Sunday 21 December 2014

Spring is on the way!

Today is Yule, the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and the turning point of the year. In some traditions this is the beginning of the new year, as each day from now will get longer and lighter. We have our annual Yule gathering this evening and we'll light a fire and do our bit to keep the warmth and light going for the next cycle.

So it may seem a bit early to be thinking about Spring coming, but exactly three months from today, on the day of the Spring Equinox, we'll have moved to Poland. We fly out on 20 March. We've bought the tickets. We're packing already.

With this closeness comes a certain amount more trepidation, nervousness. People keep on asking difficult (silly?) questions like 'Is the house in Poland all sorted then?' (no, we haven't even demolished it, let alone started rebuilding, and we'll be basically camping for the next few years...).

After all the time spent planning and thinking and working on the permaculture plan, in one way I feel ready to move on and continue this work (and there's so much more to learn, so many details to work out, and now may be an ideal time to work on some of this while I'm still protected from the enormity of being there). On the other hand there's loads still to do here including work at the Night Shelter, Christmas preparations, looking after my mum, looking after Maia, sorting and sorting and sorting around the house, finding a lorry to move our stuff, recycling, giving things to friends, taking things to charity shops, selling what we can on eBay and Gumtree, minimising waste as much as possible...

It certainly seems like a leap of faith at the moment, and it's possible to be overwhelmed by it all.

But, we have an amazing dream, and it's really beginning to take shape. We get there at the cusp of Spring, the vernal equinox, also celebrated as the beginning of the new year in some traditions.

We know what we're doing when we get there (as I described at the end of the Update, September 2014 post), and we're ready for visitors from May. In fact our good friend Andrew is coming with us in March, but by May we should have water and other necessities in place on site to make visiting much more pleasant.

Soon we'll be working on a schedule, so there will be specific work weeks when we'll invite people to come and help out. We'll update this blog with those dates when we can.

Keep following us, and we hope to see you in Sadowo soon :-)

Thursday 6 November 2014

Links and references from my talk at the Leeds Permaculture Network Social

All sorts of useful stuff here, if you're coming to my talk, if you came to it, or if you missed it...

Hyde Park Source (I first learned of permaculture back in 1997 through meeting Andy Goldring of the Permaculture Association when starting HP Source).

I also did my first PDC taught by Andy, Niels Corfield, Joanna Dornan and others in Leeds in 1997, and there will be another PDC coming up in the spring I expect. Go to the Permaculture Association website to find courses. is a great source of videos. I especially like the cell grazing, fishponds and biogas videos. You'll also find links and information there about any upcoming online PDCs.

Back again to the Permaculture Association - the best way of getting a copy of Permaculture, A Designer's Manual in the UK.

I've found some really useful articles and information on

How to use SketchUp and Google Earth to make a contour map: YouTube video (there are loads of resources out there. I managed from this, but it wasn't easy. Let me know if you find a better source.)

A few soil and compost links:
International perspectives (all sorts of things here, but just a few links):

Friday 17 October 2014

I'm giving a talk at the Leeds Permaculture Network Social about the permaculture design I've done for our OrchardyHaven. 

Called 'Building on the Soil', the talk will focus on our strategies for building amazingly rich and productive soil that will in turn make an amazingly rich and productive food providing ecosystem for us to live in. 

I wish I'd said that on the flyer now... Anyway come if you can, it'll be great!

6.30pm, Thursday 6 November, at the Friends Meeting House, 188 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, LS2 9DX

Saturday 13 September 2014

Update, September 2014

So many things to update about... I'll try to keep this reasonably brief and readable.

1. I went to visit our land for three days back in May. I hadn't managed to get there since August 2012 - not for lack of desire. I really felt I needed to do some surveying, largely because of the need for establishing some waterworks on the land, partly because of some missing measurements around the house, but also because of the permaculture principle of observe and interact.

Our tree bog, March 2012 and May 2014
It was really an eye-opener. I really did need to get back on the land. I realised that although I'd walked round and round it several times, all the research and thinking I'd done had really changed the way I could see. The first thing I saw was the need for animals - firstly because it's such a big space and there's so much growth we need animals to help us manage it, otherwise we'll be forever scything - and secondly because the soil seems so poor and sandy we'll really need the animal manure to help rebuild it's fertility.

2. I've finished my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course with Geoff Lawton and the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia. This was an amazing experience. I'd already done a PDC in Leeds in 2009, with loads of interactive sessions, creative groupwork, local visits, etc. I was initially a bit sceptical that an online course mainly presented in front of a whiteboard and based on the 25 year old Permaculture: A Designer's Manual could be really so good. Happily my worries proved unfounded, and by the end of the course I felt really well prepared and qualified for starting my more practical permaculture future (and hopefully career).

I'm open to sharing my design project, which is an initial permaculture design for OrchardyHaven, so get in touch if you want to see more, but the key image is this:

It starts with a swale on the longest highest contour, which is then followed by a new access track. There are swales on contour throughout the land, slowing and managing water. There are planned ponds (see my previous post), including one on the bottom right of the image near the high point of the land, fed from a new well with hopefully a wind or solar pump. This will give a water source with 9m of head pressure by the time it reaches our house and kitchen garden. There are loads of young dwarf mountain pine which don't seem very useful on our land except as filling for hugel beds where we'll be doing a lot of growing, especially vegetables and soft fruit but also a lot more hopefully. And it carries on this way down the hill... (I'm sure I'll post more on the other details later.)

3. With this kind of out of the way we've been planning in more detail what we'll be doing when we get there permanently. We won't be able to live on site straight away, but we'll be close. We can quite quickly get water supply sorted out. We have a pump and a well and a power source. We'll install a temporary tank on the wall above the well and plumb in an outdoor sink. We'll build a rocket stove for water heating and we've got loads of good dry fuel for it. Then we'll get to work on the Goat Shed: digging out, insulating and redoing the floor, insulating the roof and walls probably with straw, bringing in water and electricity supplies and building a rocket mass heater. There's enough space there to make it like a small home, and certainly a comfortable base for us and any volunteers to work on site.

By September 2015 we aim to have cleaned out the well properly, probably dug it deeper, capped it properly, and have an underground pipe running from it to the Goat Shed to avoid freezing in winter.

There's lots of work to be done building an outdoor shower and an outdoor kitchen for the hot summer months, getting the workshop into shape, etc. We'll probably aim to get underway on the main house building in the spring of 2016. Can we finish it in a year? It would be nice to think so but I guess it's more realistic to expect two years as we can't afford to pay builders to come in and do the work for us.

Ok, that'll do for now. Hopefully more soon.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Permaculture Designers in Action!

This is Béla Beke who's actively involved in loads of permaculture projects in Australia, but still a bit frustrated with the permaculture movement...

He wants more action! 'People don't feel the urgency,' he says. 'Many people are too comfortable in their own lives.' in his interview with Nicole Vosper on

It's inspiring to read about people who are so active and still want more. I looked at Béla's website and there are some really interesting things going on. 
For me, me life is going to depend on permaculture. I'm going out to the relative wilds of Eastern Poland with few chances of employment, and planning to put all my heart into creating a sustainable living environment for myself and my family. The urgency is certainly going to be there, especially with the threats of climate change and other worldwide problems hanging over us.

I hope in 16 years I'll be as actively involved in researching and learning and continuing to be as inspired by permaculture as Béla is. 

Saturday 12 April 2014

Permaculture Design Course (PDC)

I've now started doing an online PDC. In the end I chose to do Geoff Lawton's one. This has had loads of great reviews, and is very international, so I think it will stand me in good stead when I start doing permaculture 'design and consultancy' (read, work with and help my neighbours) in Poland.

Last week was the introduction, and for anyone wondering I should mention the definition of permaculture. The simplest definition is:
Permaculture is a design system which supplies all our needs and benefits the environment.
Another useful definition is:
Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people — providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.
Permaculture works with complex ecosystems and habitats, including humans and their habitats at its core.

In order to supply all our needs and benefit the environment we need to capture and store energy at every opportunity - for example capturing water and keeping it in our system for as long as possible, capturing the warmth and energy of the sun in ponds, rocks, greenhouses and of course the plants and animals themselves.

I've been learning about permaculture off and on since I met Andy Goldring of the Permaculture Association back in 1997 so at this point in the course it's fairly familiar to me. There are still lots of good insights, and my favourite one so far is the definition of diversity that I've included in the graphic above.

Diversity links to lots of things in permaculture: for example we may want to use cows to help build the soil, chickens can also help in this process and if they go to an area after the cows they'll help process the manure and eat the pests that grow in it, then after the cows and chickens the land is really fertile and ready to grow lots of trees and shrubs and vegetables and herbs and flowers, some of these fix nitrogen in the soil, some of them work symbiotically with pollinating insects, some of them provide food for us or products for market, some of them provide shelter for other elements in the system, and so on and on. Many elements working together in 'complex' ways, storing energy in the system and reusing it again and again, stacking systems in space and time.

Two more principles of permaculture design:

  1. Each element should have many functions.
  2. Every function should be supported by more than one element.
This rich patterning that permaculture designs and implements creates resilience against potential changes in the future - changes in climate, changes in ecosystems, changes in economics, and changes in what we can buy as transport and plastics become more expensive.

I'm looking forward to reinforcing all my knowledge about these things, learning a lot, and really cementing it all in good practical design skills. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Straw Works, and the dangers of cement in building

On Wednesday I went to Todmorden for the day to learn first hand about some of the design details of straw bale buildings from local expert Barbara Jones of Straw Works.

It was a really good day and Barbara really showed her knowledge and experience - having worked as a carpenter and joiner since the early 80s and about 20 years of building with straw bales.

I've read her book of course but there were lots of little details that I appreciated, from the banal (but important for me) observation about 10mm graded gravel being excellent for drainage (in a capillary break) because of the gaps that are created between the individual stones, to the slip joint that Straw Works use to attach straw bale extensions to existing buildings.

Most of all I loved Barbara's little lecture about the dangers of cement in foundations (and buildings generally). It turns out that if you have a well made foundation - particularly one that's self-draining, breathable and flexible - then it doesn't have to be very big and it certainly doesn't need a damp proof course. Barbara stressed that having an impermeable plastic sheet (DPC) in the middle of your wall was a pretty bad idea, because any water in the wall is eventually going to drain down and collect on the plastic. In fact the main reason as far as she was concerned for having a DPC was to protect the house from inappropriate concrete foundations, as the concrete sucks in water and without the DPC it can then help to rot your walls or feed mould on your kitchen walls!

Lime is the saviour here, as it helps to manage moisture. I'm already a lime convert, but this added insight was very interesting. There are technical sheets available to download from the Straw Works website that include drawings of different cement- and DPC-free foundations, details for installing doors and windows, and roofing details.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Build a house that can 'love you back'

This image was taken from Elke Cole's website, and the little inspiration that follows. Elke is a 'Social Entrepreneur in Natural Building' which sounds good to me, and she seems to have been involved in some beautiful projects.

Elke wrote a list of 10 ways in which your house can “love you back” which I really like:
  • it offers you shelter from the elements
  • it keeps you connected to Nature
  • it supports your health through superior indoor climate
  • it provides plenty of daylight for all your activities
  • it helps keep you grounded
  • it supports your personal flow of daily actions by design
  • it gives you pleasure through its beauty
  • it is energetically aligned with you through your participation in the building process
  • it is easy on your bankbook through smart space design
  • it stimulates your creativity through organic form
There's more on Elke's original blog post which is worth a read, and maybe you might want to ask for her help, or commission her...

Monday 3 March 2014

Passive Solar Greenhouses - A DIY Design Guide

I'm getting this free ebook in my email by instalments at the moment, and I really appreciate it's insights and quality so far.

It's written and published by Rob & Michelle Avis at Verge Permaculture in Calgary, Canada. Their website is (really good, loads of good resources) or click here for more info about getting the ebook.

The two rather random things I really like are:

1. All the references to dealing with snow, for example the load it can place on the roof, the angle of the roof for avoiding snow build-up, and the design of the knee wall to deal with snow. These are the kinds of details you rarely get in most of the literature I've seen where permaculture sites are in much warmer climes...

2. There's a real emphasis on good graphic design as well as good content. There's a huge need for permaculture to become more mainstream - for hundreds of millions of people to be using it in their daily lives. For this to happen the material needs to be good, and it needs to appeal to people who've grown up in the age of mass advertising. Of course this isn't the only reason for good design - design makes things more accessible in many ways too.

You can also see this emphasis on good graphic design on which Verge Permaculture are also associated with. Check it out - looks great.

Friday 28 February 2014

Resiliency and Regeneration Principles

I've just written my first review on Amazon. I know I shouldn't really use Amazon, but it is a good resource for checking things out and reading reviews, plus my account with them allows me to earn small referral fees - so if you buy a book after following a link from this site I can get a little closer to my dream (although so far I haven't earned enough in two years for them to bother sending me a cheque!).

Anyway I reviewed The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach by Ben Falk. I mentioned this in my recent post Looking forward to some good eating, and now I've got the book and I'm loving it. I said in my review that there are big chunks that I want to type out and put in this blog - particularly a piece about dwelling on the land and cultivating nut trees with an understorey of plants and animals - and getting massive long term returns on investment.

For now I'm going to list Ben's Resiliency and Regeneration Principles. I really need to get these into my head, and do quite a lot of work and thinking through many of them, and this is the first stage for me. Of course you need to buy the book to read all his extra notes, I'm just going to list the headings.

    Resiliency and Regeneration Design

  1. Maximum outputs for minimum inputs
  2. Transform dead matter into living
  3. System establishment vs. system maintenance
  4. Biological complexity, technological symplicity
  5. Resilience = diversity x redundancy x connectivity x manageability
  6. Regeneration metric = biomass and biodiversity
  7. Facilitate the vital force
  8. Human management = primary limiting factor
  9. Stress as stimulus
  10. Responsiveness, not habit
  11. Human resource x site characteristics = ideal site design
  12. All design should be modular
  13. Structural diversity begets biological diversity
  14. Habits of mind
  15. Spread pulses
  16. Disperse and extend fertility
  17. Land as value distillation tool
  18. Multiply functions from single expenditures (always do or get two or more results)
  19. Moving things is entropy
  20. Value across time
  21. Essential functions provided by multiple elements
  22. Simplest solution is the best solution
  23. Efficiency does not equal resiliency
  24. Increase diversity, don't reduce it
  25. Quality-quantity relationship
  26. Scale and proportions are the most difficult
  27. Oil intervention
  28. Probability x impact = risk
  29. Niches in time
  30. Zone 1 site mimic
  31. Past is precedent
  32. Resiliency and Regeneration Habits of Mind

  33. Good design always empowers
  34. Passive vs active observation
  35. Observation action chronology
  36. Two is one, one is none
  37. Character of work over time of work
  38. Immerse in abundance
  39. Maximise site awareness
  40. Embedding skills and practice in daily routine
  41. Skills = most durable resource
  42. Awareness limits action
  43. Environment limits and manifests action
  44. Solutions = alignment
  45. Figure it out: try stuff
  46. Miracles everywhere
  47. Food and Fertility

  48. Constant organic matter accumulation
  49. Paths as biomass producers
  50. Seed often and lightly
  51. Passive forage-ability
  52. Plant as densely as you can afford to
  53. Animals above plants
  54. Pee on plants (or next to plants)
  55. Swales everywhere
  56. Ecology and Management

  57. Disturbance stimulates yield
  58. Succession determined by disturbance and its aftermath
  59. Fill open niches immediately
  60. Systems establishment overshooting management capacity
  61. Biology in place of technology
  62. Annual-perennial balance in system
  63. Modularity and agility
  64. Ecosystem partnering, not stewardship
  65. Partnering with vigour
  66. Sculptable landscape
  67. Native to when
  68. Cheap tools are too costly
  69. Quality of work affects labour and management capacity
  70. Apply present resources now
  71. Storage always runs out
  72. House as water tower
  73. House as dehydrator
  74. Clarity points and leverage points in time
  75. Principles are only useful if actually followed!
There are several things I like about this list. It is fairly familiar and comfortable for me, although it also contains quite a few new ideas, good reminders, and challenges. Some of the headings remind me of the sort of thing Christopher Alexander writes in his book A Pattern Language which I also love (and Ben quotes). And I like the mix of fairly obvious headings with some intriguing ones and others that seem wrong on the face of it until you read the notes.

Now I've typed all of these out I think I'll create a little spreadsheet for myself where I'll go through them and make extra notes that I need to think about for Orchardy Haven. I also need to read through this section of the book again to refresh my memory on some of the points. I'm sure I'll be returning to this book again and again over the coming years for inspiration and guidance.

Monday 24 February 2014

Planning ponds and water management

Following on from my last post about our water supply I've ended up reading loads of stuff about permaculture again. Really sorting out the water supply issues on the land is one of the first things we need to do. I mentioned at the end of that other post that I wanted to dig a well at the top of the land and maybe supply a pond from that - and I certainly want to do that now!

All the well known permaculture practitioners and teachers seem to have ponds and aquaculture as a key part of their land designs. Water is such an important key for life, for the regeneration of soil, for the transport of nutrients, for the support of biodiversity, for the capture and storage of energy, and much more besides.

I've bought an old engineer's level from Ebay and I plan to survey the land so we can identify good places to create ponds and ways of linking them together, as well as systems of swales or hugelkulture beds. I can't buy detailed contour maps of our land as far as I know and the image quality from Google Earth isn't great, so it's hard to visualise at the moment, but I've dug out a few images that convey some sense of the lie of the land:
View from NE, from neighbour's field.
This gives a good image of the S-N down slope of our meadow.
This is from the N. The seasonally wet foreground isn't ours.
Getting towards the top of our plot, looking NW down over the farm
buildings towards the sloping meadow. There's also a lesser slope down from W-E.
From the same spot as the previous photo, facing SW. The high point
of the land is in the birch plantation, about 200m N of our southern boundary.
The dream at the moment is to have a pond near the top of the land, one or two more near the house, leading down to the meadow where we will hopefully create a series of swales planted with fruit trees and shrubs and nitrogen fixers and perennial vegetables with enough space between the swales to graze animals or cut hay (and more ponds in the meadow too).

Miracle Farms, a 5-acre commercial permaculture orchard in Southern Queb...

This is great, and in southern Quebec I bet they have cold winters like us in Podlasie...

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Looking forward to some good eating!

One of the big aims for our land is to make it a fertile oasis full of fruit trees and vegetables and herbs and lots of things to eat - and probably organic ducks and chickens and pigs too... :)

I've known about and been interested in permaculture since 1997 when I first met Andy Goldring from the Permaculture Association, and I think this is the most effective way to achieve this abundance. Recently I've been enjoying and being inspired by Geoff Lawton's excellent short permaculture films, and this has distracted me a little from the housebuilding plans that have been going round my head since the new year.

Although that's the background to this post (and hopefully more to come soon) the WOW moment was when I followed a link from Geoff Lawton to Ben Falk, a permaculture designer and teacher from Vermont. He said (paraphrased from memory a couple of weeks past)...
"The produce from our land is so delicious and so healthy that we rarely get ill, and if we do we recover quickly"
So there's a lot of good new permaculture stuff appearing all over, but my taste buds have been working overtime in anticipation and I thought I'd refer to some other sources of good taste inspiration related to permaculture that I've enjoyed over the years.

So I'll start with our friends Rachel and Martin at Old Sleningford Farm near Ripon. They are certainly dedicated to good food and good living, and everytime we go there they tickle our tastebuds as well as our enthusiasm. They also have the most established forest garden in Yorkshire which is well worth visiting and volunteering in.

There's also Alan Carter from Aberdeen who writes the blog Of Plums and Pignuts which is full of taste inspiration as well as good information and good examples of testing and experimenting in his forest garden. He also has recipes and tips for using ground elder which will be useful as we've got plenty of that!

I'm now realising that this isn't and area that I've got lots of links for after all, but this blog is supposed to be a scrapbook for starting off ideas and developing them over time... It's also true that there are loads of tips for good food and good eating from lots of different permaculture related places. So hopefully I'll be able to share more tasty treats in the future


Thursday 30 January 2014

Family farm growing

We spend a lot of time singing songs with our little girl these days, and we love this series of animated songs from Barefoot Books.

Watching this one I was struck by how far we've come from the old practical days when our families also had farms and lived nearby and could bring a sheep or a duck or a horse to help get us going. I know this is a hopelessly romantic notion, but that's one of the lovely things about spending time playing with a toddler - magical creatures appear at will, tea comes out of thin air and always tastes delicious, and we can dream that all the songs we hear can come true...

Thursday 23 January 2014

Water supply

This is the state of the current water supply (we have made a cover since this photo). It does work, but it's a bit sandy, it's a long way down (maybe 12-15m), and it's about 20m from the house.

Did I mention before that we dropped a pump down it and pumped a lot of water out - and it didn't take long for the water level to be refreshed and for the output to seem pretty clear and fresh (I didn't taste it).

The basic things we need to do are:

  1. Repair the well top. Patch the hole in the side and make a cover so things can't fall in (I'm thinking particularly frogs, mice, insects, leaves).
  2. Local consensus is that we should dig out the sand at the bottom of the well and make sure it's a good 15m deep. This will also help ensure it's clean and fresh.
  3. We can use a bucket for a while, but we need to get a pump in there, or a pipe attached to an above-ground pump. The system I've seen is a pump in the cellar of the house, but since our house is a building site we may have to look at alternatives in the shorter term.
  4. For a permanent or semi-permanent setup we need to bury any pipes 1.8m deep in the earth to avoid winter frost damage.
We're wondering about:
  • Maybe we should collect rainwater from our roofs and use that instead of the well supply. That involves more capital expenditure on water tanks.
  • Could we build a simple wind pump to extract water from the well? This would also require a large storage tank.
  • What about the need for filtering the water? We filter our water now, but mainly to remove chemicals from the mains supply. We'd be filtering the well water for different reasons - removing small particles and micro-organisms. 
  • Should we dig another well, and where should it be? Kasia's family have two wells, quite close together - one for the house and one in the animal yard. They do run low in the summer and the family is quite careful about their water use. I'd want to do some dowsing and see where the underground water is, aiming to get a back-up supply that was hopefully independent of the first well's groundwater supply. I'd also be thinking of using the second well (maybe with a water pump) to supply a pond system.

Sunday 12 January 2014

Piec deconstruction

Back in July/August 2012 I was doing this, partly with help from my friend Andrew (although he was mainly lime plastering the goat shed). I've been meaning to document it since.

The traditional cooking appliance in this area, and across a wide area of northern and eastern Europe I think, is known in Poland as a piec. It's a wood-burning stove that channels the heat from the fire under cooking pots and through a snaking ceramic tile-clad and clay-lined chimney, storing and using as much heat as possible before the smoke goes up the chimney.

In our house there is an extension of the piec that stands between the bedrooms and acts as an extra fireplace/heater. You can see it as it was in the photo on the right. I decided to de-construct it to learn how it was put together (and because it all needs to come out anyway).

I've put a full series of 16 photos and diagrams on my Google+ page for people to look at in more detail if they want.

I've saved the pieces for reconstruction, although I'd want to do a better job than the original. I do need to do more thinking about the similarities and differences between this and the rocket mass heaters. My first thought is that the fuel simply isn't burned as hot in this piec so the soot build up becomes a problem...

I'll be doing more reflecting on this in the future as I come closer to building my own heating/cooking stoves.

14 months away from the blog, but we're still on track

Wow, I didn't realise it had been so long. Obviously all sorts of things have been happening, mainly trying to scrape together pennies wherever possible and spend as few as possible. Last year one of the money saving things we did was to not go to Poland at all - except a short weekend in December when Kasia went alone to the dentist :(

The good news is the saving has been working a bit (although it's been stressful), and we are planning to move later on this year...

We've been trying to work out how we're going to move all our stuff, and thinking about other practical issues such as house plans, plumbing systems, water collection and heating, etc.

I'll try to put more updates on here over the coming months.