500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth

A path well laid

September1

It’s hard to believe that autumn is almost here, but I’ve noticed the sun is very definitely lower in the sky – mists and mellow fruitfulness to follow.

One thing I loved about my previous life as a city girl was libraries. I would regularly go and draw out as many books as I was permitted, and then start reading them all at once, finishing first the one that held my attention the most.  Though we have a book swap shelf at Nový Mlýn, and there are swap shelves in hostels and restaurants in Prague, this really hasn’t given me the range of reading material I needed.  Mike recently bought me a Kindle – and this, combined with Project Gutenberg has been my literary saviour.

Previously my genre of choice had been travel writers, however on Gutenberg I am beginning to explore authors who can help me here and now.  Gutenberg contains thousands of books which are out of copyright – meaning that the author died more than seventy years ago.   So far, I’ve found several books by people who have, like us, moved from city to countryside. To hear these voices ring out clear and true is a strange experience – they are long dead, but I am so grateful they wrote about their lives. We have so much in common, and I have so much to learn.

“The best things to scrub the churn and all wooden articles with, are wood ashes and plenty of soap.”

Our Farm of Four Acres and the Money we Made by it by Miss Coulton

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.

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

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.