Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Forest Garden

All down the canal from our house, in each house we pass one by one, neighbours are planting potatoes, onions and carrots – the conventional crops here – and there’s nothing wrong with that. A few gardeners here and there might use facilities like Irish Seed Savers to experiment with the hundreds of varieties we never see – blue potatoes, purple carrots – some more suited for their clay hill, cold bog or some other microclimate. A few might plant still more adventurous crops that might do well in this climate but remain little-known; yacon, daikon, oca, and others.

Creative or lazy gardeners with a bit of extra land might decide to leave it, deciding they get more mileage from the nettles and dandelions than they would from lettuces.  If you want to build a garden that truly looks to the future, though, you could plant a forest.

It might seem like that growing a forest contradicts the idea of growing a garden, that one means low, edible and annual plants in rows, while the other means a landscape of tall trees and few edible plants. When you plant a permaculture-style forest garden, though, you are combining the best of both worlds – perennial crops, vines, shrubs and trees that produce food every year but do not need to be re-sown every spring.

A forest garden also has a vertical dimension that many kitchen gardens do not; low trees and shrubs that bear fruit, berries and nuts; vines that bear similar fruit and berries, and ground-cover plants that can be harvested anew each year. With many varieties of plants close together, moreover, you can harvest throughout the year, gathering leaves or buds in spring, summer crops, fruit and nuts in autumn.

The various plants help each other, as different plants require different nutrients from the soil and so do not starve each other. They also help keep different pests away, as the smell of one plant not only repels insects from it, but from the plants around it. In this way, plants in the wild help each other, and by planting them alongside each other we let Nature do some of our heavy lifting.

To make a forest garden, you should first look at your landscape and see what could grow there –in the case of our land, a relatively dry patch of earth surrounded by bog. Then, according to permaculture theory, you plan a system that will yield the seven Fs: food, fuel, fibre, fodder, fertiliser, “farmaceuticals” and fun.

Take a compass and mark which direction is the south – or north if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere -- and considering putting have the highest plants on the north, to cut down on the colder winds, and the lowest in the south to catch the maximum sun. You also want to pay attention to the rising and sloping of the property, to make sure you know what plants are getting the most sunshine and water runoff.

Plan a forest garden in vertical layers, starting with the pieces that reach the highest and around which the rest of the garden will turn: the trees. Make sure you allow a circle of sufficient breadth for each tree to grow; until it grows out, and find out ahead of time how large they tend to grow. If you plan a certain circle of space for them, and they grow slightly beyond it, you can prune them, but you should let them have a certain minimum of space.

You could plant fruit and berry trees like apples, plums and cherries; nut trees like walnut, hazel and oak also would prove valuable over time. Such trees aren’t going to yield vast quantities of food right away, of course, but in the meantime you can plant food-producing vines to climb up the trees – blackberries and kiwifruit, for example – as well as shrubs under them, like blueberries and lingonberries.

Further down still – for a forest garden has food at every level – you can plant edible weeds like Good King Henry and Fat Hen, as well as herbs that return every year. You can even plant some regular crops like carrots and onions around your trees and shrubs, and gradually segue from a regular garden into a forest garden over a course of years.

It is true that a forest garden requires some patience, and if you buy small trees from the nursery rather than growing apple trees from seed, it could be several times more expensive than a conventional garden. With the right species, however, you only have to plant them once; you are investing in infrastructure like a house or fence, only a forest garden could last for centuries longer.

Front Porch Republic

My piece about the horsemeat scandal has been published at Front Porch Republic, so feel free to check it out if you haven't already.

If you're not familiar with FPR, you should be, no matter your political or religious affiliation. Thoughtful, ecological and spiritual, it feels like what Atticus Finch might create if he blogged. It represents what what the word "conservative" is supposed to mean, and often what it used to mean, in a more learned and civil age.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Sunday morning, Ireland

The photo doesn't really capture the loveliness of the setting near the shores of Lough Derg, or the periodic gusts of wind that were making parents hold rather tightly onto their children.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Day along the banks

Most images of Ireland, like those stunning photos featured on calendars and postcards, have a secret: they were taken in the rare moments of sunshine. Clouds and rain are much more common, however, especially through the winter – and last year the summer never came, while the rain and chill stretched almost unbroken from one winter to the next.

Today, though, the sun shone brightly across the landscape, and The Girl and I travelled the length of the canal – she on her bicycle and I jogging – to see our surroundings in a new light. Our ducks remained near us, happily paddling about our patch of canal, and our neighbour took his white stallion out on the road for a walk to munch the roadside grass. The Girl collected dandelions for the dandelion wine I made this evening, and we were pleased to see a bumblebee – bees did poorly last year in the rain.

The Girl and I stopped here and there to see, through breaks in the hedges and walls, green fields extending into the distance, and beyond them the brown bog-lands.

They’ve cut the turf already, I said – we have to stop at Tommy’s on the way back. He owns that bit of bog, and I need to make sure he cuts some for us. Turf, I should explain, is peat from the bog, which we dry and burn in our fireplace – it has an earthy smell like nothing else on earth, and while it’s not really sustainable, it’s one of the only fuels you can gather within walking distance of one’s home.

“Will we have to go into the bog and get it, Daddy?” The Girl asked.

I’ll have to foot it again this year, I said. I should explain that when turf is cut is lays like giant strands of liquorice across the ground, and then I and my neighbours have to “foot” it – break it into brick-sized pieces and stack it as cross-hatching a few bricks high. We then wait a few months until it dries and then bring it all home at once, their fuel for the year.

So, on the last good day of the summer, locals drive their tractors into the bog, fathers behind the wheel and the mother and children riding in the back. At the end of the day, we see them driving home again, the trailer full and the whole family hanging onto the sides.

I footed the turf with Liam three years ago, I told The Girl, and we’ve stretched that into a year, but we’re almost out now.

“Can I go with you again?” she asked. “I remember last time, when I found a frog on a log.”

In the bog, I know, I said, amused she remembered a passing joke from years ago. But you were five then; you’re almost nine now, and old enough to help me. Someday you’ll have to do these things yourself.

“Awww…” she said, but half-jokingly, and then tried to race me to the rusted bridge that was once used to load the turf onto horse-drawn barges for transport to the cold families of Dublin. 

We got all the way to the end of the canal road and half-way back before rain began to lash, and were able to linger at Tommy’s door, under his awning, until it passed.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Hillside in County Clare

At the site of Seed Savers, where I was learning to make cheese.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Secret treasure

I found out why the hen stopped laying, I told The Girl.

“Why?” she asked.

You know how we haven’t found any eggs lately in the chicken coop? Come here and see what I found, I said, showing her the clutch of twelve eggs I found by reaching deep under the coop.

“All those?” The Girl asked.

Yes, I said – I don’t know if they’re good anymore, but we’ll find out. I’m amazed rats haven’t gotten them after almost two weeks. And I don’t know if that’s all of them – there might have been more I couldn’t feel under there.

“How did she do that?”

She was sticking her little chicken derriere as far as it would go underneath the coop, I said, and then letting the egg roll away to the space beneath. I blocked up the crevice for now and laid down some straw inside the coop – just in case the mulch was rough on their bum.

If that’s not the reason, I said, I don’t know why they would want to lay outside in the rain rather than inside where it’s warm and dry.   

“Well, she does have a chicken brain,” The Girl said. 

Photo: The Girl by a favourite tree swing.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013


At the end of the island, at the pier where people left their boats to go to the mainland, there was a post upon which hung a hat.  At the time, the men of Achill would have worn a cap, but when going into town, for that little bit of formality, any man who was going to town would put on that hat and then leave it at the post when he returned. 

A visitor in the 19th century recorded he saw two men in a running contest around the island to decide which one had the right to marry a certain woman, "which was by no means uncommon."

-- "Leave Your Hat At The Sound," RTE radio documentary about the men of Achill Island, 1974. 
Photo: Islanders, courtesy of Irishphotolinks.com

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Wine and beer

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

Before every home acquired the sterilised waterfalls of our taps, many people often had only lake or river water to drink, which carried serious diseases at a time when there were no doctors and the average lifespan was about 30. Letting yeast ferment vegetable matter drove out most other microscopic life, making water relatively pure without the cords of firewood needed to boil everything -- and beer and wine were born.

Thus, alcohol was a major part of life in earlier eras, offering water, calories and vitamins. Medieval Britons, for example, were estimated to drink four litres of beer a day; I am told that the teetotal movement of the 19th century, which encouraged people to drink tea instead, actually caused malnutrition in rural Britain.
These days, for many Westerners, “wine” refers only to grape wine and “beer” only to brew from barley and hops - yellow in the USA, often black in Ireland – but you can make wine and beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones.  I have seen recipes for wines from oak leaves, squash, parsley, and all manner of common plants. In the past year I have made wine from nettles, cowslips, elderflowers and meadowsweet – the last being the tufty weed that grows along the canal banks in August.

In the autumn hawthorn leaves fall to expose the bright red berries – haws -- covering the bare branches. Haws taste mealy and bland raw, but they make an excellent wine, and as they were the most abundant fruit in the hedgerow, that’s how I used them.

The details differ by the kind of wine you’re making, but the basic recipe is this: First pour six litres of water into a large pot, and bring it to a boil. Then dump in two litres of whatever vegetable matter you’re using and two halved lemons, boil it again, and turn the heat off. Stir in a kilogram of sugar slowly until it dissolves, and waited for the liquid to cool to blood temperature. Then pour it into a cleaned and sterilised bucket and add wine yeast – although bread yeast will do in a pinch -- and cover the bucket and set it in the closet.  

Over the next week check the bucket periodically; it should be bubbling away slowly as the yeast turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After a week or so, sterilise a carboy – a large jug with an S-shaped valve on the top – and strain the wine into it. Carboys let you store wine during the weeks or months that it still might build up some air pressure, before you pour it into conventional wine bottles.

After pouring the wine into the carboy, you will have some leftover vegetable matter, and you could compost them, feed them to chickens or – as I did – combine them with apple peelings and make them into jam.
When I did this with haws from our hawthorn trees I calculated the total cost at three euros for two kilos of sugar, plus the minimal cost of heating the stove for a short time, and not counting the initial investment of the carboy or yeast. The experiment resulted in about six bottles of good wine and two jars of jelly.  

Not all your experiments will turn out well. All my wines based on flowers or weeds -- like cowslip, elderflower, meadowsweet and nettle -- turned out fine, whereas my vegetable wines of parsnip, ginger and beetroot tasted awful for some reason. Likewise, the haw wine tasted fine while new -- as a fizzy, lightly alcoholic drink -- and some of it aged into a fine haw wine. The rest aged, unexpectedly, into a very nice vinegar.

Either way they won’t taste exactly like grape wines from the store. Try mixing them with juice and water at first, or store-bought white wine, to make a punch, to acclimatise yourself to the taste of home-made. 

Top photo: Wines from left to right -- meadowsweet, parsnip and ginger, elderflower, haw, more meadowsweet and elderberry. 
Middle photo: Some of the ingredients I've used for wine and jam, clockwise - orange peel, crabapple, elderberry, blackberry, sloe and rosehips. All but the orange peel my daughter and I picked on our property. 
Bottom photo: Haw wine while fermenting.