Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bursting with Life

Down working at the wood today. Spring is begrudgingly arriving after the longest winter in memory. Wildflowers and bluebells are out, and the soil is still wet and sodden from the spectacular storm we had yesterday that blew in from the Atlantic and caused mayhem on the land.

Walking around in the wood I'm overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done if I am to turn this into a working venture. Still, I won't be short of things to do.

But, with the sap rising, now is no time to be thinking of cutting wood and coppicing the hazels. The woodland is filled with the sound of birds, and everywhere I looked green shoots were bursting forth.

I like bracken quite a lot, but it's no good for the land. I'm considering getting some pigs and an electric fence … although I'd have to be there every day to look after them, and I'm not (at the moment).

Wildflowers have been popping up everywhere. It is a veritable flower garden. Here are just a few types that I took pictures of.

And of course, the carpet of bluebells …

Not quite as pretty as bluebells are the milk thistles that are springing up everywhere on the former pasture land. Like most people, my first thought was 'how do I destroy them?' But then I did a bit of research and found out that what I'm seeing here is the land healing itself.

This pasture will have had cows tramping around it for many years, compacting the soils and chewing the grass to within an inch of its life. Now, with the cows gone, deep-rooted thistles are breaking up the sub-soils for me and bringing vital nutrients to the surface. What's more, bees love thistles - and slugs hate them - so I'll let most of them remain this year.

I have dug a couple of experimental veg garden zones just to find out what the soil is like for growing stuff in. There's nothing special in them, just some peas, pumpkins, artichoke, sweetcorn and garlic - oh, and some strawberries for good measure. Of course, with all the rabbits around I've had to fence them off with chicken wire.

Things I've learned or figured out in the past week:

- The stiff prevailing winds mean I am going to have to plant a row of trees to make a windbreak. Without this my fruit trees will never flourish and the soil temperatures will be impaired. I'm probably going to go with Italian alder, which is recommended as a fast growing deciduous tree that also fixes nitrogen.
- Birds have moved into the two bird boxes I put up in the wood. I think they are finches of some type. My neighbour, the friendly old man, has huge boxes in his trees that he says owls live in.
- Speaking of whom, he told me that my wood was planted around thirty years ago by the wealthy local estate owner as a pheasant shooting wood. Alas, he was caught having an affair with his secretary, and in the divorce proceedings he had to sell off much of his land, including Fox Wood. He also almost killed himself in a tractor accident on the field that was there before the wood was created, but that's another story.
- Slugs have attacked my rhubarb which I planted. To deter them I have placed a 'ring of spikes' i.e. thistles, around it.
- I have started to dig a pond with my new azada (more on that soon). It's going to be quite large and will contain several different zones. It is hard work digging by hand, but better than going to a gym.
- I have found several large chunks of granite - gate posts - lying around the land.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Island Life

This update on Fox Wood is long overdue - apologies! What has happened since my last update? A few things … and not a lot.

The thing that didn't happen for a long time was spring. Yes, shortly after I wrote the last update everything started to freeze up. The bluebells half-emerged and then stopped in their tracks. Winter weather returned and didn't let up for weeks on end. It even snowed! That didn't stop me doing some work on the field. I spent a couple of days planting trees with my daughters - fair wind or foul - although mostly foul.

We now have a number of fruit trees growing there, protected from the rabbits by plastic tubes. I also stuck in a couple of silver birches which I saw, sorry and sad, outside a supermarket in plastic bags. Not the best start to life but hopefully they will thrive and I love looking at silver birches in clear Autumnal sun.

I have also re-evaluated some of the things I plan to do with the land. This, in large part, is due to having been deeply engrossed and captivated by Joel Salatin's book, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, which a friend lent me.


Salatin, a self-professed, crank and lunatic, is one of the sanest people on planet earth! His mission is to heal the earth - well at least the bit on his farm, by a process of bio-remidaition. Eschewing most chemical and petroleum inputs, he has more or less restored the carbon cycle on his Virginia farm and is  experiencing sheer ectasy in the process. I want to do the same!

But I have found out that Fox Wood is an island surrounded by plastic. Yes, almost overnight, all the surrounding fields, once the first crop of flowers had been harvested and sold, suddenly were covered in plastic. I took this picture - on the left is the Fox Wood future food forest field and on the right is the nameless agribusiness field suddenly covered with plastic. I believe potatoes have been planted underneath.

The fields of Cornwall have been shrink-wrapped. It's the new agribusiness craze to get at least two crops a year out of the poor exhausted soils

This stuff has appeared all over the countryside. It's reminiscent of the awful plasticultura landscapes of southern Spain. Fox Wood is quite isolated in the middle of all this agricultural abuse.

On a more positive note, I attended a talk in Penzance given by a fellow from Friends of the Earth and Brigit Strawbridge about bees. I won't go into details about the terrible plight bees are in, probably due in part to neonicotinoid chemicals, but it did spur me to at least do something positive. I went around the land digging out small islands of soil from the field and sowing wildflower seeds. When they grow it should be at least a bit of relief for the beleaguered bees in the area who have to deal with all the fields suddenly being turned to plastic. In the future I'm planning to turn some of the field over to being a wildflower meadow because a) It'll be beautiful and b) It will attract pollinating insects to my fruit trees. I also put a few bird boxes up to try and encourage avian friends - birds are welcome at Fox Wood!

As for Joel Salatin and his book, which I mentioned above, he's convinced me to not drill a well, which I had been planning to do. Instead, I'm going to dig a series of PONDS! Yes, ponds, with water harvested from the ample downpours that hit this area for much of the year, flowing down through my terraced hand-dug fields like a Spanish acequia. The soil I have excavated so far is rich and deep and full of earthworms. I'm not worried about its fertility.

Only after I'd dug a few of these bee rehab wildflower mini-meadow zones did I realise that they could be mistaken for shallow graves ...

BTW my large poly tunnel has arrived - 30ft long and 10ft wide - and I have plenty of plans for what is going to happen inside it. As have various hand-crafted tools, such as a Swedish axe, a hardened steel billhook - and the Spanish azada will be arriving soon (why use a spade when you can use one of these?). I'm thinking chickens and moveable electric fences, egg mobiles and aquaculture. I might need to borrow a couple of pigs to clear the underbrush in the woodland. My worm compost pile is back in full production now after the Danish vermicide episode and even my daughters' guinea pigs are providing some fine carbon-based enrichment for the land. Things are getting going - although the Fox Wood money fund is dwindling fast, so it'll be free and easy things from here on it.

Honestly, sometimes at the moment, I have so many ideas I can hardly sleep at night.

There's probably some other things too, but I'm going to work there tomorrow so will take some more pictures and provide another update sooner rather than later.

I found this badger hole in the woodland - nice use of a tree root as a lintel over the front door