500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth

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

What will we be?

February11

Our experience of living at Nový Mlýn so far has made us realise that it is essential for the house to have visitors. It’s way to big for two people, and we are happy to share our good fortune. We are only going to be able to invite multiple volunteer visitors if we can find a way of covering costs, and we need to begin to think about how the house can be income generating in the future. Initially we thought that we would eventually have some kind of hotel or guest house. When I think of a hotel – I think of strangers visiting and not interacting with the house or the community, and who really feels ‘at home’ in a hotel?

When we have volunteer visitors, Nový Mlýn feels very much like a fairly tightly organised house-share. Everyone contributes to the running of the household in terms of cooking meals & clearing away afterwards , as well as other household chores (we have discovered that this works best with a timetable).  One great thing about the workaway visitors is that they make themselves at home… anyone can have a look in the fridge for something interesting, bake a cake or make a round of tea –  when we have paying visitors, I don’t want to lose this feeling of house-share rather than service, though how to make it work?

Well, how about it being available as a short term house-share for long term travellers?  People can rent a bed for a night (including simple breakfast), with full board available for a slightly higher fee. We can build up to the vision of a sustainable country house hoštel in time, now that we’ve realised that we’d probably never want to run Nový Mlýn as a hotel.

I’m just going outside and may be some time.

February8

At it’s deepest, the winter has given us the experience of twenty five degrees below zero.   I have fond memories of the days when I thought ten degrees c was cold… I noticed myself thinking when I saw this temperature on the thermometer on my bedroom wall –  “oh good, it’s not too cold then.”  Luckily, manual labour is very warming.

The week in which we experienced minus twenty five was rather catastrophic. Over the weekend we lost drainage, and then a chimney fire on Monday night meant that we had no heating at the house until we had a certificate to say that the chimneys had been swept.  A couple of weeks before the chimney fire we had texted a chimney sweep, but had not chased it up when there was no immediate reply. Next time we will know that when the fires start to burn less strongly, it’s time to get the sweep to visit.  I’d thought it was just because of damp wood. Anyway, the net result is that the core temperature of the house has fallen dramatically. We are down to zero. Read the rest of this entry »

Rain Lights – wet days converted into light.

January2

So, the issue of micro generation has been at the back of my mind for some time. The standard arguments about it are that if you are going to have a home generator of some description –  solar cells (ridiculously expensive at present), wind turbine or water turbine, you end up with a lot of maintenance and a payback time which is uneconomic (ie the amount of embedded energy needed to create the system will take too long to be made up by the equipment during it’s lifetime).  Dedicated enthusiasts and those who have serious amounts of money to invest can create their own personal electricity supply. Read the rest of this entry »

How warm is warm?

December8

This is our first winter at Nový Mlýn. We now have a water supply, and wood burning stoves in place to heat the property… and nowhere else to run to. My greatest personal fear (after global warming above 2 degrees!) is the cold. I recently bought a set of 10 thermometers from a seller on Ebay. The purpose – to give us an accurate idea of the temperature in various parts of the house. Sent from China, nine out of ten of them functioned – though the (included) hydrometers clearly don’t work as some are taking measurements of more than 100%. On Saturday I put these up around the house and the results have been… well… no surprise really. Rooms that we heat are warm… the north side of the property is colder than the south, the upstairs hallway warmer than the downstairs. What is more surprising is that comfortable temperatures can vary so much.

The weather turned cold early this year … with a good half foot of snow falling on the 13th October. We were lucky because by chance we’d bought two extra wood burning stoves two days before the snow, one for the bathroom and one for our bedroom. With the old range in the kitchen and barrel stove heating the guest bedrooms, this means that the rooms which needed to be warm have been so. The hallway is many cubic metres of air space, so I’m not yet entirely sure how much heat we’ll put into a place which is used only to walk through – it would seem a waste. We put a large curtain (well, bedspread) across the hall by the front door to prevent heat escaping until we manage to get the secondary door in there. The hallway stands at about 10 degrees – the same temperature as you’d find constantly under the ground. I wonder if this is a coincidence. If we can manage bedroom, kitchen & bathroom temperatures between 17-20 degrees c and other spaces within the house at about 10 degrees, the winter will not be unpleasant.

Nový Mlýn Apples in Honey & Incidental Mead

November30

By the beginning of October it was not possible to dry apples in the sun any longer and I didn’t want to buy a small and power-hungry fruit drying machine. We have made cherry compote, but I’m keen to avoid using sugar as the main preservative here because it has to travel so far (food miles) and is not good for our teeth or waistlines. Therefore, the majority of the cherry compote is, rather tellingly, still in the cupboard.
I’ve been doing some research about alternatives and have come across some great information about honey. My interest was sparked by a radio article about honey from the Pyramids still being edible after thousands of years in storage. Eating locally produced honey is said to help build up a resistance to hay fever, and it was used as a preservative since Roman times, long before sugar was available so far from the equator. I tend to use honey to sweeten my current favourite Dilmah Green Tea with Moroccan Mint, as well as breakfast porridge, therefore it made sense to also use it to store apples that could not be dried.
Apples sliced with the kitchen mandolin and layered into the honey worked very well – they have kept their colour (unlike the vodka apples from 2007 which went brown very quickly). The only problem is that we keep eating them… meaning that I can’t judge how long they will keep. They are delicious on porridge (made with water) with a dash of cream – a good, hearty winter breakfast.
The apples and pears that we cut into cubes behaved rather differently – they started to ferment in a very short time, and the liquid bubbled out of the storage jars, slowly spreading a sticky goo around the kitchen. I eventually gave up on these, instead I drained the fruit and put it in with a batch of mulled wine – the result – apple or pear poached in mulled wine has made a very tasty desert to share with guests. The liquid continues to ferment – I’m adding it to tea, but it is beginning to loose it’s sweetness so I’m curious to see how this incidental mead will turn out.
I look forward to experimenting with cherries in honey in 2010.

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