500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth

Learning to love composting toilets

August2

One strong motivation for moving to South Bohemia was the spirit of enviro-entrepreneurship*.  Back home I had been working on a design for an accessible bathroom – to meet the needs of carers and those with profound disabilities, and organisations which want to be able to cater for them.  The design was to be based on a shipping container and fully independent – so not needing mains water and sewage – by harvesting rainwater and composting waste.  It could go anywhere on a temporary or permanent basis.  I had done a lot of research, and wanted to experiment with the various component parts of the system. Luckily…

When we first arrived at Nový Mlýn, we were surprised to discover that our 130 year old house did not have a water treatment system or water supply… unlike our fully serviced neighbour who had built his new home downhill of the house.

Life was hard for the eighteen months it took us to get permission to pump water from a new well to the house, but it gave us ample opportunity to radically reduce the amount of water we use, and many of these good habits have stuck.

Mike immediately constructed a toilet – an inglorious outhouse that at first didn’t even have a door.  We were clear that we wanted to actually use the compost which was generated, so we would dig a new poo hole and move the structure onto it every few months.  This was not a one person job, and gave us the inspiration for the Teepoo (more later).

The use of drinking water for toilet flushing is extremely inefficient because then contaminants then need to be removed from the water.  Urine is a sterile, ph neutral  fluid which contains nitrogen, phosphates and potassium – the main macronutrients required by plants. It therefore makes sense to operate waste separation at source – something people soon get used to.

There is a university in Austria working on a urine only toilet – and it would be nice to have a bespoke design (a wiidet) , however, instead we installed ‘rock bogs’ inside the house, by filling the water in the bottom of the toilets with pebbles. This greatly reduced the amount of water needed for flushing (a single litre for a completely clean flush), and provided people with a very visual reminder not to use the toilet for anything other than liquid.  We then installed our WWUK reed bed – a plant based system of cleaning waste water, and connected the bathroom plumbing to that.

Any household with more than one toilet could instigate a rock bog (urine only toilet) and therefore massively reduce the amount of water needed for flushing. It’s really, really simple. It would be nice to have a toilet insert designed to take the place of the stones, but stones are simple,  freely available and aesthetically pleasing.

As well as rock bogs inside the house, we now have a more sophisticated composting toilet system attached to the house.  Composting toilets will smell bad if they get wet for any reason (urine or rain water) or if waste is not adequately covered.  We purchased an insert to catch urine – as well as the box and a supply of cornstarch biodegradable bags. We think this beats even Moule’s Earth Closet – though an earth ‘flush’ would be great.

We have hosted 75 volunteers over the last two years. They have all but one been able to operate the composting toilet without leaving any unpleasant surprises.  We would recommend leaving a vinegar spray in the cubicle to clean the plastic as you would need to with any other toilet.

While the job of emptying the soil box is not pleasant, waste is always dry and covered with a cup of ash or earth, you tie the bag shut and put the lid on the box before moving the box to a ready prepared hole. You tip in the bag, then cover it with earth by digging the next hole.  We don’t bury compost directly in the vegetable garden, but instead under the paths through it. This trench system means that we are efficiently closing the loop and returning nutrients to the earth.

*My very first unsuccessful business was the Vermenathon Forest project which I worked on obsessively during the last few years of the millennium. This was, in short, a tree sponsorship scheme which people could visit physically and virtually – I’m happy that more successful business people had the same idea.

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

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.

Eating the weeds

April16

Over the last few weeks since Joann left the house has seemed very quiet.  We’ve been outnumbered by the animals. Jaakko has been concentrating on building the hen house, and I have been moving rubble out of the garden by the wheel barrow load. I’m really happy that reinforcements arrived yesterday in the form of American Chris and Hollander Michiel – it’s great to have the house busy again and hear interesting stories of other lives.

Slowly things are becoming green, but as yet there are no leaves on the trees. Some of the seeds that we planted inside have germinated – the broccoli, onions, wild rocket and sorrel have made an appearance, but none of the others… it’s possible that they didn’t react well to the cats climbing in the boxes. Today we’ve transplanted broccoli, and companion planted Nasturtiums with it (another edible plant). Michial has built a sturdy frame to protect the puny seedlings, and we’ve experimented with a few different techniques of plant protection using the cuttings from the apple trees and old net curtains. Read the rest of this entry »

Gardening by Noel Gallagher

December9

I should tell you what I know about gardening… but I don’t know how much of it is true…
In organic growing you’re depending on earthworms to do a lot of the work for you, if you ever lift up a piece of cowshit in a field you see under, worms having dinner. Worms dig the soil for you. They bring organic matter down under and aerate the soil. So a school of ‘no-dig’ gardeners has come about, because digging is bad for the soil and hard work and it kills everything. But to have this work you need to mulch to keep the weeds down and give the worms something to eat. I get cow dung off my neighbour, lots of it.
So I experiment with this type of no-dig gardening. Last year I mad a bed about 4ft wide and 10 ft long. I made a few, put down newspaper (about 20 sheets thick) then put about 1/2 foot of dung on top. Then using triangles planted potatoes in a bit of compost (triangles make more space than rows).
Of course everybody complained about the smell of cowshit, but not about the spuds in the summer. Read the rest of this entry »

Panning for gold

August5

Rosie and I went gathering mushrooms the other day. It had been raining heavily so excellent weather for it – we found a great patch of Chanterelle, a couple of Porchini – including the Luridus variety, as well as Chamomile and some wild raspberries.  While we were out I got us (a little bit) lost and we had to hop across a stream to get back on course. It was there we made our discovery…

Gold! Well… Clay! Which you must admit, is just as exciting (and far more malleable at ambient temperatures).  When we got home I referred to the self sufficiency book Dad bought me and it provided detailed instructions on how to test the clay for PH balance, treat and process it… that book is so good. If we ever loose the Internet & civilisation, we’ll be okay.  So, we ignored the instructions and got straight on with making stuff. Rosie did a ceramics course recently – so she’s the expert!

The next day I got out my enamel kiln. The kiln is not large – in fact you could just about fit an apple in it. It was given to me by a friend of my mum’s – when I was a teenager – because she knew that I liked all sorts of crafts – and I’ve kept it ever since.  Apart from a little smoke it seemed to be working fine and the (dinky) pots were successfully fired. The clay turned from grey to fleshy pink – with lovely sparkly bits (which John says are puwer gowld!).

So far I’m a little stuck on what we can actually make from the clay – smaller than an apple, yet not tat. We’re fine for tat – we can make loads of it.  I could make ends for my home made knitting needles… bottle caps to keep wasps out of beer in the garden… John says that literally anything can sell in his gift shop in Bechyne – so the challenge has been set.

Mushroom Roulette – rules to live by.

June17

Today we ate a new type of mushroom – well – new to us – not to Czechs who’ve been eating it for hundreds of years.  Amanita Rubescens (known locally as Masák –  meaty) is a relative of both Fly Agaric (the hallucegenic red mushroom with white spots popular in fairy tale illustrations of pixies)  and the Death Cap or Destroying Angel (there’s a clue in the name) – so careful identification is essential. It is therefore important to know how to identify those which are poisonous, especially those which share similarities to edible mushrooms. About 20 people die every year in the Czech Republic because of mushroom poisoning – with Death Cap being the principle culprit – combined with human error (aka – guns aren’t dangerous).

The first time I try any mushroom I identify it using several different sources (both books and Internet based), I also get someone else to identify it, seperately, then cook it thoroughly, and only taste a tiny amount (ie cubic milimetre).  The second time, a few days later, it’s okay to eat more. Sometimes you discover that a mushroom is edible, but not enjoyable.

Some types of mushroom share a chemical element with kidney beans – so must be cooked thoroughly in order to prevent poisoning, others are poisonous when combined with other stuff – like alchohol and the Ink Cap mushroom (now used as a treatment for alchoholics) combined together cause illness.

The variety we ate today was delicious. It tasted a lot like crispy fatty bacon bits (would to somebody who has avoided pork and bacon for many years) – but perhaps because we fried it in a mixture of olive oil and butter, with lots of salt.  No matter how certain I am about identification, eating wild mushrooms feels like taking a risk, and I’m left with unsettling self doubt until they are thoroughly digested and I live to tell the tale.

We have visitors over the summer and I’m not yet sure what our mushroom strategy should be.  I think we should only cook Porchini and Chanterelle for other people – as these are very clearly identifiable and differentiable from poisonous species. We have many books available if visitors want to go into the forest themselves to hunt for different types… maybe we could find a mushroom expert who could help?

Cherry Jam – the vital ingredient.

June1

During a recent wet weekend I decided to make jam. I sat with a friend at the kitchen table and we spent the morning hooking pits out of cherries with  hairpins (the wide sort). These jobs are always so much better in company. I used sugar with added pectin, and put in the zest of a couple of lemons for good measure. Miraculously, it set and I was able to give jars away to friends and neighbours in town.

The end of May is a little early for cherries in this area, so my neighbours were impressed to see jam already…  the magic, extra flavoursome twist to our jam was that the cherries had been steeped in vodka for 11 months! It worked out well. Last year we didn’t have water at Novy Mlyn, so making jam would have been a nightmare, instead I packed the cherries into large jars and topped them up with vodka. I was really surprised that the process actually added a good flavour to the jam.

This year I am going to try to sun dry the cherries. I plan to make square frames out of willow switches & the net curtains (which I removed from every window in the house (washed, of course)). I also plan to sun dry some apples because we didn’t use the crop last year and I have rather enjoyed dried apple made by my students.

Now I have rather a lot of cherry vodka around the place – I wonder if there is a magic solution to that particular glut.

Chamomile Tea

February9

Home grown Chamomile tea with local honey… what a lovely reminder of the summer during the long, dark months. I’m enjoying the cold, sharp days… the snow is beautiful and the ice & snow great fun for skating and sliding, but Chamomile tastes of summer.

Chamomile grows like a weed in the fields and on the roadsides during the summer. The flowers are like large daises but with feathery leaves (which look rather like dill). You need to be careful not to pick May Weed by mistake – which has very similar flowers but very different leaves.  The Chamomile flowers are ready to pick when the flowers turn ‘bug-eyed’ – with the petals turned downwards and the yellow centre rounded.

Once gathered it needs to go somewhere in the sun – for example sprinkled on paper and covered with muslin. When it’s completely dried out it will be crumbly and can be kept in an airtight jar.

Chamomile flowers at the same time as the cornflowers and poppies. This year I will also gather poppy seeds so that we can have wild poppies on the roadside by the house.  I didn’t gather any seed heads last year because of a reluctance to pick from the wild… however the roadside mowers taught me that it’s fair to take seeds from the wild a metre from the road. I guess it’s more important to have safe roads than beautiful verges…

« Older Entries