As featured in Permaculture Magazine Spring 2017 – PM91
If permaculture is about working with nature and the natural rhythms, and if permaculture courses seem like quite a lot of money to lay out to get started, is it possible to learn by observation and experimentation alone? At A Taste of Self Sufficiency in rural Herefordshire that is exactly what we have done. We earn a joint income of £5,000 in a year from “Caenwood”, our bed and breakfast, and have no other regular income, so we live in an alternative economy and yet we live a rich life. But we cannot afford to, and don’t want to, go somewhere else to learn about what our own land is capable of producing and how we can develop it to its full potential. So we set about finding our own way with the help of articles in Permaculture Magazine, various books and web articles, and of course with the help of our own intuition, tapping into natures messengers and messages.
We have what we call a vegan smallholding. We don’t raise animals but we do grow our own proteins. We grow quinoa, amaranth and tree spinach, all for seeds as well as chickpeas, lentils and borlotti, cannellini, pinto and butter beans for drying. We also grow a wide variety of mostly annual vegetables as well as fruits so that we promote diversity and security because there will always be something growing for us to eat on every day of the year and any pests can share in our bounty whilst we eat something else! We also don’t feel we go through a hungry gap in spring, although variety can be a bit challenging then. We have chosen our crops to provide us with starches throughout the winter and into spring by growing oca (which matures in November), Jerusalem artichokes (which last well into spring) as well as parsnips.
We moved to Caenwood on Howle Hill just south of Ross-on-Wye in spring 2013 and we have about 1 ½ acres complete with a couple of old lime kilns in remarkable condition. Our philosophy is to eat fresh, seasonal and local all of which fits well with permaculture, local economy and honouring the energy of life rather than the modern ways.
So what have we learned about permaculture and biodynamic gardening since then?
Soil Productivity (Earth Care)
Well we have observed what the land is like and discovered the productive and non-productive parts and planted and transplanted accordingly. Being an old lime producing site we found that some parts have deep rich soil and some are heavy clay, industrial spoil and stone. We believe in feeding the soil so that it can feed us and we are totally converted to no dig and have put huge amounts of organic materials on the land and especially on the meagre soils and this is having a dramatic effect on the quality of the growing areas as well as on the soil systems and it is becoming easy to work with. We make our own compost and are learning to do so in 6 weeks using an old method dating back to the war years from a book by Maye Bruce called “Common Sense Compost Making by the Quick Return Method”. It was lent to us by a friend and we took to it immediately. It is partly about how to build a heap and partly about a natural homoeopathic conditioner made from various dried herbs, oak bark and honey! The first time we tried it over the winter it made the most beautiful compost in 3 months and then the next summer we made a lot in 6 weeks and all without turning the heap!
Closed system (Earth Care)
We produce our own compost from our organic waste and also from horse muck from across the next field and whilst this may be seen as outside our own patch we prefer to think in terms of our system being our community where we can share our produce in return for resources and where those resources can improve the production of the produce. If it’s within walking distance then it is local. We put the heaps of horse muck into 1 metre cubes made of old pallets in the spring and top it off with soil in which we raise our seedlings for the year. The seeds come through in a fraction of the normal time and grow really strongly. However this method doesn’t work for growing crops, which tend to end up a bit leggy.
Energy (Fair Share)
We say that we are carbon neutral because we use solar panels to make more electricity than we need and we only heat our house using wood either foraged from local sources or traded for our time and skills. We build large wood piles in the Scandinavian style to keep them dry until needed.
We have a solar dryer made from old bits of wood and a corrugated steel sheet painted black and it dries our herbs and excesses of produce perfectly. It gets up to 65 degrees Celsius and dries the herbs in a half a day, keeping in the full flavours.
We don’t freeze anything either because we always have fresh produce in the garden or hedgerows although we do preserve produce as this enhances our enjoyment of them.
We try to do everything the most natural way possible and loath using motorised mechanical equipment. We cut the grass areas annually with an Austrian scythe and we turn most of the grass into hay which we use for compost making, lining the strawberry beds and for protecting crops from birds and frosts. The rest of the grass goes for seed source of meadow flowers of which we have over 70 varieties. Our passion for doing it by hand extends into the kitchen where we prefer to make practically all our of our foods from scratch, from breads to preserves, and from cider to liqueurs.
Fresh, Seasonal, Local (Earth Care and People Care)
We also intentionally produce more vegetables, and forage more fruits, than we need. So to overcome the waste of this bounty we either trade it for goods or services or we sell it via the Dean Forest Food Hub. This is a website as well as a logistics system that allows us to advertise our surplus on a weekly basis and then every Friday we cut what has been ordered and deliver it to a drop off point 3 miles away. There are more than 30 producers and over 50 customers so it is a great way to sell or source really fresh produce, most of which is organic and biodynamic, at affordable prices. It’s not only fresh stuff but also a huge array of dried goods, bakery and dairy products, herbal preparations, health products and even plants and seedlings. The Dean Forest Food Hub is run mostly on a voluntary basis but is growing fast and seems to us to be a good idea for the future of shopping.
A large proportion of our produce comes from foraging in the local area which again means going outside our immediate land to harvest nature’s bounty. In spring we love nettle and wild garlic soup and in autumn we forage berries from our hedgerows and apples from our neighbour’s orchards. We don’t eat anything fresh that hasn’t come from within walking distance (i.e. local). It’s hard to realise how normal this used to seem! Its also strange to not eat potatoes when they run out!
Nourishing ourselves and the means of production (People Care)
We have devised what we call the Nourishment Cycle which defines how we derive nourishment from not only the food we eat but also the processes involved in picking and preparing it. On a larger scale it means the growing of it and composting of the waste, and on a larger scale still on how we treat the land, water and the other of nature’s resources in our environment. All of this gives us sustenance not just the food. In this context, how we live and what we put into life feeds our bodies and feeds our souls and through this insight we find our learning and motivation for earth care, people care and fair share.
A Taste of Self Sufficiency (Fair Share)
So if we have inspired you with our story then take that first step and try something and check out our website. We are now offering an experience of this lifestyle to anybody wanting to come to stay and work with us to see and do any and all of the principles in this article. It only costs as much as a modest bed and breakfast room per day and includes 3 home grown and home cooked meals a day and time learning from us, as well as a drop of our cider or other drinks in the evenings. The room you pay for, our experience is our gift and your participation is our reward.
Watch out for my article in PM website: https://www.permaculture.co.uk/readers-solutions/designing-your-alternative-household-economy