There are somethings I like about West Yorkshire, one being the untamed moorland. Although I’ve lived in quite urban places, it has never been too far a walk to get into the wilderness and enjoy a refreshing windswept hike. I didn’t hike today, but instead savoured the views from the top deck of a local bus to travel from Huddersfield towards Manchester. My destination was a point between Slaithwaite and Marsden. Mission: to learn more about permaculture.
Slaithwaite pronounciation: Slough (rhymes with plough) -it
I’ve not reported on my permaculture excursions since volunteering with Incredible Edibles Brighouse. Living closer to this project, it was easier to keep up the momentum of involvement. Weeding, cutting back ivy, harvesting, and clearing a new, sizeable plot kept the group busy over our next few workdays and evenings.
However, I was keen to get back to purer permaculture principles, so contacted old acquaintances, and found myself on the top deck of a bus a few days later, looking forward to a promise of a good soup.
Edibles is a privately owned permaculture project of some 8 acres and was the place I was first introduced to permaculture principles, about 3 years ago. Since, I’ve been following its progress from a distance.
I returned to join Steve and Rosie and help out for the day. This now looks as though it will be a regular activity through the winter. I was informed Thursdays were the best days to drop by, as there would always be a guarantee of good soup. They didn’t mention the sour dough bread straight out of the oven. Wow, what an accompaniment! Spelt, I learned, is much lower in gluten than regular flours and the fermentation involved in making the sourdough starter helps to make the remaining gluten more digestible. I made a note of the information and a new kitchen experiment is now in progress. But I’ll report on that later.
One of the things I don’t like about Yorkshire is the equally wild weather. But then, I used to say the same of Donegal in Ireland. The weather comes with the terrain. So after a while you accept its inevitability. Edibles is positioned on an exposed hillside and was once open fields, generally barren of wildlife. The weather is temperamental, wind and rain are commonplace. Couch and marsh grasses are prolific and the terrain is a challenge. However, Rosie and Steve, with community help, are producing a prodigious variety of fruit and vegetables, with the odd egg to add to the plate.
Additionally, they are hosts to travelling musicians and offer regular informal and intimate concerts by candlelight and a roaring wood stove fire in the ‘Cowshed’. Additionally, Rosie’s admirable artistic talents become apparent during any visit there.
Edibles is often frequented by three talented women, Hannah, Rowan and Hazel, who form the folk group Lady Maisery. I was fortunate to meet them during my first workday there. Having spent the morning rehearsing, they proudly announced new material that their audience would get to hear during Saturday’s Cowshed concert. Due to prior plans, I unfortunately didn’t get to experience this, but it was good to witness their process.
Rowan, had spent last winter helping out at grassroots level (get it… grassroots?! Ok, bad pun). At Edibles there is always something to do. As Rosie explained, they didn’t know if they’d be able to keep them occupied over the winter, but found that there is so much that can be done in preparation for the new season. Rowan and her partner were kept very busy. Couch grass threatened some of their former efforts, so myself and Rosie got the scythes out so that the berry plantings would have a better chance. But as with all things in permaculture, the activity had more than one function.
Out and about
I was first taken on a grand tour of the project and myself and Rosie helped each other with plant identification – well – she helped me more than I helped her, but I was proud when I did recognise something she was unfamiliar with.
Rosie explained some of the things they’d changed since we first spent some time with them. For example, vegetable beds were now placed parallel to the contours of the slopes rather than perpendicular as before. It was a good illustration of the swale principle we’d learned during our course. The beds were more prolific than I remembered them, so it seems to have been a successful change. The forest garden was more mature and a new one had been started.
Edibles aim is to make food the heart of a community and is now gaining surplus produce. They’d established a second polytunnel, the movement of the chicken tractor was in evidence and the nursery of trees was to be moved, due to the unforeseen visits from their neighbour’s goats. Rosie was quite aghast when I told her that Verd was interested in keeping goats in the future. Seems we’ll have to do some serious living fence management to keep them from the crops!
From barren open fields to a thriving natural community, birds had returned, competing for the prolific harvest of berries, frogs hopped up when you unwittingly disturbed their hideaway and of course, foxes had their eye on the chickens.
I’m trying to get fit enough to cope with 5 hours a day wwoofing and owning my own land, so when given an option, I’ve opted for the more physical tasks. My muscles have complained for at least two days after and I’ve only made it to 3/5ths of the 5 hour goal!
My main task has been mulching, which I can do more effectively than if I’d have been left to my own devices. I hadn’t realised how much bulk would be needed.
Mulching Know-what and Know-how
If this is a new concept to you, I’ll explain how it works and why it is of value.
First a weed barrier is created with materials like landscaping fabric, old used carpet and rugs, cardboard and newspaper. Rosie and Steve make use of the chickens to do a bit of weeding beforehand, clearing the target area. The ‘tractor’ then moves on to the next designated planting plot. We used cardboard that had been donated from a bike shop. Bicycles come in very large boxes. I learned this when I went to buy a bicycle lock. The shop owner proudly showed me a new electric bike that had just arrived. The box was almost the size of the shop!
In my early mulching steps, I surrounded existing fruit trees and bushes in cardboard, feeling pleased with my efforts, but learned how necessary it is to ensure that the layer of cardboard should completely cover all the soil around tree saplings and berry bushes to minimise the chance of couch grass getting through. I started again, weaving that cardboard closer to the main trunk or stems of the plant. There was something artistic about ensuring you’d left no gaps. I think I even gave one tree a scarf with some corrugated cardboard.
Layers of green and brown mulch are then placed on top. We made use of the cut grass that we’d scythed. (I think I should dedicate a whole post to scything, like I will a post to sourdough; I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the art of this pursuit.) Our mulch necessarily included leaves from stinging nettles, docks, plantain and other natives I failed to identify. You need lots of this as it decomposes quickly. Then a thinner layer of wood chip (brown mulch) was placed on top of that again. Word is spreading about Edibles presence, and woodland managers are frequently dropping off truckloads of freshly chipped wood. Alternatively, this could be autumnal leaf drop. Animal manure can also form a thin layer. Repeating these layers regularly helps keep those weeds back. But if they manage to make their way through, they can be put to use by chopping and dropping as mulch.
Observe and Learn
Observe and learn is, I believe, the most important of the permaculture principles, and having visited several sites here in Yorkshire, the most effective mulch for weed prevention is what I’ll describe as a living mulch. A living mulch entails the planting of a ground cover crop that contributes to soil building and health, protects it from the sun, blocks out your weeds. The foliage can be cut time and again, left in place as a fertiliser and adds aesthetic interest in your edible garden. Some ground cover plants deter unwanted pests. I’ve seen clover, mustard, strawberries, vetch, purple-leaved bugle, mint and lemon balm being used as ground cover mulches, but there is none so effective as creeping comfrey. It’s the only plant I’ve seen to successfully combat the major couch grass problem of local conditions and it is a dynamic accumulator, it draws minerals up from the subsoil, benefitting your edibles. It makes a decorative border between beds and wood chip footpaths – again keeping weeds from destroying your well-laid footpath.
Weed prevention isn’t the only function that mulch serves.
In the design of a permaculture system, everything in the system should have multiple functions, not just one. From the previous discussion of ground cover mulch, you can see that comfrey had more than one function. A continuation of the layering process would contribute to the regeneration of soil. Worms do the rest of the work for you and in time, it yields a nutrient rich living soil of beneficial insects, microorganisms, and mycelium. Mycelium networks aid the distribution of nutrients from concentrated areas to nutrient poor sites. This soil is never ploughed. Digging exposes it to damaging ultraviolent rays and disrupts this highly complex, but efficient ecosystem.
If you’ve watched Avatar, you’ll be familiar with the idea that the Pandoran trees are connected like a brain. Destroy one, you destroy Pandora. The idea is closer to the truth than most are aware of. Soil is the brain of our planet. Imagine someone hacking into your brain. That’s what totalitarian agriculture does. Instead permaculture is a form of medicine; it helps nature to heal her soils again.
Finally, mulch helps to keep moisture in the soil, reducing the need for irrigation, and during the winter, provides a little warmth for the roots of your plants, helping to protect them from frost. And many are edible and if not edible, have other health benefits: comfrey’s folk name used to be the ‘bone knitter’.
10 days a year
If my complaint about aching muscles and my description makes it sound like incredibly hard work puts you off, I suggest watching ‘Farm for the Future’. Rebecca Hoskins meets my hero Martin Crawford and visits his 500+ species edible forest garden. She asked him about how intensive the labour is. He claimed that he spent a couple of days a week working, but that mostly entailed harvesting. In terms of maintaining the forest, he spends about 10 days a year. It now looks after itself.
Yes, the work is hard in the beginning. But the benefits……….
If you’re local (I know many of you are across the oceans), the next open work day at Edibles is Saturday 24th October, 2015. If you can’t make that, check out their website and subscribe to their newsletter. There’s something of interest for everyone, even if you don’t want aching muscles!
……… Photos to follow (the soup was too good!)