game. I’m not worried about them as I have a feeling that they hear her coming a mile off. As with the “weeds” which grow plentifully in our veggie beds, I decided to dig a bit deeper – Moles, friends of foe?
In nature, mole hills provide a rare opportunity for weeds to seed into fresh, loose soil. Without this opportunity, the ancestors of plants like carrots would have had no place to evolve. As well as creating these little hummocks, the moles dig around looking for worms, creating uneven surfaces – they’re the natural enemy of the perfect lawn.

Eggbox seedlings

Eggbox seedlings

When I mentioned seed trays in the kitchen the other day… of course I didn’t mean actual seed trays… the sort bought in garden centres… I meant egg boxes, old cat food cans and old tetra packs cut in half.  The egg boxes take the place of peat seed pots – as you can put a single seed into each pod, and after the last frost date, cut up the box and put these out to grow. The cardboard egg boxes will fall apart when transplanted into the garden. This means that you don’t disturb the roots of plants that don’t like to be transplanted.

Mini greenhouses for our seedlings - made with half a milk carton, a supermarket tomato tray and a bit of egg box.

One litre Tetra packs – the sort used for milk or juice make a nice, waterproof base for six pods from an egg box. Neatly, you can use the plastic containers which tomatoes are sold in as a lid to keep in heat and moisture – they are exactly the right size and even have ready made air holes. This is particularly useful to stop them drying out if you’re going to be away for a few days.

We’ve used the cat food cans to plant sets of onion type seeds – those that can be separated and planted out when spring arrives, as well as for cut herbs which we will keep in the kitchen for the time being – coriander, basil, cress, chives etc.

cat food tins with seedlings

Glad we saved all those old cans

It’s simple to make some cuts in the bottom of the container with a can opener so that they drain well. I’ll use them in the garden as well – I’ll remove the bottom of the can completely, but I hope that the metal tube will protect delicate seedlings from various predators such as our toilet trained cats, exuberant dog, worm seeking moles – and wasn’t there some rumour about slugs being deterred by copper because of an electrical reaction with slime?

Now – potting compost – given the womblesque nature of the operation – can you really see me popping out to buy bags of peat from a garden centre. Of course not. And – given that there is a foot of snow out in the garden – where can I find nice, loose, stone and root free soil? Maybe in convenient piles above the snow? Mainly consisting of worm-casts, nutritionally rich digested vegetation? My friends the moles set it all up for me.
So, make use of mole hills – nature’s potting compost.

egg box seed trays

Rubbish made useful

Looking forward to Spring

February3

It’s now early February & the end of winter is in sight. Evidenced by the sudden proliferation of seed trays in the kitchen. The sight from the window where I sit, however, does not evidence the same thing – drifting snowflakes float in an already primarily white scene. According to averages – we should see temperatures go above freezing point in just three weeks time – with the last frost date just before Easter (the last week of April). Now that we have the amazing luxury of a heating system keeping some rooms at a constantly warm temperature we can start the growing season earlier.
Our plan for 2011 is to be more self sufficient in terms of food. We can buy potatoes and wheat which are inexpensive and locally produced (if not organic), so we will concentrate on growing things that would normally be transported from further afield. We had little luck with tomatoes and aubergine/eggplants last year – our seedlings were destroyed when a roof fell on them, and those we replanted didn’t fruit in time – leaving us with a tray of green tomatoes and nothing else. We use onions and garlic on a daily basis. Other staples include herbs & peppers. We also use a lot of lemons – but are clearly outside the zone for these – I wonder what the most pragmatic solution is for lemons in cold climates. How does the energy calculation stack up with heating versus food miles?
Experiments with drying seeds from tasty tomatoes mean that I have rather a lot of tomato seedlings at the moment – but a glut of tomatoes would mean that I could bottle a tomato vegetable sauce to use with home-made pasta and pizza when they are out of season. We do use rather a lot of tomato paste & cans of chopped tomatoes after all.
I now have 35 varieties of seeds to plant – and a plan to convert the area in front of the house into a spiral bed. The idea is that we will keep a grass path, the width of the lawn mower, in a spiral surrounded by beds for growing herbs and vegetables. This will cut down on the amount of grass which needs cutting, but keep it tidy at the same time. From last year we learned that interesting, angular beds are a pain to mow around, so a single row circling round will be better (with a mobius join perhaps). We can use the back field for football.
We’ve also placed an order for Walnut and Hazelnut saplings for the spring, and will, of course, replant the strip of Willow – which didn’t take when planted in the autumn of 2009. We couldn’t tell till it was too late to replant in 2010. The willow is for coppicing for fuel. Some of the hazel will be for coppice, but the rest, along with the walnut, will be to fuel us humans, eventually.

snow scene of Novy Mlyn

Imagination needed to view the garden

Who knew that that was a thing?

January20

We are clearly such amateurs.
At the start of the winter two red hens defected to next door. I am unable to retrieve them as I can’t distinguish them from the neighbour’s birds – and I’m not one hundred percent certain they’re there – for their sakes I hope so. I went out to feed the remaining six hens one sunny afternoon last week – with the bucket of tasty leftovers from the kitchen. When I called to them I was a little irritated that they didn’t run out to greet me – not one of them. Annoyance swiftly turned to alarm when I saw a mass of feathers by the door of the hen house… too many for the bird to have survived the attack.
It was one of the models – Avie, Ariela, Erin – maybe even Sarah – I don’t know – I could never tell those models apart. Our poor, poor hens – after surviving nearly the whole winter. They’d been got. That much was clear, but by what?
There were no obvious tracks around. It was broad daylight – and all had been well a couple of hours before. Foxes attack at night – not in broad daylight – and they don’t leave the body behind.
I went into the hen house and found three of our ladies cowering under the laying boxes – I was so happy to see them, but they are traumatised and have not ventured outside since that fateful day.
Hynek – our neighbour – says it was a bird of prey which attacked them. One of those magnificent specimens that I often spot from the bus on my journey to work. I had no idea that they were something we should protect our birds from. In the spring I will plant some hazel around the hen house to give them some cover.
Apparently, one of the models made her way over to our neighbour’s hen house somehow – so she was at least safe. So, in total now we have just four birds. We made use of the remains of the bird which was attacked as no internal organs were damaged. Rest in peace Chicken – a la King.

Keeping out the cold

January5

Travelling around the Czech countryside at night can be a voyeuristic experience. Between here and Tabor there is just one other house that has anything other than net curtains. I’m confused – why have net curtains for privacy in the day, but not proper curtains for privacy at night? Is this some communist legacy I’m yet to figure out? And in a country where night time temperatures frequently dip to double figures below freezing. People have so much faith in their new PVC double glazing. Curtains are clearly out of fashion.
When we first arrived at Nový Mlýn every room had net curtains on the windows – but as is the style in the Czech Republic, nothing more insulating than that. Coming from a country where fuel prices are so high that subsidies have been introduced to stop old people freezing to death in the winter – this seemed to miss a trick. Each window has two layers of glass separated by a large gap – however despite this insulating air the temperature of the glass is much lower than that of the walls – hence this is where any condensation forms if the room is damp. To address this, in 2009 I put up the most inexpensive quilts from Ikea as an insulating layer under decorative curtains in each room.
The evidence of effectiveness is only anecdotal – I’d need to build a house inside to test the method robustly – however several times ice formed on the inside of the window behind the curtains (yes – this means the air is damp – a job to be added to the list), despite the room temperature being a comfortable 18 degrees centigrade. They certainly hold warmth in the room.
One drawback of the Ikea quilts has been that they appear to be covered in a material that degrades in sunlight – literally turning to dust – a far from ideal property for curtains, so in 2010 I purchased 50 metres of calico cotton to recover them – it took time, but the result looks sooo much better than they did before. If we’d bought more expensive quilts to use in the windows, they would have looked like quilts in the windows – whereas the calico hangs properly as a curtain. I’ll take them down after the last frost anyway.
In the mean time, I need to make sure that we don’t leave any seedlings on the windowsills behind the curtains over night until there is no danger of the poor things freezing dead.

Nový Mlýn transforms

December26

So – 2010 will soon be over. A year of miraculous transformations at Nový Mlýn – with thanks to a host of visitors who helped immensely and kept us entertained.
In a sudden rush before Christmas we’ve managed to move the kitchen over into the ‘real’ kitchen – which was, until very recently, a muddy hole of a room. It now has heating, a make-shift island, running water and drainage – something we’ve managed to live without for years. So what if the electrics are unfinished and there’s plaster missing all over the place – what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in functionality.
Last week heating engineers came to the house and made a huge old mess… installing a heating system! Can you even imagine… constant heat is such an amazing thing. We decided on an Atmos system – locally manufactured – this allows us to auto-feed wood pellets or use wood logs as fuel. Solid wood is a lot cheaper (1/10th) but the pellet system is incredibly convenient and will run for several days with minimum effort on our parts. Our plan is to use coppiced willow grown on site as our fuel source eventually. We need to investigate ways of harvesting the willow to make it a suitable fuel source for the pellet burner.
We have also managed to source old radiators from a local scrap yard. These come in 10 cm sections which screw together to any length you want, and fit neatly in the recess under the windows, allowing the insulating curtains to be tucked behind. They are also more in keeping with the style of Nový Mlýn – modern radiators would look weird, and new-old style radiators are out of our budget. I do have some work to do in the spring – with wire wool and spray paint – but they’ll come up grand, I’m sure.
So far we have radiators installed in the kitchen/dining room/utility (currently one large adjoining space) as well as the upstairs bathroom. We’ve decided not to heat the hallways as these are extensive and we don’t sit around in them in the winter. It would be like heating a space the size of our old flat just to walk through occasionally. The heating engineers will be back in a month or so to install radiators in the bedrooms upstairs – it’ll be strange not having to light a fire in our bedroom every evening! But (with belt and braces) we’ll still be able to heat with local fires if necessary.

a picture of the cellar

The Atmos heating system

Cheat’s Marmalade

October25

Mandarinky is the generic Czech name for all small, sweet orange fruit with soft peel, in the UK we could call them Satsumas, Clementines or Mandarin oranges but they do not exist as separate entities here, so you have to scratch the skin of the orange in the supermarket in order to identify what you’re buying.

The fragrant rind of citrus fruit such as the delicious  Mandarinky we have in the shops at the moment can be a real treat with very little effort – and when something has been shipped so far to get to us, isn’t it fair not to waste any of it?
Wash satsuma and/or mandarin oranges before you peel them to eat. Keep the peels. Cut them into fine slivers or chunks. Put them into a glass jar. Cover the cut peel with honey. Microwave the jar until the honey boils – this will not be long so keep an eye on it. Put a lid on it. Let it cool overnight. Put the jar in the fridge the next day to set the honey. Use in place of marmalade.

A glut of apples, or a blessing?

October25

This month I bought a steam sterilising bath and have been experimenting with bottling both apple sauce and juice. The apple sauce is, for Brits, solely the preserve of Pork (ha) – we’d use a small dollop of it with our Sunday lunch in the same way that you’d use mustard. Not so our American visitors – it’s something it’s eaten with relish (ha ha) at many opportunities – just on it’s own, with oatmeal (porridge) or used as a cooking ingredient. We now have enough to see us through a nuclear winter, as my husband puts it. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

One simple recipe I personally love is to melt a bar of (good quality) chocolate into apple sauce.  I absolutely love this as a quick dessert if we’ve been working hard and need some extra calories.

Apple juice!  As ever, I’ve been looking for a way of preserving juice without using additional chemicals.  I’m prepared to live with juice which isn’t the mellow yellow colour of shop bought organic stuff.  To keep it green, you have to process it in an oxygen free environment (unfortunately we don’t have a lab), or add quantities of ascorbic acid or lemon juice – fine if you’re making glasses of, rather than gallons.  So, the juice is delicious, if a little brown. I’m not selling it – so if you don’t want to drink it because of the colour, that’s fine with me.

We have been gathering the apples, washing them, then mashing them with a huge bat – a bit like an oversized baseball bat with a flat bottom (as our American workawayer Reba demonstrates) . We use a metal bucket for this bit as the mashing is somewhat fierce. Every apple is squashed up quite effectively using only muscle power. The mash is then loaded into the press (an old fruit press/sausage stuffer which came with the house) which now lives on the back porch. A piece of sturdy nylon hose (never worn) is used to line the press which makes it easy to take the apple out and rearrange it for a second and third pressing.  We catch the juice that comes out of the top and leaky bottom of the press and then sterilise and bottle it.

Bottling apple juice is a sensitive subject & the method developed by trial and error has caused many broken bottles.  The apple juice is heated to 80 degrees c, and the washed beer bottles are heated in the steam steriliser up to 90. The caps must be doused in boiling water. You need to kill any yeast which could potentially turn bottles of apple juice into little bombs (the fermentation will cause great pressure as the juice is very sweet, causing the bottles to eventually explode).  Once the juice is poured into the bottles, we cap them using a crown capper (a special clamp which fixes on the lids of beer bottles). Up until now I have been returning them to the steamer for up to 5 minutes at this point – however this is a sensitive operation and I have lost several bottles  – I think because if there is too much of an increase of temperature, the bottle will pop, leaving you with glass, juice and time wasted.

With my next pressing, I plan to go without the 5 minutes in the steamer as the juice and equipment should be fine with the temperatures used above.  Currently, we have enough apple juice for us to use a litre and a half every week till next season.

The cider we set fermenting earlier in the summer has now all been racked off into 5 litre bottles which are down in the cellar to mature. It will be interesting to see what is more popular with our visitors, home made cider or non alcoholic apple juice.  Adding to these the apple we have dried in recent weeks, we really have made the most of the extraordinary crop of apples we’ve had this year.

Notes from the garden…

October20

May – the Nettles were young and fresh & quickly provided us with a source of greens. We harvested a lot for the freezer while they were young and good. We’ll see how many packets of these we use through the winter.  They take up space, but are an excellent source of iron. Last night I used them as an addition to a curry, but they work well in place of spinach in pretty much anything. The combination of weeding the garden as well as gathering food is very satisfying – Marigold washing up gloves protect you from the sting until it’s been removed by wilting the greens.

June – Lambs Quarters popped up on beds we’d prepared for other things, primarily where we’d used an old carpet to suppress the weeds. The plants were best in June, and by the end of July had begun to go to seed. By August the plants could be as big as trees, but the branches were too tough to be edible. We had some peas – which we ate mange tout style, however they needed more support & keeled over into a tangled mess. The broccoli was completely destroyed by slugs. The nasturtiums weren’t.

July – we had abundant chickweed for salads, we also planted pea greens (dried peas soaked for a few days till they sprout, then put in a window box for convenience – delicious in salads). The forest berries also appeared – strawberries first, then bilberries and raspberries – these were still going strong through August. Colorado potato beetles were another less welcome discovery. We dedicated some time to removing these little stripy creatures from the potato crop by hand – they excrete a foul smelling goo when handled.  However, the potatoes didn’t seem to suffer. We will have to rotate them next year – into the front garden as that’s as far away as we can get. During early communist times there was propaganda that these crop destroyers were actually dropped over the USSR by Americans.

August – the courgette and pumpkin plants started to thrive. We have enough people here not to have a glut of anything. By the end of August we have many green tomatoes, but nothing ripe yet. The first frost date around here is 15th October – we need to find an elegant way of growing tomatoes under glass as we use them a lot – and I wonder how the pumpkins will get on in this time. We have also realised this month that we’ve planted spring onions, not the large ones we wanted. The apples came into season and we started to experiment with juicing them and making cider, as well as drying slices on racks in the garden.

September – greens such as Ground Elder are now finished – no new plants springing up in shady spots, luckily the Sorrel continues to prosper so we’re using this a lot in salads and other recipes. We have courgettes!  Though we are not inundated, and so far we have only spotted 3 pumpkins – not the masses we though we would be facing. September is peak apple season, so we have been picking and juicing on an almost daily basis. Apple pie abounds. I was upset that August was not hot enough to do a lot of apple drying – as our rationed supplies of dried apple always ran out before it was time to open a new jar during the winter and spring – however we’ve discovered that we can use the oven instead. I have masses of cardboard trays for eggs which I slice apple onto and then put five of these stacked up in the oven, set at it’s lowest temperature, on fan, with the door open. They take a couple of hours to dry.

October – time to get the Geraniums inside. Disappointingly, the tomatoes did not ripen before first frost, and the plants are now destroyed by the frost, though we have a fine collection of green tomatoes inside.  By the end of the month we still have chickweed for salads and sorrel for a cooking green. We’re  using nettle from the freezer, and the ground elder and lambsquarters are a distant memory. Even the types of mushrooms have changed – now we’re onto Hedgehogs and Winter Chanterelle with the very occasional Porchini.  We’re busy bottling applesauce and juice… more on that later.

The willow we planted in the autumn did not take, but the living willow fence we put down in the spring has thrived – so at snow melt in 2011 we’ll be able to take cuttings from this to re-plant our fuel supply. As well as using the land on the other side of the lake, we’ll put a row down the very long strip of land we own down the valley – only a couple of metres wide so perfect. It would also be great to have some hazel to coppice – something to think about for the future.

The miracle that is Air Yeast!

October15

One of the brilliant things about hosting volunteers here is how much they teach us.  Over the summer, Rosie returned. She’s been doing all sorts of interesting things since she was here last year – including working in a free shop in Nottingham, taking over an allotment and teaching Forest Schools – where they take little ones into the woods and teach them skills as well as just how to play outside. Rosie know someone who is running an art project called Exponential Growth. This project encourages people to use a yeast culture that they grow, care for and share.

We were sent a starter culture from Loughborough in the UK which languished in the fridge for a bit while we searched for some rye flour to feed it. Luckily it was adopted by Joshua when he arrived at Nový Mlýn. Joshua has been travelling through Israel and Palestine as well as the further flung outposts of Eastern Europe and acted as our master baker while he was with us.  Bread was hand made on a daily basis.

We were concerned that our pet yeast may not survive without Joshua to care for it, but we’ve discovered that we can make a daily loaf of delicious sourdough bread in the bread machine. If course, it doesn’t quite have the character of the range of loaves produced by Joshua, however it does have the advantage of at least being bread, made at home on demand and much nicer than store- bought loaves.

We keep the pet yeast in a ceramic jug with a knitted cotton cloth over the top and feed it at least every 12 hours, each time adding matching quantities of water and flour – so the end mix is 1/3 starter, 1/3 water 1/3 flour. It doesn’t seem to matter very much which flour we use as the yeast breaks it down into a smooth bubbly batter.  Once the jug is full of a frothy mix, we stir it before tipping most of it into the bread machine – (4 tea cups full, if you’re counting), then add two tea cups of other flour, a good glug of extra virgin olive oil and a flat teaspoon of salt.  We then set the bread machine so the loaf will be ready for us first thing in the morning (so often it has an extra 6-8 hours to sit and ruminate further).

We all miss Joshua very much, especially Bunbury, but he lives on with us in yeast form.

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