Observations from 58 1/2 degrees north.

By Andy Williams.

There’s no denying it, we’re a long way from the equator in Caithness. It’s presented some interesting opportunities in site design that to be honest I’d not even considered before we moved here. Permaculture design literature will tell you not to do anything until you’ve lived on a site a whole year, so you’ll have observed it in all seasons before finalising your design. That sounds like excellent advice, but how many people can afford that? In a real world setting, most of us buy land with a view to generating an income from it, living on it, or both. It’s impossible to do much of either without putting in a garden or putting up some kind of structure, so inevitably a certain amount of design work happens immediately by necessity. In reality, I suspect most people designing and implementing a permaculture system do something along the same lines as we did, get essential things built/planted/running immediately after settling on the layout of the main structural elements of the site, while keeping everything crossed that we’ll not notice something major in six months time that we should have done differently.

Our land slopes vaguely to the northeast. Across most of the northern hemisphere, a south-facing slope is considered the ideal for agriculture because of the solar gain. Land with a 5 degree slope to the south has the same solar gain as flat land a hundred or so miles to the south. Since morning sun is considered cooler and less intense than evening sun, an east facing slope is generally better than a west-facing slope. Slope really plays that big a role in microclimate. Thing is though, up here the sun isn’t always south. At midsummer, the sun rises and sets only slightly either side of due north. And that means that for almost half the day a north facing slope is getting that lovely increase in solar gain.

So, let’s look at what that means to us with our northeast facing land. In the middle of summer our field has direct solar gain until well into the afternoon, then has less intense gain through the late afternoon and evening. Since we have 20 hours of light here in midsummer, that’s a lot of sunshine for land that doesn’t face south. In winter of course we have the opposite effect and the sun crosses a very narrow proportion of the sky. Our swales, and therefore also our fruit and nut trees, run on contour along the slope. We’d always planned on putting fruiting shrubs and dwarf trees in front of the main tree rows on the southwest side, where they’ll get good sun through spring, summer and autumn. I’m also now planning on putting early maturing varieties on the northeast edge too, to make the most of that light. I’d always planned on a self-powered subtropical greenhouse to the south of the veg garden, with the north wall insulated to minimise heat loss during winter. Now I’m also considering a couple of simpler large polycarbonate greenhouses for extending our short growing season. With the extremely long summer day length up here, the growth is incredible. With a little playing around with the timings we should be able to harvest and preserve the summer gluts and still get another crop established before the days get short.

We’ve changed very little of the design over the last 6 months, what we have has been mostly adding to it rather than significantly altering the layout. One such change is to the duck ponds. We’d originally intended to place them immediately to the south of the subtropical greenhouse, to reflect as much of the low winter sun as possible into the greenhouse. This summer we’ve decided we’d really love an organic swimming pond, so that’s taken the place of the duck ponds next to the house. Ducks are still on the plan, but their ponds will be a little further out, below the bottom swale spillway. Another change is inside the house. After one winter of having to burn coal we’ve decided we have to switch to wood. You can’t use coal ash in the garden and just generating that much waste for landfill doesn’t sit well. So, next summer we’re replacing the old back boiler system with a rocket mass heater in the lounge. It runs on stick wood, a surprisingly small amount of it, so we can be completely self-sufficient for fuel by 2019. We’re going to plant more willow. A lot of willow. Any surplus can be mulched or turned into biochar, making our home heating system not just sustainable but regenerative.



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