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.

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.

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.

Nový Mlýn Garden Salad

June12

This year, with the help of Joann and our other workawayers, we have the beginnings of a vegetable garden.  I planted salad ingredients such as sorrel, wild rocket and spinach, and as they began to grow discovered that we had wild sorrel in the garden already,  as well as the peculiarly named leafy green Lambs Quarters which are very, very similar to baby leaf spinach in flavour and appeared everywhere in early June, just as nettle season ended. We also have abundant chickweed – which has popped up in any place where the ground has been cleared for planting, and of course, stinging nettles which we used as our spring green up until the time they started to flower, and the ground elder, which is still producing some young leaves we can use.

My acid test of any gathered food is my husband… if he is prepared to eat it then it’s fine. He would absolutely not consume something just because it was good for him.

We have many, many pea plants this year… partly because I threw onto the vegetable patch a bag of dried peas that I had soaked for sprouting.  It’s ridiculous not to soak dried pulses for a day or two before you use them, and the nutritional content of a seed which is in the process of germinating is  infinitely better than those long dead relatives you get in cans. However,  the young leaves on garden peas, are tastier again than the sprouts, so I’m glad I had too many and had to scatter them around the place.

Chickweed is an interesting plant – it is sold as a health supplement to people who want to lose weight – and not because of it being such a tiny green plant. I’ve not read anything in the New Scientist about it, which is a shame, because my personal experience is that it does seem to help you feel full after a meal. My friend Sara says this could be because it’s so nutritious that your body isn’t looking for more vitamins and minerals – non-nutritious food starves our bodies of essentials and causes our appetites to remain unsatisfied. It would seem perverse to dry chickweed out and put it into tablets, though, when it’s so abundant and tasty thrown into a salad. Ironically, if you search for chickweed on google you get  ‘how to kill chickweed’ – this terrible, invasive, nutritious & tasty salad ingredient…

And chive flowers!  What a discovery.  They are delicious.  After you pick the whole flower head, just nip the stalk away and you will have a handful of delicate, little, blue, crunchy, chive flavoured bells to decorate your salad.

So, on to the recipe:

  • 100 stems of flowering chickweed
  • 100 stems of lambsquarters
  • 50 sorrel leaves
  • 10 chive flower heads
  • dressing of your choice – half balsamic vinegar, half olive oil & a dollop of mustard, for example.

Mix and serve.

Nový Mlýn Sustainable Housekeeping

January15

I have been thinking about how to record what we are learning at Nový Mlýn.  It would be really useful to have a written guide of how the house operates through the seasons; jobs that happen once a year or every day. At present, this repetitive work occupies a great deal of my time – taking time away from all the ongoing projects – things that would make a quantifiable improvement in our standard of living. This indicates that I need to improve my management skills. As visitors are with us for sometimes as little as a week, Joann suggested that I need to have more information written down.

Housekeeping is a shared task at Nový Mlýn, and every visitor currently chooses one task each day. We have a rota for housekeeping and meal preparation as we discovered that without a rota things just didn’t happen. “We’ll just make it up as we go along” = one person will have to do all jobs nobody else thinks about.  I need to become better organised at training people housework skills, and I need to become stricter at ensuring these jobs are then done.  If I am unable to take this role within the household, things fall apart pretty rapidly – as we’ve discovered times I’ve been ill or away.  For Nový Mlýn to be sustainable – it should operate with or without me.