Over autumn, I am working on a permaculture project with our kids. It is really important to us, that they feel a part of what we are doing here and the best way to do that is to get them involved.
As I have a lot of winter veg seedlings waiting to go in the ground, we kicked off the project by creating a hugelkultur bed (or no dig hill bed) in our kitchen garden.
I thought that this would be a great task for them, because there was plenty for them all to do and it is a complete transformation, which is always very satisfying. We began by reading about hugelkultur beds and drawing diagrams of the various layers. Then we had a think about the resources that we have to hand and decided what to put in our layers.
Keen to get stuck in, we headed off to the beach to gather some nutrient rich seaweed. We have used it a lot this year, to give our veggies a good start and we wanted a nice thick layer of it in our hill bed.
Autumn appeared very suddenly in the Orkney Islands and it brought the strong winds with it. That meant that a huge amount of seaweed had been washed up onto the beaches here.
With several sackfuls collected, we returned to the garden for a bit of turf removal.
On their first attempt, my 13 and 10 year olds, didn’t even manage to make a dent on the strip of garden that was earmarked for our new bed. I got stuck in with our 16 year old and we showed them how to remove the turf more effectively.
I think a bit of competitive spirit must have kicked in, because they soon wanted to have another go and this time there was no stopping them!
We piled up the lumps of turf, ready to put back onto the mound after the first layer.
With that done and a cool drink and snack for everyone, it was time to start layering up.
The first layer of every hugelkultur bed that we had looked at was greenwood. Fortunately, we always have a plentiful supply, as we have a large amount of trees in our rather wild back garden. Put in by a previous owner, to block out some of the wind, they have been left untended for years and I have been trying to tidy them up. So we had plenty of ready cut wood to get us started.
Once that was in place, it was time to put the turf back on, but this time upside down.
My garden helpers were a little less enthusiastic about having to move the turf a second time and even less so when I said that we were going to need more to get a really good mound sorted.
I had a big pile of turf further down our land, from having removed it for veggie beds earlier in the year. It really helped to get that mound shape started.
The next layer was supposed to be fallen leaves or grass cuttings. We didn’t have any grass cuttings and although the leaves have started to fall, there wasn’t really a big enough quantity to make it worth gathering them up. So our next layer became a bit of a mixture and we worked on it over a few days.
In the end it contained; some long grass pulled by hand (without any seed), vegetable scraps from the kitchen, old cardboard, flag iris leaves and to even it out, a layer of wood rush (which we have in large quantities).
All that remained now was a layer of compost. We had to wait for a trip to the mainland for this bit, because although we have started a compost heap here, we don’t yet have a good supply.
This morning we finally got the chance to finish it off. With the compost on, we were ready for planting.
I have to add, that this kind of no dig hill bed should really be left to settle for a few months before use. However, we really need the extra planting space for our winter greens and as they all have fairly shallow roots, we’re planting straight away. We will be make two more hill beds, which we will leave to sit over winter, ready for planting in the spring.
We had a large amount of winter purslane seedlings (which we can use for salads and soups), that were hardened off ready for their new home. We also had some more kale seedlings, spring onions and chives to go in.
There was plenty of room for everything and still more room for some turnips to go in when they’re hardened off.
In the spring we will be able to consider our planting more carefully and have a good look at companion planting, but for now we were just using what we had.
The new hill bed has given some protection to the flat bed that is next to it, giving our kale a welcome break from the strong autumn winds.
We are hopeful that we will be able to grow a lot more next year and putting some work in now will really help.
We were pleased with our new hugelkultur bed and I was really proud of my middle three. They worked really hard and I could see from their faces that they got a lot out of helping towards putting food on our table. We added some rocks that they decorated with sea treasures a few weeks ago, which I think will look really nice when the plants grow in around them. They really mark it as being their bed. I think they inspired their little sister too, who has been making her own pretend layer beds. She also had a lot of fun helping to move the turf and climbing on it!
I can’t believe how full the garden is looking as we approach October and it gladdens my heart!
A couple of weeks ago I was gathering some common rush in our garden, when I noticed some grass that was really fine and yet very tough. I had a feeling that it would make some great coil baskets, so I collected a small amount to try it out and left it to dry.
I have been looking for a good alternative to raffia for making coil baskets, something that we have commonly available on our land. The further I go down this path of basket making and working with natural fibres, the more resolved I am to use what I can gather myself.
After doing some research this week, I have identified the grass as Sheep Fescue. There is a chance that I am wrong here, but all of the pictures and descriptions that I have seen, match what I have. Grass identification can be really tricky, especially if you can’t find any seed heads!
Once I was sure that it was completely dry, I got to work on my coil basket. I hadn’t really planned ahead and decided that a brown yarn would go really nicely with the colours of the grass, so I had to use some little scraps that I had a s part of a texture pack. They were really a bit thin for the job and not as strong as I would have liked, but this was only an experiment so I just got on with it.
Within a couple of rounds I knew that I had been right about this tough, hair like grass. It worked up beautifully, better than raffia in fact. Because it is so fine, it is very easy to keep it in nice even rounds and it is so densely packed that it makes a very sturdy basket.
I had only collected a very small amount of grass, so I just made a tiny basket and it didn’t take as long as working with raffia because I wanted the core to be visible.
I was really pleased with the end result, so I have already started to gather more to make some much bigger baskets to put into my shop. I will get some yarn for the job this time too. I would really like to use some Orkney yarn, maybe from the famous North Ronaldsay seaweed eating sheep!
The only trouble with this grass, is that it is tricky to gather. A great deal of it is growing in amongst our willows and with autumn already arriving, there are a lot of leaves tangled up in it. There are also lots of other grasses and wild plants growing in the same place, that have to be avoided or picked out later. My hands (which are pretty tough from 18 years of being a busy mum), were getting sore after a session of pulling this very tough grass. I did consider cutting it instead, but it grows in such thick clumps that it is difficult to get to the base with a pair of scissors.
In my opinion, it is well worth the effort and the satisfaction of working with my own fibres continues to make me very happy in my work.
Our kids are really noticing what I am doing as well and it is so nice to see them gathering their own materials for craft projects and coming up with ideas for how to use the resources around them.
We are just about to start a couple of linked projects on permaculture and the history of crofting, which I hope will reinforce the importance of working with what we have locally and working with nature. For those of you that don’t know, we have been home educating our kids for the past 14 years and I am pleased that they are getting to see an alternative way of living, so that they feel aware of their choices as they grow up.
Up until now, I have been making baskets purely by trial and error. I think that is a great way to get started – you start to build a connection with what you’re doing and also learn the questions that you need to ask. I also have to consider that we have very little money (getting started with a ‘simple life’ means just that at the moment!), so any resources that I invest in, have to be carefully considered.
There are some skills that I really wanted a bit of help with and two of those areas were shaping and finishing. So last week I finally bought my first basketry book – Rush Basketry, Weaving With Eight Makers, produced by the Basketmakers Association.
I was not disappointed when it arrived, it is a very beautiful book to look through and could be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates beautifully crafted things. It contains some history of the craft, tips on preparation and getting started and instructions on how to make baskets from Felicity Irons, Jane Bradley, Rosie Farey, Brigitte Graham, John Page, Clair Murphy, Ruth Salter and Nadine Anderson.
Although there were other things that I was supposed to be working on, I was so eager to try out some of the ideas, that I got started the next day.
I decided to begin with the tutorial by Rosie Farey, as I fell in love with her baskets some time ago and it was seeing those, that first drove me to try cutting and drying the much smaller common rush from our garden.
I will be trying out all of these baskets with the common rush that I have gathered and prepared myself. I did spend some time considering whether to dig deep and find the money to buy a couple of bolts of rush. I really hope to be able to encourage others to have a go at learning new crafts and not to be put off by the costs of buying tools and materials, so I decided not too. Preparing for and ordering the books for a new block of home education, helped to deepen my resolve!
I briefly dampened the common rush that I was going to use and made a start.
My weaving was very clumsy for the first few rounds of pairing and I found that this much thinner cousin of the rush that is usually used for basketry, was not easy to twist in the same way as described in the book.
I persevered and my work started to get neater as I adapted the method slightly to suit my fibres.
The instructions called for a mould to aid the shaping of the basket. I had a little glass pot that was about the right size and shape, so I tied my work to that.
With the house starting to stir, I packed up for the day, but I still wasn’t happy with the quality of my weaving or the flexibility of my materials.
That evening, I decided to dampen my rush in preparation for the next session of weaving, The book recommended leaving the larger rush in a wet cloth overnight. I used an old swaddling muslin and carefully tucked the rush in, popping the unfinished basket in as well.
By the following morning, the rush was nicely mellowed and much easier to work with.
I started weaving again, but found that my basket kept slipping on my mould. I tried tying it tighter, but it made no difference and I put it down to the glass being too slippy for the job. I decided to take it off and carry on without it.
I could see within a couple of rounds that taking it off the mould had affected it’s shape, but I was quite pleased with it anyway, so I carried on.
The instructions on how to reduce the size of the basket to close the opening, were really helpful, as were the instructions for working the border. I was a bit concerned that my tiny blades of common rush would not be up to the considerable pulling that was needed to make a neat finish on the border, but thankfully none of them snapped!
I struggled to find something that was the right size for inserting into the basket while it dried. This apparently helps to make a nice even opening. I eventually settled on a cork and left it to dry out overnight.
The cork did it’s job and I was really pleased with the end result. I know that it is filled with faults and that it is not the right shape at all, but it was a wonderful learning experience and I think it has a charm of it’s own.
It is also surprisingly strong and solid, for something that is made out of such tiny blades and it has deepened my resolve to use the natural materials available here.
The rest of my week had to focus on lesson plans for the coming two months of homeschool and preparations for a sixteenth birthday, but I am looking forward to trying another project from the book and learning some more techniques that I can apply to my own work.
Well it is drawing near to the end of our first summer in the Orkney Islands and autumn will soon be upon us once more.
We have escaped the sweltering weather that mainland uk experienced for several weeks, but we have had lots of sunny and pleasantly warm days. There is always a sea breeze to cool things down here!
A large amount of our time has been spent on the beach; searching for creatures in the pools and shallows, beachcombing for little treasures on the sand, munching picnics and enjoying evening walks, to tire out a very busy two year old before bedtime.
It really is a joy to live so close to the sea and just be able to pop down to the beach, whenever we feel like it.
The relaxation of lockdown means that every now again we might see someone on the beach (usually in the distance), but generally we still have the beach to ourselves, apart from the ever present seals, who we like to think of as friends.
We’ve also been very busy in our garden, doing our best to grow as much food as possible while the good weather lasts.
I have been delighted with some of our crops; our tomatoes were prolific and we enjoyed several weeks of constant cropping from eight tiny plants squeezed onto a windowsill! Our leafy veg have also done really well, particularly Pak Choi and chard, which provided us with many meals.
Other veggies have been a real disappointment, so it will either be a case of trying a new approach next year, or more likely, giving the space to something else. Broccoli, aubergines and spring onions have been the worst offenders!
Oh I mustn’t forget to mention our peas, which I planted very late, but have survived being beaten by high winds and are now cropping and providing our kids with juicy, delicious, healthy snacks. On top of that they have such lovely flowers, so I will definitely grow more next year.
Fruit wasn’t overlooked either as we had our first harvest from the currant bushes that we discovered, hidden in the depths of our wild garden. They were made into some delicious cordial, which we were supposed to save for later in the year, but all of the bottles have long since been drunk!
We still have a lot to learn about growing things up here, but I am pleased with how our first year has gone.
I have been thoroughly enjoying watching the landscape change over another season here. This month, in particular has seen the hay being mown and baled, so that the fields around have all turned to a light green. When the sun hits them in the early morning or evening, they seem to glow, as the greens suddenly become much more vivid.
The wild flowers have been switched out, as some favourites have faded until next year, only to be replaced by new favourites!
Yellow trefoils have been replaced by purple vetch and devils bit scabious, the dandelions are making a come back and the heady scent of meadowsweet has faded so that the sweet smell of honeysuckle can have its day.
After what seems like a very long wait (as we arrived in the Orkney Islands in the autumn), the heather is finally in bloom. Both purple heather and bell heather have changed the colour of the hills on Rousay, our island home. The thick masses of it delight us and the bees, who are also busy enjoying the end of summer.
This might all seem like a rather rosie-eyed view of summertime here, but the only fault that I can find with it, is the flies. First horse flies and now the midges. I think that our heavily wooded garden just attracts them all the more. They have driven me mad on occasion, when I am trying to work in the garden or gathering plants to dry for my basketry work. Fly repellant doesn’t seem to deter them at all. I have been grateful for brisk winds that put them off and escaping for walks in more open places and at the coast, where they do not follow.
I think that next summer will call for experimentation with different fly repellants, but with September nearly here, I know that they will soon be gone. They certainly won’t ruin my memories of our first glorious summer in the Orkney Islands!